Monday, November 24, 2014

D’var Torah, Parshat Toldot 2014 - More Lessons from the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit

I love going through the narratives of the dysfunctional families of Bereshit and we are still plowing through these stories, replete with important lessons and applications for all of us at this time of the year, as we bring our own families together for so many Hagim and celebrations we share as Jews and Americans. Some of these lessons apply to us and those members of our family with whom we interact, some of these instructions are for us in our communities, and yet others have to do with the larger world in which we live.

I want to begin this discussion with the ending of last week’s Parsha and how we move from family lessons to larger communal and human lessons. We see in the Avraham narratives some important instruction regarding how Judaism and Islam can and should interact. First of all, we know that we are all Children of Avraham, with his son Yitzchak the pivotal Patriarch as we continue on our Jewish journey and his other son Yishmael, the important ancestor to which Islam traces its roots. Additionally there are yet other sons from whom other nations will evolve. We focus on these brothers, however; and as we do so, we note that they are so different and yet simultaneously bound together by parentage and DNA while looking at different destinies! Make no mistake about it, we are literally related within the tradition of Monotheistic religions tracing their beginnings back to the one we credit as being the first Monotheist.

Specifically, let’s look at the end of the Parsha. In Chapter 25, verses 8 – 11 we read as follows:

8 And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. 9 And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; 10 the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Heth; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. 11 And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son; and Isaac dwelt by Beer-lahai-roi.

So here we have the reunited family, with both sons burying their father together, at the site where Sarah is buried as well. What meaning do we find here? Many of us would say this is not so complicated. We know that in many cases, families that do not communicate for years, decades even, will reunite upon the death of a member of their clan. But Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests that something else is going on here, something much bigger.

He teaches that our sages piece together the following story using meaningful details that the Torah provides, without explaining how Yitzchak and Yishmael appear at their father’s funeral together:

First, the place from where Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him – Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. Only one previous reference has been made to this place (Genesis 16:14). It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encounters an angel who tells her to return. He adds, “You are now with a child, and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael [God hears], for the Lord has heard your misery.” Be’er Lachai Ro’ee is the place associated with Ishmael. Why did Isaac go there? To be reconciled with his stepbrother after his mother’s death! ….

Not only did Isaac feel guilty about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. So did Abraham, according to this interpretation. We know that Abraham did not want to send Ishmael away. The text (Genesis 21:11) is explicit on this point. But Sarah was insistent, and God told Abraham to listen to her. Throughout Sarah’s lifetime, reconciliation with Hagar was impossible. After her lifetime, however, Abraham sought her out and brought her back. Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, in honor, as Abraham’s wife [according to the sages who say that she is actually Keturah]. That is why, at Abraham’s funeral (he died 38 years after Sarah), Isaac and Ishmael were both present. The divided family was reunited.

Sacks concludes his comments on this Parsha by observing how this family lesson translates to a more universal teaching for our time:

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Parshat Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Isaac on the one hand, Hagar and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.

Now we come to this week’s Parsha, Toldot. Once we have established, if indeed we have, that Yitzchak has clearly experienced some type of reconciliation with his brother Yishmael, note what happens in his family. G-d, who seems to enjoy speaking to the women at this juncture in our history, comes to discuss Rivkah’s pregnancy with her.

As we begin Parshat Toldot, we read:

21 And Isaac entreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: 'If it be so, wherefore do I live?' And she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. 24 And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau. 26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once again, we have very different children; only this time they are twins and from the same mother, the same Rivkah who brought comfort to Yitzchak after the death of his mother. Once again, there is conflict and we will have two different destinies evolve, that of the Jewish nation through Yitzchak and the Edomites through Esau. Once again there will be conflict and yet we are instructed in Devarim 23.7 to not hate the Edomites precisely because they are part of our family. There will be many battles for superiority between these two people through the years and eventually the Jewish nation will outlive the Edomites as a power to be contended with in the world. Yet, the connectedness between these two different sons – nations – destinies is clear.

We are well aware, as well, that in our Parsha, G-d instructs Rivkah in a way that does insure that Yaakov will prevail in the end. The birthright is sold by his brother to a very tired and spent hunter as Esau comes in from a day’s work; and then later each son is given the blessing intended for the other, or so it appears. Here we have a somewhat different dynamic – where the mother and father are both fully parents of these brothers; G-d speaks to the mother as G-d/G-d’s angel spoke earlier to Hagar, and the enmity between the brothers will be profound, with an attempted reconciliation in which the trust level is clearly minimal.

Further, we see another similarity, namely barrenness (AKARA) playing a role in both of these generations. The Maharsha wants us to know that in this case, we are to suspect that both Yitzchak and Rivkah are barren and that it is only through G-d’s plan and intention that they will ultimately give birth to a child – and twins at that, who will then represent various nations as was the case with Yitzchak and Yishmael and their other siblings, as reported at the end of Toldot. There is yet other unfinished business here. Rashi teaches that it is Yitzchak’s prayer that is answered for children, not Rivkah’s prayer. Why – to teach that Yitzchak was a “tzadik ben tzadik” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a righteous person; while Rivkah was a “tzadik bat rasha” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a wicked person, Bethuel. We are taught that the request of a tzadik ben tzadik is given priority over that of a tzadik ben (or bat, in our case) rasha in Yevamot 64a.

So what exactly is G-d setting in place here? We have families who are not easily granted or achieved and then greatly rejoiced when granted, can’t get along when born and growing up, and ultimately end in enmity…. Or maybe the point is this is NOT the end, but only the rocky beginning. It is coming generations who still have the work to complete the process – to get us back to co-existence, caring about each other and nurturing each other.

In his book, Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Lord Sacks teaches that peace is a most difficult goal to achieve and that it is not even consonant with man’s nature. To fight, to disagree, to stand up for one’s position – all of this is much more natural to the human being than to compromise, to see the point of view of the other, and to yield on what one knows to be true. It is supremely difficult for us to accept that You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right, the actual title of Brad Hirschfield’s book.

Can’t we understand that Avraham, Sarah and Hagar and perhaps other wives gave birth to many nations from which can come creativity, cooperation and sharing instead of enmity, killing each other, and hatred? Can’t we accept that we need hunters and scholars; that is, we need both Esau and Yaakov? Can’t we come to terms that twelve brothers will NEVER agree, but we need to be invested in and concerned about each other, as will happen in our continuing Bereshit narrative?

Otherwise, what do we have and what legacy is left for us and do we leave for those to come?

I remember years ago, we had a secular Israeli young man living with us for a few weeks during the summer. His name, interestingly enough, is Ro’ee, as in Be’er Lechai Ro’ee in our Torah narrative. We were all sitting at the Shabbat table and Ro’ee who came from the Northern Galilee just simply made the statement that he thinks that the rest of Israel and the world would do far better without Yerushalayim, which is the seat of so much hatred and contention. I must say that my entire family almost had simultaneous choking spasms. WHAT DID HE SAY? But let’s think about this… it is not the place per se but the enmity that has become so associated with it and all it stands for. How sad; clearly this was NEVER intended. YERUSHALAYIM is supposed to be IR SHEL SHALOM, the city of peace, and yet… look at what we have.

As we established, the word for barrenness in Hebrew is AKARAH. From years, decades even of barrenness came our Patriarchs, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and later Yosef as well, with so many dreams and hope. The word for core in Hebrew is IKKAR – same letters and same root (Ayin-Koof-Reish) – OUR CORE AND OUR ROOTS WERE FOUND IN BARRENESS and then G-d granted life and all that it can bring. Are we using this life we are given for good; are we acting as tzaddikim b’nai tzaddikim in bringing this peace, as difficult and challenging as it is to achieve, to our world?

Will we be able to come together with those with whom we disagree, and NOT just at funerals? We have been taught that anything that is worthwhile will never be completed in one generation. Clearly the resolution of these contentious relationships has eluded all of us for much too long and maybe “hazeman hegi’ah” – Let us intentionally work to bring together Yitzchak and Yishmael in our world; Yaakov and Esau – this is that hard peace we are trying to achieve, but we need it so badly, too much depends on it!

Monday, November 17, 2014

From the Prescribed Details of our Sacrifices in Ancient Times to Multi-Faith Interaction Today

Here I am still plowing through the details of the Karbanot – the sacrifices – those aspects of the life of our ancestors that defined in so many ways our relationship to G-d and the essence of who we are as the people of Israel in Masechet Yoma of the Talmud. The details of the offerings, their order and specific elements is dizzying after a while, and I just have to get up and walk around and think about what I just read, knowing fully well that I only absorbed a small amount of the information conveyed. Elements are repeated continually and various Rabbinic strategies of studying the language of Torah are utilized to indicate the specific nature of each and every offering. One of the messages conveyed in this process is the unique nature of each element of the Karbanot/sacrifices and that one should not be confused for the other, no matter how similar they may appear (to the untrained eye perhaps?!?). There is an important lesson here, of course!

In my many involvements in inter-faith and multi-faith work, I often find that not only does this work build important and strong bridges so very needed in our fractured world, but I also confirm my own strength as an observant Jew. Yes, those very interactions that so many of my co-religionists will not partake in are so much a part of my life and the lives of our family. I often teach that at the end of the day, “more unites us than divides us” and we would all do well to remember that. This being said, let us not forget to focus a bit on what divides us, because these differences are as important as those elements we share. In fact, I believe that the only way that honest sharing and dialogue can occur is if we see, respect, acknowledge and honor these differences. To obliterate the specific beliefs and practices of those with whom we interact and to not acknowledge powerful differences does not accomplish the goal of understanding and interaction. We all must bring our honest game and selves to the table. Otherwise, I do not truly SEE the other and then any acceptance of the other is really not an acceptance of them but rather a superficial nod to what I feel is similar about them and myself. This is NOT interreligious dialogue and interfaith understanding.

Whenever I have taught about the sacrifices, I always pose the question about why there are so many clear details not only given, but as I continue in my study of Masechet Yoma, they are repeated again and again. Why is this? Sacrifices were the standard of observance in our ancient world much like prayer is in our world today. Everyone was doing it!

Recently I was at a gathering of our area’s multi-faith council. The Reform Rabbi of the congregation that housed the group began the meal by explaining the Motzei, the prayer we say over bread and the meal that comes with it, to the group of whom the vast majority were Christians of many different streams. It was really interesting to watch the group and to note the respect everyone showed towards each other. I quietly went out to wash my hands first and then joined the group with my lunch that I had brought from home so that I not compromise my standard of Kashrut and yet can sit among these wonderful people. It was truly a feeling of shared experience and acknowledging that we are distinct as well as part of an entity. One need not come at the expense of the other. When I completed eating, I quietly said the blessing after food, Birkat HaMazon, to myself.

During our conversations, many people around the table remarked how they felt they could be comfortable in many of the faith communities represented. Much of the talk was about the similarities that were expressed. In my mind, I was definitely registering differences as well that I am sure will continue to be explored as we continue to meet, and I suspect have been discussed at other times (note that I am new to the group but it has been meeting for many years; it is safe to say that there has never been an identified Orthodox Jew in the group, and this was confirmed). One way some of these differences came through was when people were asking questions of clarification of each other. This was wonderful and definitely brings about the types of inter-faith dialogue that is so valuable.

When our ancestors were offering their various sacrifices, it is so important to remember that they were not the only ones doing so. Sacrifice was an important element of the way that people worshipped in so many cultures. That is to say, that it is not the act of sacrifice that distinguished the Jewish people, but the specific details structuring their offering that did so. This is why the details are so important and bear repeating – so we do not confuse the elements of our practice with those of other peoples even though there are similarities.

Unfortunately too many people in our world today do not value religion as they have been worn down by the abuses and misuses we have witnessed in its name. This is, to me, definitely throwing the baby away with the bathwater. I think religion and faith is so critical to our well-being as members of our human family. I know that this sentiment is shared by the people with whom I sat at our multi-faith council last week! If we can all communicate to those around us this wonderful balance of sharing what unites us with the details that identify our specific type of worship and belief we will accomplish so much that our past gives us and hopefully use it to truly build meaningful and lasting bridges of understanding.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What do Kohanim and their required state of purity have in common with CEOs and their required state of focus?

I have always been somewhat bothered by and thus reticent to learn about the Kohanim and specifically the Kohen HaGadol (the priests and the High Priest of the ancient Jewish community respectively) and their needed state of purest purity, with all of the accompanying prohibitions regarding involvements that could potentially divert their attention from the tasks of their office. Specifically, many of these laws have to do with their need to separate from their wives during times of service as well as additional restrictions regarding whom they can marry. To be sure there are other proscriptions regarding their lives, many of which are laid out in Masechet Yoma, dedicated primarily to the complicated and intensely detailed service of the High Priest as we narrate (at least part of it) during the Avodah prayers of Yom Kippur.

Then when I think again about these restrictions in terms of our modern lives, it occurs to me that people are making these decisions all of the time. How many people are “workaholics” forgoing family functions and personal relations and connections for the sake of their profession in our world today? These are choices that are made for individual and defined goal achievement, for the greater good of an institution and so on. It is often considered a noble choice and at times, perceived as a great deal of self-sacrifice in our contemporary society. Think about the CEO today who has such great responsibility for the positions of others, the maintaining of institutions they have either created or taken the reins of control for, and the volumes of hours they spend away from family life and personal involvements for the sake of these institutions. Then there is the research scientist, the medical doctor, the lawyer, the statesman, the public official, the educator, and so many others. We have indeed on many levels become a society of workaholics, all dedicated to important causes and professional goals. The ultimate betterment of our society as a result of these decisions, and degrees of dedication varies, as does the element of personal gain in terms of monetary benefits and reputation. The difference is that in the case of the Kohanim, their focus was required for the sake of the entire community and therefore their single-mindedness and dedication to the task at hand was critical; the very well-being of an entire nation depends on it and G-d commands it.

We often comment on how our leaders tend to age before our eyes. Golda Meir, herself, bemoaned how while she is considered by the world to be the mother of a nation, she was not the mother she should have been to and for her own children. We all know those people who are on 24/7 call and yet try to balance their lives to insure that other important facets of their existence are included and hopefully not slighted. In our lives today, more and more of us are the ultimate jugglers, balancing many different facets of our existence simultaneously. We also note that with the best and most sincere and honest of intentions, mistakes are made and focus is lost. We are mere human beings and this is just the reality of who and what we are – flawed humans.

This was not an option for the Kohanim and the Kohen HaGadol. In fact, if there was a flaw, a “moom,” that Kohen had to be excused from service. No flaws and no lapse of attention was a possibility for this important service. Therefore, the Kohanim could not go to work with various worries on their mind so to speak. They had to be single-minded and solely dedicated to their service, on behalf of them, but more importantly, the entire community. Perhaps these restrictions were there to insure, as much as possible, that this would be the case.

Further, the Kohanim and Kohen HaGadol had to be pure and as “perfect” as possible in their being and in their service. It was acknowledged that the Kohanim, and even the Kohen HaGadol, did not have to be, nor were they always the most intelligent or the most honorable of the population. Nonetheless, they had to be above reproach and laws and dictates are set in place to insure that this would be the situation as much as possible. This had a significant impact on whom they married, what they did and where they went.

Being a Kohen or a Kohen HaGadol in our Jewish past was clearly a calling that was so demanding it went far above and beyond the normal rhythm of life. Therefore, those that held these positions had to be protected from a lot of the potential downfalls of that normal life. I think that there is a lesson here for all of us. We, too, need to acknowledge our flaws as human beings and navigate the many different demands on our time and energy in a way that is respectful and honoring the many different aspects of our responsibilities. The point is that the Kohen and yes, even the Kohen HaGadol WAS PERMITTED and in fact WAS SUPPOSED to have a family and be part of the larger society and then have restrictions set in place to enable that experience of his own humanity in a reasonable way, given the importance of his office. Perhaps, for him this was to keep perspective in that no matter how important his WORK was, he was also a human being. All the more, we must remember this about ourselves.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


This week we begin the story of our hero, Avraham Aveinu in Parshat Lech Lecha. We are mindful that this is a pivotal moment in the history of humanity in that we now have evidence and general consensus on different levels that some one who lived around 1948 in our calendar of 5775 years began an ongoing relationship with G-d that was filled with accountability and intentionality. This first intentional monotheist, claimed by the three Monotheistic religions and others as a prophet, Patriarch and so much else is known to us as Avraham Aveinu.

This past week, when we went to visit our son at SUNY Binghamton. we dovened at Chabad. There was something about the avirah that inspired me to really be particularly attentive. So, it was definitely one of those instances where something we have read so many times looked new and novel to us all of a sudden. As we read in the beginning of Shacharit on Shabbat, I noticed a lovely passage in which G-d makes a covenant with Avraham that comes to us from Divrei HaYamim I: 16: 8ff when David brings the Aron HaKodesh into the sanctified space.

… HaShem, our G-d; over all the earth are G-d’s judgments. Remember G-d’s Covenant forever – the word that G-d commanded for a thousand generations – that G-d made (covenanted) with Avraham and G-d’s vow to Yitzchak.

The word that is used to express this action of making a covenant here with Avraham Aveinu is כרת . This would be the word that does not fit if we were playing that Sesame Street game “Which of these isn’t like the rest?” There are four pivotal words in this phrase in the Hebrew text: BERIT (covenant), TZIVAH (commanded), KARAT (made a covenant) and SHEVUATO (his vow). I found this use of this root Kaf-Reish-Taf in the word KARAT interesting as this particular word/root is used copious times in our Tanach and elsewhere to indicate the exact opposite – to cut down or out. In fact this is the word to use for cutting off someone from the people – a most ominous thought. It also refers to a bill of divorcement.

And here it is meaning exactly the opposite of its various derivations and forms. In the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of word usage in the Tanach, only one other reference is made to this meaning of covenanting in Isaiah 57.8 but is suspected to be a corruption of the text in the RV translation rendered from the Septuagint. In so many cases, all that I have found in fact, this is not the meaning of כרת.

So how do we explain this anomaly? Let us step aside from this question for a moment and we will come back to it. I want to introduce a new question. WHY AVRAHAM/AVRAM? This is an oft-asked query as there are those who posit that Avraham really was not anything special. What do we know about him that so many of us live as his offspring, so to speak?

Consider the following teaching by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks provided in his Parsha thoughts on this reading in 5771, four years ago:

"The most influential man who ever lived, does not appear on any list I have seen of the hundred most influential men who ever lived. He ruled no empire, commanded no army, engaged in no spectacular acts of heroism on the battlefield, performed no miracles, proclaimed no prophecy, led no vast throng of followers, and had no disciples other than his own child. Yet today more than half of the 6 billion people alive on the face of the planet identify themselves as his heirs.

His name, of course, is Abraham, held as the founder of faith by the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He fits no conventional stereotype. He is not, like Noah, described as unique in his generation. The Torah tells us no tales of his childhood as it does in the case of Moses. We know next to nothing about his early life. When G-d calls on him, as he does at the beginning of this week’s parasha, to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, we have no idea why he was singled out.

Yet never was a promise more richly fulfilled than the words of G-d to him when He changed his name from Abram to Abraham:

“For I have made you father of many nations…” (Gen. 17: 5).

There are today 56 Islamic nations, more than 80 Christian ones, and the Jewish state. Truly Abraham became the father of many nations. But who and what was Abraham? Why was he chosen for this exemplary role?"

Sacks goes on to suggest that it is due to the fact that by virtue of his deeds, he shows that he is a worthy human, if not an exemplary “man of his generation” as we learned last week about Noach. He tells us that Avraham does three things that distinguish him:

1. As we learn in the Midrash about him in his father’s idol workshop, he smashes and breaks things that are not meaningful and exposes them for the empty shells they are.

2. In another story from our lore, Avraham comes to realize that the world/universe has One Absolute Ruler, a new concept in many ways as the result of a dream he has.

3. Maimonides tells us that Avraham was quite the philosopher, discerning proof of G-d’s presence in the world before Aristotle and others will even begin to ask such questions.

For this reason, we are taught, Avraham distinguished himself as one who believed. According to Sacks, this was based on his beliefs, which inform his actions, and not the other way around as many may suppose and many more do. If one takes this notion seriously, we begin to understand that while we may question Avraham’s actions as the Monday morning quarterbacks we love to be (Why did he argue on behalf of Sodom and Amorah? Why did he send Hagar and Yishmael away? Why did he agree to the instruction to prepare his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice?), we come to comprehend that we DO NOT have to the ones who understand why Avraham did what he did. He did these things, according to Sacks, Rambam and others precisely because he intuited what G-d wanted from him and was more than willing to play his part, even acting in ways that others around him may not have and certainly did not understand from the vantage point that reason would afford.

It is this that earns him the merit of the three-fold promise bestowed upon him by G-d, indicating that he will be the father of many, will have land and many nations that will be blessed because of him.

Only one who truly had such faith and belief in G-d deserved the multi-faceted ברית that AVRAHAM AVEINU was given by AVEINU BASHAMAYIM. Sacks focuses on this notion – Avraham as father who can stand as a role model of a believing man who has a relationship with his G-d – this is his most salient and powerful role. He is indeed worthy of being the FATHER OF MANY NATIONS, as he is promised and his new name of AVRAHAM will reflect.

We still have not resolved my issue with the word in question – KARAT. So here is what I came up with. To have an opposite meaning of a Hebrew word and its developed root with the change of a vowel is not unusual – it is present all the time to preserve sanctity (e.g. Birkat HaShem; Kadesha, etc.). But I really think something else is going on here. COVENANT IS ABOUT CUTTING ONE SELF OFF…. Let’s think about this. One makes a covenant to marry someone and in doing so cuts one self off from a certain level of relations with all else. The Brit Avraham made with G-d was AFTER he exposed the idols and other objects of false belief and empty value through his actions. In order to COVENANT, to be party to a BRIT, one has to first cut one self off from all others, KARET! Just as a United States citizen, with very few exceptions, cannot maintain allegiances to other countries when becoming naturalized; when one makes this all encompassing affirmation of an exclusive relationship, other ties recede in importance.

So where does this leave us? We are members of the Jewish people. We are part of an entire world. That world is filled with so many nations that come from Avraham and there are other nations from the sons of Noach as well. We are part of this world and AT THE SAME TIME, must separate ourselves from them and their actions when we are consider our role in the BRIT with G-d. We are to maintain our own standards and behaviors as the Metzuvim that we are, regardless of what is going on around us. We are to take needed actions, stand up for others and do so many other things even when, and especially when this is not the normal tone of any society in which we live. This is the lesson of Avraham. This is what makes him worthy of his status in history – that he apparently, as the story is told, understood this and passes this legacy on to us.

Shabbat Shalom.