The celebration of the Chanukkah is confusing. The holiday commemorates winning a war against the Hellenisation of Judaism and removing Greek idolatry from the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, we celebrate the holiday by recalling the miracle of a miniscule amount of oil which burned in the Temple’s menorah eight times as long as expected. The long lasting oil is minor when compared to the victory over the Greeks and the freedom to rededicate the Temple to God. Why, then, do we use this as the focus of our celebration? A small point in the Joseph story may give us some insight.
In our parasha, Vayeshev, Joseph is his father’s favorite child and a dreamer. He incurs the wrath of his brothers both because of his favored status and because his dreams involve the rest of the family subjugating themselves to him. As a result, his brothers (at least some of them) plot to kill him. Thanks to the interference of Reuben, they instead throw him into a pit. The Torah describes, “The pit was empty; there was no water in it,” (Genesis 37:24). Sandwiched in the middle of a discussion over the placement of the Chanukkah candles, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) discusses the Joseph’s pit. It notices the apparent redundancy of describing an empty pit as lacking water; if it is empty, it of course has no water. The Talmud concludes that the pit must have only been empty of water but not of other dangers found in a pit, such as snakes and scorpions. Amazingly, then, Joseph survives this pit, though it is full of dangerous creatures, channeling his inner Indiana Jones. Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 17) reifies the miraculous nature of Joesph’s survival in the pit. It teaches that when Joseph returned from burying Jacob (have no fear, the death does not happen for another 3 parshiyot), he stopped by the same pit and recited the traditional blessing said over a place where one experienced a miracle.
The Meshekh Chokhmah (Meir Simcha, 19th-20th Century Latvia) notices an issue with Joseph reciting a blessing over the pit. The main miracle experience by Joseph was not surviving the pit; the miracle was that as a foreigner sold into slavery in Egypt, he rose to second-in-command and saved the country and the greater region from a famine. Being saved from scorpions is impressive, but it pales in comparison to Joseph’s rise to power. So too, he notices, the miracle of the oil on Chanukkah pales in comparison to the military victory. Yet, in both cases, the commemoration occurs over a relatively small event. The Talmud recognizes this Chanukkah-Joseph relationship by placing its explanation of Joseph’s pit in between discussions regarding Chanukkah lights.
The Meshekh Chokhmah solves his challenge by explaining that a miracle is only a miracle if it is actually a deviation from nature. While the Channukah war and Joseph’s rise to power were incredibly improbable, they are not supernatural. However, oil lasting for eight times its expected duration or a person surviving a pit of dangerous creatures is a supernatural event.
However, I am not convinced that surviving dangerous creatures or oil lasting longer than it should is any more supernatural than Joseph’s ascendency or the Maccabean conquest. Instead, I would like to suggest my own explanation of the Meshekh Chokhmah’s question as to why these two miracles become focused on small events which barely touch on the larger, improbable events surrounding them. To do that, I want to consider another holiday in which we commemorate a large miracle by, instead, focusing on a rather small one.
That other holiday is Passover. Passover is a holiday about God’s triumph over Pharaoh and removing us from slavery into freedom, including miraculous plagues and a split sea. Yet, we celebrate by recalling the time during the tenth plague where, with chaos floating all around us, we were able to sit comfortably in our homes and eat a meal in praise of God. We do not even celebrate the plague itself, which was a deviation from nature, as much as we celebrate the safety from God’s miracle. Because, in the end, God performs great miracles not for the sake of the miracle, but for the sake of providing us with the ability to have security and comfort. Which is what the Maccabees received from the small amount of light the were able to cast while cleaning the Temple. It was also gifted to Joseph in the safety he received as he sat among the scorpions and snakes with an uncertain future. Hopefully, it will be gifted to us from God during the uncertain times in which we live (though I am unsure anyone has lived in certain times).
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום and Happy Chanukkah!
I would like to thank two people I do not know, Efrat Gunin and Josh Waxman, who are in a Facebook group with me. They took the time to help me work out some of the ideas in this d’var. If the ideas are good, it was all them. If not, this d’var is my responsibility.
The past few weeks have seen many tragic events on a global scale, as well as some on a personal scale for my family. As people have responded to these with commemorations and eulogies, I have noticed three types of responses. The first is to really experience the tragedy of the situation. I walk away from these feeling like the speaker truly honored the pain of the moment, but I also leave feeling lost, without a place to turn next. The sorrow seems unending. Another approach has been to strike a tone of hope and meaning. This approach makes me feel uplifted, but also guilty, in that this approach uses the tragedy rather than honoring it. However, sometimes a middle path is struck, honoring the suffering but still presenting hope in it. In our parasha, Vayishlach, Jacob takes this path in naming his son, Benjamin.
Benjamin is the second son to his mother, Rachel, and the last son born to Jacob. Tragically, the birth kills Rachel. Before dying, she names him: Ben Ōni. Jacob, however, calls the child Binyamin (which becomes Benjamin in English translation). Up to this point, the twelve sons and one daughter (of which we know) born to Jacob were named by their mothers, with a potential exception of Levi (this is it’s own d’var). Benjamin’s birth is the first instance where Jacob gives one of his children a name contrary to the wishes of the mother. This exception is even more shocking because Rachel was Jacob’s most beloved wife and we would expect him to carefully follow her desires. However, when looking more closely at interpretations around the two names, we might realize that Jacob actually does honor Rachel’s wishes and pain, even as he gives his youngest son a name infused with hope.
Rashi explains that Ben Ōni, the name Rachel gives Benjamin means, “son of my pain.” Linguistically, the word ōn is connected with mourning in several places in the Bible. This name fits the difficulty of his birth. It also contrasts greatly with Jacob’s name for him, which means “son of my right-hand,” the Hebrew yamin meaning “right-side.” For most people (not the author of this piece), the right hand represents strength. Rashi, however, avoids interpreting Jacob’s naming as opposed to Rachel’s. He explains that “right” in many Biblical sources means “south”, assuming the narrative voice is facing the Jordan river from within Israel. Rashi explains that Benjamin was the only child of Jacob’s who was born in Canaan, which is south of Aram Naharaim, the home of Laban and the birthplace of the other eleven sons. Therefore, Jacob’s name for his youngest son is, “son of the south.”
I have, initially, two issues with Rashi’s explanation. First, Jacob still denies Rachel’s wishes for her son by giving him a name with different meaning than she did, albeit similar-sounding and not as contrary as “son of strength.” Considering we have a principle that it is a mitzvah to uphold the words of the dead (eg see Bavli Gittin 14b), why, then, did Jacob deny Rachel’s wishes? Second, there is another way to translate the Ben Oni to make it match the meaning of Binyamin. While ōn in Hebrew can mean pain, it can also mean strength (there are a series of roots in Hebrew with can take either of two, opposite meanings). Why does Rashi not offer this interpretation of Ben Ōni? In that case, the two names would have exactly the same meaning, and Jacob would not have ignored Rachel’s dying request.
Moreover, the idea that the two names both mean, “son of strength,” makes sense of a midrash in Genesis Rabbah. It teaches that the name Rachel gives to Benjamin is Aramaic, while Jacob gives the name in “the Holy Tongue,” meaning Hebrew. This mirrors the naming of border stones in last week’s parasha, where Laban, Rachel’s father, gives an Aramaic name and Jacob responds by naming it with a Hebrew translation.
But perhaps there is something deeper to Rashi’s explanation. “Son of the south” can have a similar meaning to “son of strength” since the land of Israel, the south, is where Jacob really comes to power--by both besting an angel in hand-to-hand combat, as well as reconciling with his brother, Esau. Running with the midrash’s interpretation, Jacob still honors Rachel’s naming of Benjamin. He does so by giving power to her original Aramaic, but choosing a Hebrew translation for it which interprets it with a different though sensible translation. He knows that Rachel gave her child a name which reflects suffering. Jacob does not deny her this name; Jacob’s time in Canaan, in the “south,” will never be wholly powerful. He continues to be a stranger in that land, afraid of his brother, afraid of the people of Shechem, and eventually feeling food insecurity. But he also reinterprets the suffering - which he too must have felt, having lost his beloved wife - by giving it hope, naming Benjamin both “child of the south” and “child of strength.” But it also does not cover up Rachel’s suffering.
In some ways, Benjamin represents hope for Rachel as well, even in the midst of her suffering. Her first son, Joseph, was named because of her hope, “may God add another son for me,” (Genesis 30:24). Benjamin is the fulfillment of Joseph’s name. Here, her name could be understood as a focus on both her suffering of childbirth and her strength of giving birth a second time. And Benjamin’s descendants, Esther and Mordechai, will show that strength during suffering many years later.
If the name Jacob gives to Benjamin is a translation of Rachel’s Aramaic into the “Holy Tongue,” it might explain what it means to speak the “Holy Tongue,” to call Benjamin, Bin Yamin as opposed to Ben Ōni. That is to, in one fell swoop, use language which honors pain while at the same time giving hope. For that is often what it means to be a Jew; no matter how dire the situation we both respect the difficulty, but to continue to hope for a better world. May we all continue to pay honor to the pain in our lives but find language to infuse that honor with hope for a better future.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, VaYetze, is a single story about Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law Laban. The story, which involves marital and financial deception on both sides, ends when Laban pursues a fleeing Jacob and the two agree to make peace. They solidify their peace by erecting a mound of stones marking the line of their territories. Each names the mound, although the names mean the same, but each is in the namers native tongue. Laban the Aramean calls the mound, “Y’gar Sahaduta,” and Jacob, “Gal-ed.” Both names mean, “mound of testimony.” With this stroke, the Torah introduces the language of Aramaic, a language which will take up large portions of some later books in Tanakh, will serve as a court language in the later Persian Empire, and will be the main language of Jews in Israel and Babylonia from the end of the Second Temple until the middle ages. This sudden introduction of Aramaic into Torah is striking; until now we might have assumed that Laban and Jacob spoke the same language. Ironically, in erecting a physical and linguistic barrier, the Torah breaks down the barrier of being a Hebrew-only text.
Unsurprisingly, some of our texts show nervousness around Aramaic and especially its introduction to the Torah. Rav Yehuda of the Talmud suggests that one should not make requests of God in Aramaic. In his view, the ministering angels do not recognize Aramaic, and will not be able to attend to our prayers or carry them to God (Talmud Shabbat 12b). The Rosh Teomim (18th Century Poland) explains that this is because the angels consider Aramaic an improper language, presumably because it is other and, specifically, not Hebrew. In fact, the Talmud may be claiming that not just Aramaic, but any non-Hebrew language is unacceptable to the ministering angels. This rejection of outside culture is made poignant by later texts such as the 15th century Spanish Galya Raza, which claims that the Israelite descent into Egyptian slavery is punishment for Jacob permitting Laban to introduce Aramaic into the Torah. As uncomfortable as this might sound, it is understandable. After all, the Israelites are a small group trying to hold on to their uniqueness. By being a Hebrew, an Ivri, one from the other side of the river, we, as inheritors of the Israelite tradition, express ourselves in our differences. One major avenue for doing so is by holding fast to our language.
In the Talmud of the land of Israel, Rabbi Yonatan takes a different approach to foreign languages. Using five languages as examples (Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Assyrian), he associates each language with its own strength (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:2). Each language, and thereby, one can assume, culture, is unique in its strengths, but none is necessarily better than another. Yet there is also no need for any of these languages or cultures to give up their individual identity. Our identity as a culture is maintained by taking pride in its unique strengths, but we are compelled to appreciate other cultures for their strengths as well. Each culture and language, though, may maintain its identity without any mixing.
There is a third Rabbinic approach to the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah (and other books of the Bible) which transforms Aramaic from the language of the other into something holy to be embraced. In this approach, no language or culture is inherently bad; its integration within one’s own culture transforms the outside culture into a part of the inside culture, making it desirable. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah (72) explains that, since God included Aramaic in the Bible, like Hebrew, it must be a holy language. The inclusion of outside culture into ours can be seen not as a takeover of our culture, but rather an enhancement; in becoming part of our culture and language, it gains a new meaning particularly to us, in the context of our own uniqueness.
We see three approaches to the inclusion Aramaic into the Torah: disgust, appreciation at a distance, and open embrace. Of these three, Jacob seems to accept take at least two of them. On the one hand, he sets up a strong boundary between him and Laban, similar to the approach that sees the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah as unquestionably negative. In doing so, he solidifies his own culture as different. At the same time, he willingly allows Laban to name the boundary first, knowing that the name will be in Aramaic. And on the boundary, he shares a meal with Laban, the ultimate in cultural exchange and mutual hospitality. He even chooses a Hebrew name for the boundary that is merely a translation of Laban’s, thus giving Aramaic a prominent place in Hebrew culture. Whether or not he also takes the third approach--appreciating Aramaic at a distance--is not clear to me, but seems likely, considering the years he spent in Laban’s household and his marriage to Laban’s daughters.
When we figure out how to interact with other cultures while maintaining our own, I think that all three approaches are necessary. We would also do well to take seriously the opinion of the Tosafot (medieval French commentators). They challenge the opinion of Rav Yehuda in the Talmud, that angels do not speak Aramaic. How can it be, they ask, that angels understand the hearts of people but do not understand a particular language? Their question is more than just a challenge of logic; it is a challenge about what culture and language are fundamentally. Culture and language are expressions of something deeper which is shared among all people. While the expressions are different and important, there is always something more fundamental that is shared by us all as part of the human experience.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Toldot, is almost exclusively about rivalry. Some of it concerns the rivalry between Avimelekh, the King of Grar, and Isaac. But mainly, it concerns the rivalry between the twins Esau and Jacob. This rivalry begins in utero: the two siblings fight while still inside Rebecca and even struggle to be born first. While still pregnant, Rebecca is told a prophecy that two nations are gestating inside of her; the nation coming from one will be stronger than the other. The prophecy ends with an ambiguous phrase which can either be read as, “And the older will serve the younger,” or, “And the older the younger will serve,” (Genesis 25:23).
In Rabbinic literature, Esau represents the primary ancestor of Rome, while Jacob, of course, represent the primary ancestor of Israel. Therefore, the early Rabbis view the rivalry of Esau and Jacob as a paradigm for the struggles between Jews and Romans in first and second century, Roman-ruled Judea. One Talmudic teaching (Megillah 6a) understands the prophecy to mean that whenever either Rome or Israel is successful, the other must be in tatters. Hence the destruction of Jerusalem at the height of Roman rule.
This Rabbinic understanding of the rivalry between Esau and Jacob is understandable and matches both their and our reality. Rival powers are rarely able to coexist; one must be made weak for the other to become strong. Neither can live while the other survives.
However, the Rabbis also imagine a different model of this rivalry. This rivalry is exemplified by two Talmudic characters: Rabbi Yehuda the Prince (known simply as Rabbi) and Antoninus. (Some hypothesize that Antoninus was one of the several Caesars who used that name, although it is difficult to confirm this fact.) The Talmud teaches us that when Rebecca is told there are two nations inside of her, we should understand it not as, “nations” (goyim) but as “exalted ones,” (geyim). The exalted ones were Rabbi and Antonius, both of whom were such great personalities, exemplified by their keeping fresh vegetables on their tables for visitors, even during winter. The Rabbis view constant willingness to accept guests as one of the greatest personality traits.
The Talmud teaches us about philosophical debates between Rabbi and Antonius (eg Sanhedrin 91a-b). These are not typical debates where one party always wins or the Rabbi outsmarts the non-Jewish authority. Instead, each is just as likely to convince the other. In some cases, not only does Rabbi accept Antoninus’ arguments, but Rabbi then finds a Biblical verse to support his intellectual rival’s claim. And when Antonius wants to pass on power to his son, he actually consults Rabbi (Avodah Zarah 10a).
In fact, the relationship between Rabbi and Antonius is so unusual, we have to wonder how they were able to turn an historical and cultural rivalry into friendship. How could two people successfully forge a cultural and philosophical divide into a relationship? The answer might lie in two other rival personalities in our parasha, Isaac and Avimelekh. Avimelekh banishes Isaac from the land of Grar, but later comes with his retinue to visit Isaac. Isaac is astounded, asking, “Why did you come to me, you despise me and sent me away from you” (Genesis 26:27). Avimelekh responds that he noticed that God is with Isaac. The two form a pact and Avimelekh leaves Isaac in a state of peace. The midrash (Sifrei Devarim) learns from this that rebuke can actually lead to peace, since Isaac rebukes Avimelekh for his former treatment of Isaac, and it ends with a pact of peace.
Of course, as the same midrash acknowledges, rebuke can also lead to a fraught relationship, which is why Jacob, Joshua, Samuel, and David all wait until their deathbeds to rebuke their children. So how was it successful in the case of Isaac and Avimelekh? Because Avimelekh saw that God was with him. How was God with him? In that Isaac’s behaviour was Godly--he modeled how to act appropriately. Avimelekh saw this and realized that, even though he might have had disagreements with Isaac, Isaac was an upstanding person from whom he needed to learn and with whom he needed to have a relationship.
Which, perhaps, is what turned Rabbi and Antoninus from cultural rivals to friends--friends who disagreed but were willing to learn and be convinced by one another. The two noticed that they were both upstanding people who both behaved similarly in accepting guests at their tables, both serving dignified food year round. Perhaps they heard about one another and, despite their differences, despite their historical hatred, were willing to take the risk to create a relationship. And, likely, that relationship contained some tense moments of rebuke and disagreement. But because of their mutual respect for one another’s behavior, because they saw God as being with the other, they kept an open mind when disagreeing, sometimes becoming convinced, but always remaining friends.
The other day I asked my teacher, Art Green, how we can have conversations with those whom we disagree. He told me the first step is modelling proper behavior. When a rival sees someone with whom they disagree is also a person of upstanding character, they often cannot help but open their hearts and minds. Like Avimelekh, they may even take the first step in creating a relationship.
May we all learn how to be like Isaac and Avimelekh, like Rabbi and Antoninus. Let us model how to behave in the world and then, perhaps, we can befriend those with whom we disagree. May we meet one another in disagreement but leave with a pact of peace. A pact of peace which, my friend Sasha Batz Stern points out, is not a pact based on agreeing on issues, but a pact based on a shared commitment to behaving properly in the world.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Chayye Sarah, begins and ends with acts of kindness around burial. Death prompts kindness. The parasha begins with Abraham searching for a burial plot for Sarah. It ends with the formerly estranged Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury Abraham. The middle of the parasha is also a story of incredible kindness: Rebecca greets Abraham’s servant with the sort of greeting all of us likely desire - and likely rarely get - when entering a new space or location. The two acts of kindness bookending our parasha are laudable, but likely not surprising. Death is an act which tends to make people more conscious of their behavior and act with kindness towards one another. However, it is the act of kindness separated from loss and grief, which truly define who we are and make us worthy. Here Rebecca excels and becomes a model for the Jewish people and our relationship with God.
After the death of Sarah, Abraham approaches the people of Chet to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. Until the exchange between Abraham and the people of Chet and then Ephron, no person in Breishit is referred to as “adoni,” meaning, “my master.” In Abraham’s negotiations for a burial plot, he is called, “adoni,” three times. Abraham, who is a stranger in the land, is called, “my master,” by the locals. The midrash in the Mekhilta (Pascha 18) explains that the land of Canaan was named after the Canaanites because of the kindness the children of Chet - who are Canaanites - showed Abraham, particularly in referring to him as, “adoni.” Since this is the first use of that term and also the first public burial we have in the Torah, I assume the two go together: the death of Abraham’s wife prompts extra kindness.
The death of Abraham prompts unusual kindness as well. Ishmael and Isaac, who up until now seem to have been apart and non-interactive, come together to bury Abraham. The Rabbis teach us that Ishmael repented for his previous sins (though what those sins might have been is itself confusing). This explanation displays shock that Ishmael and Isaac, of all people, would come together. Perhaps, like the generosity of the people of Chet in the wake of Sarah’s passing, death motivates kindness between brothers who were previously estranged.
Which is where most of us, Jews and non-Jews, stand one week after the horrific murder at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. At the moment, we are showing incredible kindness to one another. I am moved by the massive number of people who came to the memorial on Monday night and the incredible words of the many speakers. That night, ministers of different cloths and politicians put aside their differences to show solidarity. In this, we all followed the model of the people of Chet, of Isaac and Ishmael. It is a laudable model. I wish everyone in the world would show such kindness in response to tragedy.
But we need a model for continuing to show kindness one week from now, one month from now, one year from now when the pain of Pittsburgh begins to fade. For this our parasha presents us with Rebecca. Abraham’s servant comes to Aram Naharaiim, knowing no one and praying to God for a person to show him incredible kindness. Rebecca arrives and shows the exact kindness he requests: she offers water to him and his camels. She goes further: her offer of water to the camels comes unprompted. She does not walk back and forth to the well; she runs. She never asks the servant to help her. The servant never reveals his name and does not reveal his origin until after she has invited him to her family for room and board. The servant responds to Rebecca’s kindness by giving her gifts, including two gold bracelets weighing ten shekel. The Rabbis see these two bracelets and their weight of ten units as an allusion to the two Tablets and the Ten Commandments engraved on them (Genesis Rabbah 60:6). In response, several commentaries attempt to explain why Rebecca, as opposed to any of our other ancestors, is given a gift that alludes to the central piece of a contract between God and Israel.
Perhaps Rebecca receives a gift which alludes to the Ten Commandments because she most deeply embodies the characteristic necessary for receiving the Ten Commandments. Israel merits receiving the Torah (and the revelation at Sinai) because, unlike the other nations, it accepts the text unconditionally without reading it first (Mekhilta Chodesh 5). Israel willingly creates a relationship with God without preconditions or asking questions. Similarly, Rebecca creates a relationship with Abraham’s servant with no questions asked or preconditions. This is the ultimate kindness, and it exemplifies the quality necessary to inherit Torah.
Which is what we need to show one week, one month, one year, and one generation from the tragedy at Tree of Life. Let us not only show the kindness we have shown already, the kindness of Ishmael, Isaac, and the people of Chet immediately following death. Let that kindness lead us to the kindness of Rebecca, kindness shown with no preconditions and which appears both at times of good and times of bad. Kindness which makes us truly worthy of Torah and God’s covenant.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
In this week’s parasha, Vayera, both Abraham and his nephew Lot are visited by angels. In both cases, the angels are served meals which include bread. Abraham served his guests some sort of cakes. Lot, however, served his angelic guests matza, the unleavened bread we traditionally eat at Passover. Lot seems to be a less good version of Abraham, so it makes sense that he would serve his guests cheaper food. However, the great 11th century French commentator Rashi explains Lot’s serving of matzah in a different vein: it was Passover. That is, Lot served his guests matzah because it was the appropriate food for the time of year.
However, Rashi’s comments are strange in at least two ways. First, why is Lot celebrating a holiday which commemorates the Israelite exodus from Egypt several hundred years later?! Further, the Israelites are distant cousins of Lot’s offspring. If anyone should be celebrating Passover, it is Abraham. Indeed, some midrashim explain that the angels visited Abraham on the eve of Passover. Abraham had to ask Sarah to make cakes for the angelic guests because they were busy with Passover preparations (which I assume means they were out of other bread). But Rashi makes no such comment regarding Abraham. The only person he associates with Passover in our story is Lot in his serving of matzah.
The contemporary Israeli Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun points out several literary parallels between Lot’s escape from Sodom and the Israelite escape from Egypt. Matzah, in his view, is merely a flag for the careful reader to pay attention to the similarities. Both stories begin with hiding in houses. In Lot’s case, the angels pull him inside his own house to protect him from the Sodomites. In Egypt, the Israelites lock themselves inside with blood on their doorposts to protect them from the plague of the first-born. New nations emerge from both stories. For Lot, it is the nations of Amon and Moab, which begin with a horrific sexual encounter created between Lot’s daughters and their father. (I hope to compare this to the Levite experience in Egypt when we get to parashat Sh’mot). The Exodus from Egypt, of course, results in the creation of the Israelite people, from whom we inherit our traditions. So the escape from Sodom did not necessarily occur during our Passover. Instead, when Rashi says it was Passover, he means that it was Lot’s Passover: the time for him to escape and begin a new nation.
I noticed a few other parallels not included by Rabbi Bin Nun. Both of these stories end away from civilization: for the Israelites in the desert, for Lot in the mountains. In both stories, the people involved must move forward at all cost -- even into the sea, rather than look back and become a pillar of salt, as happens with Lot’s wife.
By teaching us that Lot served matzah because it was Passover, Rashi points us towards the literary parallels. His comment illuminates for us the similarities between the national creation stories and the lessons conveyed about the creation of separate identity and peoplehood. If the Torah’s paradigm is taken seriously, the creation of a nation begins in an oppressive environment where all food must be baked quickly. It means having to hide inside, away from the outside environment, and an eventual escape to a frontier where a new people can begin to (re)build. Both stories also teach us that nation-building involves an attempt to include outsiders who might want to join the project. In Lot’s case, the angels urge him to collect anyone else who might be with him in the city (Genesis 19:12). Everyone refuses him, but the sentiment is still there. In the Israelite case, a mixed-multitude (Exodus 12:38) joins the Israelites in leaving Egypt.
This gives us a reason why the Israelite nation does not emerge directly from Abraham and instead needed to spend time in Egypt. While Lot hideS in his house before emerging from Sodom, Abraham sits outside his tent waiting for visitors, to whom he serves a banquet in the open air, away from the tent. Abraham is an accomplished person with little to fear in his world. Even his greatest fear, having Sarah stolen by a man in power, results in his enrichment and adding new allies. Lot’s life, like the Israelites in Egypt, is one that must happen in hiding until a final, miraculous moment of emergence into the wilderness -- and the creation of a new people. The Torah teaches us that new nations usually do not emerge from positions of comfort, but instead from positions of subjugation. And for those lucky enough to be part of an exodus (but unlucky enough to need one), the Torah reminds us that such an endeavor involves including others who might also be committed to the project. Like Lot, however, sometimes we may find no one else willing to join us. We build the nation anyway. And above all, it reminds us to charge forward -- not looking back, like Lot’s wife, but plunging into the sea and the future, like the Israelites under Moses. שבת שלום.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
The story of Abraham is one of the more detailed, personal stories in the Torah. However, most of what we learn in the Torah only covers the last one hundred years of his life (may we all be blessed to have a last one hundred years). Which leaves a curious question: why did God choose Abraham in the first place? Other than the names of his family members, all we know about him before this week’s parasha, Lekh Lekha, is that his wife is barren and that his father intended to take the family from Ur Kasdim (maybe southern Iraq) to Cana’an (the land of Israel). His father stops short of Cana’an and settles in Charan (maybe in Turkey), although the Torah never explains why. The Rabbinics present Abraham as the first monotheist, attempting to explain why Abraham was chosen by God. However, other Rabbinic sources make it clear that several other monotheists existed in Abraham’s day, many of whom were his elders. The Rabbis teach that Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, ran a yeshiva in the ancient world. Therefore, Abraham (and Sarah, as we will see) must have done something special beyond being monotheists, which compelled God to choose them.
In Lekh Lekha, the Torah may hint as to why God chose Abraham and Sarah. The retinue which accompanies Abraham on his trip to Cana’an includes the “people that they made in Charan,” (Genesis 12:5). Onkelos, in his traditional Aramaic translation of the Torah, translates “people that they made” as, “Abraham and Sarah pledged the people to Torah.” The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) suggests that Abraham marks the beginning of an era of Torah. However, what Torah looks like in Abraham’s time is unclear. Sarah and Abraham long predate God’s giving the Torah at Sinai. While some sources see it as an innate ability to perform Torah (see, for instance, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b), it seems more likely this means a concept of Torah. It might be that the method Abraham and Sarah use to teach to others is an understanding of what Torah is and that which sets them apart from both their predecessors and their contemporaries, even those who are monotheism. This may even be what makes Judaism, the religion of Torah, unique.
Maimonides suggests (Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1, Laws 2-3) that Sarah and Abraham are different in that they teach publicly, to the masses, about God. Other monotheists at their time kept to themselves, or maybe had a few select students. Maimonides suggests that Abraham wrote books and passed them on to his children. However, this fails to explain why those before Abraham did not teach publicly or did not write their own books. Nor does this explain what sets Torah apart from other traditions.
When God instructs Abraham to move to the land of Cana’an, God tells him, “Go, yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). God’s instruction that Abraham leave his father’s house is confusing. Abraham’s father, Terach, was himself headed to Cana’an (Genesis 11:31). God essentially says to Abraham, “Separate from your father by doing exactly what your father was planning to do.” How can Abraham break from his father by following in his father’s footsteps? This break without a break is heightened by the claim of the Tosafot (on Shabbat 10b) that Abraham first went to Cana’an, then back to Charan, then back to Cana’an, the second time at God’s command. That is, Abraham completed his father’s journey on his own and when he abandoned it, God asked him to repeat it.
Perhaps, God chooses Abraham because he knows Abraham is capable of simultaneously breaking from the path of his father and following it at the same time. After all, Abraham already did this on his own. Which might be what separates Sarah and Abraham from Shem and Ever and also what convinces others to follow Abraham and Sarah. While others can teach about God, maybe even publicly, Sarah and Abraham do so while cloaked in tradition. Their message is more palatable because it delivers a radical message, to follow God, while making it seem completely unradical. They make monotheism seem like a natural continuation of Abraham’s father’s path. Which is what makes him the start of Torah. For Torah is an ability to break from the past while making it seem like it is merely a continuation at the same time. Every good change made in Torah is always grounded in a past tradition—a saying, Biblical verse, or the like— as if the Torah always supported this new path. Perhaps it has. May we all merit to inherit such a Torah: where we forge new paths as we, at the same time, make those paths continuations of what always was. In doing so, we inherit the Torah of Abraham.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
In this week’s parsha, Noah, God makes two promises to Noah after the flood. The first occurs after Noah sacrifices all of the pure animals he brought with him in the ark as offerings to God. God then promises to no longer curse the earth because of humanity. This manifests in God promising to allow the natural cycles of the world to cycle through their appropriate periods. “For the rest of the days of the Earth, the time for planting and harvesting, winter, spring, summer, fall, day, and night will not cease,” (Genesis 8:21-22). The second promise, which is perhaps more famous, is symbolized by the rainbow. God promises to never again wipe out humans and other life on earth, and uses the rainbow as a reminder to God to keep the promise. After some genealogies, the Torah tells the story of the Tower of Babel where the people, all of one language, get together to build a tower. God responds by introducing different languages and scattering the people. The choice of a rainbow as symbol of the covenant gives us insight to the cause of the flood. It also explains God’s motivation for punishing the builders of the Tower of Babel by making them speak different languages.
The Torah teaches us that the sin of the generation of the flood was thievery. The Talmud of the land of Israel explains that people would steal small amounts from one another: so small that the thievery was not contestable in a court (Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 4:2). Phrased differently, they would disrespect the individual property of another, assuming the boundaries between individuals were not important.
A different sin associated with this generation, midrashically, is that different species, including humans, were engaged in cross species sex (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). Again, we see a disrespect of boundaries and difference, here between species. In the parasha, we learn that Noah took one pair of every impure animal and seven of every pure animal. There is a midrash (Tanchuma, Buber edition, Noah 11) which explains that the pure animals are those which did not engage in cross species sex. These are the animals which Noah later sacrifices to God, which then prompts God’s first promise to no longer destroy the earth and its cycles. To be clear, this is not a story which promotes segregation of types. After all, the ark is the ultimate example of bringing together every type. Rather, it is a story which warns against the destruction of unique identity, culture, and species.
The story of the Tower of Babel contains parallels to the flood. The entire world comes together with one language and one set of words (Genesis 11:1). This is despite God’s blessing (Genesis 9:1) that people should fill the entire world: that is, to spread out and create individual identities. Instead, the people build up instead of out, creating one national identity, and removing unique qualities of culture and language. God punishes, so to speak, the generation by giving them different languages and different locations. Here the people did not mix inappropriately, but, rather, failed to form differences in the first place. However, those sins seem to be similar, as mixtures are not a category if there are not differences in the first place. And the creation of differences is a fundamental part of God’s creation in Genesis, creating each thing according to its type.
In response to the sins of mixing inappropriately and failing to create difference, of violating identity, God violates the identity of the world. God remixes the separated waters of above and below, as well as the separation between land and water. The punishment matches the crime. When the punishment is finished, God promises to never destroy the cycles again. God is prompted to make this promise when Noah offers those animals that never violated their identities by mixing across species. The rainbow becomes a perfect symbol of this. A rainbow is the result of taking a mixture of frequencies of light (i.e. white light) and separating them spatially. It is a return of colors to their individual identities. The rainbow reminds us that as much as we might which to blend individual identities between people, species, times, and cultures, and languages, there is also a value to maintaining difference and individuality.
However, the Torah teaches that the rainbow primarily serves a reminder to God. While a rainbow is a separation of identity, it is not as discrete as we may originally suspect. It is a actually a spectrum, where the borders between colors are fuzzy. It is a reminder that even in maintaining unique identity, some blurring of boundaries is also a value to be upheld. This reminds God to not be so quick to destroy the world on the basis of identity blending, just as it reminds us to not be too casual with knocking down boundaries. May we all appreciate and keep those qualities which keep us as, both as individuals and groups, different. But may we, and God, also recognize and appreciate those places where differences can and should be blended like the colors of the rainbow.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, B’reishit, famously gives the Jewish view on the creation of the world. Whether or not this is meant to be a scientific accounting, it does seem to be a statement of our tradition’s thoughts on the goals, aspirations, and ideals for the world. While the initial creation story in the first chapter contains many instances of God’s approval, the Rabbis see at least two places where God alters our reality in relationship to God’s original plan. The first change was to insert mercy and compassion into a world initially created based solely on justice. A world based on justice alone, God realized, would be unsustainable. God’s wisdom (as it were) is shown by the first two generations of humanity, both of whom engage in disobedience of God. The second, Cain, goes so far as to undo God’s creation by committing murder. If the world had been created strictly based on justice, God would have needed to wipe out humanity for its crimes rather than forgive Adam, Eve, and Cain. The insertion of mercy into God’s judgement of the world gives all of us a chance to survive and come back from our mistakes. But it also means that sometimes people are not properly punished for their crimes.
A second change in God’s plan was in how God creates people. Two verses, in the first and fifth chapters of Genesis, have a contradiction in describing God’s creation of humanity. The Torah teaches that God created him - the first man - in God’s image, but God created them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Genesis 5:1-2 similarly states that God created man in God’s image, but created them as male and female and named them “Adam”. More confusingly, the second chapter of Genesis describes God as forming man and then creating woman from man’s side. Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that God created a single person and later created woman from that person’s side. Rebbi Abahu (3rd century Israel) explains, however, that God thought to create two separate people, but in the end only created one.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th and 17th centuries Poland) writes that, like creating the world only based on justice, creating two separate people with wholly individual identities was the ideal. However, the world would not be sustainable if separate people were created simultaneously. People have a tendency to quarrel, to the point of violence and destruction, over the smallest differences. God thus decided to create one initial person in God’s image so that everyone would be forced to admit to the same origin -- and God hoped that this would lead to more peace in the world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that, because we all descend from the same initial person, no person can claim greater ancestry than anyone else. Further, this also leads us to aspire to close relationships with others -- knowing that we were once meant to be together, we yearn for the recombination of two people into the original one.
As God anticipated, and as we can see in our world today, too often the existence of individual people leads to dominance by one type of person over another. But holding onto the idea of fundamental human unity can be dangerous, too. If we see ourselves only as one person, we can’t draw boundaries, even healthy ones, for ourselves -- or recognize those boundaries in others. If everything came from one original person, someone could abuse this by assuming that others must not have personal space or autonomy. This becomes even more dangerous due to the second chapter of Genesis. Since gender differentiation happens by taking something from the side of the first person - who becomes a man - some people see this as permission for men to encroach on women’s physical space. It is at this point we should remember God’s original plan for the world in our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein (in Chashukei Chemed Eruvin 18a) explains that the idea was for people to have two independent identities not reliant on one another in any way: physically, materially, emotionally. In believing that God created the world with an intention of individuality but with the reality of unity, we should be inspired to find an appropriate balance between these two poles.
However, finding a balance between unity and individuality, as well as finding a balance between justice and mercy, is difficult. We often swing too far one way. Sometimes our society is too inclined to be merciful towards people who violate others’ boundaries -- we are too quick to forgive such transgressions. In such times, we must remember that our tradition teaches that God’s original plan for the world was true justice. In the same way, people can be too inclined towards the results of a creation story where people were created from a single individual. People are too lax with others’ individuality and personal space. This is particularly and often seen in men’s treatment of and dominance over women and women’s bodies. When the world swings too far to that side -- and I believe it has -- we should recall our tradition’s claim of God’s original plan for the world: multiple people with independent and equally valid identities and separate bodies, owned exclusively by themselves and created by God.
We must find the appropriate balance between respecting individuality and union -- we must make up for giving too much weight to the side of allowing the violation of personal privacy and individuality. I hope we can have both the respect of individual worth, which comes from God’s original plan for the creation of person, and the appropriately timed and desired intimacy and friendship, which comes from God’s eventual choice to create us all from the same person. In the same way, I hope we can find the right balance between God’s original plan for a world of justice, with all the fairness it brings, and the actual world God created, which is one where we eventually learn when it is appropriate to be compassionate and forgive.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, explains the laws of bringing first fruits to the Temple. “Then you will take from the first of every fruit of the earth that you brought forth from your land which Hashem your God gives to you; then you shall place it in the basket and go to the place that Hashem your God will choose for God’s name to reside there,” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The basket and the fruits are taken by a cohen and placed in front of the altar. The midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, the Sifrei (parashat Ki Tavo, no. 300), reports that rich people would bring their first fruits in gold or silver vases, while the poor would bring them in wicker baskets. It also reports that the baskets themselves were given to the priests along with the fruit, “in order to increase gifts to the priests.” This implies that, unlike the baskets, the vases brought by the rich were returned. Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (15-16th Century Italy) comments that this supports the folk saying that, “Poverty follows the poor.” The rich get to show off without losing anything, and the poor look bad and lose out financially. The statement of the midrash is also nonsensical. If the Torah really wanted to increase the gifts given to to the priests, it would direct them to keep the gold and silver vases brought by the rich.
Allowing the rich to be financially ostentatious around first fruits stands in contrast to the Rabbinic approach to food brought to houses of mourning. The Talmud teaches (Mo’ed Katan 27a) that, originally, people would bring food to a house of mourning differently depending on their wealth: the rich in gold and silver vases, and the poor in wicker baskets. However, this embarrassed the poor; for the sake of their honor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should bring food to a house of mourning in wicker baskets. That is, in order to protect the dignity of the poor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should act like a poor person when bringing food to a house of mourning. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13-14th Century Catalonia) explains that a person is constantly required to examine their actions to ensure they do not embarrass the poor. Further, a rich person should make themself equal to the poor in order to not cause shame.
The tension between laws around bringing first fruits to the Temple and bringing food to mourners leads many commentators to attempt a resolution. In my humble opinion, a resolution may be found in a different version of the midrash from Sifrei, brought by the Vilna Gaon (Eliyah ben Shlomo, 18th Century Lithuania). Instead of ending the midrash with, “in order to increase gifts to the priests”, his version ends, “in order to give merit to the poor.” The Torah Temimah (Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 19-20th Centuries Lithuania) suggests that the reason the poor give their baskets to the priests is because they actually made the baskets out of the first fruits, so the baskets themselves are due to the priests as well. This makes the baskets both a merit to the poor and a true gift to the priests. Perhaps the rich also desired to give their baskets to the priests. But the priests have no interest in a gift that was merely a purchase, made with the money one happens to have. While that may seem like a beautification of serving God, just like a present wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper that came from the store, it is too easy. The rich might have nicer fruit to bring to the Temple than the poor, but they merely wrap it in what their money can buy; and money, to them, is easily disposable. However, the poor person, whose fruit is likely inferior to the rich person’s, uses their own hand and effort to beautify God’s gifts. They may not have anything great to offer, but they make it into something great. That is, their own poverty gives them motivation to create something truly worthy of a gift to the priests. This is why the priests only take the baskets from the poor, and this is why this practice gives merit to the priests.
My explanation does not immediately solve the initial problem. If delivering the first fruits in hand-made baskets is more meritorious, then the rich should also bring first fruits in hand-made baskets, just like when they bring food to mourners. Second, if bringing handmade baskets is more meritorious when bringing first fruits, why would it suddenly become more embarrassing for the poor when they bring food to mourners?
In the case of the Temple, the two methods of bringing first fruits - in precious vases or in wicker baskets - are empowering to a person’s station in life. This is strengthened by the statement made when bringing the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramean; then he descended to Egypt in small numbers, but he became there a great nation, strong and numerous,” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The rich and the poor have a common story, a story of both poverty and wealth. The great ancestors of the Israelites went through periods of each. Therefore, both being rich and being poor have an anchor in our heritage; neither is a position that should bring shame. In the current time, when they are giving their first fruits to their Temple, they are permitted to do so in a way that gives them pride in their place in life - for the rich, using their wealth for beauty, and for the poor, using their work for beauty.
However, the case of death and mourning is different. I have heard people discuss how equalizing death is. But the Talmud relates that before the Rabbis made decrees to equalize how the dead and their mourners were treated, it was anything but equalizing. The reason we bury bodies in closed caskets is because poor people who died tended to look famished, while rich people looked well cared-for (Mo’ed Katan 27b). The size of the crowd at a funeral or the number of eulogies were often related to a person’s fame or wealth. Funerals and mourning created an inequality of pride, which necessitated Rabbinic interference to equalize how people acted.
We need to ask ourselves about whether the institutions we build and activities we hold are more like bringing first fruits to the Temple or more like bringing food to mourners. Do they create an environment where everyone can be proud of their station in life, or an environment which gives pride to some at the expense of others? If we can build the former, we are doing well. But when we fail to do so, we might wish to take lesson from the Rabbis. In such cases, those who have power and wealth should take heed of the Meiri’s injunction: they should humble themselves, ensuring no one is ashamed due to lack of wealth or power. May we merit to build a world where all of our spaces are like the Temple at the time when first fruits were brought. Then we can fulfill the vision of Rabbi Akiva, who sees everyone, even the poor of Israel, as equally deserving of pride - as befits the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום