“It came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”
(Genesis 22:1 – 2)
Our reading of the third of the triennial sections of this week’s portion ends with the Akedah (“the binding”), one of the most difficult and challenging stories in the entire Torah. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. God decides to put Abraham to the test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain. That mountain, Moriah, eventually became the holy place where the Temple was built.
The story emphasizes the closeness of father and son as well as the enthusiasm of Abraham to carry out God’s command. Twice it says, “the two of them walked together.” At the crucial moment when Abraham binds his son, an angel puts a stop to the sacrifice. Abraham sees a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Seemingly Abraham has passed the test. But this is already problematic. The father and son should have walked down the mountain together as they walked up together. But the Torah says that Abraham walked down alone. Where was Isaac? This is a great mystery. Perhaps the story is telling us that there is estrangement between father and son.
Jewish tradition teaches that this was the great act of faith. Abraham had passed the test. He was willing to go so far as to sacrifice his beloved son to obey God’s command. Obedience to God is the ultimate value. This is the reason we Jews read the story not only this week but on the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, one of our holiest days of the year. This is a story about faith; a faith in God so deep that Abraham could set aside his ethical scruples.
Not only Jews but the other Abrahamic religions see the value of this story. The Koran speaks of Abraham almost sacrificing Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. And the Christian existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made this story central to his philosophy. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard calls Abraham “a lonely knight of faith.” He was willing to suspend the ethical in order to live in the presence of God. The truly authentic life is based on what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” He attacked what he called the ethical life as inferior to true religious faith.
But is Kierkegaard correct? Did Abraham truly do the correct thing? Should we be reading this story on Rosh Hashana? Perhaps the fact that Abraham walks down the mountain alone, never to encounter his son again until he dies, is a hint that there was something wrong. Earlier, Abraham argues with God and bargains to save the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says to God, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” Abraham is willing to call God to an account when God does something not just. Why did he not argue with God here?
Perhaps Abraham failed the test. Perhaps religion is not about suspending the ethical as Kierkegaard would say, but rather living by the ethical. Even God must live by the ethical. And if God commands us humans to do something unethical, our job is to argue with God. Perhaps Abraham should have told God, “No, I will not offer my son as a burnt offering. It is wrong.” The story would have been a lot less interesting, but it would have made a point. Religion demands ethical behavior.
Today we see unethical behavior among many faiths done in the name of God. People believe that God is on their side and therefore all kinds of atrocities are justified. It is not simply Islamists who create acts of terrorism or Christians who murder doctors they believe performed abortions. I see in our own faith, religious Jews who harass and arrest women who dare to bring a Torah or sing their prayers at the Western Wall.
Perhaps the lesson of the Adekah is that faith in God is important, but doing the right thing exceeds even that in importance.
We are told that our father Abraham underwent ten tests over the course of his lifetime, and that he passed all ten tests. Though there is no consensus on what those ten tests were, we do know that the first was at Ur Kasdim, where Abram (as he was then known) was thrown into a fiery pit for his refusal to pay homage to the idols of that society. He survived that furnace, and emerged not only physically unharmed but also committed to his monotheism. In addition, we know that the second test Abram faced was God’s command to LECH LECHA, to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
As we know, he passes that test as well.
So why do we hear so much more about the second test than the first? In fact, the Torah is almost totally silent on the first test, the only mention being a quick reference in Lech Lecha to UR. It would seem that surviving a fiery furnace would warrant more attention than a journey, a departure from one’s home. And yet the fiery furnace is barely mentioned and comes to us mostly through midrash. Why?
One scholar believes that the trial at Ur Kasdim was barely mentioned because that experience was of Abram’s own choosing. He was an iconoclast in his own day and time, and his devotion to monotheism required that he be willing to give up his life for his belief. On the other hand, this scholar claims, the command to “go forth” comes directly from God, and that makes that test even more important because it was divine. Therefore, it is worthy of more time in our text.
I want to propose a slightly different reason. I think it’s clear that being willing to stand in a fiery furnace is a BIG test. I’m not sure too many of us could do it! But that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was GLAMOROUS. A little like the trials of Hercules or some other spectacular super-hero. In contrast, the journey that Abraham undertakes is one that is on-going, and not the least bit glamorous. In fact, he doesn’t even know where he is going—God tells him “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Now there’s faith! No sense of what that end destination might be. And the Torah tells us, “And Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him.”
Think about how hard it is to leave one’s childhood home. No matter how much we might resist the strictures of our parents and older adults, there is a certain safety in being someone’s child and in remaining a child. There is safety in what we know, in being cared for. No doubt Abram felt that safety as well, even though he must have hated living in a land of idolaters.
But that isn’t all. Abram doesn’t simply leave his childhood home. He leaves without any knowledge of what his destination might be. That journey is one of seeking, not one of exile (like Adam and Eve), and the mystery of that journey demanded enormous faith of Abram.
So much of life is like this, isn’t it? Life often feels like a journey whose end is uncertain, where even the mileposts along the way might not be marked for us. Where we are headed somewhere, and we often don’t know exactly where. Where we might have even less information than Abram did—remember that God tells him that he and his descendents will be blessed, and that his enemies will be cursed.
Unlike Abram, we never know whether blessings or curses follow us as we journey on our way. So much of that journey requires a leap of faith, a trust that we will be OK. And, often, if we try to control our circumstances, the “best-laid plans” often go awry—we end up realizing that the more we try to exercise control, the less control we actually have.
Maybe some of you have read or heard about some of the predictions people have made about the future. For example, Charlie Chaplin once said that “the cinema is little more than a fad. People want the flesh and blood of the stage.” Margaret Thatcher once said, “A woman will never be prime minister during my lifetime.”
Marconi, famous for his invention of the radio, thought that radios would make warfare impossible. Economist Irving Fiske predicted that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Anyone want to guess what year that was? Yes, it was 1929, actually THREE DAYS before the market crashed. Popular Mechanics in 1959 said that computers might some day weigh less than 1.5 TONS. And my personal favorite: in 1924, Science and Invention Magazine predicted that there would soon be a MATING machine that you and your partner could be hooked into to determine if you’re compatible.
Dealing with mystery is tough and challenging. Under some circumstances, it can be terrifying. I don’t want to minimize that reality. But, sometimes, when we open ourselves up to the mystery of the future, we find that we are truly blessed in ways that we did not or could not imagine.
Let us pray that we can have the faith, like our father Abraham, to trust the future and to go forth . . .
We read of the Great Flood this week in the Parsha of Noach.
With the Flood, nature seemed to change. The Chatam Sofer explains the defect which occurred in the creation in the period after the Flood. The people in the generation of the Flood sinned because they were bored and had nothing to do. They did not have to labor in planting crops and raising children. Now the Holy One, blessed be He imposed upon mankind the cares of the world. People now must sow and reap, and “they will not rest.” They will not yawn because of excessive boredom. They will therefore not sin and indeed Noach immediately began to live according to the new order of things (9:20). “And Noach, the man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard.” The Malbim claims that our Sages saw three basic changes in nature. Until the Flood, people had to sow once every 40 years. Now they had to work all the time. Secondly, until then the sun circled the equator and it was always warm and light. Now there were seasons in the year, with all the effects on Man’s nature and health. Thirdly, from then on people no longer had the opportunity to rest; they would not be free to do whatever they wanted.
In telling the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah wished to explain the reason why there are a multitude of languages today, although Adam was born alone. No doubt there was a failure in civilization and Hashem directed the people to become separated and many languages were developed immediately. The Abravanel points out that the expression that they traveled “from the east” meant that they moved away from the ancient days of old. The type of government that existed was evil and forbidden, yet the Torah never prohibited it. The Abravanel says, “When Hashem saw that Adam and all his descendants had immersed themselves in all the lusts for luxury, and had defiled themselves with them, He did not forbid His people… but encouraged the Children of Israel to behave in those matters with justice and in a proper manner, not in a despicable manner.” In any event, the purpose of the world according to the Abravanel is for it to be as it was before, before humankind ruined it by progress and by building the city and the Tower. The ruination of mankind by making technology into a god is also seen in the words of our Sages in the Midrash that at the time of the generation of the separation “if a man fell and died no-one would pay attention to it, whereas if a single brick fell they would sit and cry exclaiming when will there be another like it.” Technology, which was created to serve mankind, appeared as a goal, upon whose altar man was to be sacrificed, and that was the failure of this post-Flood generation.
In this week’s parsha, PINCHAS, we see Moshe passing on the leadership of the Jewish people to his successor. Given that the Torah portion is named after Pinchas, it would seem to make sense to think that the next leader is Pinchas. But that is not the case. Even though we may admire the passion and zeal of a Pinchas, we know that those qualities are not sufficient to make someone a leader. So, instead, Moses confers smicha on Joshua.
We’ve seen Joshua before—in the story of the Golden Calf, he’s the one who points out to Moses that the crowd seems to be riled up. We know that he was also one of the 12 spies, and he is one of the two to have the faith that the Israelites can conquer the land. Midrash also tells us that Joshua learned Torah directly from Moshe. And something you may not know: our sages have said that the face of Moses was like the sun, but that the face of Joshua was like the moon.
Think about that. What is the difference between the sun and the moon?
One rabbi tells us that the sun is the heavenly body that lights up the entire universe, but the moon allows other heavenly bodies to shine. That’s a nice distinction when we think about the differences between Joshua and Moshe. Moshe is the leader who speaks directly with God; he is an almost overwhelming presence, and there’s a lot of evidence that that aspect of his personality kept him separate from the Jewish people, even from his own family.
But Joshua is like the moon. Joshua lets others shine. He allows others to step forward and share in the glory. Moshe, as a brilliant leader and strategist, must have realized that the Jewish people needed a different kind of leader. It was time for the Israelites to be in their promised land, and to take more responsibility for their own actions. They have lived with Moshe and one miracle after another. The time has come for them to experience a new kind of leadership and a new phase in their history. The true leader is the one who can share leadership, and in so doing, can help others also become leaders. Like the moon in the sky, a true leader does not dominate but is able to delegate and share the glory. The Jewish people, with Joshua at the helm, will have to grow up. They are entering a new phase of maturity, leaving behind miracles and a direct connection to God. This is the phase we continue to find ourselves in. It remains our challenge to find and sustain a connection with God.
There is a Midrash that states that Pharaoh was deliberating what to do with his “Jewish problem” in Egypt. He had three advisors: Bilaam, Job, and Yitro. Bilaam gave him advice and ultimately was killed; Job remained silent during the deliberations and was consigned to suffer the punishments that are outlined in the book that bears his name and Yitro fled, earning the merit of having his descendants sit adjacent to the Sanhedrin. Bilaam witnessed everything that occurred, even at the Splitting of the Sea, and made no attempt to reach any conclusion, contrary to the experiences of Yitro. Near the end of today’s Parsha, even as he has failed to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam offers advice which causes many Jewish people to sin and lose their lives.
“Behold it is a nation that dwells alone and is not counted among the other nations” (23:9). The Beit HaLevi noted that Bilaam realized that B’nei Yisrael can only exist as a nation if it does not assimilate with other nations. Truly they must be a “nation alone” – only then will it continue to dwell and exist. However, “among the other nations” – if B’nei Yisrael attempts to become like other nations, they will not be counted! When Jews attempt to become like non-Jews of the world, they do not gain respect in the eyes of the Gentiles. To the contrary, they are looked down upon and reviled.
According to the Midrash, Bilaam was a prophet who curses, and he offered himself out for hire. The Midrash states that Sichon hired Bilaam and Bilaam’s father to curse Moav. Hence we see something that Rashi alluded to in the beginning of today’s parsha when Moav sent messengers to Midian so that the two countries can work together against Bnei Yisrael. Normally these two countries hated each other, but in order to fight Israel they made peace. We see this repeatedly in Jewish history. Several years ago, when Iraq and Iran were conducting a war against each other, but when it came to fighting Israel they become friends and allies. The Moabites, Midianites and Amorites hated each other, but when it came time to face what they perceived as a common enemy they would work together. When the enemy is the Jewish people, we have that unique ability to inspire people to get along with each other!
In this Parsha, we read of the death of Miriam who was Moshe’s sister, but, even more, his confidante. She provided the ear that he needed to be able to manage the challenges of leadership. I think that Miriam told him the truth. She was even willing to suffer God’s wrath when it came to speaking her mind. Soon after her death, Moshe committed the sole sin of his life-striking the rock in order to obtain water from it.
We all need a confidante. For some of us, it’s a spouse. But sometimes that’s a problem. Why? Well. Because there may be times when we might want to speak about our spouse. So, a friend, someone we can be honest with, who can tell us when we’re not being true to ourselves, that kind of friend is so precious.
I had a friend like that, a friend whom I told virtually everything to. I trusted him, and he never judged me, no matter how off the wall I might have been at the time. Jason passed away, and now, looking back, I think that, like Moshe and Miriam, I did not have the time to mourn him appropriately. It was Pesach, and I had sermons to write and services to lead. I was moving my residence. I was overwhelmed with grief, and like many men, I didn’t know how to express that grief. So, I exploded during a family Seder, damaging relationships within the mishpacha for years. I can’t help but connect that event with Moshe and Miriam.
We need to give ourselves time to grieve. We need to recognize the vacuum that the loss of a beloved friend leaves in our lives. We need to be patient with ourselves when we experience feelings of loss and disorientation and grief.
Of course, for those whose faith is strong, God can be a confidante. Praying to, speaking to God in times of difficulty can give us great comfort. But I suspect that there are times when we really need someone who talks back to us, someone who can nudge us back to where we want to be and where we should be. This is not an either/or—we can fill our lives with God AND with the friends so dear to us. Friends are mortal and we have to recognize that they will not be with us forever. But the story in our Parsha makes clear-as crazy as it may seem-that sometimes God is not enough-we need a friend.
The Parsha of Korach describes a mutiny against Moshe and his authority, an authority bestowed upon him by God. It has led our rabbis to comment that this conflict exemplifies an argument “not for the sake of heaven.” Such an argument, we are told, is one whose issues do not endure. Because they do not endure, like Korach and his followers, those arguments are swallowed up by the earth. They disappear, having never had any credibility in the first place. In contrast to such arguments, the Talmud makes it clear that the halachic debates between Hillel and Shammai were in the name of heaven and therefore enduring.
As we consider these different sorts of arguments, we can’t help but think about this distinction-between arguments that endure and those that are lost in time-might be a useful one by which to consider other questions. For example, think, back to the Lincoln/Douglas debates and the issue of slavery. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, we can now see very clearly that that argument was not for the sake of heaven. Its issues have not endured. Every civilized person acknowledges that slavery is immoral and unjust. Perhaps even incomprehensible. Like Korach, those ascribing to the opposite view have been consigned to the earth’s depths. In fact, there was probably even evidence for this perspective back in the mid-19th century or even before. The founders of this country, rather than defend slavery, worried about the impact of so radical a change on the young country’s formation. Our Constitution never even mentions ‘slavery,’ perhaps an indication pf the moral embarrassment we hope our forefathers felt about the practice. Likewise, 19th century defenders worried about the economic losses the South would suffer if slavery were to be abolished. Such indirection, again we hope, may suggest discomfort with such a vile practice.
Similarly, no one challenges the right of women or people of color to vote, However long and divisive those struggles were, we look back and wonder how anyone could have defended the opposite view. Not for the sake of heaven.
Where, then, is a Machloket L’Shaym HaShamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven? I’m sure we cal all come up with different examples-and as Conservative Jews, we are likely to have different examples than our Reform or Orthodox counterparts. But some occur to me: What characterizes the next life? Why is there evil in the world? How do we understand the nature of the soul? We may never-at least until the Mashiach comes-have the true answers to these questions, but the debates themselves will never be swallowed up by the earth because reasonable people can entertain differing points of view on these subjects. These are indeed Godly discussions and perhaps, regardless of our views on these issues, we can all learn something from them and even from those with whom we disagree.
When Moshe charges the spies to check if there are trees in the Promised Land, Rashi interprets the tree as a reference to righteous individuals who could protect the inhabitants against invasion. Different trees represent different qualities in a human being. The fruit of the tree also would indicate various positive qualities. A leader who is compared to a vine possesses a combination of wisdom and taste. The person is unique in his stature. These were qualities both Yehudah and Yosef had in some fashion. An Eshkol is a cluster of grapes and here you have fruit that is combined together to indicate greater strength and perfection of quality. This individual being compared to an Eshkol is an individual who possesses many good qualities. Our Sages refer to Anshei Ha’Eshkalot : the early Sages whose wisdom was all-encompassing. The further statement by our Sages is that the word Eshkol is an acronym for Ish Shehakol Bo, a man in whom everything exists. This is a person who has good deeds and merit and would stand by his people and by his descendants for many years to come. This comment by our Sages gives us a tremendous insight into the qualities of a true friend and comrade of Avraham’s, a man by the name of Eshkol, mentioned in the Torah narrative. Is it possible that the Eshkol mentioned here is a reference to that Eshkol of Avraham’s time? Is it possible that Eshkol’s merits were still alive in the country so that he was the one who could offer protection and defense against an invasion? We can look at all of these entries in the narrative and put together that Eshkol’s relationship with Avraham would indicate transference of the merits to Avraham’s descendants and not to Eshkol’s.
The text tells us that the spies ascended into the Negev desert area and then he came to Chevron (13:22). The obvious question is why the verb changed from plural to singular in the text. All the spies came to the Promised Land but only one of them went to Chevron, and that one, according to the Gemara (Sotah 34b) was Calev. In that Talmudic reference Rava teaches us that Calev departed from the body of spies and went to pray at the patriarchal graves so that he would be saved from the evil counsel of the spies. The essential teaching of Rava’s statement is that it is possible for one individual to stand up and be against the current when the majority of people are going in the wrong direction. To swim against the current is a very difficult thing to do. There is no question that Calev was seeking divine inspiration and strength from his ancestry in order to fight the current. The usage of the ancestors here is quite appropriate. Not just because we have a concept of the merits of the ancestors, but also because each of our patriarchs swam against the current. Nobody else had an idea of monotheism at that time. They went against the grain of society. That is why they were called Ivrim. They came from the other side of the river. They truly stood out and chartered their own course in life. Consequently, the statement here that the rabbis are teaching us is not only to compliment Calev but also teach us a lesson that it is necessary for the Jewish people to stand up frequently.
In an episode toward the end of this Parsha, Miriam and Aharon were rebuked by Hashem for slandering Moshe. There is much misunderstanding as to exactly what took place and how Aharon – who was a Rodef Shalom, a pursuer of peace – could be involved in a slander; and of his brother no less. Rashi explains that at Mt. Sinai, Hashem commanded Moshe to separate from his wife so that he might constantly be in a state of Tahara – purity – so that Hashem's words could come to him without advanced notice. Moses informed only his wife of this. Because of his great humility he refrained from notifying his brother and sister of this personal commandment lest he portray himself as a superior prophet to them. Moshe's wife, however, was no longer able to contain herself and confided in Miriam who, in turn, went to Aharon, the pursuer of peace, to save this marriage. She claimed that, "we too are prophets and yet Hashem did not command us to separate from our spouses; why does Moshe hold himself superior?" Although this complaint about Moshe may have been well intended for the purpose of saving a marriage and for the benefit of Moshe's wife who was a "Kushite" – beautiful and well mannered – and, therefore, unworthy of this treatment, Hashem still considered this to be slander because it was against Moshe who was "more humble than any man on the face of the earth." The worst punishment, which they both received, was: "and Hashem's anger was upon them and He departed." There is no punishment worse than the departure of Hashem's presence.
"And the man Moshe was very humble..." (12:3.) Rav Moshe Feinstein once was walking along a street in his neighborhood when he heard a voice calling, "Moshe, Moshe!" Looking up, he saw that the voice was that of an acquaintance, who was behind the wheel of his car. Without blinking an eye, Rav Moshe walked over to the car. Upon realizing that Rav Moshe had assumed that he was being called, the man turned crimson with embarrassment. He said, "I was calling my son, who happened to be in the street as I drove by. I would never dream of addressing the Rosh Yeshiva in such a disrespectful manner. Besides, if I had something to discuss with the Rosh Yeshiva I would have gotten out of my car and gone over to him. I would not have dared to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to come to me." Rav Moshe assured the man that there was nothing to be concerned about. "It is already many years that these things mean nothing to me." He was exhibiting the anavoot, the humility, for which that we so admire Moshe Rabeynu.
This week’s Parsha has a Haftorah assigned to it that tells us about the prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer. I’d like to share a story told by my colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer:
I read a wonderful some time ago, a story that is, for me, the key to understanding the strange story of Hosea and Gomer.
The story is about a young Rabbi who was traveling on the 'D' train from Brooklyn to Manhattan in New York City. As the train rattled its way towards its destination, he sat quietly, reading a book, as do most of the other travelers. Two young men, six feet tall, in gang jackets, entered the train with a big boom box blasting away.
Near the Rabbi sat a little old lady who probably tipped the scale at eighty pounds and who might have been five feet tall, if she stretched. The little old lady didn't like the noise coming out of the boom box, so she yelled out, "Who's going to make them turn it down?" Everyone hunkered down in their seats, taking a deeper interest in what they were reading and pretending that they didn't hear her . . . including the Rabbi.
One of the young toughs said to the woman, "Lady, if you don't like this music, you can try to turn it off." She shuffled across the subway car with her hand in front of her, ready to take his dare. The ruffian put down the boom box and hauled back to deck her. Up jumped the Rabbi and blocked the tough guy's punch.
The guy was puzzled and he looked down at the Rabbi, who was about a foot shorter than he was and probably weighed only half as much, and said to him, "What's your problem, boy?" The Rabbi replied with a timid smile, "I have no problem, but just don't hit the lady, please." He returned to his seat and went back to his reading. The lady shuffled back across the car.
The young tough flipped the power switch on the boom box again and inundated the entire subway train in full-force, deep-based, woofer and tweeter enhanced, penetrating unmitigated, raucous, deafening noise.
The old lady cried out, "Who's going to make them turn it off?" Everyone on the train reread their previous sentence with increased concentration. The young tough grinned and invited her over. The little old lady shuffled over and once again, reached to turn off the power switch on the boom box. The young tough hauled back to hit her, the Rabbi jumped up to block. The young tough looked confused, and said, "Now you're getting on my nerves, boy."
The Rabbi smiled and said, "Sorry . . . just don't hit the lady," and returned to his seat. The little old lady shuffled towards the Rabbi's seat and stood with her back to him. And the two young toughs thankfully got off at the next station.
As the Rabbi settled back into his book, he glanced up at the back of the little old lady and thought, "Gee, I just risked my life, not once, but twice, to protect her . . . and she didn't even thank me." And then, after two minutes of self-righteous indulgence, the Rabbi stopped in his tracks with an incredible realization. "God just performed not one miracle, but two, to save my life, and did I stop to thank Him?"
That story is the key to understanding this week's Haftorah. The prophet, Hosea, had a wife named Gomer, who betrayed him, who took his gifts and gave them to her lovers. At first, he was filled with a towering rage. And then he realized that what she had done to him, we all do to God! God has given us so many gifts - health, wealth, harvests - and what do we do with them? Instead of thanking Him, we spend His gifts on vanities and give them to false gods - to pride, to vanity, to war. If we don't appreciate the gifts that God has given us and the favors God does for us, how can we be angry at those who don't appreciate the favors we do for them?
Those two toughs on the subway train probably did not know much about the Bible. I bet they didn't even know that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the Haftorah for this week. But nevertheless, they and the old lady taught the Rabbi a lesson that he tried to remember when he came to 'shul' on Shabbat Bamidbar and that he tries to remember all the time.
Shouldn't we try to remember this lesson too?