There is a silly word game that kids sometimes play. One child creates a sentence and then, going down in a line, the next child adds their own sentence. In short order a story is created and there was no way to tell if it would be funny, dramatic, or even meaningful. As we move through the Torah, even though we know where the story is going we read it with different eyes each year. The Torah’s words stay the same but its meaning changes and from parasha to parasha and from book to book we don’t know what the text will teach us. Each week is a new Torah even though the words stay the same.
This week begins the book of ‘Shemot’ – the book of ‘Names’ commonly known as the Book of Exodus. Why begin the story of the Exodus, Moses and the first travels of the Jewish people with a list of names? Is the Torah trying to teach us anything? I believe it is.
You see each of these names is one of our ancestors. In a very real way, we are reading the story of our parents. We are looking at a literary photo album and it is good to reflect on where we came from and where we are going.
I just came back from seeing my father in Toronto. Along with my sister and daughter and brother-in-law, we found ourselves around the dining room table and somehow an old box filled with photographs appeared. (Apparently there are about 7 or 8 of these huge boxes filled with pictures but only one appeared.) Little did we know how meaningful and funny it would turn out. There were pictures of grandparents and great-grandparents, old friends, relatives and places. (My sister found her old religious school report cards which caused no end to the hilarity based on the teachers’ comments such as, “Margot would speak much better Hebrew if she took the bubble gum out of her mouth!”)
But as the hilarity died down I got a bit reflective. I wondered how these people, many of them gone now, would say if they suddenly reappeared and saw the people they touched, raised, and affected with their own lives. What would they say? Their lives were but one word, one name in a long, long chain of life and those living now are but the latest link in the Jewish chain. It was a chain that, in a way, began in Egypt with Jacob’s descendants and leads to us.
I wonder what they would think. They forged a covenant with God at Sinai and gave it as a gift to us. Would they see us as worthy inheritors of the covenant and struggling with God to derive its meaning? I would like to think so.
We are one part of the covenant. We also carry the Names of Those who descended into Egypt. Their gift is our inheritance. Their Torah has become our Torah. Are we struggling still to draw wisdom from its wells? Or are we not interested in the struggle because life is too easy for us and we expect wisdom to simply appear?
The beginning of the Book of Names – Exodus is the beginning of the struggle. It is a struggle that can never end for the covenant with God can never be fully and finally defined. The struggle is eternal and that is the destiny of the Jew. It is a holy struggle and, through it, we create our own Name to add to the venerable generations before us. In this way, we will hand down our Torah to those who come after and, when they see our pictures in the box in generations to come, they will say, “A Torah was given to us by Moses but passed through their hands and minds in was made even more holy.”
Every novel has a climax.
In what can only be called the first Jewish novel, the story of Jacob and Joseph comes to its climax in this week’s portion. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, freed by Pharoah, elevated to a position of power because of his ability to interpret dreams and now a man who can save his family who stands before them as they escape from a famine, is about to explode with emotion.
His brothers appear before him and Joseph is no longer able to hold his emotions any more. The text tells us,
וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֙ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃
2 וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ בִּבְכִ֑י וַיִּשְׁמְע֣וּ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃
3 וַיֹּ֙אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָכְל֤וּ אֶחָיו֙ לַעֲנ֣וֹת אֹת֔וֹ כִּ֥י נִבְהֲל֖וּ מִפָּנָֽיו׃
4 וַיֹּ֙אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃
5 וְעַתָּ֣ה׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם׃
Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
2 His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.
5 Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
There are two amazing things going on here. First, after he makes himself known to his brothers who are stupefied, he asks, “Is my father alive and well?” He does not say ‘our father’ but rather ‘my father.’ There is a deep and personal connection here that has remained after all these years. Every child, God willing, has their own father or mother – one with whom the connection is unique. There are memories that only a parent a child share and special moments of connection that are holy and sacred. Joseph is telling his brothers that his connection with his father is something that he remembers and cherishes. And, in doing so, he is telling his brothers that he remembers what they did do him.
And this is the second part of Joseph’s disclosure: he tells them that it was not they who sold him into Egypt – not really. It was all part of a Divine plan. God was one directing the brothers because there was only one way to save the family, and that was to send Joseph into Egypt.
Notwithstanding the difficult idea that God is directing the world and that suffering has a purpose, this pericope is still instructive and worthwhile because it shows a maturity on Joseph’s part. Joseph felt the Presence of God in the latter years of his service to Pharaoh. He understood that he played a part in a drama bigger than himself although there was no way that could have known that twenty years earlier.
I see a lot of spiritual development in the story of Joseph. Here was a man who could have taken revenge. He did not. He could have replayed his betrayal with his brothers. He did not. He did teshuvah – repentance. Yes, repentance. But what had he to repent for?
Joseph was a spoiled kid. He was not a pleasant guy to be around. He told tales. He played father against son. He was in great need of an attitude adjustment.
The circumstances of his life gave him that adjustment. He thrives and in asking how his father is and how his brothers are and bringing them to Egypt to save them, he is inviting them to thrive with them. And, in doing so, he is inviting his brothers to rebuild a shattered family and for each to have a different relationship with their father Jacob built upon truth and not a lie. Joseph gave them that opportunity. They embraced it and, in doing so, a family was made whole.
Our journeys have taken us far afield from our families from time to time. Children have become estranged from parents and vice versa. Siblings have become estranged from each other. And too often neither can remember why. True, Yom Kippur comes to help us focus on rebuilding what we have lost with each other and with God. But Joseph and his brothers, teach us that Yom Kippur can happen on any day. Who can really know when God will give us that great day. Who says God doesn’t give it to us every day? I believe that is what God does – every single day.
Hanukkah at the Atria
For over 25 years Temple Beth Miriam has been bringing Hanukkah to a senior residential facility in the area, primarily the Atria in Tinton Falls. This year was no different. On Sunday, December 6th Milt Ziment together with the 3rd and 4th grade students from the religious school, their teachers, their madrahim, and parents all descended upon the Atria to spread lots of joy and happiness for the holiday. The event was amazing. After lighting the candles and saying the prayers, the children lead us in a song session. Thanks to Anna Vernick for accompanying them on her guitar. Latkes were served and everyone enjoyed the mid-morning snack. Then some of the kids engaged the residents in games of dreidel, and they did a great job. Others played tic-tac-toe with the residents, made pictures for them, or just talked to them. Everyone had a great time. Residents raved for days about the party, and you could tell that it was a success because no one left early to get their lunches. There were over 20 residents in attendance and at least 30 people from Temple Beth Miriam. Thanks to everyone for sharing their holiday with the residents of the Atria. And thanks to Gayle Topper for coordinating the event.
When the Greek Seleucids prohibited the practice of Judaism in the Land of Israel it was one of the many turning points for the Jewish people. It was also the first time that such a proclamation gave rise to a rebellion, what we call the Maccabean Revolt led by Judah Maccabee, his brothers and the Hasmoneans. One would think that the suppression of religion would be intolerable and that the lessons of Hannukah would be learned.
Apparently, in American politics and in politics around the world, that is not the case. In France, the French authorities told the Jewish community not to light a menorah in public for fear of public safety. The Jews did not listen and lit the menorah anyway. In Sweden, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister suggested that Jews should not show a public affiliation to Judaism so that the Arab population in Sweden should not be offended. And, of course, in America we have presidential candidates promising to expel Moslems, shut down mosques, prohibit immigration and so forth. And, in every Islamic country, being a Christian is often a crime.
The Greek Seleucid spirit is alive and well and living in everyone’s backyard.
A different kind of rebellion is needed. It must be a rebellion where we citizens demand of our leaders the values we claim to uphold. We must stop sending money to oppressive regimes – including the Palestinian Authority – which encourage the killing of Jews and Christians and Moslems. We must remain steadfast in our quest for real justice where each of us can practice our faith in peace without fear from our neighbor. We must demand from the UN – that bastion of Jew-hatred – that it start seeing Jews not as the problem but as the solution. The Jews created Hannukah and, if we are to be a light unto the nations, the time is long overdue for the world to realize that the Hannukah spirit is the only thing that will bring light into a dark world.
Hannukah is a festival that commemorates an historical victory over a foe that sought to repress. In every generation, though, the lights of Hannukah were lit. They were lit when the Romans occupied the Land of Israel. They were lit in the basements of Inquisition Spain. They were lit in the small and squalid rooms in the Soviet Union. They were lit in the camps of Nazi Germany. And they were lit in the countries of murderous regimes throughout the Middle East. Those generations of Jews showed the world that despair is not a Jewish value nor is it a Jewish possibility. If we don’t light the real torches of freedom and if we aren’t on the front lines – visible, loud and contrary – who will be? We know the power of words and we know the power of good words. But we also know the power of bad words and those who seek to exclude, repress and dismiss always, always, always move toward murder and excuse it as a necessity. This is abhorrent.
The famous Hannukah song, Rock of Ages, has a line in it that says: ‘In every age a hero or Sage came to our aid.’ Today’s heroes and Sages are the ones who refuse to light the hannukiah only for Jews. They light it as a symbol for all people who want to live in peace and justice. They are Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Janes, atheists, agnostics, and everyone else who has a religious belief system or not. The festival of Hannukah is the most universal Jewish festival we have. Perhaps the time is now to for all people to start lighting those candles and illuminate the darkness.
The Torah portion this week is called ‘Vayishlach’ and contains within it the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with the ‘ish’ – the ‘man’ – which the Torah does not identify. Was it Esau, his brother from whom Jacob had been estranged for some 20 years? Was it Jacob’s conscience which bothered him since taking the birthright from Esau those many years ago? Was it God? The Torah is silent. Here is the text:
25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.
31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. (Gen. 32:25-33 TNK)
The Torah does not mention who this man was that Jacob wrestled but goes into detail about where the man touched him (his hip) and, from that, extracts a law that stands to this day about the prohibition of eating the ‘gid hanashe’ – the part of the animal with the sciatic nerve. What is that all about?
Emet Le’Yaakov, a work written by Rabbi Jacob Kamenesty teaches us that that ‘man’ was the angel of Esau and attacked him when he ‘was left alone’ with no one around to help him. Jacob was vulnerable. Seeing that he could not beat him, the angel of Esau touched his thigh and made him limp. Touching the thigh, by the way, is a euphemism for Jacob’s pudenda and so by attacking him there, the rabbi teaches, he was really attacking his descendants. The lesson is that Jacob’s descendants – all Jews – would not be able to handle any attacks without the unity of the people. By introducing a law, the Torah is teaching us that the act of eating unites all Jews and by refraining from eating the part of the animal that has the sciatic nerve, we are reminded of the importance of Jewish unity.
This is a common Jewish theme. Maintaining a certain distance from all the other nations keeps us distinct and one way of being distinct is to avoid certain foods that the other nations eat.
Today, though, the forces of assimilation have made Jews look and sound like everyone else. Many Jews keep the laws of kashrut – that is eating only kosher food – while some do not pay any attention to them seeing them as antiquated and unnecessary. There are Jews who won’t eat a steak because of the law against eating the part of the animal with the sciatic nerve but, like you, I don’t know too many people who don’t like a good steak.
So how should we take the meaning of this verse and make it real? How can we remain a distinct people even if we eat what we like, whether strictly kosher, not eating milk and meat, refraining from shrimp, eating kosher-style, or not worrying at all about what we eat in any way? How do we remember our covenant and bond with God in the everyday acts?
That is really the question and it is the bedrock question of what it means to be a Reform Jew.
Reform Judaism was created by the early Reformers as a response to modernity. It was not the usual response of creating a little shtetl and separating from the world. It was a way to integrate with the world, benefit from and contribute to the secular world, embrace education not limited to the yeshiva, and work among non-Jews. We have excelled at that and we are now as American as anyone else. In fact, we can tell how accepted and integrated we are by the simple fact that, unless one chooses to, we don’t have distinctive clothes to identify us as Jews, many marry whom they wish, and most Jewish kids go to college.
Still there are ways that we separate ourselves. A recent poll learned that Jews are studying more and more Torah and traditional texts. These texts give us direction and a unique Jewish perspective for living and having a relationship with God founded in holiness and with a Jewish soul. Many have embraced a new kind of kosher living: eco-kashrut wherein the imperatives of taking care of the earth, avoiding cruelty to animals, boycotting farm products that abuse their animals, reducing the use of fossil fuels, and so forth are the norm. For many Jews, taking care of their little corner of planet is the way to tikkun olam – fixing the world.
Each of us has the invitation to explore our tradition in our own way. We are a people with the same bedrock traditions and texts but we are individuals in how we live those texts. Being a Jew means struggling and, like Jacob, sometimes kicking up dust. That is our destiny. It is also the covenant and, like any covenant, takes some focused acts. Those holy acts are the mitzvot we embrace and the expression of holiness in our lives.
The Torah portion this week is filled with all sorts of stories. In fact, here are all the stories in this parasha:
- Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. God blesses him. Jacob names the place Bethel. (28:10-22)
- Jacob works seven years in order to marry Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. (29:16-25)
- Jacob marries Rachel but only after having to commit himself to seven more years of working for Laban. (29:26-30)
- Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, give birth to eleven sons and one daughter. (29:31-30:24)
- Jacob and his family leave Laban’s household with great wealth. (31:1-32:3)
Let’s focus on one part of the parasha. Here is the text I want to focus on:
After his famous dream, Jacob went toward Haran and the text tells us:
Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
2 There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large.
3 When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well.
4 Jacob said to them, “My friends, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.”
5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “Yes, we do.”
6 He continued, “Is he well?” They answered, “Yes, he is; and there is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”
7 He said, “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.”
8 But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.”
9 While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess.
10 And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban.
11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears.
Why would Jacob kiss Rachel and then break into tears?
Not surprisingly, the Midrash has an answer. It teach us that Esau’s son, Eliphaz was given the task to chase Jacob and kill him. Esau – and, by extension, Eliphaz – were Jacob’s brother and nephew and Esau was Jacob’s full-time rival from whom he stole the birthright. There was a lot of enmity between them. And so knowing that Jacob was out in the open, Esau sent his son to kill Jacob.
But Eliphaz knew that such a command was immoral and so was conflicted. Should he obey his father or a greater moral? The Midrash tells us that Eliphaz knew the Talmudic dictum that, ‘A pauper is like a dead person.’ And so, to consider Jacob ‘dead’ – he took all of his wealth that he brought to Haran and, by impoverishing him, made him ‘dead.’ Jacob cried because the wealth that he had brought for the bride-price would force him to work – ultimately for 21 years – before he could leave Haran with his two wives after working to pay off the ‘bride price.’
There is a lesson here and it revolves around Eliphaz. Eliphaz was a mixture of light and darkness. The lightness was the honor he gave to his father. The darkness was the command to ambush his uncle. That he found a way to symbolically honor his father’s wishes testifies to his cleverness. But the darkness and the light still remain.
Our Sages knew this problem well. When someone is led astray by the text, they are often bound to do terrible and horrific things. In the Talmud (b. Shabbat 88b) the Torah is compared to a medicine in the right hands. It supports. It heals. It offers comfort. But if used improperly, it poisons and kills. The text become the poison.
This past week’s events in Paris show us exactly that. The Moslem world has its fill of Moslems who take the Koran literally. They say that if you don’t follow the Koran exactly, you are not a Moslem and taking the Koran literally means killing everyone who is not a Moslem as they interpret it. Their words, not mine. That is why they have no problem burning, beheading and exterminating. It is the most vile expression of religious chauvinism on the face of the Earth today.
Jews went through the same period, I am sure. Jews who take the Torah literally, and only the Torah, are wont to do exactly the same thing. But Jewish scholarship evolved in a completely different way. We created a system of ethics and morality through interpretation that, in great measure, was a conscious effort to move away from the harshness of literal Torah interpretation. Over time, the literal Torah was seen as the foundation stone of Judaism but not the be-all and end-all. That is illustrated in this wonderful story from the Talmud in discussing the differences between Hillel and Shammai:
“On another occasion it happened that a certain non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “I will convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai chased him away with the builder’s tool that was in his hand. He came before Hillel and said to him, “Convert me.” Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
Shammai was absolutely correct – absolutely. No one can learn the Torah while standing on one foot. That is why he chased him away with a ruler. But Hillel had a different perspective. The Torah is first and foremost about love and respect, honor and seeing God in the face of another. It is the House of Hillel – Hillel’s students and its followers – who always prevail in the Talmudic arguments (with a couple of exceptions). That is the way Judaism has flowed. That is why Jews have never been suicide bombers or beheaded their enemies in every era after the events of 2 Kings in the Bible, the most violent period of Jewish history.
The Moslem world has its share of Hillels to be sure and they need to be heard and supported. But it also has too many Shammais. These are the voices that are heard in every massacre, in every beheading and in every violent act uttered in the name of Islam. And it is Islam in the same way that Shammai also taught Judaism. The problem in the Moslem world is that far too many of them – in the MidEast and in the West – are still stuck in the 7th Century. The Islamic intellectual Renaissance has not yet begun in earnest. And, until that happens, it is the Shammais of the Islamic world which will determine how the rest of the world sees Islam. That is the great tragedy of the world of Islam and non-Muslims and well as Hillel-Muslims are paying the price by letting the Shammai-Muslims set the agenda.
The School of Hillel won the Jewish intellectual struggle because Jews saw all people in the image of God. Shammai Muslims see all people as infidels and those Moslems are the sword of God. Big difference. And until the Hillel Muslims start to teach love and respect and its intellectual leadership stops its 7th Century literal interpretations and fighting wars from the 8th and 11th Century, these events will go on. The West grew mature because of the contribution of Hillel Jews. The Islamic world has yet to embrace it.
This week’s parasha is interesting in that the text tell us the following:
וַיָּ֙שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃
19 וַיַּחְפְּר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בַּנָּ֑חַל וַיִּ֙מְצְאוּ־שָׁ֔ם בְּאֵ֖ר מַ֥יִם חַיִּֽים׃
20 וַיָּרִ֜יבוּ רֹעֵ֣י גְרָ֗ר עִם־רֹעֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק לֵאמֹ֖ר לָ֣נוּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּקְרָ֤א שֵֽׁם־הַבְּאֵר֙ עֵ֔שֶׂק כִּ֥י הִֽתְעַשְּׂק֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ׃
21 וַֽיַּחְפְּרוּ֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ גַּם־עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמָ֖הּ שִׂטְנָֽה׃
18 Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.
19 But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,
20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.
21 And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.
This has got to be more than just a description of Isaac playing in the sand. Indeed it is!
Nachmanidies – usually pretty negative in most things he says – does not disappoint. He tell us that this story tells us nothing about Isaac’s greatness or his accomplishments. But, he goes on, there is a hidden matter in this story. The unplugging of the wells was to teach us about future events. How so?
The story tells us about 3 wells. The Sages tell us that these refer to the 3 Temples in Jerusalem. The first well – the first Temple (built by Solomon)- was called ‘Sitnah’ which means ‘contention.’ Why should a Temple – the place of peace – be called ‘contention’? Because, Nachmanides says, the nations of the world contented and fought us until the First Temple was destroyed. The second well refers to the Second Temple (built by Ezra and Nehamiah and renovated by Heron) and was called ‘Sitnah’ – enmity or hatred. Why was this temple known as ‘enmity’? Nachmanides tells us that it was because of the hatred the Roman had for the Jews and when they destroyed the Temple, the exile in 70 CE devastated the Jewish people. But the third well he called ‘Rechovot’ – broad spaces. You see where this is going. Isaac opened up the third well and foretold the Third Temple which will open and expansive and its message will embrace every nation on the face of the earth.
As Reform Jews, the physical Temple itself has lost its meaning. We don’t do sacrifices anymore and there is no authority in the priesthood. Even Maimonides agrees with this. So why should we even study this stuff? Because its message – if not its literal meaning – can mean something to us.
When we ‘unplug’ the wells in our Jewish lives that have been ‘plugged’ up by others, we discover new and beautiful waters. We see God and Torah and the Jewish people in ways we have never seen or supposed. How many of us have heard stories about ‘such and such a rabbi or such and such a teacher who turned me off of Judaism and that’s why I only call myself a Jew by birth’ or something like that? This passage teaches us that sometimes we have to actively take out the plug that’s holding you back from a fulfilling and meaningful relationship with God by first recognizing that we have matured in all things except our faith and Judaism. We are still hanging on to, what, our grade 5 notions of what Judaism is because we had a lousy teacher?
There is beauty in the wells that our teachers have given us if we would only take the time to rediscover them and open them up. There are infinite ways of being Jewish and to dismiss them all because of something that happened decades ago with a lousy teacher is a loss for you, for the Jewish people and for God. Indeed, when you keep your Jewish selves plugged up with all the stuff and misinformation you collected from years ago and never bothered to remove, God misses out on your participation in the covenant. That is truly sad.
The Torah portion for this week is Chayei Sarah which, although it translates into the “Life of Sarah” really records her death and burial at the Cave of Machpela. In this portion, Abraham buys the cave from Ephron the Hittite. The negotiations are concluded for 400 shekels of silver (a huge price, by the way) and Abraham buries and mourns his wife.
Commentators have asked why the Torah text does not simply say that Abraham bought the cave. Why all the detail? They answer by saying that the text records the negotiations so that no one could ever dispute the legality and legitimacy of the purchase. In other words, should anyone suggest that the purchase was forced or illegal, then this text definitively disproves that notion. This text is the deed of sale.
It is hard to believe that this very text is at the center of the claim of the Palestinian Authority which teaches its people the great lie that Jews have no connection to the Land of Israel. The text seems to know that, in the future, there will be those who claim no Jewish presence on the Land, let alone, Jewish rights.
Jews have always been in the Land of Israel, long before Christians and long, long before Moslems. Even in the darkest days of the Exiles from the Land, the Jews were still present. In fact, there has never been a moment when all the Jews were expelled from the Land. Although the Palestinian propaganda would love for everyone to believe that Jews don’t belong in Israel the very text that they say is one of their holy texts (they recognize the Torah as an authentic religious text) should disabuse them of that notion. That is, unless you want to change history.
But the truth is not changed, no matter what propaganda is uttered. The Palestinian Authority teaches not only that Jews have never been in the Land, it teaches that the Temple Mount never existed, that Jews are not really descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that the mosques on the Temple Mount existed from the moment of creation. Unbelievably, they create midrash and then take it literally.
To be fair, Jewish midrash has taught that Jerusalem in the center of the world. It also teaches that the mountain upon which the Temple was built – Mt. Moriah – was chosen from the beginning of time to be the place upon which Abraham would take Isaac for the Akeida. The differenceis that Jews generally don’t take midrash as anything but allegory and metaphor. It never determines Jewish law and no halacha (Jewish practice) can be derived from it.
When the Jews were in Europe, the Europeans screamed, “Go to Palestine.” When the Jews settled the Land of Israel, the Arabs scream, “Go back to Europe.” But the reality is that the Jews are in Israel to stay. Abraham started the settling of Land by buying a cave. No amount of disinformation or propaganda can change that. Whether the Palestinian Authority will ever accept that fact remains to be seen. But with the current generation of ‘leaders’ in the PA, I am not very confident that they can ever get out of their own way as they are now bound to their people by their own lies.
(A very neat painting of Abram and the Three Angels by Josse Lieferinxe between 1493–1503/08)
In the Torah portion for this week, we see one of the most interesting encounters in Abram’s life. The text tell us,
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
2 וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
3 וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֙א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃
4 יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃
“The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground,
3 he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.
4 Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.
We don’t know who these guests are but our tradition tells us that these were God’s angels. The midrash tells us that this event was the setting of the stage for some future events of the Jewish people. They taught that as Abraham offered water, so God offered water in the Wilderness. As Abraham offered bread to his guests, so God gave bread to the Jewish people in the Desert in the form of manna. And, as Abraham offered his guests a tree to cool themselves, so did God provide shade in the Wilderness. So far, so good.
Except that there is another tradition in the Talmud that says that the three things, water, bread and shade, were not provided because of Abraham’s angels but rather because of the merit of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Talmud teaches, “And because of them, three excellent gifts were bestowed upon Israel…” But this is a problem.
Which is right? Did the Jewish people merit the gifts of water, bread and shelter because of Abraham or because of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam? How can this be?
A turn of the 20th-Century rabbi taught a very insightful idea that harmonizes the conflicting traditions and teaches a lesson. He offers the following analogy: “A huge tree may grow from a small seed, but only if the seed is implanted in the earth, and then provided with water and sunlight. It is the combination of all these elements that allows a tree to sprout. The ‘seeds’ from which the manna, the pillar of cloud and the well which sprouted were indeed Abraham’s act of kindness. However, it was the ‘nutrients’ provided by the merits of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that ultimately caused those seeds to blossom as they did into wondrous resources for the Jewish people.”
This teaching harmonizes the conflicting traditions but it also teaches us a powerful lesson and it is this: how true it is that every small act, every seemingly insignificant act like offering a glass a water, a piece of bread or a place of shade may give birth to a seed that has within it the potential and possibility to grow, to germinate and to flower inside a tsaddik, a righteous person who can change the world.
This is a Jewish challenge. We do not perform acts of goodness and righteousness to get into heaven or to avoid hell. More often than not our acts of goodness seem to simply vanish into the void never to be seen again and without any reflection back to us that our righteousness made any difference. But this is a wrong way of looking at it.
The tradition is that what we do does make a difference even if we can’t see it. Any teacher knows it. Students from decades before come and tell you how you made difference with the right question, the right piece of advice or the right moment of listening. A camp counselor can tell you the same stories. But so can anyone who can turn any moment into a moment of profound change. We may not see but doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. It has. And in that planting of the seed is where our faith lies.
Lech-Lecha is one of those Torah portions that is so filled with goodies, it boggles the mind – but in a good way. Having said that, I want to share with you a small offering and commentary.
The text says,
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
So what’s the problem?
If you were tasked to go on a journey you would probably want to know where you are going. Abram had no such plans. He hears the voice of God and leaves. Why?
The Midrash tells us that God did not tell us where he was going to so that each step would be more ‘beloved in Abram’s eyes.’ In other words, the more he had to work for it, the better the greater the degree of love for the Land when he finally did reach it.
There is great truth in this.
We certainly live in the world of instant gratification. Not only can we buy things instantly – even if we don’t have the money (!) – we can pass things off as our own work without having to research, study and learn. Students hand in papers cut and pasted from Google and PhD candidates take other people’s obscure theses and pass them off as their own. They may get the glory but they really don’t get the wisdom that comes with the struggle.
And there is another aspect to God not letting Abram know where he was leading him.
If you know where you are going, you know that each step is getting you toward a goal. You are taking the step in order to achieve the goal and you know that, at the end of it, the goal will be have been reached. But there is a great deal of personal satisfaction in taking each step and though personal satisfaction is not necessarily a bad thing, doing the task for the sake of personal satisfaction alone is considered by some not to be “a mitzvah for its own sake.” It is as if having any sense of personal satisfaction is somehow a bad thing. I disagree with this. But I do agree with the notion that when we are doing solely to satisfy ourselves we are missing something.
I believe that we miss something when we don’t struggle. It is obvious that we miss the joy of discovering something new on our own. But we also miss the very act of revelation – that sense that arises within us when we have discovered something on our own or understood something through and through and not merely cut and pasted knowledge and called it our own wisdom. Beneath every person of integrity is a person who has struggled.
Abram struggled and in his struggling he came to understand a God who guided to places sometimes without telling us where we are going. Living as a Jew is often like that: there are no promises of heaven and no threats of hell which depend on what we believe. The only thing we know is that God is with us wherever we are and is with us in our struggles. God inspires us to greatness because, as Jews, we believe that we can imitate God and reach heights that only humans can reach. We can be just a small degree lower that the angels. But we can only get there by struggling.