Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Walk Article

JUDAH & JUDAISM

Vayigash-5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The Sages designed the framework of our weekly torah readings very carefully.  They mated material to teach us ideas about the relationship of those pieces.  However, perhaps, the most important and dramatic aspect of this editing job is the choice of what verse with which to begin each parsha.  Just like a leadoff man sets the tone for a baseball lineup, so, too, the first verse or two of a Torah reading powerfully highlights a rabbinic point of emphasis.  This week is amongst the clearest of these message-bearing opening statements.  When our scene opens in this way:  Then Judah confronted Yosef (Genesis 44:18), we are introduced to the new order of the world.  This dramatic opening to the reading reports on the emergence of Judah as the principal brother, and foreshadows the dominance of his tribe and his descendant, David, for the remainder of Jewish history.  All of this gets confirmed next week in the blessings conveyed by Ya'akov to the brothers on his deathbed.  But how did this happen while our attention was elsewhere?  How did Judah eclipse the others, even while Yosef was becoming the most influential man in the world?    

            Although, I believe that there are many factors in this complex ascendance of Judah to the ultimate leadership position, there are two critical elements which emerge in this short scene which opens our parsha.  The first ingredient is Teshuva or repentance.  Judah has already displayed this trait in the incident with Tamar (chapter 38).  In that story Tamar is being accused of adultery, but Judah publicly acknowledges his culpability in this episode, which saves Tamar and impresses us with his sincere repentance.  In our scenario, Judah tells Yosef, who is in the guise of viceroy of Egypt, that he must take the punishment for stealing the cup, because the alternative, punishing Binyamin, is beyond disastrous.  Why would it be so terrible for Binyamin to be jailed?  Judah explains:  It will come to pass, when our father sees that the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoary head of your servant, our father, in grief to the grave (44:31).  This sincere declaration is an impressive act of Teshuva for this son who twenty years earlier was the catalyst for his father's intense anguish by sending Yosef to Egypt. 

            It is this act of contrition which begins the reconciliation of this sprawling family.  When Yosef hears this genuine concern for their father, he is unable to continue the charade.  The Torah testifies:  Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, "Take everyone away from me!" So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  And he wept out loud… And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" (45:1-3). Yehuda twenty years earlier wasn't concerned for their father's feelings when he participated in the abduction of Yosef and the succeeding cover up.  Now, however, he's willing to sacrifice all to make sure Binyamin returns safely to his father.  This brings me to the other character trait which thrusts Judah into the prime position in the family.

Judah is virtually selfless. His concern for brother and father supersedes concern for himself and his own safety.   He is completely sincere when he says:  So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers (44:33).  His willingness to suffer in place of his bother is not only inspiring, but it engenders the kind of faith and loyalty which makes Judah the obvious leader of the clan, the go to man on the team.  Last week, Judah supplanted Reuvain, the oldest, in leadership role by convincing Ya'akov that Binyamin must go down to Egypt with him in charge.  This week, he displaces Yosef.  When it's time to go down to Egypt, the advance man entrusted by Ya'akov to ensure that proper conditions exist for the family in Goshen, Egypt is Judah (46:28).  This supreme trust in Judah is confirmed in the blessings next week, when eternal leadership is bequeathed to Judah and his heirs. 

Therefore, I believe, that we can state categorically that the two fundamental characteristics of a great leader are:  the ability to admit mistakes and the courage to accept total responsibility for whatever happens on his watch.    

            So, what are the ramifications of Judah's emergence from the rest of the pack?  Obviously, he earns the right to generate the royal dynasty and, eventually, Mashiach.  His DNA will reign supreme.  This fits the regular mold for the result of admirable leadership skills.  You become the leader, and, in the ancient world, so do your kids.  However, it's clear to me that in the case of Judah and our nation something much more momentous is taking place.  We all aspire to become Judah.  Something really cool happens in Megilat Eshter.  Mordechai, who is clearly not a descendant of Judah, because he's from the tribe of Binyamin, is identified as a Yehudi or Jew (Esther 2:5).  When we call ourselves Hebrews we are acknowledging our descent from Avraham who is called the Ivri, but when we are called Jews, we are acknowledging our connection to Judah, the root of that term.  We maintain that we are the progeny of Avraham, but we make no such claim concerning Judah.  Then why do we identify ourselves by his name?  Because the outstanding traits which define Judah's leadership are to be emulated by us all, not just the governing cadre.

            We expect every member of our nation to aspire to the high ethics demanded of those in charge.  Everyone must admit wrongdoing and take responsibility for others.  Only then can we make our nation great, and only then can we assume the leadership role within all of humankind predicted at Mount Sinai, and you will be holy nation and kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).  So, whenever we proudly proclaim that we are Jews, remember that we are declaring our commitment to responsibility and accountability for all our actions.               

                

 



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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Walk Article

WONDER

Chanukah-5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            'Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,' that's how the phenomenon of supernatural events (namely marriages) is described in Fiddler on the Roof.  Well, our Sages were almost as ebullient (and redundant) in their composition of the Al Hasim (Concerning the Miracles) prayer, which we recite on Chanukah and Purim.  It goes like this:  And we thank You for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders.  It's a bit over the top, considering that God isn't even mentioned in Megilat Esther, and extra burning time for the little candles is hardly on a par with such Biblical miracles as the splitting of the Sea or making the sun stand still.  At first blush it seems that those old time Rabbis were trying to convince us that something special happened.  What was their agenda, anyway?  Let's see if we can't find out the method to their hyperbole.

            First, I'd like to mention another rabbinic gambit concerning Chanukah.  They wanted to convince us that Chanukah has its origins in the Torah, even though the Torah was completed over a thousand years earlier.  The cutest attempt is akin to the Bible Codes, which I loathe.  If you count so many words from the beginning of Genesis you'll get words describing the miracle of oil.  I can't get into that.  The Midrash tells us that the connection of the gifts of the tribal chiefs during the dedication of the Mishkan or portable Temple of the desert years (Numbers chapter 7) was purposefully juxtaposed with the lighting of the golden menorah in the Temple ((Ibid. 8:1-4), because someday there would be another re-dedication of the Temple that was entwined with lighting the menorah.  However, my favorite spurious attempt to find the basis for celebrating Chanukah in the Torah comes from the book of Leviticus.  Chapter 23 ends with the pronouncement: And Moses told the children of Israel these laws of the Lord's appointed holy days (verse 44).  The next chapter begins:  Command the children of Israel, and they shall take for you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually (24:2).  So, clearly the Torah is informing us that there will someday be a holiday proclaimed by the Jewish nation concerned with lighting the olive oil of the menorah.  All noble endeavors, but I believe totally unnecessary, because the Torah provides us with the framework for celebrating miracles.

            The Ma'or V'Shemesh (compiled posthumously from the writings of Reb Kalman Kalonymous Epstein, 1753-1825) records a fascinating idea of Reb Elimelech of Lizhinsk (1717-1786) that I believe helps put our awe of miracles in proper perspective.  Rabbi Epstein was commenting on this week's parsha about Yosef coming to the rescue of Pharaoh with his clear interpretations of the ruler's baffling dreams.  Reb Elimelech noticed that when Moshe started doing all his miracles in Egypt, Pharaoh called upon his magicians to duplicate the feats (Exodus 7:11).  There was no surprise, no wonder.  This was the ho-hum performance of trained professionals. The wizards themselves didn't marvel at what had happened, just another day at work.  Now, I believe that this was because it was merely a good magic trick (even though there are those who believe that these conjurers had occult powers).  They knew what would happen, because they had practiced it many times before.  There's this interesting show on TV called Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.  Why would anyone want to make such a show?  The whole point of a magic show is the mystery.

            According to Reb Elimelech, it wasn't that way with Yosef.  When Yosef informs Pharaoh about the meaning of his dreams (Genesis 41:25-32), he mentions that the dreams and their explanation all come from God.  He was so emphatic that he mentions God four times in that short speech.  I had always felt that mentioning God was modesty on the part of Yosef, but Reb Elimelech teaches a more profound concept.  Yosef the Zadik keeps crediting God because he himself is blown away by the fact that God revealed this great secret to him.  A real zadik doesn't expect God to answer his prayers, and is excited and thrilled that God has come to help.  Remember the magician is pulling off this trick to burnish his own reputation; the Zadik is concerned for the greater glory of God. We can never get blasé about the Cosmic Director's attention to our puny needs in this vast universe under God's purview.  And that's a great Torah principle:  Be enthusiastic and energized by God's rushing to our aid.  That's the Mitzvah of Chanukah, praise God for the miracles performed for the Jewish nation.  Be excited, overwhelmed and flabbergasted.

            This idea exists in the Torah.  Avraham did it after his war with the kings; Ya'akov did it after his successful encounter with his brother; Yosef does it this week; and the entire Jewish nation did it at the shores of the Reed Sea.  Perhaps, the most famous example of this behavior is Yitro, Moshe's father in law.  The verse states:  Thereupon, Yitro rejoiced and said, "Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians (Exodus 18:10).  This is the root of the mitzvah of reciting Hallel.  Since we don't feel eloquent enough to do it on our own, we quote from the greatest of poets, King David and his Psalms. 

            So, we don't have to look for esoteric, hidden allusions to Chanukah in our Torah.  It's there conceptually, out in the open for all to see and emulate.  Perhaps the greatest lesson of Chanukah is to never get so jaded as to lose the childlike awe displayed by our ancestors when God came to our rescue.   And that explains the over the top wording of our Al HaNisim prayer.  We can't stop being in amazement at the greatness of God, and appreciative when these miracles are for our benefit.  Have a Chanukah and a life that's full of wonder!          

                     



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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Walk Article

SUCCESS

Vayeshev-5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Starting two weeks ago dreams become a major feature in the advancement of the narrative line in the book of Genesis, and Ya'akov is the dreamer.  This week there's a new wrinkle on the dream front, as Yosef becomes the dream meister.  We begin dealing with twin dreams.  Yosef has two pretty obvious dreams, then the baker and butler have dual dreams, and, finally next week, Pharaoh has doubled dreams of cows and corn.  Yosef claims that the repetition implies that the events predicted are definite and immanent (Genesis 41:32).  Who am I to disagree with Yosef, the world's greatest authorities on dreams until Freud, but I'd like to take a different tack.  I think that the doubling teaches us two ideas each time around.  Let's take a look at Yosef's dreams, which I believe carry an eternal lesson.

            Here is the first dream scenario:  And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him. And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf (Genesis 37:6 & 7."  The next dream has a similar scenario, but instead of bundles of grain the participants are the stars, moon and sun.  The simplest approach to understanding the dual nature of these dreams is that Yosef is going to rule over the family in both natural, mundane matters and in spiritual, supernal issues.  This not only makes sense on its own, but fits in well with contexts.  Next week Pharaoh has two dreams but they're both about agricultural wealth, because his power is only in this earthly realm.  A couple of weeks ago Ya'akov steals blessings from Esav.  These blessings are about worldly power and prosperity.  Then, before fleeing to Aram, he is granted the spiritual blessings of holy leadership.  So, too, Yosef is portrayed as both a temporal and sacred leader. 

            However, much rabbinic energy has been expended on trying to de-emphasize the secular nature of Yosef's greatness.  Rabbeinu Bachye (d. 1340) explains that the grain gathering dream isn't about Yosef as a secular leader at all, rather it predicts the method by which Yosef will attain his leadership position, as the agriculture Czar of Egypt.  Yosef becomes the dominant brother in spiritual matters, but this authority comes through providing the grain which saves the family (as well as the known world).  This fits in with a famous mystical position that Zadikim are the conduit for worldly blessings to reach this earth.  The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Aryeh Yehudah Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) explains that the significance of the dream can be understood from the reference to the field.  Esav is referred to as the man of the field (25:27), and he likes t he fields because they represent the uncontrolled, chaotic nature of the world.  Along comes Yosef and he is gathering the grain and tying it into bundles.  In other words, the varied approach of the natural world is being gathered and unified by Yosef, the Zadik or spiritual guide, and redirected towards God.  This mystical interpretation is cool, but gets away from the literal meaning of the story. 

            Let's get back to the clear point of the story.  Yosef is demonstrating that pious individuals can contribute in the secular realm.  When I read about observant Jews winning the Nobel Prize (Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Dr. Robert Aumann, or Dr. Rosalyn Yallow), I find this not only inspiring, but a continuation of the tradition of Yosef.  Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU, spoke in Stamford a few weeks ago and he made a critically important point.  Too often observant Jews are focused on what we can absorb from the dominant culture around us.  Instead we should be asking ourselves, what we can contribute to this civilization which is graciously hosting us.  That's what we can learn from Yosef.  We shouldn't be trying to belittle Yosef's secular prowess; we should be celebrating it.  It's almost a Jewish version of President Kennedy's challenge from January 20, 1961:  Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.

            This message is always appropriate, but is especially poignant as Chanukah begins this Shabbat.  The Chanukah War was primarily a war of ideas, a kulturkampf.  It is clear that the Sages initially were enamored of Greek culture, philosophy, math and probably their music and fashion.  The Rabbis declared the Greek translation of our Bible to be Divinely inspired, and allowed it to be used in place of the Hebrew original under certain circumstances.  So, what went wrong?  When did we find ourselves on opposite sides of a cultural divide?  The traditional answer is that the problem developed when the Hellenist king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BCE), declared himself a god and brought idolatry to the holy Temple.  The Jews had lived alongside Greek paganism without major incident for 150 years, why this breach now?  I think the problem was on our side.  By 170 BCE many Jews had adopted Greek ways and abandoned Jewish mores.  The zealotry of the Hasmoneans was aimed more at the Jewish infidelity to God, than to the Greek way of life.  We failed, and had to fight a war to get our country back.  I believe that the cultural defeat was the result of unrestrained admiration for things Greek with no comparable affection for things Jewish.  History shows that Jewish culture can outlast any civilization.  We must proudly believe in and proclaim our rich place in world sophistication.

            This is a wonderful time of year for this message because the Yosef of our Torah reading fulfilled this ideal.  We can compete with the dominant culture and thrive, without compromising our Jewish heritage.  Yosef taught us that we can dream of earthly success and spiritual greatness, and that lesson must be applied now to help win our war with assimilation.  Happy Chanukah!                           



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Monday, November 30, 2009

Walk Article

WHOLE

Vayishlach-5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Our intrepid Patriarch, Ya'akov has been through the ringer.  His past twenty years have been, to say the least, tumultuous.  He has fled from his enraged brother, been abused by his bullying father in law, wrestled with a mystery adversary, and, finally, been reunited with his erstwhile fratricidal brother.  Phew!  A tough time has transpired.  Now it's time for him to settle down in the ancestral lands to a life filled with the blessings (so nefariously acquired) of wealth, peace and power that his father bequeathed to him so many years ago.  The next scene should have him sipping something tall and cold on a verandah. Alas, it wasn't to be so.  The latter part of Ya'akov's life is to be even more turbulent than the former, with rape, the death of his beloved, sibling struggles and, eventually, exile in the forecast.  I'm waiting for the mini-series. However, before those stormy developments, there is a retrospective moment.  It's that calm interlude which I would like to explore.

            The verse records that Ya'akov arrived shalem from Padan Aram (Genesis 33:18).  The significance of this phrase depends on how we translate the word shalem.  There is a whole team of major authorities (Rashbam, Chizkuni, Abaranel) who side step the problem and claim that Shalem is the name of a town near Shechem (called Nablus by Arabs and their supporters), and, therefore, not a description of the state of Ya'akov's fortunes at all.  There is evidence to support that contention, because there is an Arab village named Salaam five mile east of Shechem.  Nevertheless we will ignore them, because that route is a dead end, detouring us away from more fun interpretations.

            By the rest of us, shalem is translated variously as safely, intact, or in peace.  The most famous explanation of this moment of completeness is given by Rashi based on the Talmud (Shabbat 33b):  whole, unimpaired in his body, for he was cured of his limp and whole with his money. He did not lose anything because of that enormous gift that he had given to Esau. He was also whole with his Torah, for he had not forgotten any of his studies while in Laban's house.  Reb Zadok of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Pri Zadik adds that these three areas in which Ya'akov was whole:  body, assets, and Torah are the three ways we love God from the first paragraph of Shma; with all you heart (Torah), with all your life (body), and with all your might (assets, Deuteronomy 6:5). 

This great Rebbe then adds his own idea.  The wholeness of Ya'akov was his recovery from the wrestling match with the unknown stranger.  It says that when the mystery man can't defeat him he touches him in the socket of his hip (Genesis 32:26).  According to Reb Zadok this touch, which caused a temporary limp, was an attack on Ya'akov's genitals and, therefore, his progeny.  The attacker saw that Ya'akov couldn't be beat, but maybe his children could be assailed.  However, our verse testifies that Ya'akov emerged whole and all his children become part of Jewish destiny, as opposed to Avraham and Yitzchak who have children that remain outsiders (Yishmael and Esav).  As much as I like that idea, I'm going to present another.

There are many hints to the fact that Ya'akov was experiencing a split in his personality.  The first intimation of this fact is Yitzchak's observation that the voice is Ya'akov's but the hands are Esav's (27:22).  The Midrash seems to reinforce this impression during the dream of the ladder, when the angels go up and down to compare the sleeping Ya'akov on the ground to the face of Ya'akov engraved on God's throne in heaven (28:12).  The duality continues in the last verse of last week's parsha (32:3) when Ya'akov refers to his camping place as Machanain.  This means two camps.  The greatest clue to Ya'akov sensing this divide in his persona is the verse which is usually described as depicting his defensive measures against the imminent encounter with Esav and his army of four hundred men, namely:  And Ya'akov divided his camp in two.  There are two Ya'akov's struggling for supremacy.  Hence, the struggle with the strange assailant, who is probably himself.

The verse which introduces that rumble begins with an interesting term.  The expression which we translate as 'and Ya'akov was left alone (forgive me, but I keep thinking of Gretta Garbo)' is the unusual word v'yivater.  It seems to come from the root yeter, which means left over, rather than left alone.  I have this feeling that the Torah employs this unusual usage, because it has a homonym.  Back in chapter 15 God makes the covenant Between the Parts with Avraham.  In that momentous passage the word v'yivater, meaning 'and he split in two,' three times.  It's the only time that term appears in our Tanach.  It sounds just like our word, but is a different root, with a bet instead of a vav.  However, the sound echoes that that famous deal.  Ya'akov not only feels alone; he feels split asunder, into Ya'akov and Bizarro Ya'akov.    Ya'kov may feel that he is struggling with the pious and Esav parts of his nature, as, in his blindness, Yitzchak noticed.  But in reality, I think that the two parts are Avraham's aggressive personality and Yitzchak's reclusive nature.  What happens at this revelatory instant is that the newly minted Yisroel feels at peace with the two parts of his persona.  He becomes the Kabalistic entity called Tiferet or splendor (or synthesis), which demands that he utilize the best parts of each forebear to achieve a new kind of greatness, his own.

Don't we all feel that way sometimes?  Who is the real me?  Well, both.  We are all made up of separate parts emanating from disparate sources, both nature and nurture, both genetic and psychological.  I've always felt a greater kinship to Ya'akov than to the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and this may be the reason.  We all must confront the various influences and demands on our personality.  Only then can we make the decisions which will leave us whole.   

      



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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Walk Article


MYSTERIOUS

Va'yetze-5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            This week's Torah reading has the most mystical and enigmatic stories, perhaps in the whole Bible, and they're packed together in just one parsha.  Our section begins with the greatest motif in our entire Bible, Jacob's Ladder.  I've written about that symbol numerous times, and it inspires me every year with the idea that we are connected to the spiritual realm, and can ascend towards it.  Near the end of the reading is a story which I've never understood.  While shepherding for his father-in-law, Lavan, Ya'akov devises these machinations for insuring that the sheep will produce the color and pattern of sheep which were his agreed upon compensation.  I've read supposedly scientific attempts to explain the business with the placing of stripped sticks in their watering troughs (it raised the water temperature and affected their ovulations), but it still sounds like voodoo to me.  However, this year the story I'd like to discuss is yet another weird vignette in this week's parsha, namely Reuvain and his dudaim.

            The story itself sounds pretty straightforward, and here it goes: Reuvein went out in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found dudaim in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, "Now give me some of your son's dudaim."  And she said to her, "Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, and that you wish also to take my son's dudaim?" So Rachel said, "Therefore, he shall sleep with you tonight as payment for your son's dudaim."  When Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah came forth toward him, and she said, "You shall come to me, because I have hired you with my son's dudaim," and he slept with her on that night.  And God hearkened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son (Genesis 30:14-17).  First of all, that fifth son which Leah conceived was Yissachar, whose name means payment.  Was this payment for the dudaim?  And isn't it a little bit of chutzpa for Leah to claim that Rachel stole Ya'akov from her?  Wasn't it the other way round?    And isn't there a certain familiarity of this story?  Again our sainted ancestors are trading in precious prerogatives for seemingly trifling commodities.  This is almost a replay of Ya'akov buying the birthright with a bowl of soup. 

But what the heck are dudaim?  If you haven't asked that question yet, you haven't been paying attention.

            Dudaim are generally considered to be the mandrake plant (Mandragora officinarum).  The mandrake root has been used in primitive medicine for thousands of years and is thought to have fertility attributes.  Based on that, the story has a poignant irony.  Rachel, who hasn't conceived, is desperate for the fertility plant and gives up her conjugal rights to acquire them from Leah.  However, Leah, who also seems to have become infertile (see verse 29:35, 'then she stopped bearing'), becomes pregnant without the benefit of the plant.  In any case, no fertility benefits have been proven for the mandrake, but it does have hallucinogenic attributes.  So, it may not make you pregnant, but you may not care anymore.

            The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) suggests that these plants were fragrant and had an incense type affect.  Perhaps they set the mood, as in I'm in the mood for love.  In Kabala, the dudaim represent love and, generally, mystics see all sorts of symbolic meaning in the fact that the plant's roots look like two human forms bonding.  This brings me to the word dudaim itself.  The root of this root's name is the same as the Hebrew word for beloved, as in ani l'dodi (I am for my beloved).  The plant's very name seems to say that it's a love plant.  But I think something deeper and, perhaps, darker is being hinted. 

            Our Biblical heroes are confusing things for emotions.  This idea was expounded by the great psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) in his 1976 work called To Have or To Be.  Many people confuse their possessions with their personalities.  This is a problem which is often exploited by marketing experts.  The commercials which claim that you'll be happy and have successful relationships with extraordinarily beautiful people if you just buy our cars, are a bit far fetched.  But people buy into this fantasy.  The dudaim represent a variation on this theme.  Rachel is thinking that she can get Ya'akov back with these plants, and that's ridiculous.  She has never lost him in the first place; he has and always will, love her deeply.

            Dr. Fromm claimed in an interview, right after the book's publication, that very few people can resist the need to possess things for presumed status.  He even felt that he himself succumbed to this desire on occasion.  Our problem with this story is that we expect our illustrious forebears to be above these foibles which afflict us, and we suppose them to be like the Sister Teresa's or Dr. Schweitzer's who (theoretically, in truth they have desires, too) are listed as beings existing on a plane above petty materialism.  I believe that this really is a problem, because if these wonderful men and women really did live their lives on the level of angels, it wouldn't be worthwhile reading their stories.  I can't be inspired by the exploits of angels.  I find motivation when I read about history's greats who overcame the exact same issues which plague me.  Those accomplishments stimulate us to emulation of our beloved ancestors.   Greatness is the result of battling against the odds, not merely succeeding on raw talent.

            For me one the most important reasons for reading and rereading the stories in the book of Genesis is to learn from the experiences of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  We learn as much or more from their mistakes as from their triumphs.  If we really assume that they made no mistakes, I'm not interested in reading about them.  They become irrelevant to my life.  I love our Matriarchs and Patriarchs for their humanity, warts and all.                                 


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Monday, November 16, 2009

DUAL BLESSINGS Toldot-5770

            In Jewish tradition there are many connotations to the word blessings.  We can refer to the good wishes that one has for another, especially when parents bless children.  On the other hand, we could be referring to the recitation made before benefiting from the bounty of this world, like a blessing on an apple.  Finally, we could be describing the format of many of our prayers, which often begin with the regular blessing phrase, Blessed art thou, O Lord.  Since the blessings usurped by Ya'akov are the central issue in this week's Torah reading, it's worth analyzing blessings, and trying to put them into the context of this week's complex narrative. 

            First of all, I think it's important to clarify that every blessing in Judaism has an element of prayer in it.  You don't have to say 'God bless you' to include the concept of talking to our Creator in the blessing format.  This is obvious when we're clearly addressing God in the blessing over a food or the blessings which appear in the prayer book as part of our traditional service.  However, it's equally true in our good wishes to each other.  The English word itself originally derived from the Middle English word for consecrate (this sanctification was done with blood) to God.  The Hebrew word, bracha, probably comes from the word for knee and represents our bowing to God.  So, even when we are addressing a loved one, the blessing is delivered by the Divine postal service.

            Let's therefore assume that if a blessing works or is fulfilled, it's because God did it, even though the individual may work hard to help it along.  Now this brings us to the blessings in this week's Torah reading.  There are a lot of things going on surrounding these blessings.  Yitzchak wants these blessings to go to the oldest brother, Esav.  Rivka disagrees.  She is adamant that the great bounty represented by these wishes must go to Ya'akov.  I'd rather not go into their argument in this article, but suffice it to say that Yitzchak thought that Esav was the correct addressee for the power and wealth described in these blessings.  There could be many motivations for this attitude.  Rabbinic tradition suggests that Yitzchak was fooled by Esav's mock piety.  Perhaps, he had residual guilt over the treatment of Yishmael, his older brother.  Rivka, on the other hand, experienced what life could be like under the control of an unscrupulous older brother, like her brother, Lavan.

            However, I'm more concerned with the issue of what makes a blessing effective.  Yitzchak seems to assume that Esav could be worthy of the brachot, if Esav would feed him his favorite food. Yitzchak actually says feed me this venison so that my soul can bless you.  The transmission or efficacy of blessings seems to require a connection to the essence of the blessing, and, as well, to the person conveying the blessing. The blessing under discussion was:  And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine (Genesis 27:28).  This blessing is about receiving wealth through agricultural plenty.  Who deserves wealth?  Well, it would seem that Yitzchak believes that this wealth should go to the one who will share and provide from the agricultural bounty to others.  We get a peak into Yitzchak's take on this blessing business.  The blessing flows naturally to one who shows himself to be the proper receptacle and follows the path provided by the one administering the blessing.  The potency of a blessing I give to my children is based on my merit and their worthiness.

            Rivkah seems to see things differently.  Again, we're putting aside their feelings about the sons.  When Rivkah instructs Ya'akov to get two goats for the deception of Yitzchak she says that the blessings are before God (verse 7).  The blessings are the largesse of God.  God's approval is all that counts.  Whether we think a blessing is appropriate to the recipient or whether we aim that blessing in that direction is unimportant when compared to God's plan.  Not every blessing works, but the decision is out of our hands.  When a Cohen scatters a blessing across a community, where it takes hold is based upon factors only known to those on a much higher pay scale than any of us.  So, Rivkah is totally messing up all of Yitzchak's carefully laid plans to make sure that these valuable blessing will attach themselves to Ya'akov.  Tune in next week to find out the exciting conclusion of this story, when Ya'akov actually does become very wealthy.  Really, you just have to read on until verse 33 to get the end of the tale.

Yitzchak answers the question of whether or not the deception succeeded in re-routing the blessing.  When Esav shows up after Ya'akov's hasty departure, the verse declares:  And Isaac shuddered a great shudder, and he said, "Who then is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him? He, indeed, shall be blessed."  It worked!  But why?  One could posit that these blessings worked automatically because Yitzchak is so holy and inherited the power of Avraham to direct God's blessings (12:3).  However, I think that the blessings were effective, because they fit.  Yitzchak never realized it, but Ya'akov was ripe to become wealthy and powerful.  That was what Yitzchak realized when he shuddered.  His carefully laid plans to endow Esav were doomed to failure, and Esav would follow Yishmael to another destiny, outside the Chosen People.

But what can we learn from this tale?  First of all don't try to control the flow of blessings.  They will flow to where they will.  Most importantly, though, we must consider carefully the blessings which we pray for our children.  Think hard about what each of our different progeny requires to fulfill their unique future.  I hope we give as much thought to blessing our children as to dressing them.  Make sure they fit and are the right style.                      

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[RabbiWalk] Chaye Sara-5770

HEART TO HEART
Chaye Sara-5770
Rabbi David Walk

This week we are re-introduced to one of the most
enigmatic characters in our Bible. Yitzchak is already mentioned in
last week's reading, but he's just a passive participant in the
significant events of his birth, brit and almost execution. This week
he becomes as active a character as we're going to see out of him. We
don't really know what's going on in his mind. What does he think
when his older brother is banished because of Yishmael's negative
influence on him? We don't know. What does he feel when he father
ties him to the altar, and raises the knife to slaughter him? No
clue. How does he react to the death of his beloved and protective
mother? The Torah is totally tacit. Until he's forty years old and
preparing to marry he has no voice. No one has spoken to him; he has
spoken to no one. Abruptly, that all changes, when he is first seen
from the distance by his mail order bride, Rivka, arriving from
Harran.


This scene is famous. Rivkah is traveling in style with
this impressive caravan of camels, possessions and servants. As the
journey nears its end, here's the scenario: And Isaac went forth to
converse in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw,
and behold, camels were approaching. And Rivkah lifted her eyes, and
saw Yitzchak, and she fell down from the camel (Genesis 26:63 & 64).
Rivkah wants to know who this person is, and is informed by the
servant leading the way that this is his master, her future husband.
What was her impression of this man talking to himself in the meadow?
We don't know, but she did fall off her camel. I remember riding
camels, and it's a long way down, about seven feet. So, she was moved
by this sight, but favorably or not? Here's our first glimpse of
Yitzchak as an independent character, and he's davening in a way which
blows away the observer. We may have a hint of this amazing focus
during prayer at end of the story of the attempted sacrifice. There,
after Avraham has sacrificed the ram, the verse reveals that Avraham
returned to the young men who had waited below. Where was Yitzchak?
I believe that he was still in communication with God in that very
holy place, later to be the site of Solomon's Temple. I have this
feeling that Yitzchak felt right at home in this sacred environment.


This brings us to the great strength of Yitzchak who's
called the patriarch of Gevurah (courage or strength of character).
He is most comfortable with the divine. Don't invite him to a
cocktail party. Just as Avraham is the role model for kindness,
Yitzchak is the poster patriarch for worship. This concept of
learning from the example of a great zadik is very important,
especially in areas which don't come naturally to us, like prayer.
The story is told that Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Chaim Charlop visiting Jaffa
just before World War I saw Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen daven once,
and was hooked. He became, perhaps, his most important student.
Similar stories are told about many Chassidic leaders.


This brings us to the central question: What makes a
prayer experience spectacular? I believe that we can find the answer
to that query in the same incident of Rivkah encountering Yitzchak.
There are many words in our tradition for prayer (you know like the
Eskimos have a lot of words for snow, and Cub fans have a lot of words
for lose.). The Midrash (beginning of Va'etchanan, in both Sifre and
Raba) claims that there are ten, but the extremely significant term
used in our verse isn't even mentioned there. Here we're told that
Yitzchak went out to the field to converse (lo'suach) with God. The
best prayer from the best practitioner is a conversation. No prayer
can be spiritually moving unless the person really feels that he/she
is truly in communication with the Deity, otherwise the exercise is at
best an ethnic rite, at worst fruitless.


Okay, I've got to talk to God, but what do I say? I believe that the
words in the prayer book are merely a jumping off point, a list of
suggestions (except for Shema, which strictly speaking is not a
prayer, but a twice daily obligatory declaration of faith). Here's
the trick (I learned this from the Disney movie Aladdin): Be
yourself! There's a beautiful line from Psalms (69:14), which we
chant on holidays when we remove the Torah from the ark: And I am my
prayer (v'ani tefiloti). We have to feel ourselves engaged in our
prayer. Rav Yehuda Amital of Yeshivat har Etziyon relates the
following: A Chassidic story describes a chassid who came to the
Rebbe with the following complaint: "Rebbe, I have foreign thoughts."
"Foreign?" asked the Rebbe. "They aren't foreign at all. They're all
yours." The message is clear we must go with our instincts to make
the prayer experience meaningful.


Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1809) explained the situation in the
following words: Prayer originally began with each person pouring out
his heart before God in his own words and language. This is explained
by Rambam (Maimonides) in his Code of Torah Law (Prayer 1:4), where he
states that personal prayer was the main form of prayer prior to the
institution of the set prayers by the Men of the Great Assembly.
According to the law, even today the original form of prayer remains
primary (Sichat Haran #229). It's up to us, and we must allow it to
happen. Let it flow.


I think that it's significant that the Torah doesn't ell us what
Yitzchak said to God. We're not learning from this incident what to
say, but how to say it. This is important because our prayers define
us. At the end of Yom Kippur we say: You have separated humans from
animals in order to stand before You. We are human because we pray.
Ultimately, we are our prayers. Pour yourself into this endeavor.
It's worth it.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Va'yera-5770

CONTEXT

Va'year-5770

Rabbi David Walk

This is embarrassing. In 1953 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
addressed the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of the
Conservative movement, and told these rabbis that their sermons should be
derived from classic Jewish texts and not the New York Times. How can I
disagree with this lofty sentiment? However, I get ideas for these articles
anyway I can and yesterday I was reading the Times (Please, don't suspect
me. I was reading it for free on line.), and there was this gross article
in the Science Times section
which I can't resist using. Here's the opening sentence: A new examination
of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century
ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human
sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia,
archaeologists say. They got me at grisly. So, shamefacedly, I would like
to take a new look at Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) from a new a
new and macabre point of view. Oh, thank you, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger!

Apparently, there was a prevailing point of view that the human
sacrifices in the good old days of Ur (where, indeed Father Abraham lived)
were classy, tasteful affairs. People assumed that the ritual deaths
involved poisonings which were thought to contribute to a 'serene' death.
However, the skull fragments discovered in more than 2,000 exhumed bodies
reveal that most were smashed before death. Forensic evidence (CSI
Mesopotamia) shows that death "by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate."
Talk about cold cases finally solved! So, this brings us to the question:
Why would these people, apparently court officials of relatively high rank
allow these ritual sacrifices to be performed on them? Here's the response
of Dr. Janet Monge: "But in the culture these were positions of great
honor, and you lived well in the court, so it was a trade-off. Besides, the
movement into the next world was not for them necessarily something to
fear." Religious suicide has a long and gruesome history, and hasn't left
the area. By the way, these findings are a by product of the war in Iraq.
The dig is actually on a military base. So, it was all worth it.

This brings me to Avraham and Yitzchak. Let's deal with
Yitzchak first. We moderns often wonder at how the Sages could have called
this attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak a test for Avraham. Wasn't it harder
on Yitzchak, who was going to get slaughtered? Well, no, not really. As
Dr. Monge pointed out and daily headlines confirm, young people in these
cultures line up to sacrifice themselves. Just because we find this
abhorrent, doesn't mean that other civilizations do. In the mind of a
serious young man 4000 years ago this procedure was probably viewed as a
great honor, and not to be resisted. The pressure was on Avraham.

This brings us to Avraham. What was he thinking? The normal
approach, which I don't reject, is that this was very hard for Avraham,
because Yitzchak was the miraculous product of God's promise. In this
scenario, Avraham must have been totally perplexed by the seeming
contradiction in God's behavior. One minute Yitzchak is the great white
hope, the next instant he's toast (or BBQ). Another point of view is that
this test was so hard for Avraham because his whole being was one of chesed
(kindness). There wasn't a violent bone in his body. Killing another human
was anathema to him. How can shedding the blood of a loved one be a holy
act of worship and devotion? Both of these ideas are fine, but I'd like to
present another.

Avraham is not identified as a Jew or an Israelite; he is
classified as a Hebrew. This term, Ivri, means to cross over. The
television show called Crossing Over refers to communicating with those who
have died. Here we're describing both the physical act
of crossing over the Euphrates River from Mesopotamia and the philosophic
achievement of replacing the prevailing view of spirituality with a totally
new paradigm. Avraham's great spiritual revolution wasn't just
mathematical. He didn't just replace many gods with one
God, he scrapped a fundamentally flawed ethical system with a new and
majestic morality. Paganism was based on a quid pro quo religious
arrangement. The god wanted or needed things from the petitioner, and in
turn provided for the worshipper from his or her specialty, fertility, rain
or wealth. Avraham's omnipotent Deity requires nothing from us. We worship
because it's appropriate, and all benefit from the effort accrues to us (see
Deuteronomy 10:12 & 13).

Now here's the test for Avraham: What's the benefit to the
enterprise called Avraham and Co. in killing Yitzchak? If the deal with God
is that even the bad things which will happen to the Jewish people will have
purpose (see Genesis 15:13 & 14). We may be enslaved for 400 years but
we'll emerge stronger and better. But what's the upside of killing
Yitzchak, who will therefore not emerge
at all from that trial? This command sounds suspiciously like the system we
have rejected. How does this act fit in with the entire
carefully developed relationship with the Almighty? That's a test! Avraham
is ready to do everything necessary to further the plan, but would this
atrocity move the venture forward?

We have to view our own challenges in this same light. We must
maintain our distinctive nature to continue to inspire the world to greater
moral attainment. Our test everyday is: What do we have to do to further
Avraham's mission of developing a nation which has crossed over from the
other side to something spiritually better? The Rav (Harav Yosef Dov
Soloveitchik) said that this may mean the challenge of wearing a kipa in
public or finding time to daven Mincha in a crowded business day. But
sometimes, I think, it means rejecting the mores of the dominant culture in
morals and ethics, and sometimes that requires reading the New York Times,
but not too much.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Lech Licha-5770

LEGACY

Lech Licha-5770

Rabbi David Walk
  
            It’s always so comforting to return to warm spaces and pleasant places.  That’s the way I feel every year when we begin the stories of the Patriarchs, and especially Avraham.  I’m embarrassed to mention that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with Yitchak’s misanthropy and Ya’akov’s business dealings, but Avraham is just a prince amongst men.  These are, overall, feel good stories of a great man revered in his own time and venerated for the ages.  Everyone is very eager to be counted as a spiritual heir of Avraham; Jew, Christian, Moslem.  There’s more to being an heir to Avraham than just warm fuzzies.  There seem to be concrete blessings which accrue to those who are numbered amongst his
beneficiaries.   Even before Avraham has
done anything, God makes a list of promises to him, which far outpaces the pedestrian pledges offered to his righteous predecessor, Noach.  This week I’d like to take a look at those assurances and try to understand in what way they continue to affect us.


            Immediately after God has instructed Avraham to depart from his homeland to an unspecified destination, he is told:  And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and you shall be a blessing.  And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2 & 3)."  The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105) based on the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:11), points out that these blessings are an assurance that the normal difficulties encountered by travel to a new locale will not afflict Avraham, because he is heeding God’s word, which never causes loss.  Specifically, moving to a new place diminishes children, wealth and fame. So, Avraham receives assurances connected to those three issues; he will be great in number, blessed with wealth and his name will be increased.  This is the most popular approach to understanding this verse.

            Reb Zadok Hacohen of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Pri Zadok eschews the Midrash and presents the position of the Zohar.  There are (count ‘em) seven blessings in these verses:  1.  to be a great nation, 2.  be blessed, 3.  have a great name, 4.  you will be the source of blessing, 5.  those who bless you will be blessed, 6. those who curse you will be cursed, and 7.  the whole world will be blessed through you.
These seven blessings correspond to the seven traits which make up the seven lower sefirot or mystical levels which connect our realm to the heavenly spheres.  These seven concepts in turn match up with the seven shepherds (known to many of us as the Ushpizin, or guests, who visit our Sukkot every autumn).
These are the seven great leaders of the Jewish nation, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, and King David.  This mystical version of the list ignores chronology in favor of compatibility with the seven sefirotic traits, which are chesed (kindness), gevurah (courage), tiferet (splendor), netzach (eternity), hod (majesty), yesod (foundation), and malchut (royalty).  Phew!

            What’s so significant about connecting our impression of Avraham with all this future stuff?  To Reb Zadok it’s extremely significant.  The greatness of Avraham derives from the fact that all of these traits are embedded in him.  No one else, before or since had the potential for all these levels of spiritual attainment.  Even though Avraham mastered in chesed or kindness all of the other characteristics found their source in him.  This phenomenon could be explained that all the other traits were an offshoot or extension of chesed, the first of the sefirot.  However, I believe the real point is about Avraham, not about the sefirot. Avraham was by nature the epitome of compassion and benevolence, but, according to this viewpoint, his true prominence resulted from his passion in spreading the word.  When the Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) describes the enormity of Avraham’s contribution to world spirituality, he declares:  Once he achieved his belief in God, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him… He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, "...and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God". Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person in a way so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him (Laws of Idolatry 1:3).  All this passion, all this success, and without television, take that Billy Graham!

            I’m trying to root some aravot (willow) cuttings, so that next year together with my students we can shake our lulav it will be with our own aravot.  The growth of these shoots depends on two factors.  First the cuttings must contain the necessary components to blossom, and I have to put in the proper effort to
grow them well.   The same is true of our children.  We learn this from Avraham.  His trait of chesed may be the basic characteristic from which others develop, but he had to nourish this growth with passion, effort and love.

            When we have a beloved legacy from a dear departed, it’s cherished because of what that ancestor put into the item.  Avraham got all these beautiful blessings from God, because he had constructed vessels for containing this bounty, namely his disciples, converts and, ultimately, descendants.  We honor him by not only graciously accepted this awesome heritage, but by emulating his zeal in passing it on.  Pssst, I’ve got a holy message for you…pass it on!                          



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Sunday, October 25, 2009

PERFECTION - Noach-5770

            Every year we read about Noach again, and I agonize over him.  More than any Biblical character I’m perplexed by this enigmatic hero.  Part of my perplexity can be blamed on our Sages.  When I read the verses unembellished by rabbinic punditry, I get the sense of a positive force in story of humankind.  However, the Rabbis seem to have an anti-Noach agenda, which I find a bit daunting.  This makes sense on a certain level because, after all, he wasn’t offered the covenant that Avraham signed on to, and we descend from Avraham.  B’nei Noach is the designation for those outside our tribe.  Nevertheless, every year I rethink this character, so here’s this year’s attempt.

            Perhaps the most characteristic approach of our rabbinic forebears is clearly laid out in the commentary Kedushat Levi of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who is probably the most popular Chassidic leader after the Ba’al Shem Tov.  Reb Levi Yitzchak;’s first comment on parshat Noach explains that there are two types of zadik, righteous one.  The first sort serves God with great devotion and intense enthusiasm in the attempt to bring the zadik himself closer to God.  It’s a very passionate relationship between this creation and the Creator.  The other kind of devoted worshipper not only tries to deepen their own connection to God but also endeavor to bring others into the fold.  The Type II Zadik is described in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) as ‘good to heaven and good to people.’  The reason that Noach doesn’t get the appointment as the carrier of God’s covenant to the world is because he had the wrong zadik style.  Avraham had it, and then some.
Rabbeinu Bechaye (ben Asher, d. 1340) wrote a very important commentary on the Torah in the last decade of the thirteenth century.  In this influential work, Rabbeinu Bechaye not only explained the Torah on a verse by verse basis, but also prefaced each Torah reading with the exposition of a verse from King Solomon’s book of Proverbs.  These introductions give the reader a head’s up on the most powerful idea in the upcoming parsha.  This week he presents:  He who walks innocently is righteous; fortunate are his children after him (Proverbs 20:7).  There’s no mistaking Rabbeinu Bechaye’s purpose this week.  He chose a verse which parallels exactly the description of Noach.  Each verse has the following key words hit’halech (walk), tamim (innocent or perfect), and zadik.  We’re being taught that King Solomon’s description of a zadik is Noach.
To help in his exposition of the verse Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes extensively from Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona (d. 1263, the cousin and father in law of Nachmonides), who wrote a majestic commentary on the book of Proverbs.  This explanation suggests that there are three levels of righteousness, represented by the three terms zadik, walk and tamim.  The first expression is zadik which means that the individual works hard to do the right thing.  No small feat.  The next stage is tamim, which implies success at this endeavor to be good, no flaws in this diamond.  The crowning achievement is called mit’halech and evokes this awesome image of going forward in life in the presence of the Cosmic Director, figurative hand in metaphoric Hand.  According to Rabbeinu Yona this entails performing mitzvoth or righteous acts with love and awe for the Creator.  There is absolutely no concern for the greater glory of the performer.  This person would never mention these deeds with their lips or have them engraved in bronze.  This level of virtue is very rare and hints at a stage in human accomplishment in which goodness is its own reward; an extraordinary fulfillment of the Mishneh in Pirkei Avot that the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah.
Obviously, why does Rabbeinu Bechaye introduce our parsha with this verse and exposition?  Because Noach was that singular individual who really reached that apex of human spiritual triumph.  There is clearly much that we can gain from studying the life and exploits of Noach.  This answers an implied question about our parsha.  Why do we have these stories in our Torah?  They precede the Jewish nation and the giving of the Torah.  What is their relevance?  Well, we can learn from this extraordinary personality, and hopefully emulate at least a fraction his feats.
However, there is still a fly in the ointment, or a stone in the chulent.  If Noach is so marvelous how come we aren’t the Children of Noah, instead the descendants of Avraham?   The real question is how come God didn’t make the eternal covenant with Noach?  With Noach the verse says:  And I will set up My covenant with you (Genesis 6:18).   With Avraham God says:  And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. (17:7). Why is Avraham’s deal for ever and Noach’s only lasts out his lifetime?  It’s not because there was a deficiency in Noach, who was perfect, but because of the special quality of Avraham, who went way beyond the job description of zadik, to spread the belief in the one, all powerful God to the entire known world.
When you come to think of it, Noach seems very similar to our patriarch Yitzchak who was also a great zadik, but not a great campaign manager for God.  So, this week, when we again fulfill our annual revisiting of this amazing story, let’s not strain to find flaw with our illustrious ancestor, Noach. Instead let’s celebrate his greatness and accomplishments.  As Rabbeinu Bechaye has pointed out, there is much we can learn from this great man.  He is the prototype for the perfectly innocent zadik who walks with God, and there’s a lot to emulate.           

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Walk Through the Parsha

FAMILIARITY & FAMILY

Breishit-5770
Rabbi David Walk 
            The S'fat Emet, the second Gerer Rebbe (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1840-1906) says that the great joy of Simchat Torah is the act of beginning the Torah again.  There's a warm glow each year when we return to those stories we know so well.  So, it's with a special delight that I begin a new year of parsha musings.  There's also a slightly unusual pleasure this year, because I'm actually getting to write about parshat Breishit.  Many years there's no time between Simchat Torah and Brieshit to get out an article, but this year I've got the whole week to get my act together.  So, here goes. 
 
            Breishit is an amazing Torah reading.  There's so much going on; eons of history crammed into 146 verses.  These are the verses which flame the evolution versus creationism debate, which I find silly because we don't learn science from the Bible.  But it's the story of humans and their interactions which continue to astound and move me.  The few individuals who people the world are so fascinating and their behavior so characteristic of our species that it's like reading Psychology Today.  Let's quickly look at Adam and Eve.  Their instruction to form a unit and build a family (Genesis 2:24) could have been the benediction at a wedding last week.  However, it's their misunderstanding of marriage which is so poignant, tragic and, hopefully, cautionary.  Eve knows she's alone without Adam, so she wants him to join her in sin.  And even worse Adam can't own up to his responsibility so he blames Eve for his failure.  It's like Failed Marriages 101.  We can't have stable relationships if we're unstable.  The blame game leads nowhere, and fast.  The greatest drama, though, is the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel.
 
As Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was inventing modern psychology he envisioned the greatest tensions vertically across generations from parent to child, as in the Oedipus Complex.  The Torah views the supreme challenges horizontally, between spouses or siblings.  Just to give one of many possible examples, the Torah and our traditional commentaries don't see the issues of Ya'akov and Yitzchak as father versus son.  We envision that dysfunctional family as Ya'akov competing with his brother Esav and Rivkah disagreeing with her husband, Yitzchak.  In this parsha we have no vertical conflict at all.  We have no mention of any communication between parents and children at all.  God asks Cain about Abel's whereabouts, but doesn't question the parents.  Do Eve or Adam look into the matter or even mourn?  We just don't know, and apparently it's not required for understanding the story. 
 
The friction between Cain and Abel is the major controversy in the parsha, and Cain's failure to control his disappointment and jealousy is the central tragedy. Cain's state of turmoil results from the failure of his offering to be accepted by God.  Why didn't God accept his sacrifice?  We don't know.  The speculation swirls around the fact that Abel's offering was from the first and choice of his flock while there is no mention of an attempt by Cain to give the best of his produce.  Many commentaries praise shepherds over farmers, and explain that this is why all of our great leaders were shepherds. The verses are most concerned about Cain's agitation.  Everyone fails at one time or another.  The challenge of life is how to respond to the failure.  Does the failure generate renewed resolve to succeed or despondence and debilitating depression?  Cain gets stuck in a cycle of despair.  God tries to intervene with words of advice, comfort and warning.
 
These words are central to understanding our story and, perhaps, the human situation.  God says:  "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, you will be forgiven? If you do not improve, however, at the opening, sin is crouching, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it (4:6 & 7)."  God is stating that the proper response to failure is improved performance.  Easier said than done.  However, most of the traditional commentaries concentrate on the two warnings.  The second warning is that there is a Yetzer Hara, evil tendency, which eternally stalks us.  But it's first warning which I believe is more fascinating.
 
God tells Cain that sin is crouching at the opening ready to pounce upon us.  There is great discussion over the identity of this opening.  The two major candidates are the womb and the grave.  Is the warning of eternal vigilance because sin is with us from our entrance into this realm?  Or is the threat that un-forgiven sins will await us upon our departure from this world and admission into the world to come?  There's truth to both.  However, I personally like the approach of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon in Gush Etziyon.  The verse says: "Sin crouches at the door." But presumably not the same sin at every door. Each door, each domicile, each community with its particular sin, with a particular spiritual danger indigenous to it, endemic to that group or that individual. The Chafetz Chayim once commented that different generations have different pitfalls. There are generations that succumb particularly to idolatry, others to desecration of Shabbat, some to sins between man and his Maker, and others to interpersonal sins. Each community, each individual has his own "door" and his own sin to which he is susceptible. What might be regarded as the "sin that crouches at the door" of our community?  Rabbi Lichtenstein suggest that modern Orthodoxy has a weakness for the sin of forgetfulness.  We lose our focus on spirituality through our commitment to excellence in secular domain.  But every individual must identify their particular weakness.  Cain was prone to anger and violence, and the warning didn't work.
 
Here we have arrived at the center of this tragic tale.  We fail even though we recognize the danger, in spite of the warning signs.  If that weren't heartbreaking enough, God finishes the caution to Cain with the hopeful words, "yet you can overcome."  Cain didn't have to crash.  The failure wasn't inevitable.  We begin this familiar chronicle again with the hope and promise that we can avoid its dreadful outcome.  We read it again, because we see ourselves in it.  We read it again to avoid becoming Cain.

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