Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[RabbiWalk] Chaye Sara-5770

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

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




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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You can contact Rabbi Walk at:

If you know anyone who may be interested in receiving this weekly
e-mail, they can subscribe by sending an e-mail to:

Problems or Questions with the list, please contact:
WalkThroughTheParsha-owner@yahoogroups.com or visit
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/WalkThroughTheParshaYahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)

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