Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Walk Article

TORAH TO GO

Vayigash-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Many years ago I taught at Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's high school in Riverdale.  I was also director of the dormitory.  Since I lived so close to the school (and was poor) I didn't own a car.  Periodically, I needed a ride into the city and one of the other staff members who was truly a zadik, was always obliging.  The wonderful thing about these excursions was that as soon as the car was in motion, my driver and colleague would ask for some u'valecticha baderech Torah.  For those not familiar with that phrase from Shma, it means 'and when you are going on the road.'  The reference is to our Torah which is to be studied at all times and in every situation.  These wide ranging discussions down the Henry Hudson Parkway were fabulous.  After a quick thought from me to get us started, the conversations, but thankfully not the car, roamed to totally unexpected destinations.  And at the earthly trip's objective we often kept the dialogue going in the car for a while.  Even though this often negated the time advantage over taking public transportation, it was always worth it.  I always felt that this involvement in the Torah study somehow made the trip not only more enjoyable but also in some way safer.  Historically, travel was very dangerous.  That's why we have a prayer before setting out on a trip and a blessing of thanksgiving for successful conclusion of a trip.  I'm not sure that these prayers are still as relevant today, but it shows an attitude about, especially, non-voluntary travel, which demonstrates great concern for travel safety.  And that idea is referenced in our Parsha in an unexpected way.

            As the brothers are getting ready to return to Israel for the purpose of bringing Ya'akov down to Egypt, the verse records:  And (Yosef) sent off his brothers, and they went, and he said to them, "Do not quarrel (get angry) on the way (Genesis 45:24)."  This instruction to not fight on the way home seems to be advice to not get involved in a blame game over the selling of Yosef (Avraham Ibn Ezra).  The Rashbam suggests that it means that they shouldn't be afraid of the journey, perhaps because they are on mitzvah mission.   However, Rashi quotes a famous Midrash on the verse:  Do not engage in a halachic (Torah) discussion lest the way cause you to stray (Ta'anit 10b).  Wow, Rashi claims that Yosef was instructing them to not study Torah on the road!  That's against our normal approach.  Not surprisingly, I'm not the first to notice this problem.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550 -1619) points out that Rebbe Ila'i taught that traveling scholars who don't discuss Torah are worthy of being burned at the stake.  That's a bit extreme.  I'll just consider that hyperbole.  At that point the Kli Yakar explains that there are different kinds of Torah study.  Reviewing Torah decisions would be fine, but debating still as yet undecided legal issues could bring them to trouble and strife.  A reasonable suggestion.  Getting involved with controversial issues while traveling is a bad idea, because of the rigors of the road. But for me the best comment of the Kli Yakar combines this Midrashic approach with the literal meaning that they shouldn't get angry and accusatory with each other.  He explains that while traveling we should stay involved with Torah study and not desist from this mitzvah.  The problem is that if you get angry, you can't really study Torah. The Kli Yakar adds that all anger leads to mistakes.  If you're in a mistake prone mode, you'd better stop studying Torah.  So, Yosef's advice is to stay distant from anger so that you can learn while traveling the road. 

We in Judaism view anger as a very negative trait.  In the seventh chapter of the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides actually counts anger as a sin.   Every one gets angry on occasion.  The goal is to minimize the damage we do while we are angry, and find strategies for ending the episode of rage.

In my life, I've had the sublime privilege to encounter, on a number of occasions, two amazing poskim, decisors of Jewish law.  Both Reb Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) in New York and Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) in Jerusalem were remarkable scholars, with both marvelous breadth and depth of Torah knowledge.  But beyond the encyclopedic nature of their brains, the most outstanding feature of both of these gentlemen was the calm which they exuded.   They exhibited the kind of unflappability that Hillel was famous for in the first century of the Common Era.  Except when deep in thought, they were almost always smiling.  I guess this explains two awe-inspiring phenomena.  First, that people wanted to go to them with their questions of Jewish law, and secondly that they were never (or at least rarely) wrong. 

Now we can begin to understand the advice of Yosef.  Anger has little or no up side.  Please, do your best to avoid it.  Yosef understood that there could be many recriminations amongst his brothers, but there was nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by airing them.  Add to that the tensions and dangers of the road, and you've got a recipe for disaster.  Later the Rabbis, superimposed another layer of meaning, to advise us that decisions made while angry are not to be trusted, including Torah study.

I don't think that the Midrashic approach describes the original intent of Yosef in the verse, but it ends up giving us valuable, practical advice.  For most of us, travel provides enough anxiety that we should refrain from heavy duty decision making while concerned about the voyage.  And even more important, don't come to important conclusions in the heat of anger.  Important judgments are like a delicate soufflĂ©; no movement, no noise, no agitation are requirements for a satisfactory result.             

 


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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Walk Article

THE MEASURE OF MAN

Chanukah-Miketz-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Ah, Chanukah is upon us again.  While everyone else is running around trying to figure out what to give everyone on their gift lists, I'm trying to figure out what to figure out in my Chanukah article.  Go ahead read that sentence again and let me know if it makes sense.  The annual search for meaning in this joyous celebration is beckoning again.  It's never easy.  Chanukah presents the observer with certain problems not found in other holidays and historical clashes.  Usually, the bad guys in our tales were both really evil and stood for principles the world no longer considers legitimate.  The villains were easy to hate.  Not so, the Greeks.  There were Greeks whom our ancestors really liked, for example Alexander the Great, Ptolemy II, and Aristotle.  Plus, many Greek innovations and ideals still find adherents today.  We still admire many aspects of Greek culture, from the Parthenon to geometry.  So, when we scrutinize our Greek adversaries what do we find worth fighting against?

            At the outset, let me point out that Greek culture and philosophy are not monolithic.  They are very diverse, with many competing positions.  However, there are a couple of ideas which were held in common.  Two points of which I believe are central to our dispute with them.  First of all, the Greeks generally believed that they had all the answers.  The idea that mankind could solve every problem and understand every issue was fundamental to Greek philosophy.  Judaism never believed that   We Jews have believed from the outset that there would always be mysteries beyond our ken.  When Moshe asked God to see the Divine Glory, we understand the sentiment.  However, the response is that humans can't see the reality of God's greatness and still be denizens of this earthly abode.  We reject the Greek position, because we firmly believe that humans are limited, finite.  There will always be a new set of problems to solve as long as humans inhabit this world.  Science has come around to the Jewish position.  Very few modern physicists or biologists expect to get all the answers to all their questions.  Right now physicists are hot on the trail of a sub atomic particle called the Higgs boson, also called the God particle.  Scientists believe that this particle will help them understand that critical moment of the Big Bang when energy transformed into matter.  However, none of them think that we won't have new questions after this, like where did the energy come from?

            Secondly, Greeks lived in an anthropocentric universe, where mankind was the center of all.  The world was understood only as it related to mankind.  Humans were understood as above nature in ways that they ultimately believed that they could control the forces of the world.  The Greeks, therefore, claimed that the world was one of harmony and beauty.  The word cosmos actually means order.  That order derived from the machinations of mankind.  The real conflict with Greek culture wasn't over polytheism as with so many other ancient civilizations.  The real issue was the deification of man. We Jews on the other hand saw the world as theocentric.  God stands in the center of all things.  We stand in awe of the unlimited power of God and nature, which we neither control nor fully understand.  Even though we see man as the apex of Creation, astride all other creatures, nevertheless this is in the context of worship of God as the Cosmic Director.

            This is why it's so appropriate that Chanukah usually coincides with parshat Miketz.  Few sections of our Tanach are as clear on the fact that God controls the forces of nature and we are mere witnesses to its humbling power.  Yosef is considered the wisest and most capable man in Egypt not because he displayed any mastery over nature, but because he was able to observe and strategize tactics for surviving the ravages of the overwhelming drought and famine.  He continually tells Pharaoh and anyone else who will listen that what little skills he has for dream interpretation or long term planning all come from God.  Then we see our Patriarch Ya'akov, who has been renamed Yisrael or the one who strives with Divine power, totally devastated by the famine.  Greek heroes, like Ulysses, Perseus or Prometheus defy and even defeat the gods and the forces of nature.  No such characters exist in Jewish tradition.  Resistance to God is futile and folly, remember the story of Jonah.  He tries to flee from God, but that's impossible because God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

            Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstien of Yeshivat Har Etziyon pointed out that:  The Greek stance was immoral not in and of itself, but rather in the priorities it set. Greek values were not completely wicked; rather, they were flawed, incomplete, and imbalanced, to such a degree that they became totally corrupt. The dominion of Man and his mastery over nature can be part of worship of the Creator, but Man's greatness can become so central that it becomes a religion in itself.

            We learn from this week's Torah reading the same message that we learned from Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami, namely that we can't control the forces of nature.  Religion teaches us the humility of worshipping forces that are greater than us.  Yosef was the great leader, because he understood this reality and used that wisdom to serve mankind, not elevate himself to demigod status.

            For the Jewish nation, the Chanukah War was the first modern conflict.  It wasn't modern because of the weaponry used.  It was modern because it was a war of clashing ideologies.  It was a modern struggle, because the dispute was nuanced, not a tension between black and white, but a divergence of shades of gray.  On Chanukah we really need the light of our candles to help differentiate between the beneficial and dangerous in the culture around us.  It's the hardest war we ever fought, and it's the war we continue to encounter in our world.   Happy Chanukah!     

                          

                  

 


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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Walk Article

 

A NEW DAY

Vayeishev-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

People often ask me if I find it difficult coming up with new ideas every week.  The truth is that I rarely have any trouble at all.  However, it's really nail biting, hair pulling time on those occasions when I do.  I find the material in every Torah reading new and fresh every year.  Now, it could be that I'm like the dementia patient who meets everybody all over again everyday.  But I'd like to think that something more profound is going on.   It appeals to me to think that it's like Rashi, who lived in the 11th century, said to his grandson, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158). At the beginning of this week's parsha, he records that he discussed matters of Torah commentary with his grandfather and this is what Rashi said to his daughter's son, in his old age. He explained that if he had the time, he felt the need to write new commentaries to the Torah. And this is his phrase, according to the new literal insights that he had every single day. This is Rashi, towards the end of his life, having written the greatest of all commentaries to the Torah, never gave up trying to say something new.  There was no thought of sitting on his laurels.  Now the point of the Rashbam was the superiority of literal explanations over allegorical ones, but I'd like to explore the idea that new approaches to the Torah text are not only happening every day, but are necessary.  However, first allow me a little digression.

 The issue which prompted this unusual personal aside in the commentary of the Rashbam was the meaning of the word Toldot in the second verse of this week's Torah reading.  The Rashbam is attacking the many authorities who understand that term which means offspring to be referring to the activities and accomplishments of Ya'akov.  Well, the Rashbam says fuhgedaboutit.  It means children, and the new story line is about the adventures of Ya'akov's sons surrounding the emergence of Yosef as the new protagonist in our text.  According to the Rashbam, Rashi's regret about not having time to write a whole new commentary was not just that he had new thoughts, but that he would emphasize literal meanings over homiletics (you know, Rabbi stuff).  Too many rabbinic sermons and fables had crept into the national consciousness, so that the literal meaning was often getting lost.

Here's my real question:  This is at least the fifth time that the word Toldot appears in this manner in the Torah, why did the Rashbam wait until now to make this strong argument about how to interpret this term?  My speculation is that this occasion reinforces the most amazing part of what his grandfather said.  The story line in our text is not just the changing of the guard from Ya'akov to the sons, especially Yosef.  He understood the meaning of the second dream in which even he was bowing down to Yosef. It's also about how quickly circumstances change.  Reality is an ever changing kaleidoscope of totally unpredictable stuff. Ya'akov realizes that he no longer is the straw that stirs the drink. He also has trouble just following the flow of events.  The verse tells us that he gave up trying to control the animosity between the brothers; he was just trying to monitor the situation (Genesis 37:11).  Very soon even that fails.  His attempt to keep an eye on things is thwarted by his beloved son's decades long disappearance.

Ya'akov describes his life to Pharaoh in this manner, 'the days of the years of my life have been few and miserable (47:9).'  He was one hundred and thirty years old at the time.  Why were his days so few?  Ya'akov apparently was only counting the good days of which he felt there very few.  I guess he subtracted all the days he was on the run and all the days during which Yosef was missing.  Perhaps we can add to that the days that he was worried about his feuding sons and his ravaged daughter.  It records in last week's parsha that he emerged from his encounter with his brother Esav 'whole,' and this week our Sages tell us that he wanted to live in peace and tranquility.  But his completeness was short lived and his tranquility nonexistent.  This is all true because there is no telling what the new day brings.  We assume that tomorrow is the extension of today, and that our children are a continuation of us.  Wow is that wrong!  We say in our morning prayers that God renews the Creation each and every day.  That is not only a reference to some mystical regeneration of the act of Genesis or the Big Bang, it also means that we must meet each new day on its terms.  We can't take it for granted that yesterday equipped me for today.  It's been famously said that generals are always preparing for the last war.  Well, the same principle is true of businessmen, teachers, and parents, in other words, us.  The only thing that I can expect is the unexpected.

This dichotomy is present in the first two verses of our parsha.  In verse one Ya'akov is desperately trying to settle down peacefully in this land where his ancestors sojourned, but never found permanence.  The second verse presents us with the reality that his toldot, offspring, are taking over, and there is no way of knowing in what direction the winds of change will blow us.                      

            Since the world is ever changing, last year's situation has been over taken by this year's reality.  Therefore, when I look at each week's Torah reading, it's from a new perspective.  That's what makes it so easy to formulate new insights to the material.  The rabbinic stories may remain the same from year to year but the message of the text is always fresh.  Rashi is, like always, right; there are new literal insights every day, as long as we pay attention.

 

 


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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Walk Article

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Vayishlach-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Is that really true?  Would that flower smell as sweet if it were called stinkypoo?  Well, William Shakespeare (putting the words into Juliet's mouth) believes that what matters is what something is, not what it is called.  In other words, Romeo's a good guy even though his last name is Montague (or that he's a Jet).  But is that true?  Our parsha seems to question that premise.  Before we get to the parsha, one more question for Mr. Shakespeare.  Did you really write all those plays and sonnets?  No, not that question.  Is your premise about names true for people as well as objects?  The objective reality of a flower is not changed by our nomenclature.  However, if I may refer to Mr. Johnny Cash, calling a boy Sue will change that young man's life forever.  Also, our Sages consider referring to a person by a nasty nickname as a horrible sin.  So, the Shakespearean premise may not be a universal verity.

            We Jews make a big thing out of naming things.  The first cognitive act of the first human being was to give names to the other life forms around him.  Our first Jewish couple actually had their names changed as adults to better describe them and their evolving role as paradigms for humanity.  Last week eleven of Ya'akov's sons are named and each has a little description of the process and meaning of each name.  The mothers used the naming process to express their aspirations and hopes.  By the way this is in contrast with the sons of Avraham and Yitzchak who were named based upon the circumstances of their birth.  There is a tradition, concerning which I'm highly skeptical, that parents have prophecy at the moment of naming children.  If that's true then different prophetic muses were on the job in those different generations.  And in our times those prophets aren't very original as we tend to name after deceased relatives.  In any case, this week's parsha has, perhaps, the most famous naming ceremony of our Bible.  Ya'akov is dubbed Yisrael by his wrestling opponent.

            This is one of four occasions in the Torah when a person is renamed.  However, our instance is very different from the other three.  Abram and Sarai become Avraham and Sarah at the behest of God.  Hoshea becomes Yehoshua at the hands of Moshe, his mentor.  In those three circumstances the new name is a variation on the old name, and the old name is never used again.  There's actually a tradition that using Avraham's old name is a transgression (Berachot 13a).  Also, those three name changes involved an assurance or prayer for the future success and status of the recipient.  Avraham and Sarah are to become the leaders of many progeny and Yehoshua is to be saved from the machinations of the other spies.  None of those statements are true of our case.  The names Yisrael and Ya'akov are used seemingly interchangeably for now on.  Much effort has been invested by Bible scholars to explain the reasons why a particular name is used in a certain situation.  The most famous attempt at an explanation is that the name Ya'akov denotes his physical acts and the name Yisrael is used for spiritual behavior. By and large these efforts fail or, at least, are less than convincing.  The choice often seems random.  Nu, so what's going on here?

            I really like Ya'akov.  He's perhaps my favorite character in all of the world's literature.  What makes Ya'akov so compelling?   Ya'akov struggles on a stage whose scope I can comprehend.  He doesn't negotiate with kings or win world wars, single handedly.  Ya'akov has to cope with a difficult father in law, marital tension, contentious children and personal tragedy.  Sound familiar?  Remind you of your Thanksgiving dinner or last Seder?  If it doesn't sound familiar to you, can I borrow your life, at least for a couple of days?  The name Ya'akov really is perfect for the mine field which he must negotiate.  It's a verb from the Hebrew word for heel.  So, apparently it means to carefully place your foot in the necessary location.  It's the ideal name for someone always working out what his next step should be.  There's tremendous trepidation that the next step might blow up the whole enterprise.  It's very hard to live that way on a regular basis.  Everyone has days like that; Ya'akov had decades like that.

            But what about the name Yisrael?  It is explained by the mysterious stranger who gives it to him in the following way:  Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome (Genesis 32:29)."  So it means to struggle, to strive or to wrestle with a problem or with life's complications, but with the assurance that he will succeed or overcome, win or prevail.  Yisrael is confident and self assured; Ya'akov is careful but timid.

            Now we can understand why we must only use the new names of the other characters, because it describes their new status in the world.  We can see that Avraham, Sarah and Yehoshua have attained a position in society which must be acknowledged by all.  Ya'akov, on the other hand, was shown by the wrestling experience that he can persevere, but the names describe his attitude toward his inner struggles.  As outside observers we are never sure which aspect of this patriarch is at work.  The Torah has to inform us whether he's acting out of confidence or extreme caution.

            That's why I love Ya'akov so much.  I'm also struggling to overcome my inner demons to face life's issues head on and sense success.  I can identify with Ya'akov and try to emulate his great courage in the face of my tribulations.

            This provides us with a new reading of a famous verse from both Isaiah and Jeremiah, which has become a Saturday night hymn, 'Don't be afraid, My servant Ya'akov.'  Don't be afraid, Ya'akov, because you can also be Yisrael.  You're not like the unchanging rose, sometimes you're a lamb, but when necessary you can be a lion.                       

 


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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Walk Article

THE RIGHT MODEL

Va'yetze-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            There's a fascinating web site called Edge.org.  They claim that to reach the edge of knowledge put the world's most complex and sophisticated minds in the same room and let them ask each other the same questions that they are asking themselves.  Quite often the discussions are way over my head, but sometimes the most interesting ideas emerge from these discussions.  In the most recent mailing from Edge, I received this talk by Raphael Bousso (professor of physics at UC Berkeley), in which he explains that there are basic problems within physics in trying to explain why the universe is how it is.  For example, how come most of the universe is empty with only periodic clumps of stuff (galaxies, stars and planets)?  Shouldn't the cosmos be more homogenous?  And, if the movement of the galaxies away from each other is based on the Big Bang, how come the expansion is accelerating instead of slowing down?  Now, I basically understand these questions, but Professor Boussa suggests three visions of how our universe works and each may provide a different approach to answering these fundamental problems.  I haven't got a clue how these theories work.  They are string theory, inflation and cosmic strings (This has nothing to do with string theory).  These theories provide models of our cosmos to help us understand and even visualize the workings of Creation.  It's like the Standard Model of atoms.  We visualize atoms as small solar systems with electrons spinning around a solid nucleus.  Now this is not an accurate depiction of reality, but it helps us understand the workings of both physics and chemistry, so we keep using it.

            How about we do the same thing in the spiritual realm?  Why don't we try to come up with an idea which will help us approximate the reality of how our physical world interacts with God's spiritual abode.  The image doesn't have to be totally accurate.  It can be a metaphor.  As long as it helps us to better understand how we are supposed to behave so that we can remain in contact with spirituality.  Would you believe that our parsha provides us with just such a theoretical model?  Here it is:  And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it (Genesis 28:11).  It makes no difference whether we translate the Hebrew word sulam as stairway or ladder or escalator.  The image is clear.  There is a vertical passageway which connects us down here with God up there, and it's possible to send information back and forth by means of messengers which we call angels or agents.  I think that God sends down inspiration and revelation; we send up our mitzvoth. 

            We view most of our business in this world as horizontal movement, east, west, north, south, but we view our relationship with God as vertical passage, up and down.  Like the cosmological models, this ladder model can explain many different phenomena.  For example, this can be thought of as a schematic model helping us to visualize the relationship between the spiritual realms.  In Kabballah we talk about the worlds of action down here, above that is the world of formation, higher again is the region of creation and highest of all is the realm where God resides called Atzilut or emanations.  Alternatively, this model can be used to describe historical developments.  First there was the Egyptian bondage, then there was the Babylonian destruction, later we experienced the Greek philosophic challenge to our way of life and, finally we are still coping with the great Roman persecution.  History is viewed as a progression in which the nation finds itself challenged on ever higher planes as we approach an eschatological end of days.

            All that's cool, but I prefer a more personal approach.  The ladder represents my personal connection to God.  God stands over us all and we are constantly trying to adjust and improve that connection.  The Sfat Emet points out that the verb used to describe the upright stature of the ladder is mutzav when nitzav was expected.  Mutzav is a passive term which implies that the ladder is being continually set up.  Each of us is arranging the ladder over us, because we are inextricably bound to the ladder.  Our physical bodies are at the foot of the ladder and our souls, which are a small piece of Divinity, are with God at the top.  We spend our lives keeping the flow between the two extremes open at all times.  Therefore there are parts of me, actions or thoughts, on all of the rungs between earth and heaven.  If I leave any steps unoccupied are uninvolved then I run the risk of losing the link between my body and soul.  This requires me to be contemplating spirituality or performing mitzvoth all the time.  It's this total involvement which keeps sending the messages (or messengers or angels) which occupy the rungs.

            Now we can understand an enigmatic passage towards the end of our parsha:  The angel of God spoke to me in that dream and said,…, 'Look! The goats are going up. I have seen all the wrong things Laban has been doing to you. I am the God who appeared to you at Bethel, where you poured olive oil on the monument and where you made a promise to me. Now I want you to leave here and go back to the land where you were born (31:11-13).  Ya'akov has to leave Laban's house because he's no longer dreaming of his spiritual connection to God; he's dreaming about goats and his assets.  He's in danger of losing the connection to his own soul residing with God.  We must keep all of our behavior in the context of reaching heavenward.  When we lose that orientation, we start moving horizontally and we lose the vertical thrust towards our souls. 

            As Professor Boussa explained, problem solving requires models that can help us visualize the issues we deal with.  As spiritual beings we need the ladder model to help us keep focused on the job, which is:  Excelsior, ever upward!                                  

 


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Walk Article

YA'AKOV:  THE FINAL FATHER

Toldot-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The second Gerer Rebbe in his great commentary the Sfat Emet asks why the patriarchs are called Avot. I mean we could call them founders or initiators. He answers that the term implies that they were living for the future.  They were constantly birthing a new reality.  Their fatherhood was their true persona.  I'm not sure that we feel this with Ya'akov.  Ya'akov seems very much in the moment, whether trying to figure out how to survive the machinations of brother and father in law or how to navigate the dangerous shoals of the relationships with wives and children.  In his life, it was hard to put something away for a rainy day when it was always raining.  Avraham is forever being told that his dealings with God are for his children after him, and Yitzchak doesn't seem involved with this world at all, but Ya'akov is always dealing with immediate issues and problems. He's eternally in sink or swim mode.  So, how is Ya'akov a Patriarch at all, and even referred to as the best as well?

            In many ways Ya'akov is the most problematic of the Avot.  Since I find it so easy to identify with him, that implies that he doesn't portray that bigger than life aspect I see in his father and grandfather.  He seems to be struggling with the same mundane problems which plague us, just more so.  We all have to deal with sibling rivalry, but it doesn't usually reach mortal proportions.  In laws can also be an issue, but we don't usually have to flee their home in the middle of the night or feel cheated in all our negotiations with them.  For most of us they're just sort of a dull pain that we only notice when we poke it.  Also, it seems a bit ironic that someone whose epithet is father, endures so many parenting problems.  Without going into the issue of blame; rapes, attempted murders and kidnappings within the family are rather rare, but he suffered them all.  So, it's confusing that he is called the greatest of the Patriarchs.  It calls into question what the Sages are looking for in Patriarchs.  The normative approach to explain his greatness is that his bed was complete.  By that the Sages mean that all of his children were members of the club.  Avraham had Yishmael and Yitzchak had Esav, who forged paths outside our tradition, but all of Ya'akov's twelve sons become the founders of their own tribes within the nation.  That's one of the reasons that we're called the children of Israel or Ya'akov rather than of Avraham or Yitzchak.

            I believe though that there is a more fundamental or philosophic issue at work.  I think that to understand this issue we must understand the term used to describe the major feature of Ya'akov's character, and that term is Tiferet. (Many authorities count Ya'akov's main trait as emet, truth based on Micha 7:20.  However, in mystical circles he corresponds to the third stage of the sefirot or Tiferet.)   It's very hard to translate this word.  Yet we say every morning that God crowned Israel with this aspect (Otar Yisrael b'Tifara).  It's constructed from the word pe'er, which itself can mean glory or beauty.  Tiferet is probably an intensification of that word, and is usually rendered as splendor.  But what do we mean when we say that Ya'akov is Tiferet?  In what way was he splendid?  Usually we understand the Tiferet nature of Ya'akov as his synthesis of his father's and grandfather's traits.  I don't think that Yitzchak was even aware that his fulfillment of the covenant was different from his father's.  When our parsha begins by emphasizing 'these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac (Genesis 25:19),' and later states 'Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham (26:18),' it means that Yitchak was working hard to be his father.

            Ya'akov was fifteen when Avraham died and had ample opportunity to study his father and grandfather.  He clearly observed the differences of style and approach.  The greatness of Ya'akov was that he saw the greatness of each and endeavored to blend them into a new paradigm incorporating the strengths of each.  This integration produced a beautiful tapestry of differing hues woven together so masterfully that it produced a product so splendid that we call it Tiferet, the prototype of beauty.  That's the normal approach, and it has great merit.  However, I think that there's more to the picture.

            I think that the artistry of Ya'akov was even greater.  He understood from his scrutiny of his forebears that greatness can be achieved in a variety of ways, and that everyone has to contribute to the eternal enterprise based upon their unique skill set.  This explains why the blessings given by Yitzchak this week seemed generic.  He bestowed the blessings of wealth and power then he consecrated Ya'akov with the spiritual blessing of Avraham.  However, at the end of his own life Ya'akov gives each of the twelve tribes very specific blessings calibrated to the special characteristics of each son. 

            Now we can begin to appreciate the true Tiferet of Ya'akov's artistry.  He didn't just weave the gorgeous strands which he inherited into an amazing work of art; he spun new threads based upon the rainbow of possibilities he discerned among his offspring.  He became a prism which refracted all the world's light into its constituent parts.  That's why the nation is called B'nei Yisroel, his children.  He empowered us to make our unique contribution to the destiny of our people.  He is our parent continuing to encourage us to be Jewish and be true to ourselves.

            I want my children and grandchildren to be loyal members of the Jewish people and still feel confident enough in themselves to express their own inner selves. Ya'akov taught us how to do that, and that's a many splendid thing.                             

 


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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Walk Article

FOUR ARE THE MOTHERS

Chaye Sarah-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            These past couple of weeks I've been writing about the Patriarchs.  I can't in full conscience do Ya'akov until next week, because he's not born until then.  So, it's appropriate this week to say something about the Matriarchs, because in this week's parsha we have the changing of the guard from Sarah to Rivka and the traditional yahrzeit of Rachel (11 Marcheshvan) was just a few days ago.  Before I try to analyze their role, I must say how important it is to have these marvelous women in our tradition, because our daughters need role models as much as our sons do.  Our Tanach thankfully has strong female characters for us to recognize the contributions of women to our nation's destiny.  When preparing for Sukkot I always suggest having Ushpizot (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth and Esther), along with the traditional Ushpizim.  So, it's crucially important for our people to understand these great personalities, and endeavor to emulate them in our own families and lives.

These women are initially seen as wives, and even though that's very important it's not enough to fully understand either the totality of their roles or of themselves.  Marriage in Judaism is, of course, extremely important.  We have many proverbs about marriage, but I'd like to quote two: "He who has found a wife has found happiness" (Proverbs 18:22). Closer to home, we recently read, "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him" (Genesis 2:18).  We believe that it's only in the marriage setting that individuals become whole humans.  Not that there aren't marvelous people functioning well as singles, but the ideal and the norm is as couples.  Even as couples, we have two visions of the phenomenon.  There is the biological model in which the main purpose of the union is to propagate the family and the race.  As humanity passes the seven billion mark we may want to back off a little from that one.  But Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1994) discusses at length another aspect of marriage.  He refers to it as covenantal marriage.  This describes a much more profound relationship in which the two partners join together for a purpose greater than just reproduction.    Perhaps this is why three of the Matriarchs were infertile, to demonstrate that there was more to their relationships than biology.

            So, these women were more than just a source for DNA for the nascent nation.  They were partners in the enterprise.  It's interesting that in our times we've seen such marvelous women.  Two of the giants of the previous generation were the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) and Rabbi Soloveitchik.  They both had wives who famously contributed immensely to their missions in life.  Mrs. Tonya Lewitt Soloveitchik (1904-1967) had a doctorate in Education from Jena University.  Amazingly for a famous rabbinic family of that era, this was not an arranged marriage.  The Rav referred to her as his best (maybe only) friend.  She took a leading role in the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, and was influential in that school's revolutionary positions on Jewish education for women.  Mrs. Chaya Mushka Schneerson (1901-1988) was the daughter of the previous Rebbe.  Their marriage was almost a merger, but she was a major force in the movement, especially for women's issues.  Also, it's rumored in the movement that she prevailed upon her husband to accept the mantle when he was reluctant to replace his beloved father in law.  It's interesting that she had no children, again, that hearkens back to the matriarchs.

      The Rav in a number of essays wrote about the differing roles of men and women in marriage, but he always stressed that these are typological categories.  It would be fine in any specific case for the roles to be fulfilled by either spouse.  Having said that, the Rav explained the particular roles traditionally assigned to parents.  The Rav's view was that "the teaching and training of the child involves a double task, intellectual and experiential," and went on to state that "the typological father bears responsibility for the former, the mother for the latter." In short, generally the father is in charge of IQ and the mother is in charge of EQ.

            Our Matriarchs taught us, perhaps, the most important lesson of being a help mate (ezer k'negdo).  That idea is that the best partner furthers the enterprise through honesty, not through sycophancy or flattery.  These women were not afraid to speak their minds and push the agenda which they saw was best for the future of the Jewish people.   It can't have been easy for Sarah to demand that Yishmael be banished, and Avraham didn't initially take it so well.  It actually took Divine intervention for him to accept this harsh decision.   We take God's instruction to heed Sarah very seriously.  She has a voice.  Rivka took a stronger stance by convincing Ya'akov to defy Yitzchak.  Most commentaries understand Yitzchak's statement 'indeed he shall remain blessed (Genesis 27:33)' as an acceptance of the initiative of Rivka and Ya'akov.  Difficult challenges from the wives end up being accepted by the husbands, because there is an understanding of the nature of the partnership.  These women pull their weight in ways which were unusual for that era, and must be continued in our own.

            No one would have the chutzpah to deny the place of a strong mother in the Jewish family and community.  I'm sadly disappointed when that honor is not extended to women in general.  Yitzchak understood this reality.  He clearly saw Rivka as a replacement for the strong role of his mother in his life (Genesis 24:67).  This week's celebration of the life of Sarah should remind us of the crucial role of women in our nation's past.  Let's work to make sure that we utilize their talents for our people's present and future.            

 

 


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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Walk Article

YITZCHAK:  THE NEXT GENERATION

Vayeira-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            This week we are introduced to Yitzchak.  But not really.  I don't think that we ever get to know this enigmatic character.  I believe that we read Bible stories to be able to learn positive human behavior.   Emulate the conduct of the good guys; reject the manner of the bad guys.  Often this leads me to trouble.  I have trouble trying to be like Avraham, his majestic goodness is just too perfect; his awesome altruism is just too absolute.  I fall short.  I have trouble trying to imitate Yitzchak, because I don't get it.  I get lost.  So, this week I'll try to fathom the nature and contribution of Yitzchak, which makes him one of the three Patriarchs and founders of our religion and way of life.  This is not an easy task.  He just doesn't exhibit the heroic magnificence of his illustrious father.

            First of all, allow me to introduce the topic by explaining that our Sages established many of our customs and liturgy based upon the reality that there are and must be, three Patriarchs.  The expression 'God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak and God of Ya'akov' is almost a mantra in our prayer book.  In mystical terms these three gentlemen represent the fundamental character traits of chesed (kindness), gevura (c-c-c-courage) and tiferet (splendor).  Many explain this triumvirate as representing the three pillars of our universe, Torah, avodah (Divine service) and gemillat chesed.  Our three dimensional world has three basic attributes and three avatars.  The Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky of Slonim, 1911-2000) suggested that we need these three founding fathers to counteract the deleterious behavior of the original generations.  They each are the tikun (repair) for the sin of the fruit, the sin of the generation of the flood and the sin of the Tower of Babel.  So, to establish the nation there must be three founders.  But what is the special contribution of Yitzchak? 

            We don't see Yitzchak doing all that much.  For a man who lived to be one hundred and eighty, we don't have much material to go on.  He doesn't seem all that comfortable with people.   Also, he seems very passive.  Most events surrounding his life seem to happen to him, rather than he taking charge of events.  His father attempts to sacrifice him, his marriage is arranged seemingly without his knowledge, his wells are destroyed, and his wife and son trick him into blessing the wrong child.  He appears to be the opposite of his father, who is the ultimate take charge guy.  Avraham lives in the largest available communities of Hebron and Be'er Sheva.  Yitzchak prefers the isolation of Be'er Lechai Ro'i, an oasis in the deep desert.  How is this fellow the heir to Avraham's revolution in human spirituality?

            Perhaps the greatest message in this mystery is that there are many potential models of Jewish success.  We are not tied to one paradigm.  The zadik or religious leader comes in many guises.  Avraham is the social version, and Yitzchak is the recluse type.  Matters of style aren't important to the mission.  But what is the mission?  A study of Avraham would lead us to believe that the mission is to spread the message of ethical monotheism as far as possible.  However, with Yitzchak we have no souls gathered for the cause.  If anything the followers brought into the tent by Avraham are lost and dispersed.  So, what does Yitzchak do for the furtherance of the operation?

            To answer this difficult question, I believe that we must rely on the mystics.  The power or character of Yitzchak is described as gevurah.  We usually translate this term as either courage or bravery.  But how do we view bravery?  The answer to this can found in a famous Mishneh in Pirkei Avot:  Who is the brave warrior (Hebrew:  gibor)? One who overpowers his own inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city." (Chapter 4, Mishneh 1).  The greatest bravery is displayed within the individual rather than against the outside world.  Ultimately our greatest foe is ourselves.  Yitzchak conquered the greatest natural inclination, namely self preservation, in the Akeida, that attempted sacrifice of him.  That inner strength to forfeit everything before the will of God is a rare commodity indeed.

            This gevurah is viewed as the tikun for the sin of the generation of the flood.  Apparently the three part sinful behavior of that time period included violence, theft and promiscuity.  The society became so corrupt that no one attempted to control any urges, no matter how selfish, no matter how debased.  In Pirkei Avot we also informed that there are three destructive character traits, which mirror the three positives represented by the Avot.  They are jealousy (kinah), lust (ta'avah) and the pursuit of honor (kavod).  Yitzchak's gevurah is the antidote for lust or desire. His gevurah enables him to rein in even normal levels of desire.  I think that his greatest level of gevurah was to continue the spiritual path of his father.  If Yitzchak were given carte blanche to develop a religion, I believe that he would have concocted a system based on asceticism and solitude.  But that's not what he did.  He worked hard to continue his father's ways.  That's the profound symbolism in the wells that he dug to replace those of his father which were being destroyed (Genesis 26:15-22).   He didn't dig anew; he refreshed his father's wells.

            The greatest display of gevurah or self control isn't the one time deal of the Akeidah. It's the life long struggle to continue his father's work, rather than replace it with his own.  It's relatively easy to be brave for a moment, but it's infinitely harder to display self control for a lifetime.  Yitzchak had that strength.  In the story of the Akeidah twice it states that father and son walked together.  That's true. They trod the same path, but in very different styles; same path, different steps.                          

 


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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Walk Article

AVRAHAM:  THE FIRST WHAT?

Lech Licha-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Last week I wrote about the choseness of the Jewish people.  This week I'd like to address the problem of why we were chosen, through our ancestor Avraham.  The issue seems to be crystal clear to many observers.  If we conducted a survey amongst Jews (many Christians would say that it was grace, or arbitrary.), I think that the answer we'd get most often would be that he was the first to accept monotheism.  However, this answer isn't tenable based of the text of our Bible.  Adam, Chanoch, Noach and Shem all seemed to be monotheists who preceded him.  So, the answer must be found elsewhere, but the verses don't seem very helpful.  Midrashic literature thrives on these lacunae (Look it up!).  I'll present just one of many options, but I'd like to suggest as well that a careful reading of the text gives us a very beautiful response to this critical question.

            As I said there are many Midrashim describing courageous acts by Avraham which explain God's granting of the eternal covenant to his progeny.  Some of these are so famous, like smashing the idols in his father's idol shop, that many people think that they appear in the Biblical text.  However, the one Midrash I want to present is very different.  When Avraham was commanded to:  'Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father's house to the land which I will show you' (Genesis12:2), the Midrash asks To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: "Is it possible that the palace has no owner?" The owner of the palace looked out and said, "I am the owner of the palace." So Abraham our father said, "Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?" God looked out and said to him, "I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe (Breishit Raba 39:1)."  This is the teleological or reason from design support for the existence of God.  That part is fine, but why is this symbolic palace on fire?

            Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote the following answer to that question:  I have never heard a more profound and unsettling account of the nature of the universe. We believe that it is like a palace. Someone designed it. Someone built it.  Someone therefore owns it…The universe is a contradiction. On the one hand, order, on the other, chaos; on the one hand, the palace, on the other, the flames.  Abraham lived, and we live, with that contradiction.  And as the Midrash indicates, there is only one way out.  God is calling us, as He called Abraham: "Help Me put out the flames."  And we have to help God put them out. This is what Judaism means when it says that God asks us to be His partners in the work of creation. No other religion and no secular philosophy has thought in these terms…Jews don't accept the world.  We try to mend it, knowing how deeply it is fractured.  That is why I am proud to be a Jew (Letters to the Next Generation 2, chapter 12).  Thank you Rabbi Sacks, Lord Aldgate, I think that's a great explanation for what was unique about Avraham and what continues to make our religion special in the world.

            But what happens when we look at the verses, unvarnished by these rabbinic glosses and fables?  I believe that we can get the same perspective.  God tells Avraham to leave his home and homeland, without clear instructions about where he is to go or what he is to expect upon arrival.  This is so very different from the instructions given to Noach.  Noach is told to build an ark, a very arduous task, but he is given very specific instructions and he understands that by building this boat he and his family will be saved from imminent inundation.  Avraham is given no such assurances.  The upside of following God's command is very nebulous.  He is told that he will be a blessing for all mankind, but what does it mean that he will be a blessing?  What does he get that he will bestow upon others?  Therefore it must mean that the reward for listening to God, is listening to God.  The reward for being good is being good.   Avraham is being told to buy into a new rubric for life without tangible payment.  Of course, if I have faith in God, I believe that working hard to have a better world will give me the greatest compensation, namely a better world for me and my progeny, and that's cool.

            Avraham is being let into life's greatest secret.  The greatest rewards aren't bestowed from an outside force, they are generated internally by my own efforts and exertions.   This is, of course, the basis for the many rabbinic teachings about performing God's instructions for their own sake (lishma), and the famous statement:  Do not be as servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the reverence of Heaven should be upon you (Pirkei Avot 1:3).  There may be a great lollipop at the end of the road, but that's not why we travel that road.  We travel it because it's the right road, and I couldn't live with myself if I eschewed it.

            We call this attitude Gemillat Chesed, a life filled with acts of loving kindness.  Avraham in the mystical spheres represents Chesed.  These acts are the greatest kindness, because they are only performed out of love.  Love for humanity, love for God, love for doing what's right.

            Avraham taught us that the awe of God isn't because of what the Deity may do to me or for me.  It's just because God allows me to be a partner in the enterprise.  We like the company.         

    

 


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walk Article

THE CHOSEN

Noach-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            This week's Torah reading presents those of us trying to compose a cogent piece, perhaps, the greatest difficulty in finding a central theme to develop.   Discussing Noach himself is always a possibility, but not a very attractive one.  We always get stuck on our ambivalence toward this enigmatic and reluctant hero.  Was he really worthy or just the best of a bad lot?  No one knows for sure, and the circular debates go on unabated.  However, the greatest question nagging the reader of this week's parsha is probably, why do we bother with this material?  Who really cares what happened to the generation of the flood or the builders of the Tower?  They are gone and forgotten, because both their DNA and their ideology are no longer relevant.  So, in retrospect what can we really garner from this week's eclectic collection of tales?   I think that the upshot of the messy material presented in parshat Noach is that there's a necessity to have a chosen nation.  The world at large tends towards either chaos (the generation of the Flood) or totalitarianism (the generation of the Tower of Babel).  For humankind to continue to develop and evolve there must be at least one group staying focused on the prize, universal ethical monotheism.

            I'd like to ignore one of the most fascinating problems in this issue, namely why us.  This quandary will be dealt with in separate articles discussing the merits of the Patriarchs.  Instead I'm going to try to figure out whether or not this appointment has been good or bad for the Jews.  It's indisputable that this choseness has been cited by anti-Semites for a long time.  I find it intriguing that before two centuries ago most of the diatribes against the Jews were based on the theory within Christian dogma that Christianity replaced Judaism as the New Israel.  Augustine (354-430) cited the continued existence of the Jews as bearing witness through their suffering of their rejection by God.  Somehow that proves the veracity of Christian claims of becoming God's elect.  This so called Replacement Theology hated the Jews more for their continued rejection of the Church than for the charge of Deicide.

            In the past two centuries, the thrust of anti-Semitism has shifted to a hatred of Jews because we claim to be chosen within a context of universalism, where there can be no claim of preference or special status for any one people.  President Charles de Gaulle of France articulated this position when he observed in a news conference shortly after 1967's Six Day War that the Jews have long been an 'elite people, self confident and domineering' who are 'provoking ill will.'   Why not blame the victims?   More recently the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis told an interviewer that 'today it is possible to say that this small nation is the root of all evil; it is full of self-importance and evil stubbornness.'  The Jewish interviewer then asked what holds the Jews together, and Theodorakis explained that it's our choseness.  It's interesting that the theme of stubbornness persists.  In the Middle Ages we were stubborn to reject the choseness of the Church and today we're stubborn, because we continue to believe in our own choseness.  God called the Jews of the desert stiff necked or stubborn.  This trait has remained throughout the ages.  I guess it's one of the reasons that we're still here.

            But what is the essence of this choseness?  We get our first inkling next week, when Avraham is told:  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).  Later in Genesis we are given a concrete example of this phenomenon in the Joseph story.   Joseph saves Egypt and, indeed, the entire Middle East, during the seven years of famine.  Just as was promised to Avraham, the chosen are meant to benefit the unchosen as well.  This may explain the title given to Joseph by the Egyptians.  He is called Avrech (41:43), and although there are a number of interpretations for this name, it does seem to be related to the word baruch or blessing.  The Jew is expected to bring tangible benefits to the gentile population, and they are expected to acknowledge this bounty.

            This amazing story contrasts with the traditional point of view that the benefits bestowed by the Jews are spiritual and intangible.  This is, of course, based on the expression in the book of Isaiah, ohr lagoyim.  This phrase appears three times:  I am the Lord; I called you with righteousness and I will strengthen your hand; and I formed you, and I made you for a people's covenant, for a light to nations (42:6); It is too small a thing for you to be My servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the besieged of Israel, but I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth (49:6); And nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine (60:3).  These verses become the basis for the mission theory of Jewish destiny.   I believe that a careful reading of these three verses seems to lead to a double conclusion.  The Jews have a duty to maintain and continually renew our own ethnicity, but we also have a responsibility to provide guidance to the world at large.

I have a strong suspicion that these two goals can never be uncoupled.  Even though there have been long periods of Jewish history when one position overshadowed the other, I think that the two must coexist.  Sometimes our influence has been indirect and other times we've intimately worked with other nationalities, but the two march in lock stepped unity.  The best expression of this duality is the Aleinu prayer which concludes all of our synagogue services.  In the first paragraph, we discuss our national obligation to worship and revere God, and recognition that we are unique in this commitment.  The second paragraph, on the other hand, emphasizes our duty to spread this message and make this world a better place.  For me the critical phrase is 'to repair the world under the Kingdom of God.'  The text goes to anticipate the time when 'all living flesh will call Your name, and for all the wicked of the Earth to turn to You.' 

We Jews have an eternal balancing act.  We must maintain our separateness while simultaneously feeling a strong requirement to influence others.  If we veer too far to one extreme we lose our identity, if we move to the other pole we lose our mission and purpose.  It's not easy, but it's our role. 

             

 


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Monday, October 17, 2011

Walk Article

TO BE HUMAN

B'reishit-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The way our Jewish calendar works out most years it's a problem trying to fit in an article for parshat B'reishit, the first Torah reading of our annual cycle.  With all the holidays, it's just difficult finding the time to send a piece out for this majestic section of our Torah.  But this year I was determined, at the risk of offending and ignoring the last days of Sukkot, to write something about this interesting, but challenging parsha.  Now I just have to figure out which point to discuss.  There's just so much in this powerhouse parsha.  We could look at the Creation of the Cosmos, the first sin, the first homicide, the first Shabbat, the Garden of Eden.  But ultimately, I believe that the most important issue in the Torah reading is the emergence of Homo sapiens, of us.

            The creation of humanity actually appears twice (This dichotomy is the basis for Rabbi Soloveitchik's famous article, The Lonely Man of Faith.).  In the first chapter of our Bible, it reports:  And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth." And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).  That's pretty cool.  Our human uniqueness is based upon our sharing something in common with God called image.  But I have no idea what that is.  In the second chapter it records:  And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul (2:7).  That's a little better.  What makes us special is that we are a combination of base, earthly stuff, but also a little whiff of something ethereal and supernal called a soul, which descended directly from God.  We bridge that gap between heaven and earth; we stride between the two.  How does that special nature get expressed in our lives and our behavior?

            There are some famous answers to this age old query of how does the uniqueness of humanity get expressed.  Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said that man is a social animal (alternate version:  political).  The great philosopher believed that we're defined by our interactions with other naked apes.  Modern scientific observation reinforces this idea.  We've taught a number of chimpanzees to recognize some words by pointing to them on signs.  When two of these uber monkeys get together, they throw the placards at each other.  When two human babies know how to talk they begin to communicate.  Many start communicating before they can really talk. The communication between other animals is only utilitarian; we just like to communicate, usually when we shouldn't.  The French rationalist and mathematician, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) gave the quintessential answer:  Cogito, ergo sum.  I think or contemplate and, therefore, I am.  Humans are the animals who think about things.  In biology, we're designated Homo Sapiens, which means animals who know.  In the Wikipedia article, humans are the animals capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving.  And WordNet defines us as characterized by superior intelligence, articulate speech, and erect carriage.

            All of that is interesting, but not so helpful or uplifting.  What do Jewish sources say about this?  The Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) defines us as the beings who walk and move forward, as opposed to angels who stand and are static.  Our humanity allows us to evolve and improve.  We make mistakes but are capable of learning from them.  Not so different from Aristotle, many rabbinic sources refer to humans as the animals which talk.  Rabbi Joseph  Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) used a famous statement in the Mishneh to define our humanity.  It says in Baba Kama:   Humans are always responsible for their actions, whether by mistake or on purpose, whether awake or asleep (chapter 2, mishneh 6).  According to the Rav, our humanity is embedded in our responsibility for our actions.  This responsibility for our behavior is at the root of our system of mitzvoth, and is the basis for potential punishments for crimes, and underpins our concept of Teshuva, repentance.  This was the rationale of Maimonides to place the concept of free will in the middle two chapters of his Laws of Repentance.

            I think that the best answer is actually given by God in our Torah reading.  When God addresses the depressed Cain after his sacrifice has not been accepted, this is the message:  Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it (Genesis 4:6-7).  In the Hebrew, sin is waiting at the opening (petach), which can mean many things, the womb, any opportunity or the grave.  This is the greatest expression humanity's duality.  We are composed of the earthly stuff (best stuff on earth?) which is drawn to temptation and sin, but we can and must over come these baser instincts.  We accomplish that by sublimating our physical urges and turn them to spiritual goals.

            The first chapters of Genesis haven't taught me cosmology; they've informed me of psychology.  We haven't been instructed about the development of DNA and the rise of life; we've been tutored in how to be human.  We're so very close to our animal relatives, but with a touch of something Divine. 

            We are made of the same ingredients as the animal kingdom, therefore we have all the same urges and needs for nourishment and procreation, but possess the soul, spirit and conscious to control and direct them, when we try.  That defines us and makes all the difference between beast and human being, and vive le difference.         

 


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Monday, October 10, 2011

Walk Article

THE BRONZE MEDAL

Sukkot-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            How does it feel to come in third?  I guess that depends on many conditions.  In a world wide competition, it must feel pretty special.  In a three man race, not so much.  With the Three Stooges, being third never gave Curly much solace.  However, in many lists of three, in both the Bible and world culture, the third in a list is often the honored position.  As in 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'  It's called a tri-colon, and the third item is the most powerful or memorable.  I mention this idea this week, because Sukkot occupies just such a third place position.  In the month of Tishre it follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and, let's be honest, it doesn't get the same crowds as those first two heavy hitters.  But also in the Jewish annual cycle of pilgrimage feasts, it occupies third place after Pesach and Shavuot.  How should it feel about this third place finish?  Well, since we're getting ready to celebrate it, I think that we'll try to make it feel good.

            In all the Torah's lists of the holidays, Exodus (chapters 23 and 34), Leviticus (chapter 23), Numbers (chapter 28 and 19) and Deuteronomy (chapter 16), Sukkot is always last.  The most obvious reason for this is chronology.  It both comes third in the Torah's count of months and historically commemorates the years in the desert which followed the events of Pesach, departing Egypt, and Shavuot, the revelation at Sinai.  Also, it is third in the agricultural significance of the holidays, since Pesach is a planting holiday, Shavuot is a first fruits commemoration, while Shavuot is a harvest feast.  However, we're less interested in these technical points, and more concerned to discover what spiritual significance this third place finish imparts to our Sukkot experience.

Although many authorities deal with this issue, it is the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) who really got involved in this question, and gave numerous answers over a number of years to this query.  At one point he suggested that the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot correspond to the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, who is third but called the choicest of the Patriarchs.  Another time he said that the three pilgrimage festivals repair (tikun) the three most grievous sins, idolatry, adultery and murder.  Yet a third suggestion was that the three feasts represent the three spiritual realms of action, speech and thought.  However, there are two more suggestions made by the Sfat Emet, which I want to take a look at in greater detail.

In 1874, the second Gerrer Rebbe wrote that the three holidays line up with the famous threesome from the second verse of Shema, in which we proclaim that you should love your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).  On Pesach as we left Egypt we also left behind our evil inclination so that our hearts could be totally devoted to God, with no other suitors for our affections.  That's all you heart. On Shavuot while listening to God's awesome voice we felt our souls departing from our physical forms, and knew that there would be times when we would have to lay down our lives for God and the Torah.  The third member of this trio is translated as 'with all your might.'  Our Sages understood this to mean with all of our financial resources.  Indeed, on Sukkot we depart from our fine homes to dwell in flimsy huts.  This demonstrates our willingness to sacrifice financial well being for God, if need be.  This third commitment is the hardest, not because we love money so much (well, maybe there are some such Jews, like Jack Benny), but because it requires us to sacrifice on an ongoing basis, which can affect our lives constantly.  Poverty doesn't go away easily or quickly.

            In that same d'var Torah the Rebbe mentions another approach to this issue, namely that the three holidays also represent the three corrosive character traits, jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor.  In 1876 he expanded on this theme in the name of his grandfather, the first Gerrer Rebbe, who raised him.  He doesn't really explain how Pesach and Shavuot counteract jealousy and lust, and I'm not going to speculate, because this is not an article about those holidays. However, he does expand on the relationship of Sukkot to the pursuit of honor.  The symbolism of our dwelling in these huts commemorates the clouds of glory or honor which enveloped our ancestors during their forty year trek through the wilderness.  This glorious manifestation of God's presence and love for us gave the Jews an overwhelming sense of national pride, worth and honor.  At that moment no earthly honors could possibly entice us.  We were totally beyond the clutches of mundane lust for power and position.  The sukkah and its cloudlike flimsy roof is an antidote for what drives much of humanity's worst characteristics of greed and egocentrism.

            Why does the Sfat Emet mention these two answers together?  Why does he believe that these two answers can coexist?  Well, I think that the Rebbe is teaching us that these two answers work together, because they function as explanations for a famous argument in the Talmud.  Rebbe Elazar says that our sukkot remind of those glorious clouds which accompanied our ancestors, while Rebbe Akiva claims that they represent the actual huts in which the Jews dwelled in the desert (tractate Sukah 11b).  So, the Gerrer Rebbe is teaching us that the actual hut answer is connected to devoting all of our resources to God and spirituality.  On the other hand, the comparison of our sukah's roof to the clouds of glory emphasizes how Sukkot helps us repair the human desire to pursue honor and power.

            So, this Sukkot when we sit in our humble huts we should strive to eliminate our negative tendencies and strengthen our positive inclinations.  Sitting in the sukkah should be a lot of fun for every Jewish family, but also a motivation to become better human beings, and that's a first place idea.  Chag Sameach!                             

 


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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Walk Article

MEANINGFUL CEREMONIES

Yom Kippur-5772

Rabbi David Walk

           

            Every year Yom Kippur looms as a major presence on the Jewish calendar.  Sadly, I think, most people approach this occasion with a certain dread.  As a rabbi the day intimidates because of the high profile speaking spots which must be prepared.  Many are concerned about the fasting, others are freaked by the long services, and still others have spiritual concerns that they will be found wanting and religiously inadequate.  None of these reactions to the approaching date are really appropriate according to Jewish tradition.  Our Sages go out of their way to encourage us about the great gift of this awesome day.  We should have faith in the redemptive power of this holiday rather than stress the trepidation before the task of fasting and repenting.  Whence does this holy day derive its curative capacity?  According to the Torah, the powers derive from the worship in the Holy Temple.  The vast majority of what the Torah records about this holiday describes the impressive ceremonies performed in Jerusalem's Holy Temple.  On Yom Kippur it's harder than at any other occasion to ignore the former centrality of sacrifices to our religion, and our present consternation over the inability to fulfill these Torah demands.        

            So, what should we do?  Some people like to ignore the problem, and just assume we're not going back there.  Others devoutly pray for the resumption of these ceremonies.  Still others (following a conjecture from Rav Kook) believe in a middle path of, perhaps limited offerings, like grain, wine and oil, excluding all the mess of animal entrails.  I, personally, have no idea, and will accept the eventual outcome as God's plan.  I think God's knows best.  However, I don't think it makes any difference how we view the now in abeyance practice.  Our job is to give the material chosen by our Sages meaning.  We have to come to grips with the prayers we chant.  These sacrificial rites occupy the central place in the Musaf service for Yom Kippur.  Much of the cantor's repetition of the prayer is a detailed step by step description of the actions required of the High Priest to attain the atonement for the nation.  What am I supposed to think and feel while the slaughtering, splashing and burning are described?

            One could take a detached position, and, just believe that we're learning some history of ancient Jewish practices.  We could react by thinking, how quaint of our ancestors to perform such rites.  I'd like to think that our service require a greater emotional involvement than that.  I think that a good prayer must be passionate.  We could believe that by reciting this material we have mystically accessed the power of these acts so that I have magically fulfilled them.  Job done or mischief managed.

            I'm not enamored of either approach.  I think that we have to think more deeply about the power of these ceremonies.  What did the penitent have to think when offering the animal?  I believe that in many societies and, sadly, amongst some Jews the feeling was popular that the sacrifice acted as a bribe.  I did something which angered the Deity and I must appease through a valuable gift.  It's sort of a quid pro quo to placate God.  I understand that idea, but I don't like it.  Since I have nothing of value to God, how can I bribe the Omnipotent?

According to many Jewish authorities and also many anthropologists studying this issue, the penitent must identify with the animal.  In our Torah and in many sacrificial societies the donor must establish a metonymy or transference of identity with the sacrifice.  This relationship is established by touching the victim on the head.  The Rav, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) commented on this concept:  Repentance takes the place of the sacrifice of myself which I had a duty to offer upon the altar.  It stands in my place and it is as if I myself were stretched out upon the altar (On Repentance, p. 246)

I think that we are saved from this view by the prophets.  On many occasions our Prophets decry the abundance of offerings.  Isaiah said:  Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? Says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want (1:11).  He later explains that they are empty or vain offerings which vex God's spirit.  Hosea, perhaps said it best: For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (6:6).  Again, Rabbi Soloveitchik comments:  When a Jew brings a sacrifice, how are his sins expiated?  Is it by virtue of a two shekel lamb?  Certainly not!  Atonement comes through the recognition and confession of sin embodied in the act of sacrifice.  This confession means abnegation and annihilation of the self, as though one were oneself laid upon the altar (On Repentance, p 242).

The Rav continues to explain that the animal is a surrogate, but nowadays it's an emotional state, not a technical transfer.  We are raising our awareness of guilt, remorse and responsibility.  Hopefully, the sacrifice is an impetus to spiritual renewal.  So, once we have disposed of a mechanistic approach to the sacrifices, we can understand that atonement is achieved through sincere remorse.  This we can achieve without the animal, if we only understand the principle.  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who witnessed the destruction of our holy Temple, taught us this two thousand ago when he comforted Rabbi Joshua who mourned our loss of the Holy Temple:  My son, do not grieve.  We have a greater atonement, and what is it?  It is sincerity and deeds of loving kindness.

May our recitation of these rites inspire us to the proper emotional and spiritual state so that we can reconcile with our Maker, our fellow humans and, most significantly, ourselves.  May your fast be easy; may your experience be meaningful.       

                  

 


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