Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Community & educational development

PRESS RELEASE
 
The Federal Grants and Loans Directory is now available. Our new and revised
2014 edition contains more than 2800 financial programs, subsidies, scholarships,
grants and loans offered by the US federal government.
 
In addition you will also have access to over 2400 programs funded by private
corporations and foundations. That is over 5200 programs available through
various sources of financial providing organizations.
 
NEW: You will also have access to our live Database that is updated on a daily
basis. This product also provides daily email alerts as programs are announced.
 
The Database is also available with IP recognition. This allows you to login
without a username or password (Great for libraries or educational institutions
who want their users to access the database).
 
Businesses, students, researchers, scientists, teachers, doctors, private individuals,
municipalities, government departments, educational institutions, law enforcement
agencies, nonprofits, foundations and associations will find a wealth of information
that will help them with their new ventures or existing projects.
 
The document is a fully searchable PDF file for easy access to your particular
needs and interests. Simply enter your keywords to search through the publication.
 
It is the perfect tool for libraries and educational institutions to use as a
reference guide for students who require funds to pursue their education.
 

Contents of the Directory:
 
-Web link to program announcement page
-Web link to Federal agency or foundation administering the program
-Authorization upon which a program is based
-Objectives and goals of the program
-Types of financial assistance offered under a program
-Uses and restrictions placed upon a program
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-Application and award process
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-Information contacts at the headquarters, regional, and local offices
-Programs that are related based upon program objectives and uses
 

Programs in the Catalog provide a wide range of benefits and services
for categories such as:
 
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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Walk Article-Va'eera

KNOWING GOD

Va'era-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Maimonides opens his greatest work, the Mishneh Torah, with the words:  The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 1:1).  Oh, really?  Notice that Maimonides doesn't say 'believe.'  He says 'know' (Hebrew: leida).  What does it mean to know something?   And, how many things do we really 'know'?  If I only believe in God, am I somehow less good than those who know God?  In the Talmud Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak informs us that there is only one fundamental principal of Torah and it's taught by the prophet Chabakuk:  The righteous will live by their faith (2:4, Makot 24a).  This is all very confusing, and this issue is presented in this week's Parsha. 

            All the trouble begins with Pharaoh.  He says: 'Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out' (Exodus 5:2).  Thus begins a concerted effort to convince Pharaoh that God is God.  The result, of course, is the series of phenomena which we call the Ten Plagues.  But this gets us into the biggest dilemma.  Do we believe in signs and wonders?  A quick look at the mitzvah against believing in false prophets teaches us that we don't.  Maimonides writes:  Thus, we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder he performs alone, as if to say: If he performs a wonder we will listen to everything he says… Therefore, if a prophet arises and attempts to dispute Moses' prophecy by performing great signs and wonders, we should not listen to him. We know with certainty that he performed those signs through magic or sorcery. This conclusion is reached because the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, is not dependent on wonders (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 8:2-3).  This mitzvah to reject false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:2-10 & 18:15-22) seems to teach that we really don't pay attention to signs and wonders.  Instead we accept the covenant at Sinai as the basis for our relationship with God, no matter what else happens. 

            So, now we have two problems.  Must we actually know about God or is belief enough and what are all the miracles and wonders about?  Let's begin with the second issue.  The verses which describe the need for the plagues are basically aimed at Pharaoh and Egypt, as in "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst (Exodus 7:5)."  The process of educating the Egyptians is different than the curriculum for the Jews.  Maimonides takes a different approach.  He explains that 'All the wonders performed by Moses were not intended to serve as proof of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. The same applies to all other wonders (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 8:1).'  I think that the general approach is that miracles are great but the basis of our relationship with God.

            Now the thornier problem.  There are verses which seem to demand knowledge of God, for example:  Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:7).  But there are other famous and powerful verses which seem to dictate that the requirement is belief.  The most prominent of which is 'And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant (Exodus 14:31).'  Maimonides seems clear that we must achieve an actual knowledge of God, and belief is not enough.  I quoted from the Mishneh Torah at the beginning of this article and he is just as powerful on the topic in his Thirteen Principles.  However this position is harder to defend in the modern world where philosophical proofs for the existence of God are generally frowned upon, even by philosophers of religion.  Today most Jewish thinkers talk about belief in God rather than systematic proofs which achieve knowledge.

            Ultimately I don't think that it makes much difference.  Emotionally I feel connected to the idea from the Talmud when quoting Chabakuk.  But I believe that the crucial idea is emphasized in the prayer U'va L'tziyon Goel  (And a Redeemer will come to Zion), which we recite daily before leaving synagogue to face the world outside.  At the end of this prayer our Sages arranged three verses which forcefully endorse a slightly different agenda:  But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and has made the Lord his hope and confidence (Jeremiah 17:7), Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:4), And those who know Your name shall trust in You, for You have not forsaken those who seek You, O Lord (Psalm 9:11).  However we arrive at our relationship with God, either through intellectual knowledge or emotional belief, we must put our faith and trust in God that following the Torah and observing the mitzvoth will always be the best policy.

            The authors of this prayer are reminding us before we go out into the world that we will be judged by both God and man by our behavior.  We trust in God so that we are honest and upright at all times.  The motivation for our connection to God isn't such a big deal.  We left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai so that we'd show the world our trust in God and the Torah.   I hope that we display this trust every day.

 

 

  

 

 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Walk Article-Shmot

CATCHING FIRE

Shmot-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            In one of the more bizarre scenes from a movie with many bizarre scenes, 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', the Knights who say 'Ni!' demand a shrubbery from King Arthur.  They want an arrangement which is both 'one that looks nice' and is 'not too expensive'.  I feel like I've gotten similar instructions many times.  My horticultural knowledge is very limited.  I can recognize an apple tree when there are actual apples hanging from it.  That's about it.  Therefore I have no idea what constitutes a 'shrubbery'.  Nor do I know what is meant by a sneh in this week's Torah reading.  But this horticultural savvy must be important because both here and in other episodes many rabbinic statements are based upon the nature of different plants and trees in our sacred texts.  Even though I'm botanically challenged our Sages were definitely not.  Their appreciation for nature included a wide knowledge of flora which allowed them to connect with many Biblical messages embedded in the text's choice of plant life.  Let's see what I can glean from some of their observations.

            Our Tanach, especially Psalms, is filled with agricultural allusions, and trees are foremost among them. Besides Moshe's encounter with the sneh, probably the most famous tree reference (out of many) is in the book of Shoftim.  The charismatic leader Yotam, Gidon's son, cries out a parable about his ruthless half brother, Avimelech, who claim's the throne of Israel. This dramatic scene played out above the city of Shechem features many tree species.  In the allegory the crown was offered to the olive tree, then to the fig tree and finally to the grape vine.  None of these noble and productive plants accept the scepter.  However, the atad, probably another name for the sneh (according to the website http://www.sendflowers.co.il/SitePage.aspx?PageID=1183 they are both either the Alexandrian or Tinnevelli Senna) accepts the mantle of power.  Yotam is clearly proclaiming that the thorn bush is the least worthy of trees.  We get the message over there in the book of Judges, but what is the point here in parshat Shmot?

            I think that there are two issues which must be understood in this episode.  First, what is the significance of the angel (and later, God) appearing in this lowly vegetation?  And what's with the burning and not consumed?  The first question has many answers.  In the various Midrashim numerous rabbis asked why God of on high appeared in the lowly thorn bush.  Here is a sampling of suggested answers:  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said the sneh is the hardest plant to escape from no bird enters without being torn to shreds, so, too, the Jews are enslaved in the toughest country. Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said that God could have appeared on mountain peaks or from the highest tree, but this fulfills the verse, 'the lowly of spirit maintain honor (Proverbs 29:23)'. Rabbi Yehoshua said that God wanted to show that the Holy Presence was also suffering with the Jews. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha said that this teaches that there is no place free from the Divine Presence even the lowly sneh.  Rabbi Yosi said that it's because the thorn bush is pure for no idolaters worship it.  Rabbi Elazar said that it teaches that the Jews had sunk to the lowest possible level. Rabbi Pinchas Hacohen said that just as it is easy to put your hand into a thorn bush but it's hard to escape, so, too, Egypt made it easy for the Jews to move there but leaving is difficult. Rabbi Yochanan said that just as the thorn bushes are used to fence in gardens, so, too, the Jews will be the sentinels for the world; and just as the thorn bush produces roses and thorns, so, too, the Jewish nation will produce both righteous and wicked.  Phew!  And that's just the most famous answers.  The list goes on.  Many messages, all of them revolve around the concept that lowliness and humility can camouflage greatness and power.

            But what about the bush burning without being consumed?  Here, again there are many answers, however allow me to concentrate on just two.  The first is obvious, but still must be stated.  This burning bramble which isn't consumed is symbolic of our long and tragic history.  Our nation is always on fire, but with Divine protection we aren't consumed we continue to exist through every hardship.  So much of our national tale is about putting out fires which others intend to destroy us forever.  In this image we have abandoned the idea that tortuous Egypt is a sneh, instead we are a sneh gnarled and oppressed through out history.       

On the other hand, there is another reality which must be addressed.  As individuals we also burn.  Some of us burn with rage.  That fire sadly consumes the individual.  Others burn with jealousy, desire and lust.  That fire also consumes the bearer.  But there is another fire.  There are wonderful people who burn with a Godly fire, which warm all those who come into contact with them.  The holy fire which burns brightly in the bosom of many of our spiritual giants, doesn't consume.  It enhances.  There is a Midrash states that the Gematria (numerical value) of hasneh is one hundred, the years of Moshe, because in this scenario, Moshe is the burning bush.

            Over thirty years ago I had the privilege to learn Torah from Rabbi Zalman Posner, longtime rabbi of Nashville, TN, may he live and be well.  He explained that the great humility of Moshe (Numbers 12:4) is 'discontent, a turning, an urge to growth, a dissatisfaction with one's spiritual status quo.'  Moshe burned with this fire, and merited to convey God's Torah to the world.  Rabbi Posner burns with that fire and affected generations of Jews, with his classes, writings and warmth.

            Each one of us must catch that glow and stoke it into a fire.  But we must never bottle it or hide it.  We must allow the fire of humanity, spiritual growth and Torah to spread.  What a concept!  We can fuel the flame and never be consumed.  We can be part of a chain of beacon fires extending across the centuries and millennia.  The lowly and modest can teach us to be great.  Spread the flame!   

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Community & educational development

PRESS RELEASE
 
The Federal Grants and Loans Directory is now available. Our new and revised
2014 edition contains more than 2800 financial programs, subsidies, scholarships,
grants and loans offered by the US federal government.
 
In addition you will also have access to over 2400 programs funded by private
corporations and foundations. That is over 5200 programs available through
various sources of financial providing organizations.
 
NEW: You will also have access to our live Database that is updated on a daily
basis. This product also provides daily email alerts as programs are announced.
 
The Database is also available with IP recognition. This allows you to login
without a username or password (Great for libraries or educational institutions
who want their users to access the database).
 
Businesses, students, researchers, scientists, teachers, doctors, private individuals,
municipalities, government departments, educational institutions, law enforcement
agencies, nonprofits, foundations and associations will find a wealth of information
that will help them with their new ventures or existing projects.
 
The document is a fully searchable PDF file for easy access to your particular
needs and interests. Simply enter your keywords to search through the publication.
 
It is the perfect tool for libraries and educational institutions to use as a
reference guide for students who require funds to pursue their education.
 

Contents of the Directory:
 
-Web link to program announcement page
-Web link to Federal agency or foundation administering the program
-Authorization upon which a program is based
-Objectives and goals of the program
-Types of financial assistance offered under a program
-Uses and restrictions placed upon a program
-Eligibility requirements
-Application and award process
-Regulations, guidelines and literature relevant to a program
-Information contacts at the headquarters, regional, and local offices
-Programs that are related based upon program objectives and uses
 

Programs in the Catalog provide a wide range of benefits and services
for categories such as:
 
Agriculture
Business and Commerce
Community Development
Consumer Protection
Cultural Affairs
Disaster Prevention and Relief
Education
Employment, Labor and Training
Energy
Environmental Quality
Food and Nutrition
Health
Housing
Income Security and Social Services
Information and Statistics
Law, Justice, and Legal Services
Natural Resources
Regional Development
Science and Technology
Transportation
 

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Walk Article-Vayechi

EMBRACE YOUR BLESSING

Vayechi-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The subject of this week's Torah reading is blessings.  The way it is presented clearly rejects the tabula rasa theory of human potential.  The Torah, through Ya'akov, is expressing the opinion that we are born with innate, perhaps unique, talents which much be cultivated.  Quite often when we think about the issue of granting our best wishes upon others we concern ourselves with how to give blessings; we want to comprehend the act of bestowing blessings. We ponder:  What's the best method of effectively blessing my loved ones.  However, quite often the greatest challenge is how to accept the blessings which we receive.  I think Mark Twain understood this when he quipped that humor is the greatest blessing.  That was indeed true for him, perhaps America's foremost humorist.  Everyone must look at themselves and recognize what is their blessing.  Sadly, many err and see what has come their way as something other than a blessing.  Golda Meir said that not being beautiful was her blessing because she developed other charms and talents.  Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist, remarked that the definition of a curse is a blessing ignored.  This lesson is the greatest message of this week's Torah reading.

            In our parsha, Ya'akov blesses all of his sons before he dies.  After the blessings have been conferred, the verse attests:  All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them (Genesis 49:28).  Grandfather Ya'akov calculated the perfect blessing for each of the twelve sons.  This doesn't mean that each received what he wanted or expected.  Ya'akov's calibration of the blessings to fit the needs of the recipient was also a teaching opportunity for the son who would pay attention.  The best example of that is the joint blessing bestowed upon Shimon and Levi.  Ya'akov reprimanded them as follows:  Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull.  Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel (Genesis 49:6-7).  What makes this combination blessing and rebuke so effective is that it teaches them to slough off the anger and violence and turn their zeal towards service of God.  Levi humbly accepts the reprimand and his descendants become God's soldiers on earth as the Cohanim and Levi'im.  Generations later Moshe notes this growth and repentance in a glowing blessing before his death (Deuteronomy 33:8-11).  Shimon, on the other hand ignores the reproach, and receives no blessing from Moshe.

            Ya'akov, after seeming quite oblivious to the needs of his sons, carefully lays out the strengths and weaknesses of each tribal founder.  His mixture of blessing and prediction, as we've shown only works when the recipient accepts the accuracy of the portrayal.  The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) points out that the last phrase in every blessing refers to the future destiny of that brother and tribe.  This explains the introduction to the chapter, 'Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days (Genesis 49:1).'  Ignoring the opinion that Ya'akov wanted to reveal the final redemption and Messianic Era, he is letting them in on important information.  But he admonishes in the very next verse:  Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.  This process includes the belief that Ya'akov/Yisrael has some special insights, and these will only work if they listen carefully, and act accordingly.

            To my thinking there are two caveats in this arrangement.  The first is the position that things are determined by factors beyond our control.  A person could foolishly believe that there is a destiny which can't be altered.  Ya'akov didn't mean that at all. I believe that he is instructing that they each have talents and predilections but that the fulfillment of their role is totally up to them and their efforts in the area that they seem to have some aptitude.   The blessings must be appropriate to the individual and not be based on some wishful thinking on the part of parent or teacher, but the individual still has much to add to the initial raw material through effort and exertion.  No potential ever came to fruition without great energy being applied.

            The other danger is the feeling that one's contributions are unique and discrete.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The future success of the Jewish nation depends on each person's abilities being applied in a joint effort towards a communal goal.  Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat har Etziyon makes the clever observation that the blessings should be seen as, 'an orchestra made up of violinists, pianists, a percussion section, etc., if all the musicians had chosen the same path for themselves and all ended up, for instance, in the strings section, the strength of the orchestra would be greatly diminished.'  He further explains that the special qualities that Ya'akov sees, both in actuality and potential, in each of the tribes, he also transmits to all of them in some degree. While each son has his own strengths and special abilities, he must also strive to attain the values and positive attributes of his fellows. Two factors combine to form a person's character. On the one hand, "All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve of them" - the individual must see himself as part of the community. On the other hand, "each according to his blessing he blessed them," each individual has his own destiny, his own personality. There is no standard model that applies to everyone.  

            This is the challenge.  We must all discover our unique talents, our special gift, but then carefully analyze how best to deploy it for the betterment of society.  We must embrace our blessings and then see them as a trust to be shared with all.      

 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Walk Article-Vayigash

S'iz Shver Tzu Zein a Yid

Va'yigash-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            It's a shame that many of us in the Modern Orthodox camp don't know more Yiddish.  It's a wonderfully expressive language.  My parents articulated emotions in Yiddish that English just couldn't convey.  However, there are certain expressions which even those of us with exclusively English and Hebrew educations still know.  Of course, many of these expressions are food related, like kugel, kichel, chulent, gefilte, and kishke.  But there are some other expressions (a few of which I can't use in a family oriented medium) which the bulk of us do know.  Included in that short list is S'iz Shver Tzu Zein a Yid.  This means 'It's hard to be a Jew.'  We've been kvetching about this reality for a very long time.  But what exactly do we mean by it?  I'd like to explore the significance of that expression and then apply it to this week's Torah reading.

Before I warm to my task allow me to give an opposing opinion.  There are many who feel that this famous dictum is a disservice to Judaism. Here's a quote from the Waterbury Yeshiva web site:  'This hashkafah (philosophy) is sheker (false) and very harmful. Hashem did not give us the Torah to tax and oppress us in this world, but rather to enhance and beautify our lives. The Alter of Novardok beautifully expresses this idea in his classic work, Madreigas Ha'adam (Tikkun Hamiddos, Perek Gimmel), where he writes that the path of Torah only serves to facilitate one's success in life. "Deracheha darchei noam – The way of Torah is sweet" (Mishlei 3:17). Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l is famously quoted as saying that these words led many children to ultimately leave the path of Torah and mitzvos. Their parents were moser nefesh to keep Shabbos, losing their job from week to week, but since they complained, "Es iz shver tzu zein a Yid," that it is difficult to be a frum Jew, their children did not have the will to make the sacrifice. They did not possess the emunah of their parents to overpower the desires and temptations that America had to offer.' I'm very sympathetic to these positions, and I think that philosophically the Torah lifestyle is rewarding.  I understand people did give up their commitment to a Torah life style because their parents made it sound so difficult. But the expression is so very famous because there is a truth in it, and it rang true to many generations of Jews.  Let's explore it.   

            This idea can, of course, mean many things to different people and in different times.  There must have been periods when people said it because their gentile neighbors were beating them up.  I'm sure that some of us have felt that way when traveling and couldn't find a kosher meal.  I definitely felt that way when I had a ticket for a World Series game which fell out on Rosh Hashanah.  There are often Jewish obligations which interfere with business or educational responsibilities.  In the personal arena the difficulty is often closer to inconvenience; on the national scale the issues have often been life or death.  Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz came to Stamford, CT a few years back and addressed this issue.  He claimed that the true difficulty in being Jewish is the constant nature of the Halachic system.  There is no time off.  He felt that the relentless demand to conform to the Jewish legal system is onerous.  These explanations are interesting and, of course, present valid positions, but they generally discuss the issue from the personal or present point of view.  I believe that our parsha presents the national and historic perspective.

The best known Jewish text is probably the Haggadah.  A higher percentage of Jews worldwide participate in a seder than any other annual Jewish ritual.  This important ceremony refers to an event in this week's Torah reading, but from the perspective of centuries later:  And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and I led him throughout the whole land of Canaan. I increased his seed and gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I gave Mount Seir to possess it, and Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt (Joshua 24:3-4).  Both of Yitzchak's sons are given their own country, but the descendants of Esav get theirs immediately while the heirs of Ya'akov must wait centuries to acquire their land.  This same phenomenon is hinted at back in chapter thirty-six.  All the chieftains and kings who descend from Esav begin to rule approximately five hundred years before we Jews crowned a king. 

This reality is also expressed by a Midrash on this week's parsha.  When Yehudah confronts Yosef about the charges against Binyamin, he complains about the treatment they've received since their first arrival.  The Midrash has Yehudah state:  From the start you were trying to trap us. How many nationalities come down to Egypt to buy food, but you have never questioned any one of them, only us! (Bereishit Rabba 93, 8).  Rav Yehudah Amital ZT"L noted the brothers' distress and he commented:  There is no doubt that our forefathers lived with a special historical awareness. They knew that they were destined to establish the chosen nation, and that everything that happened to them during their lifetimes would define the nature and character of the nation in the future. Beyond the personal difficulty experienced by the brothers in their descent to Egypt, they feared that their problem-ridden experience there was related to future events that the nation was destined to endure. Indeed, this was to be the case: from the time of the brothers' descent to Egypt and until today, the history of Am Yisrael has been strewn with innumerable difficulties.  Today, after thousands of years of Jewish existence, we are only too conscious of the phenomenon that so aroused the brothers' bewilderment: events and activities that go smoothly for other nations of the world happen, in the case of Am Yisrael, through struggles and battles.

 People mistakenly think that difficult means negative.  Not so!  Our historic choseness has carried many challenges, but they come our way because of the attention we attract from being at the center of most world events.  God's special concern and assignments for us have come at a cost, but, thank God, we're still here to fulfill our role and advocate for God's agenda.  Okay, it's hard to be a Jew, but it's worth it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Walk Article-Chanukah

THANKSGIVING

Chanukah-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Jews in the United States are all abuzz about this year's unique coincidence of Chanukah with Thanksgiving.  Many are discussing the deep philosophic concerns involved in making Latkes out of turkey meat, white meat or dark? Apple sauce or cranberry sauce?  Should we stuff our sufganiot with pumpkin filling?  Oh, the intellectual issues!  On the other hand, there is a linguistic connection.  In Hebrew this American celebration is called Chag HaHoda'ah, from the word meaning thank you.  Astoundingly the Hebrew word for turkey is hodu which is basically the same root.  Ergo there must be a God!  Well, maybe that's not really a proof for the existence of the Almighty, but it is interesting.  However, the real overlap between these two very different commemorations is that when the Sages established the Chanukah holiday it was l'hodot u'l'hallel, to thank and praise.  I think that it's worthwhile to try to understand what must be done to accomplish that double mission.

            This expression, l'hodot u'l'hallel, is first found in the Talmud, when describing the development of the holiday of Chanuka:  A following year, they fixed these days to be Yomim Tovim, to say Hallel and Hoda'ah (Tractate Shabbat 21b).  The Sfat Emet asks what is the difference between hallel or praise and hoda'a or gratitude?  On a certain level they seem to be very similar, but in our Shmoneh Esreh prayer we say that the first three blessings are about praise (shevach) while the last three blessings are concerned with thanking God (beginning with modem anachnu loch).  So, while we do differentiate between them, what cognitive distinction can we draw?  The Sfat Emet in 1871 noticed this problem and states that apparently these two concepts are the same, and it requires an explanation to see the difference.  His answer is based upon an idea that he heard in part from his beloved grandfather, the first Gerrer Rebbe who began by explaining that praise comes from the attribute of Yosef, and that gratitude comes from the character of Yehuda.  Praise comes from enlightenment, clear and bright.  It is immediate and visceral.  Gratitude comes from a darker place.  Often it begins without a clear understanding of what happened.  Was this occurrence positive or negative?  Who exactly was the author of this event?  When there is awareness that the event and its fallout were from God's goodness and kindness, then there is an appropriate outpouring of thankfulness.  It is a slow awakening process, but ultimately more profound.

            The root of the word hoda'a means to acknowledge or, better, to admit.  An admission or confession in court is called modeh.  We use the same word when a repentant sinner confesses to God.  The Sfat Emet explains that this admission can only come after the individual has repaired that part of his personality where mistakes originate.  This requires the person to overcome the problematic side to one's nature, what our Sages called the yetzer hara.  This is quite challenging.  In the Chanukah story the people involved in this slow awakening included many who had thought of the Greek way of life as being superior to a Jewish life style.  That's why the development of the holiday wasn't immediate.  Instead it was a subsequent year.

            There is another unexpected connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah.  When the Pilgrims celebrated that first thanksgiving many, including Pilgrim historian Caleb Johnson, believe that they modeled the commemoration after the Biblical holiday of Sukkot.  It makes sense.  Both are in the fall and mark the joy of bringing in the harvest.  Mayflower expert, Johnson suggests that the Pilgrims would have looked for a Biblical rationale for the observance, and Sukkot is a natural connection.  Others have noted that even though there were no Jews in England when the Pilgrims departed, these immigrants spent a few years in Holland before their departure for the New World.  There were Sephardic Jews living openly and prominently there and it's possible that there may have been contact.

            Less well known is the connection between Sukkot and Chanukah.  The Second Book of the Maccabees quotes from a letter sent about 125 BCE from the Hasmoneans to the leaders of Egyptian Jewry. The holiday referred to in the letter is called "The festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev (December)," rather than Tishrei (September). Since the Jews were still in caves fighting as guerrillas on Tishrei, 164 BCE, they could not properly honor the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret), which is a Temple holiday; hence it was postponed until after the recapture of Jerusalem and the purification of the Temple, and was observed for eight days.  This may also help us to understand the opinion of Beit Shamai in the Talmud.  They suggested that the number of candles lit every day should diminish daily rather than increase as is our custom.  The Gemara then explains that they believed it should be like the bulls sacrificed on Sukkot, which did decrease by one each day of the chag.  Our custom sees Chanukah as a new and independent holiday, Beit Shamai still saw this celebration as a continuation of Sukkot.

            Finally, it was around the time of Chanukah that our people adopted the name Yehudim or Jews, replacing B'nei Yisroel or the Children of Israel.  This was partially because the tribe of Yehuda comprised the vast majority of the nation.  However, it is clear that we also understood the meaning of the name as being:  Those who acknowledge or admit.  We recognize the existence of God and are grateful.  Our name reflects our role.

            So, this is a great year to emphasize the original concept behind these two marvelous celebrations, namely gratitude for all that we have, for where we are and for who we are.  Let's celebrate the fact that we are Jews and live in a country which heartens our observance of Torah.  Besides Israel there's never been a better place for Jews than the U. S. of A.  Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah Sameach!!      

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Walk Article-Vayeshev

YA'AKOV & YOSEF

Vayeshev-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Parenting is more art than science.  Measuring success is therefore very hard.  So, it's with great trepidation that I venture to comment on the relationship of Ya'akov and Yosef.  The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had a doubly difficult task in raising their children.  Besides the normal problems in rearing children we all experience, they were tasked by God to produce the heirs to the covenant and were responsible for guarding the new faith.  This was uncharted territory and the surrounding environment was hostile to the mission.  Bringing up God fearing monotheists in ancient, pagan Canaan was not dissimilar from raising Red Sox (2013 World Series Champions) fans in the Bronx.  Daunting, to say the least.  We must temper, therefore, any criticism with these guidelines in mind.  Who are we to pass judgment on the pioneers of our people?  With those caveats in place, let's try to understand Ya'akov's special affection for Yosef.

            The last third of the book of Genesis is often referred to as the stories of Yosef.  Although there is truth to that assertion, I often like to call this section the stories of Yosef and Yehuda, because ultimately Yehuda challenges and supersedes Yosef for leadership of the clan.  But that's in the future.  In our parsha Yosef almost has the stage to himself (except for a side story about Yehuda and Tamar).  And it all begins with a verse which presents many problems in attaining a clear understanding of its intent.  And here's the quote:  These are the generations of Jacob:  Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad (Genesis 37:2).   What's going on?  The Hebrew term translated as 'generations' is toldot, and we've had trouble with this word before.  Its root means to give birth.  It can mean either the children one begets or the deeds one produces.  In our verse it would make most sense, I would assume, to refer to all of Ya'akov's children.  In fact the previous chapter did just that with Esav listing all of his progeny.  But here we only have Yosef.  Why?

            Within that context, the first answer is given by Rashi:  When Ya'akov saw all these chiefs of Esav's family whose names are written above he said wonderingly: "Who can conquer all these?" What is written after the names of these chieftains? "These are the generations of Ya'akov – Yosef." For it is written: "And the house of Ya'akov shall be a fire and the house of Yosef a flame" (Ovadya 1:18). One spark issuing from Yosef will burn up all of these descendants of Esav (Rashi Yashan 37:1).  According to this point of view, Yosef is headlined because he would be the antidote to the poison of Esav and his powerful descendants.

            Perhaps the most moving and understandable answer is that Ya'akov saw Yosef as his favored son and heir because of his undying love for Rachel.  Ya'akov never forgot his passion for Rachel.  On his death bed (chapter 48), he reminisces about Rachel's death, when she died to him (verse 7).  Yosef embodies this great devotion.  Ya'akov ignores the family crisis precipitated by his usurping the blessings and birthright from Esav.  Perhaps, he compares his situation to that of Avraham when his grandfather chose the son of primary wife, Sarah, over secondary wife, Hagar, to carry forward the covenant.  The Torah doesn't hesitate to relate Ya'akov's great love for Yosef, and his haberdashery expression of this affection, but it was more than fondness, it was a philosophic decision.  Some Sages (R. Shimon ben Lakish, Breishit Raba, 84:8) criticized this position as bad parenting:  A person should not treat one son differently from another, for due to the ornamented tunic (Technicolor Dream Coat) they hated him.  But that's not our purpose.  We want to understand Ya'akov's motives.

            Maybe we can go back to the original verse, 'these are the toldot of Ya'akov,' and give a different translation.  Back in parshat Noach we had a similar verse, 'these are the toldot of Noach,' and there we can't give the simple translation of children or generations, because the verse goes on to say that Noach was a righteous man.  This impels Rashi to inform us that the main toldot of a zadik are his good deeds rather than his children.  So, let's translate the original verse as:  these are the motivating factors in Ya'akov's life:  Yosef and his behavior and acts.  Ya'akov saw Yosef as the engine which work propel the family and the mission.   

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, in his article Ha-Misped bi-Yerushalayim, gives a compelling description of the essence of Yosef and the essence of Yehuda as two central powers within Am Yisrael:  "God planted within Israel two complementary strengths: the strength corresponding to the human body, seeking the welfare of the nation in terms of status and material situation, which is the proper basis of political power and, on the other hand, the power for spiritual development .  From the outset these two powers were implanted in two tribes that were meant to rule in Israel – Ephraim and Yehuda. Yosef was the one who sold food … and gave life to Yaakov and his sons in terms of material life… while Yehuda is especially characterized by the spiritual power of Israel… The purpose of the choice of royalty of the House of David was so that these two powers would be joined together, such that not only would there be no conflict between them, but they would help one another…And just as those powers that increase spirituality serve to pave the way for the attribute of Mashiach ben David… so the awakening to seek national, material strength and the other devices of life in general are the preparation for the Mashiach ben Yosef…."

            I'm not sure how much of this Ya'akov intuited, but during the youth of his sons he saw a special role for Yosef as provider and leader even before Yosef's dreams of control over the family.  These dreams must have confirmed Ya'akov's expectation.  Ultimately, the greatness of Ya'akov as a father wasn't at this time, but much later.  On his death bed he informs the family that eventual rule would reside with Yehuda and Yosef would have a great but subordinate role.  I have no idea how much this knowledge upset him.  His paternal job was to inform the others and this he did admirably, and poetically, too.    

             

 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Walk Article-Vayishlach

AND YA'AKOV WAS ALONE

Vayishlach-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in his essay 'God's Lonely Man':  The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people -- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.  Wolfe's observation, made in the third decade of the twentieth century, has informed a large segment of those thinkers referred to as Existentialists, including Rav Soloveitchik.  But this phenomenon is not new.  King David begs God, 'Don't desert or abandon me, O God of my salvation.  For my father and my mother have abandoned me, but You gather me in (adopt me, Psalm 27:9-10).'  And going even farther back in time, Ya'akov finds himself alone in our Torah reading and this leads to one of the most dramatic scenes in our Tanach.

            The pertinent verse states:  And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25).  On the narrative level there are a large number of explanations about why Ya'akov was left all alone.  Probably the most literal account is given by Rabbi Ovadia S'forno that he was left alone because he had made sure to get everyone else across before he crossed the brook himself.  However the most famous approach is the Midrashic one given by Rashi.  He had returned to the previous encampment to retrieve small jars which had been left behind.  But I'm not so interested in those details, because I believe that the major issue isn't Ya'akov's physical aloneness, but his spiritual or existential aloneness.

            Rav Dov Lior, the community rabbi of Kiryat Arba and Chevron, explained that all confrontations between Jew and Gentile throughout history have both a physical and spiritual nature.  We are always alone in our spiritual conflicts.  On the rare occasions when we have allies, they are only concerned with the physical aspects of the conflict. Ya'akov is having this spiritual clash and crisis before the next day's physical encounter with Esav.

            The Midrash presents an interesting but difficult comparison:  "There is none like the God of Yeshurun, who rides upon the heaven to your help" (Devarim 33:26). R. Berakhya said: There is none like God, but who is like the God of Yeshurun?  The best and the most praised among you…That is our Grandfather Israel, namely Ya'akov. Just as about God, it is written (Yeshaya 2): "And the Lord alone shall be exalted," so concerning Ya'akov it is written: "And Ya'akov remained alone." (Bereishit Rabba 77:1).   The solitary state of Ya'akov is compared to that of God.  This can be explained in a number of ways, either nationally or individually.  The Jews are as unique in the world as God is unique throughout the cosmos.  Or it could be a statement about the situation of our father Ya'akov at that moment.  His perfect aloneness could be understood as that moment when we face the world alone, bereft of supporters and even the merit of our ancestors.  Ya'akov is all alone, without a past or future, without a tradition or a destiny.  We face our greatest trials naked and alone.  Our splendid solitude at that moment mirrors God's.

            But is it only at times of great trials and stress that we feel all alone?  I'm not sure.  Frederick Nietzsche describes loneliness as bringing us to the abyss and forcing us to make decisions.  However, many of our great thinkers assume that solitude (or in the language of Reb Nachman of Breslov hitbodedut) is a beneficial state to be sought after on a regular basis.  Professor Michele Carter of American University said, 'The existentialist school of thought views loneliness as the essence of being human. Each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and ultimately dies alone. Coping with this, accepting it, and learning how to direct our own lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition.'  So loneliness isn't something to be shunned or afraid of: it is, rather, a possible catalyst for a more purposeful and engaging life, and an avenue for heightened self-awareness.  Perhaps Ya'akov felt a need for this quiet time.

            Reb Moshe Chayyim Efrayim of Sudylkow wrote:  In my humble opinion, in accordance with the Gemara (Sanhedrim 37a): "Each and every person must say: The world was created for my sake." When we consider the words of the Gemara, we realize that they constitute profound advice regarding the service of the Creator. That is, when a person thinks that the entire world was created for his sake, then he is the only person in the world, and the rest of the world is subordinate to him, and depends upon him. If he improves his deeds, the world continues to exist, and if not, the opposite…This explains the allusion in the aforementioned Midrash: "And Ya'akov remained alone," that is, when God helped him come to the level that he is alone in the world, as stated above, then he conjoins with God, one to one (Degel Machane Efrayim, Balak).  The Rebbe teaches that feeling alone brings us to two conclusions, one scary and one reassuring:  Firstly, we are totally responsible for ourselves, and, secondly, we realize in this solitude that God shares this isolation.  Ya'akov discovers in his loneliness that humanity is not alone.

            We all find ourselves alone at some point.  What we do with this loneliness can make all the difference in our lives.  Dag Hammarskjold said, 'Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.'  Ya'akov found it.  Let's hope that so can we.

  

 

              

            Rav 'loneliness is nothing but the act of questioning one's ontological existance'

 

 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Walk Article-Vayetze

THE OTHER SIDE

Vayetze-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            We really don't know very much about the place where God lives.  There are many stories in Jewish tradition about the wonderful Garden of Eden where we go after death, or the marvelous heaven where souls dwell. Some describe the righteous sitting at a grand and eternal banquet, while others discuss the spiritually great sitting around with crowns basking in the Divine Presence.  But it's hard to take these descriptions too literally, because they seem to be written to teach us some moral lesson rather than to describe celestial geography.  Plus, there are no Google maps.  So, do we know anything at all about where God resides?  I think the answer is a definite maybe.  I say this because there are two places in Tanach where we seem to get some hints about God's neighborhood.  One of these is the first chapter of Ezekiel, and the other is the opening scene of this week's Torah reading.

 

            What is going on in Ezekiel's initial prophetic vision?  Easier asked than answered.  Ezekiel is standing by the Chebar River in Babylon, a long way from our Holy Land.  The skies open up and Ezekiel sees first a storm, then strange lights, followed by many types of angels and, finally, a throne.  This throne is borne aloft by these various forms of angels.  This entire four sided apparatus is referred to as God's Chariot, which can move towards any of the four compass points.  Actually everything in the vision comes in fours.  The verses remind me of the climatic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, something otherworldly is paying us a visit.  The vision may be murky, but the message is pretty clear.  God's Divine presence moves about the world to remain accessible to the Jewish nation no matter where we have been exiled.   Although there are great spiritual advantages to being in Eretz Yisroel, nevertheless our connection to God has not been totally severed by our distance from the Holy Land.  Our religion is as portable as our people.  This message was critically important to the denizens of our first successful Diaspora community, Babylonia.

 

            But what's going on in the beginning of this week's parsha?  After Ya'akov has stopped for the night during his flight from Israel and his brother's wrath, he sees in his dream a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. Upon this ladder are angels of the Lord, ascending and descending.  The rabbinic commentators over the centuries have tried to understand where the ladder was standing.  Was it standing in Be'er Sheva, Beit El or Jerusalem?  Did it go straight up or at an angle?  Perhaps, the center was over the future site of the Holy Temple, where Avraham almost sacrificed Yitzchak and, apparently, Yitzchak went to worship God.  Where exactly did the ladder pierce the firmament and enter the spheres of heaven?  And, how many rungs were on this ladder?  To tell the truth none of these fascinating queries interest me very much (at least not this year).  To me (at least this year) there are only two interesting questions:  What's the difference between a ladder and a chariot? And, what's at the top of the ladder?

 

The image of the Divine chariot cruising through space to supervise the Jews no matter where they may be is a very powerful picture, and I assume gave great hope to the exiles in Babylon.  It almost presents the idea that God makes deliveries.  We can still get into contact with God in our prayers or maybe in our actions because God's presence is hovering above our heads like some sort of blimp above a major sporting event.  I wonder about the logo on its side, perhaps a giant 'G' or the Tetragrammaton.  The ladder, on the other hand, suggests a very stable object, not prone to much movement.  The ladder cries out for us to ascend rung by rung to a higher plane.  The Chariot presents us with solace and comfort when we feel so very distant.  The ladder portrays a challenge to those with the temerity to accept.  Climb my rungs and find yourself higher than you ever dreamed.

 

The Diaspora often looks more appealing than Israel.  It often bestows great attainments with less effort, because we have caught a hitch on the infrastructure provided by another.  The Zionist option is much harder.  Whatever we accomplish in our homeland must be done through the sweat of our collective brow alone.  No one else is providing the power, protection or possessions.  But the rewards are greater, and more satisfying. 

 

However, the most important aspect of both of these amazing images is that God is atop both contraptions.  Whether God hovers into our sphere on a floating throne or we must climb to attain God's presence, it's most essential that we realize that our spiritual goal is always to achieve proximity to God.  Our only glimpse through the veil to the Other Side informs us that God's presence dominates the landscape over there.  We can't make out the scenery or the structures but we are informed that Divinity abounds.  I guess that's all we need to know.  What we aim for and strive to achieve is this immediacy with the Divine.  Maimonides promises us that this propinquity to God is the greatest of possible pleasures.  Unlike earthly bliss, this heavenly joy has neither limit nor fatigue.  It is eternal and satisfying.

 

The visions of both Ya'akov and Ezekiel teach us that we can gain God's presence in this world, either the more passive Diaspora version or the more active Israel model.  This week the emphasis is on the Zionist model of a stairway to heaven, which requires supreme effort and courage to clamor aboard.  We are reminded of the Hebrew idiom for immigrating to Israel, Aliyah, the Ascent.  It's not easy to get up from our comfortable slumber in the Diaspora and make the climb, but we are being assured that it is worth the effort because a greater proximity to God is the result and the reward.  Excelsior!   

 

       

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Walk Article-Toldot

 

PATRIARCHAL TORAH

Toldot-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

 

            We love our ancestors.  For that reason Jews do whatever possible to try to identify with these giants of our first generations.  We're not satisfied with being moved and impressed with their heroic deeds rather, we try to imagine them in ways which make them more accessible to us. Let's be honest. Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya'akov and Rachel were very different from us.  Their world didn't have land lines, let alone iPhones.  It's hard to feel that close to someone who has never had a CafĂ© Latte Venti with skim milk and Splenda.   So, in our minds we give them a sort of make over.  The Mama's get a sheitel and a gingham dress; the Papa's get peyot, beards and tzitzit.  It's okay, no harm is done, and we feel right at home with them in their living room, right down to the plastic slip covers.   However, periodically we want to emerge from this emotionally satisfying delusion, and see them as they were, nomadic shepherds from the Bronze Age with whom we outwardly share little in common.  Perhaps the greatest attempt to highjack our forebears from their historical context takes place in this week's Torah reading.

 

            In our parsha we read:  Because of the fact that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions (Genesis 26:5).  What are all these Divine instructions which Avraham paid attention to?  The most famous response comes from Rashi:  'Because Abraham hearkened to My voice': when I tested him. 'and kept My charge': Refers to decrees to distance himself from transgressing the warnings in the Torah.  'My commandments': Refers to things, which, had they not been written, we would have commanded them, like robbery and bloodshed.  'My statutes': Refers to things that the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against, like prohibitions against eating pork and wearing garments of wool and linen: 'and My instructions': Refers to the Oral Law, the laws given to Moses from Sinai. [Yoma 28b].  So, according to this famous Midrash quoted by Rashi, the list of five different kinds of instructions (kol, mishmeret, mitzvah, chok, Torah) heeded by Avraham includes the entirety of Jewish law as followed by the Jewish nation over a thousand years after their deaths.

 

            To take this position seriously not only stretches our credulity that the Torah and Talmud were already observed at that early date, but causes many problems with the actual flow of the narrative.  The most famous problem, explained by the Ramban (Nachmanides) is that Ya'akov broke the Torah by marrying two sisters.  The clarification of the Ramban is that the patriarchs only felt duty bound to keep the Torah while residing in Israel, and those marriages took place in Padan Aram.  But even some of those who subscribe to this position take it on metaphorically.  According to Reb Zadok of Lublin, their lives were informed with the spirituality which Mitzvah performance engenders, as if they kept all six-thirteen plus all the rabbinic additions.  In this case God is in the overall impression rather than in the details.

 

            But are there other ways of looking at those five terms?  And, of course, the answer is yes.  The sixteenth century Italian commentary, Reb Ovadia Sforno, explains the verse term by term.  The expression 'God's voice' means the things that Avraham heard directly from God.  The word in Hebrew mishmeret which we translated as 'charge' relates to those activities which are near and dear to Avraham's heart, like kindness and hospitality.  God has encouraged Avraham in those positive spiritual areas where he already has a proclivity.  This Torah material gets personalized.  The reference to mitzvoth includes those areas of law already commanded to Noach.  Avraham took it upon himself to be exemplary in those particular performances as an encouragement to others.  Chukim are again those areas of the Divine law which people have trouble understanding.  Finally, the reference to Torah, seems to mean that Avraham would delve into the underlying reasons and rules embedded in the commandments of God.  That's what we call derash.

 

Therefore, these five terms don't have to be understood miraculously that in some way the patriarchs were able to perform all the mitzvoth which we have become accustomed to over time.  Our identification with these giants isn't based upon the minutiae of Jewish Law, rather it's based upon their sincerity in following the word of God as they understood it, and their integrity in leading a moral and ethical life style in spite of the heathens amongst whom they dwelt.  We learn from their actions not from whose Hashgacha they trusted.

 

            What we can learn from this detailed verse is that there is more than just the Code of Jewish Law in our lives.  When the verse said that Avraham followed the voice of God and guarded certain guidelines, I think an extremely important lesson is to be learned.  Even within the legal system there are lacunae.  We fill those areas of silence with the voice of God which we must hear emanating from the verses and laws which guide our lives.  We often know what to do even when no law covers the circumstance.  And not every one has to do it the exact same way, because every one of us has a mishmeret, an area of proper and spiritual behavior specific to us.  Some may major in prayer, another in charity and a third in Torah study.

 

            We really do learn from our beloved ancestors but in more general ways than the famous Midrash suggests.

 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Walk Article-Chaye Sarah-5774

 

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Chaye Sarah, 5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

Recently, Israel television broadcast a series on holy sites, but it wasn't your average travelogue.  Sadly, the programs were titled Dam Kadosh, Holy Blood.  The tragic reality is that these places have been the scenes of bloody clashes and are fiercely contested by Israeli and Palestinian.  The irony of the matter is that the three places shown, Joseph's tomb in Shechem, the Temple Mount and Ma'arat HaMachpelah in Hebron are cited in the Midrash (Genesis Raba, 79:7) as the three places concerning which no one can taunt the Jewish nation with the charge that we stole them.  That's because all three have Biblical verses describing how they were all bought for cash by Ya'akov, King David and Avraham from the previous uncontested owners.  The programs emphasized the violence and the vehemence of both sides.  Rather than inspiring a sense of holiness and piety, these broadcasts leave the viewer drained and despondent.

 

But what is the attraction of these locales which brings out such zealous rage?  I think that part of our link to our faith is developed through our connection to the history of our people, and these shrines symbolize that connection.  We are moved and inspired by the deeds of our ancestors, and at these sites the bond comes to life; it is almost tangible.  Well, can't both peoples share those associations?  There's the rub.  Each religion claims the birthright.  As Esav found out, when he cried out in anguish, only one son claims the crown.  Yishmael and Yitzchak still vie for Avraham's affection and mantle.  At some point we have to ask ourselves a question:  Is this affection for a modest piece of real estate worth it?  It's just a few rocks and earth, and isn't religion really about ethereal things?

 

 George Steiner (b. 1929), who is one of the great thinkers and writers of our time, said that exile is a virtue.  Didn't Avraham himself have to leave home and hearth to find himself as a rootless sojourner?  For Steiner, exile is no punishment; it is, rather, a liberating state of detachment which enables the Jew to undertake his authentic mission on earth.  The Jews' status as guests among the nations has far-reaching moral implications. The Jew's wandering in the gentile world enables him to act as "moral irritant and insomniac among men," a role that Steiner calls an 'honor beyond honors.'

 

I remember in the euphoric days after the monumental, miraculous victory of the Six Day War in 1967, that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was ambivalent.  He was overjoyed that the Jewish nation had been saved from immanent disaster, but saddened that hundreds of young men's lives had been cut short.  He said that the stones of the Western Wall weren't worth the blood of even one Jewish soldier.  The Rav felt that the importance of the State of Israel was that it protected Jewish lives throughout the world.  Jewish blood had become dear again.  No longer could our enemies spill our blood without paying a high price.  The State built our pride and our safety.  The significance wasn't in property but in principles.

 

So, we should ask ourselves what is the implication of Avraham buying the burial plot in Hebron for his beloved Sarah in this week's Torah reading?  Many thousands flock to Hebron this Shabbat to celebrate our possession of this shrine, which we were forbidden to enter on pain of death from 1187 until 1967.  Is Ma'arat Hamachpelah worth the price in military expenditure and human lives?  I don't know.  Could we have a meaningful Jewish state in the Holy Land without access to this holy site?  I'm not sure.

 

 When I lived in Efrat, just eighteen kilometers north of the tomb, I visited it often.  Those years that I couldn't visit my father's grave back in Boston in fulfillment of the custom to do so every Elul as a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, I instead visited the graves of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Ya'akov and Leah.  They're my parents, too.  When I found that life had dealt me more than I could handle, I went to pray and meditate at this memorial.  I usually went to the small chapel above the assumed graves of Ya'akov and Leah, because those are also my parents' Hebrew names.  And most of the time that was the quietest spot in this massive building.  My children received their first Chumash or Siddur there.  My oldest son put on Tefilin there for the first time.  I've never left there without feeling spiritually renewed; I've never regretted a visit there.  But if I couldn't visit ever again, would that be an unrelieved tragedy?  I don't know.

 

In this week's parsha Avraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite to purchase the final resting place for his soul mate and life's partner.  Our first Patriarch wasn't satisfied burying his wife amongst the pagan graves, and struggled mightily to gain a private plot.  Our people's history comes to life in this shrine built by Herod before the turn of the modern era.  It's the world's oldest building still in use.

 

Our beloved modern State of Israel provides the Jewish nation with many benefits.  The safety and security, which the Rav discussed is perhaps foremost among them.  But there are other benefits both practical, like a thriving economy and vibrant scientific community, and spiritual, like Yeshivot and access to our historic heritage.  We have built an amazing modern country which gives us pride and a sense belonging, but our feelings for this strip of land are steeped in millennia of dreaming and centuries of reciting Next Year in Jerusalem.

 

It's hard to believe that there could be a truly Jewish state without these sites.  I don't know if the State could survive without them, but they would be sorely missed.   Let's pray that we will always have our new State and our ancient sites.           

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walk Article

 

KIDS

Vayeira-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

 

            Why have kids?  There are so many answers to that question.  Some sound good, and others not so good.  If we go back to the beginning of humankind, it seems that the major motivation was biology.  Have progeny for the survival of the species.  As time went on and we developed societies the biggest reason for children was economic.  Big, strong boys helped gather the food and, later, bring in the harvest.  Please, forgive me, but it was during this epoch of human development that the antipathy towards girl babies began.  They weren't as strong and were considered a financial liability.  Eventually having children became a mitzvah.  Whether Jew or gentile, religious families tend to have more children.  But today, why do couples want children?  Since The Pill, a big incentive to make babies has been removed, because we can have 'safe' relations.  They are no longer a financial boon, either.  Instead they are a financial burden.  According to CNN, as of August 3, 2013, it costs, on average, in the USA $241,080 to raise a child until age eighteen, and that's without college or, for religious Jews, day school.  I think that a Modern Orthodox family, with day schools and college, can easily double that figure and that still does not count the wedding.   Therefore, again, I ask why have children?  I read a beautiful blog on the NY Times website explaining that most of us don't know why we have children until we actually have them.  That probably means that the reasons were initially instinctual or, perhaps, societal.  But once we have a baby 'it's the best feeling in the world. It's love forever. It's your chance to give everything you received as a child to someone else. It's a chance to right wrongs if you didn't receive enough love.'  Of course, that was written by a mother, but we can all identify with the powerful thoughts expressed.  Here's my mission for this article:  To define why Avraham wanted children.

 

            In the Biblical record, the urgent need for children is well documented through the famous cases of infertility, Avraham and Sarah, Rivka and Yitzchak, Yaakov and Rachel, Chana and Elkana.  It's clear that Avraham wanted children very much.  He complains to God about not having kids.  God promises him children on numerous occasions.  And, of course, with the urging of Sarah, he eventually takes on a second wife for the sole purpose of child bearing.  The best expression of Avraham's need for offspring was recorded in last week's Torah reading:  And Abram said, "O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household will inherit me (Genesis 15:2-3)."  Notice that both verses begin with telling us that Avraham was speaking, that probably means that Avraham initiated this topic on numerous occasions.  He kept saying this stuff to God.  At least according to this material, Avraham's urgency was based on the need for an heir.  That's true, but, because Yishmael was not sufficient, it's clear that there is more going on than just the need for an heir.

 

            This week's parsha contains the climax to the Avraham saga.  We have the cathartic story of the Akeida, the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak.  This narrative teaches us a lot about the relationship with God and Divine worship, but it also is so powerful because of Avraham's connection and need for Yitzchak.  So, I believe that the ultimate answer to our question is to be found in those verses.  And here, I think, is the critical text:  "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Yitzchak, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you (Ibid. 22:2).  There's a famous comment by Rashi, based upon the Midrash and Talmud, to explain the repetitive nature of our verse:  Abraham said to God," I have two sons." God said to him," Your only one." He said to God," This one is the only son of his mother, and that one is the only son of his mother." God said to him," Whom you love." He said to God," I love them both." God said to him," Yitzchak." Now why did God not disclose this to him at the beginning? In order not to upset him suddenly, and also to endear the commandment to him and to reward him for each and every expression (from Sanhedrin 89b, Genesis Rabbah 39:9, 55:7).  Fascinating, but I think that there is a different dynamic going on.

 

            God's repetition wasn't for Avraham; it was for us.  We're being informed of the matchless bond which Avraham felt for Yitzchak.  God initially informs Avraham to take 'your son' that means the son which is to you like every other son in the world.  He's an heir, an asset, and a biological repository for your DNA.  Then God says 'take your unique (not 'your only') son.'  This means that there is between Avraham and Yitzchak something which never existed before.  For the first time in history there is a legacy beyond the norms of property and possessions.  There is a bequest to carry forward God's covenant with humanity; there is a commitment not to the fate or mere existence of a people, but to the destiny of mankind.   This resulted in a love for Yitzchak unlike any love for any child in the annals of parenting.  His love for Sarah was combined with his love for God to form the paradigm for love in Yitzchak who wholeheartedly accepted this contract, covenant and commitment.  Now we can understand why Avraham wanted a child so badly, and we can begin to fathom the depth of his trial to sacrifice this child.   

 

            However, we can also identify with Avraham the parent.  A sensitive reading of the text allows us a glimpse into this extraordinary bond.  And hopefully we can replicate at least a portion of his urgent ardor into affection and appreciation for our own children.  Read this story to feel Avraham's pain; then reread it to emulate Avraham's love.


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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Walk Article


OUR HEROES
Lech Lecha-5774
Rabbi David Walk


            It's always a relief to return to the stories of our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  The early stories in Breishit and Noach are both disturbing and confusing, but reading about Avraham and Sarah is almost like going back to pleasant childhood memories.  I feel comfortable and inspired by these personalities.  It's sort of like remembering a visit to a grandparent when I was young, a little vague, very sweet and somehow satisfying.  Unlike the tales of Adam and Noach, these stories give us unambiguous warm fuzzies.  It's almost a shame that we grow up and feel the need to analyze these narratives in a mature and intellectual way, but that's the way it is.  Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. We grow up, like Jackie Paper, and our toys are ideas and concepts.  So, let's look at this story of our Zeidie Avraham again.  It's a chronicle of courage and commitment, love and loyalty, and we must find new personal messages and ourselves in the narrative every year.

            Our Sages divided up the weekly readings in deliberate and clever ways.  Just like Noach was introduced at the end of the previous parsha, so, too, Avraham is first mentioned at the end of parshat Noach.  It could be viewed, I guess, as a preview of coming attractions, or like the end of a weekly TV show's message 'and now some scenes from next week's episode.'  But I don't think so.  With Noach the continuity is clear.  Noach is the antidote for God's toxic plans for humanity, which begin at the end of parshat Breishit.  With Avraham the situation is less clear.  He is not shown as the tikun (repair) for any specific issue.  However, I believe that he is the alternative to what went on before.  He proves that Humanity can do better than floods and towers.  His true greatness is discerned from God's instructions at the beginning of this week's parsha:  And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).  There is great clarity about whence he should depart, but little info about where he must be going.  Isn't life often like that?  We're confident about where we are, but unsure, vague about where we're going.

            What do we do under those circumstances?  We can stay put, but that's not always an option, and life does move along whether we want it to or not.  We could do research and plan very carefully for every contingency which we can possibly anticipate, and then hope for the best, or we could plan our lives along lines, the broad outlines of which are laid out by Jewish Law and tradition.  Like in the case of Avraham, it doesn't relate exactly where we are going, but its guidelines about life, goals and aspirations do help us to see a general direction.  Where should I move?  Where my spiritual needs will be met. What career should I enter?  The one that best fits my unique talents but also gives me the opportunity for being good and doing good.  God is telling Avraham to follow a sacred path and certain promises will follow, even though the pathway is murky and elusive.

            After telling Avraham to go wherever, God informs him that there are certain blessings for this endeavor.  Here's the promise:  And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you (verses 2-3)."  This list of blessings is famously explained by Rashi:  Since traveling causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame, therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning reputation (from Midrash Genesis Raba, 39:11).  Very nice, the blessings will offset any physical downside from following the instructions to hit the road wither it will take him.  But what do these blessings teach us?

            By following Avraham's path, we are the heirs to Avraham's legacy which includes these blessings.  But what do these blessings mean to me?  The initial blessings are pretty self evident.  We'll have progeny, livelihood and respect.  That's fine as far as it goes, but is that all there is?  Emphatically, no!  Both verses end with the enigmatic announcement that Avraham will be a blessing and that all humanity will be blessed through him.  But what are these blessings?  The Midrash explains that the blessing will be rain and dew.  For people in the ancient Middle East, access to sufficient water resources was of prime concern.  However, the Zohar gives another answer.  Avraham began the earth's constant connection to spiritual realms through the merit of his character.

            That makes sense to me.  When we consider why we want to be heir to Avraham's legacy, I think that we want our lives to be significant, our existence validated.  And what better way of feeling that sense of value and worth than by confirming and spreading the importance of ethical monotheism?  Noach saved lives; Avraham produced souls (Genesis 12:5).  We want to be part of that crusade, that dream.  Both the Midrash and the Zohar are correct.  The dual blessing described in God's instructions to Avraham contains both physical and spiritual aspects.  We impart to the rest of humanity a connection to God, which carries both concrete and intangible benefits.

            As kids we played at being our heroes from movies and TV.  So, if Avraham and Sarah are really our heroes, what better way to venerate them than by emulating their outstanding character traits.  Then we won't just save our world, we'll make it a better one.   



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