Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Walk Article-Vayechi



Rabbi David Walk

As I grow older there is a very specific kind of frustration that pervades my teaching. There are so many ideas which I want to tell my young students and my grandchildren. Things about life which my years on earth have made clear to me are foreign to these young charges. They don't want to hear about being careful or about getting enough sleep or about mortality. It's clear to me that all we can do is just state these verities, and accept that they won't understand them until they've lived through enough years. I just heard a retired quarterback on the radio talking about how he advised young players to take care of their bodies, but, he explained, they don't listen until the first signs of wear and tear begin appearing. And, of course, I remember not listening to my elders back in the day. I think that the first person to have experienced this phenomenon was our alter zeidie Ya'akov in this week's Torah reading. He gathers his sons for the last time around his death bed to give them vital information which he knows will take them years to digest and comprehend, but he tells them what he must say and they must hear.

This section which contains Ya'akov's last testament begins with him telling his beloved sons: Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days (Genesis 49:1). Like so many statements in our holy script, this seemingly straightforward pronouncement has sparked a controversy. What did our Patriarch want to tell them? The most popular and famous opinion is that he wanted to tell them about the final climax of history, the low down on the highest moment of human experience, the inception of the Messianic Era. Clearly, he didn't impart that info. So, what happened? God prevented him from handing over this knowledge, and that's why this week's parsha is the only Torah reading which begins without a space between it and the previous week's reading. This closed start to our reading represents the hidden wisdom withheld from the twelve sons. So, we don't know what will happen at the end of time; we'll just have to live day by day and wait to find out the ending. There will be no peeking at the last page of this book.

Well, that's the famous approach. But I never liked it. I've always thought that Ya'akov Avinu did exactly what he had wanted to do, namely to tell them about themselves. This knowledge would help them reach their full potential, and thereby find out what will happen at the end of their own days. This critical data is predictive of what will occur to them and their progeny. But is this knowledge engraved in stone? Will they (and we) be able to make the necessary mid-course corrections to achieve a different outcome than the one predicted? That's a definite affirmative. We actually have a clear example of this. Levi and Shimon are given the same chastisement by Ya'akov. Shimon, sadly, fulfills his father's worst fears. However, Levi accepts the rebuke and learns to sublimate his fiery nature to Divine purposes, and so changes his fate to achieve a new destiny. Levi becomes God's minions on earth (although they're not cute and yellow). That's what I've always thought is going on in these momentous verses. But I saw a cool new way of looking at this attempt to reveal 'the end' by Ya'akov Avinu.

In these weekly articles I've often quoted from the great Chassidic thinker, Reb Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur (1848-1906). He suggested a novel and clever approach to this topic of hidden information. Ya'akov did want to reveal the end of exile and oppression, but not in terms of dates or historical events, for the Rebbe explains, 'What profound secret is involved in that? And what is the practical ramification (nafka mina) in that knowledge?' Rather 'he wished to clarify for them the 'root of exile and redemption.' What we see as exile (and all evil, for that matter) is just the concealment of the Divine and the good. Had they understood that idea then the exile couldn't have affected their souls. This is why the Midrash says that the exile only started with the death of Ya'akov, since he understood this truth that no exile could afflict him and his progeny even though they were already in Egypt. Exile isn't about where you are located; exile is about how you think.

The concealment wasn't a blockage of the teaching; it was the teaching. The end of galut (exile) isn't a matter of time but of attitude. There is no comfort in knowing when the geula (redemption) will come. The only comfort comes from the knowledge and understanding of the fact that God is concealed within and by the world. The only danger of galut is losing the faith and hope of Divine presence. Galut doesn't describe geography, which is good news for those who are map-challenged. Galut describes the fog which descends upon our minds and souls.

The Rebbe mentions the aspaklaria or lens through which people observe the word of God. This lens (or looking glass) can be bright or dim. The Rebbe explains that Ya'akov observed through a bright lens, whereas the sons perused a dim one. Normally we explain the difference between the two as dependent upon the prophetic power of the observer. I'd like to suggest a different approach. I think that the luminescence of the lens directly relates to the observer's sense of the imminence of the Divine Presence. Galut ends when this reality is grasped.

Ya'akov communicated exactly what he wanted to, and that was the fact that concealment is the role of the world and our redemption depends upon us seeing through it. We try to do the same thing for our children and grandchildren. We want them to understand things that aren't apparent to their younger eyes. We want them to see through the smoke and fog and distortions of the world around us, and these distractions only get larger and louder over time. We want them to pierce the veil and see that the world is only a bright, shining stage for God to present us with tasks, wonders and truth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Walk Article-Vayigash



Rabbi David Walk


            The six part Hobbit movie saga reached its climatic conclusion this week.  I loved the books, and really appreciated the lovingly crafted screen versions by Peter Jackson.  These are tales of danger, hope and ultimate redemption.  In fact they seem quite Jewish in their tone and message.  These yarns are really two great adventures about leaving home for a perilous quest, and then returning home to find that the remarkable accomplishment was that the participants were transformed into fulfilled personalities.  Remember Bilbo's memoir of his trek is called There and Back Again.  A continuing thread throughout these chronicles is the character of Gandolf arriving at just the right moment to save our plucky heroes from imminent disaster.  Allow me to make a facile analogy.  Gandolf, the Gray Wizard, l'havdil eleph alphei havdalot, is like God performing the necessary miracle to extricate the Jews from the clutches of the latest incarnation of Amalek, our eternal nemesis.  This reality of a supernatural guardian is hinted at in this week's Torah reading.

            Before Jacob leads his seventy member clan into our first exile, God appears to him for the last time, and informs him, 'I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes (Genesis 46:3-4).'  Although there is a lot of information in that Divine address to Ya'akov, I'm interested in the one phrase that God will go down with them.  This seems to be an answer to whatever internal fears Ya'akov is feeling.  It may be alluding to the idea in this verse:  When he calls out to me, I will answer him. I will be with him when he is in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him honor (Psalms 91:15).  We would like to know that God will appear throughout our wanderings when we are in distress.

            The Ohr Hachayam (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 1690-1750) explains that this could mean that the Shechina or Divine Presence went down to Egypt with them.  But then he says that this interpretation is difficult because during the plague of hail Moshe had to leave the areas designated as Egypt to pray to God, because those lands were filled with idolatry.  He then points out that the Shechina wasn't really with the Jews until they built the Mishkan.  Remember that the root of Mishkan and Shechina is the same word, shachein, which means to dwell and gives us the modern Hebrew words for neighbor and neighborhood.  So, Rav Attar opts for the important idea there are many levels of Divine Presence.  This is evident from the Mishneh:  Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them And such is also the case with five. And three. And two.  And such is the case even with a single individual (Pirkei Avot, 3:6).  In other words there is Godliness present with all these levels of participation, but at various concentrations, the more of those learning the stronger the presence of God.  Similarly, Divine presence will increase and remain in Egypt for as long as the Jews are there, but not to a level which could be described as Shechina.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz,1550 –1619) explains God's announcement as describing the fulfillment of the promise given to Avraham at the Covenant of the Parts that the Jews will be strangers in a strange land long enough to become a nation there and to suffer persecution there.  Ya'akov is informed that he shouldn't be afraid for two reasons.  First that this was part of the plan for Jewish nationhood and that God would accompany them.  The Kli Yakar understands the assurance to include the idea that the Divine Presence will precede them down into Egypt and would also arise with them from there.  So, that neither Ya'akov personally nor the nation as a whole would ever be without Divine supervision.  He then states that this is why the Jews had to move with great speed as they prepare to leave Egypt.  Since the Divine Presence was departing we couldn't remain for even a minute without God's presence.  Even though we knew in advance that we would have to leave quickly it only became relevant when God said that the Shechina was departing.  Then we had to hustle to keep up.

            So, what frightened Ya'akov?  These ideas were presented by the Ohr HaChayim and the Kli Yakar to explain God's promise to maintain a presence with Ya'akov in Egypt which would prevent him from being afraid.  However, Ya'akov had already been taught during the dream of the ladder that God accompanies us in difficult times.  So what was bugging him now?  I think that Ya'akov was convinced that God can be found everywhere, but in what concentration and at what level of protection?  At Ya'akov's death bed, he bows to the head of the bed.  I believe that this act was an expression of gratitude for God's protective presence in Egypt to the extent that the next generation, specifically Ephraim and Menashe, remained Jewish in the spiritually polluted environment of Egypt.  Ya'akov died with the confidence that no Jew would be left behind, and for that he was both reassured before his journey and thankful at the time of his death.

            Sadly, Ya'akov's fears were well founded.  Many times in our long history of wandering and exile there didn't seem to be enough Divine presence to protect our fragile status surrounded by a dominant culture often bent on our demise.  Too many times Jewish communities have been destroyed or lost to our people.  Ya'akov foresaw this potential danger, and was given the assurance that the Egyptian experience wouldn't be that way.

            Our generation needs to read and understand this directive to Ya'akov.  We face the exact peril he foresaw.  We must remember that God is with us wherever we may be, but we must search for that presence diligently.  I pray we have the energy and wisdom to find the Godliness in our midst.



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Almost thirty years ago I went through basic training in the Israeli Army.  Even though it was a while ago I still think of my experiences in the military when we again read the Torah readings about Yosef and his brothers.  The major reason for this is that I went through my boot camp in Dotan.  That's where Yosef was flung into the pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, our ancestors.  There actually is a pit nearby that local folklore identifies as the genuine hole in the ground where Yosef was held captive.  It was neither impressive nor convincing.  It was, after all, just a pit.  But there's another reason why these readings remind me of my first time in the army.  We had the greatest closing banquet of any unit in the history of the IDF.  We were older than most recruits (I was thirty-seven.), and already in the midst of our careers.  One of our comrades was the manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv and he catered our party.  It was awesome!  The formerly stern officers warmed to us and one brought out a guitar.  He said that he wanted us to know how he really felt about war; he sang John Lennon's Imagine.  We were instantly transformed into dreamers, imagining a world where armies were obsolete.  So, Dotan is, for me, the city where our dreams are challenged.  I went there dreaming of a strong Zionist state; I left there considering an even greater vision.

            These Torah readings are about dreams.  Even the Haftorah for Miketz , which is rarely read because the Chanukah Haftorah supplants it, is about the dream of Shlomo Hamelech right after he ascends to the throne of Israel.  According to Calvin Hall, a dream maven, 'the majority of our dreams tend to reflect concerns about daily life, money, school, work, family, friends, and health.'  People dream about things that are on their minds while they're awake.  Michelle Carr adds that dreams often, 'reflect an unresolved conflict or an overwhelming emotional concern in an individual's life.'  I think that we see this in the dreams we read about in our Torah readings. When Ya'akov leaves his father's home he dreams about a gateway to heaven.  However, before he leaves Lavan's house he dreams about sheep.  Yosef dreams about ruling his brothers.  What a surprise!  The wine steward dreams about grapes; the baker dreams about baked goods.  And, of course, the king of Egypt dreams about the uncertainties of the Egyptian economy.  But there is another element to these dreams, namely Divine direction.

            The dreams recorded in the Torah are a combination of the dreamers' life and God's instruction.  I'm not sure that's true of our dreams, but modern psychology is based to a certain degree on the assumption that there are important pieces of information embedded in our dreams which are worth our while to analyze and consider.

            There is another element in the dreams of Ya'akov, Pharaoh and Shlomo that I believe is very important.  This component is missing from the dreams of Yosef, the wine steward and the butler because the text doesn't describe them having the dream, just them relating it to others.  That critical piece is the Hebrew word vayikatz, which is translated as 'and he awoke', but really means 'and he stopped.'  This is not the normal word for awaking, which is ya'ir.  So, the question arises why this consistent use of an unusual term?  I think that the answer to our question is found in the Rashbam (Reb Shmuel ben Meir, 1086-1158), the grandson of Rashi.  He explains that people don't normally have this instant recognition that a vision we had in our sleep is a dream.  We often wake up thinking that what we experienced was real.  Often we regular mortals take a few minutes to realize that we're not back in high school unprepared for a major Science test.  Do you have that one too?  However, our three characters had dreams of remarkable clarity, and firm knowledge that these were discrete packets of information.

            Why was this true of our three dreamers?  That answer is also clear.  God sent these revelations for specific reasons.  Ya'akov and Shlomo were being informed that God was with them at the outset of their difficult missions.  Pharaoh, on the other hand, was so informed both for reasons of national security and for his role in the elevation of Yosef, that other dreamer.  Our dreams may not have the clarity of theirs, but may still have tremendous importance to us.  For good or bad, our dreams have many important elements for us.  They reflect realities within our psyche and our life.  And, just maybe, on occasion they contain a tiny element of prophecy as well.

            Like these Biblical characters, we too should try to find interpretations for our dreams.  They can be helpful and useful in our own lives, but also have impact on our interactions with our world.  Is the world or our more limited environment in consonance with the highest expectations of our dreams?   I think that this is a Chanuka question.  Matityahu and his sons had to ask themselves if they should just accept the world around them or rise to the occasion to change it.

            The Haftorah we will read this Shabbat for Chanuka also has a dream in it.  The prophet Zacharya is shown Yehoshua the Cohen Gadol wearing filthy garments, and is instructed to remove the soiled clothing and is told that this removes his sins.  This effort of the prophet and the cohen to remove sin will result in miracles for the Jewish nation.

            We all have dreams about our expectations for ourselves and the world around us. Both our parsha and Chanuka challenge us to fulfill the highest aspirations of our dreams.  We must demand of ourselves to dream and then work to actualize those visions.  Yes, you can be a dreamer, too.  That's not enough, but it's a good start.   Chanukah Sameach!          

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Walk Article-Vayeshev



Rabbi David Walk


            Here we are once again beginning that part of Genesis usually called the Joseph stories.  Many times over the years I've written or spoken about the fact that these readings should really be called The Yehudah v. Yosef Chronicles, because these stories continually compare and contrast Yehudah with Yosef.  I know that in the world at large Yosef has the better reputation.  I mean there's even a play and movie about his wardrobe.  I think that a presentation of the Yehudah and Tamar tale could be a hit, but it would be rated 'R'.  Personally, I always favored Yehudah.  Yosef comes across as a little self absorbed in ways that Yehudah avoided.  However, my preference for Yehudah is not our topic this week.  Here's my question:  Since sibling rivalry is the leit motif for the entire book of Genesis, we should expect to encounter a challenge to Yosef's primacy among the brothers, but is Yehudah the inevitable contender?  I think not.  So, how does Yehudah emerge as the main rival to the obvious leadership of Yosef?

            The answer to this question doesn't begin with Yehudah.  There were other more obvious candidates who disqualified themselves.  Remember, Yehudah was born fourth, a lowly perch from which to mount a challenge for supremacy.  It seems that last week's parsha had an ongoing secondary agenda, which was to eliminate the three older brothers of Yehudah from contention for the mantle.  First we have the terrible incident at Shechem where Shimon and Levi basically slaughter the entire city.  I have a feeling that not only Ya'akov was horrified by this.  I would imagine that the rest of the family was similarly appalled.  After all no other brothers joined them in the mayhem. So, this disgust by the family eliminates numbers two and three in the pecking order from consideration.

            However, the number one contender was Reuvein.  In last week's reading he also committed an atrocity.  We're just not sure what he did.  The verse (Genesis 35:22) declares that he had relations with his father's concubine, but many commentaries aver that he removed Bilhah's bed from his father's tent.  All this was in an apparent attempt to establish his mother Leah as the mistress of the household.  Rachel had apparently ruled the roost, but with her demise Reuvein wants to buttress his beloved mother's position.  He apparently feared that Rachel's maid servant would replace her in Ya'akov's affections.  This offense, however, didn't totally disqualify him for potential leadership.  We see two future attempts by Reuvein to claim the alpha position in the family.  Both fail miserably.  This week he tries to save Yosef from the pit, but Yehudah beats him to the punch by first selling him into slavery.  And next week he offers to vouchsafe for Binyamin when the brothers return to Egypt.  Again he doesn't make the grade, and Yehudah replaces him. I think that we see a pattern.  Reuvein's efforts are continually trumped by Yehudah.  Ultimately, Yehudah is the candidate for the Leah party almost by default.

            It's almost by default, but not entirely.  Yehudah shows flashes of strong leadership (37:26), and the brothers defer to him.  But the moment he first transcended the others came at an unexpected moment.  His daughter in law, Tamar, had disguised herself as a harlot and seduced him.  She did this to have a child from the house of Israel, after her two husbands, both sons of Yehudah had died.  She felt justified.  When her pregnancy begins to show the family assumes that she has been unfaithful to her family obligation.  As she is being taken out to be burned for her assumed crime, she sends proof to Yehudah that he is the father.  He suspends the proceedings with the announcement:  She is more righteous than I (38:26).  The Talmud questions if we should publicly expound this story and concludes: One might have thought that we should not, for it is disgraceful for Yehudah. The Beraita teaches to the contrary; it is praiseworthy that he acknowledged his guilt (Megilla 25b).  Actually, the Hebrew word for acknowledge, confess and thank is based on the same root as our hero's name, Yehudah.  In a prescient moment Leah named her fourth son for the strength of character he would possess. 

            Yehudah, though, wasn't finished behaving in ways we admire.  In next week's Torah reading at a crucial moment for the family, he offers to guarantee the safety of Binyamin as the brothers prepare to go back to Egypt for relief from the fearful famine afflicting the entire region.  Even the still grieving Ya'akov falls under the sway of Yehudah's strength of character, and agrees.  In two weeks his position is solidified by his confrontation with Yosef.  As the whole cowers before the mysterious Viceroy of Egypt, Yehudah stands up for his framed brother by demanding that he be allowed to be punished in his brother's stead, because this would save the family patriarch.  By this time Yosef had seen it all, and even he is impressed by the presence of Yehudah.  The supremacy of Yehudah is confirmed by Ya'akov when he is sent first to Egypt to pave the way by arranging for the family's stay in the world's granary.  All of these developments are, of course, confirmed by Ya'akov in his death bed blessings:  The scepter of rule will never depart from Yehudah (49:10).

            Ultimately Yehudah and his descendant David become the paradigm for leadership.  Therefore we can conclude that great leadership requires two attributes.  First and, perhaps, foremost one must have the humility and self confidence to admit error. Too many kings and presidents haven't had the strength of character to acknowledge mistakes, and often that has been their downfall (think Nixon).  Secondly, a leader must see him or herself as a servant to protect those who are being led.  Right or wrong Truman dropped the bombs in 1945 to save American lives.  Even if that was bad policy it was great leadership.

            It's wonderful to read these stories again every year, but it's even more important to be inspired by them to achieve our own greater personality development.              

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Walk Article-Vayishlach



Rabbi David Walk

Fifty years ago Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik delivered an address to the Rabbinical Council of America on Jewish Christian dialogue. This speech was later printed in Tradition Magazine and became the official position of the RCA. This speech has had long lasting repercussions. In it the Rav distinguished between discussions about social issues which affect all of society and theological dialogue which touch on the religious philosophy of that belief system. Rabbi Soloveitchik permitted the former and prohibited the latter. This address remains the guideline for many orthodox rabbis, but many others have felt that new realities in both the world and Christianity have rendered the Rav's position obsolete, and, therefore, there are many rabbis who call themselves disciples of Rabbi Soloveitchik who feel free to enter into the kinds of dialogue which he forbade. A decade ago many Jewish and Christian scholars gathered to debate this seminal work. Even though there were rabbis who defended the work of Rabbi Solveitchik, it seems that the Rav posthumously (He had died eleven years earlier.) lost the debate before it even began, because the symposium was held under the auspices of Boston College, a Jesuit university, and everyone seemed to be discussing religious philosophy with anything that moved. However, that doesn't mean that the Rav has no company on this subject, because there are periodic visits by Roman Catholic Cardinals to Yeshiva University and a number of rabbis sit glumly mute throughout the proceedings.

Before I get to this week's real topic, I want to make one more point about the Rav's position on theological interfacing with non-Jews. On numerous occasions the Rav spoke at non-Jewish events and presented profound issues of Jewish philosophy. The Rav also quoted Christian theologians relatively often. It seems that the Rav was against theological dialogue but permitted theological monologue. It is permitted to present our position to others, but we shouldn't engage in debate about our principles.

Phew! Now I can finally get to my issue of the week. The Rav, at the end of this famous article, buttresses his position by quoting and explaining the momentous meeting between Ya'akov and Esav in this week's Torah reading. He believes that anyone representing Judaism before Christian auspices should follow the instructions which Ya'akov gives to the ambassadors which he sends to Esav. The Rav explains, 'Our approach to and relationship with the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character, intrinsically antithetic, bordering at times on the paradoxical. We relate ourselves to and at the same time withdraw from, we come close to and simultaneously retreat from the world of Esav.' With that in mind the Rav said that Ya'akov is warning his agents that Esav will ask three questions: When my brother, Esau, meets you, he will ask, 'Whose servants are you? Where are you going? Who owns these animals? (Genesis 32:17) The Rav relates that we can't answer the first two questions. The first one wants to know toWhom we have dedicated our lives and destiny, and that is not a topic open to discussion with representatives of another belief system. Similarly, the next inquiry wants to know our 'ultimate goal and final objective'. Again this is not an area we care to discuss with others. However, the third question about the animals is really asking, 'Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of general society? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country?' That we can answer strongly in the affirmative. As Rabbi Soloveitchik put it, 'We are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.'

The Rav strongly believed that 'This testament handed down to us by Jacob has become very relevant now in the year 1964. A millennia-old history demands from us that we meet the challenge courageously and give the same answers with which Jacob entrusted his messengers several thousand years ago.'

A year later Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel delivered an address at the Union Theological Seminary in which he answered Rabbi Soloveitchik. In this speech he declared: No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa. And he concluded: Rabbi Israel Lifschutz of Danzig (1782-1860) speaks of the Christians, "our brethren, the gentiles, who acknowledge the one God and revere His Torah which they deem divine and observe, as is required of them, the seven commandments of Noah... What, then, is the purpose of inter-religious cooperation? It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning, to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.

Rabbi Heschel welcomed what the Rav dreaded. My heart agrees with Rabbi Heschel while my mind sympathizes with the Rav. The Rav didn't trust Christianity, whose agenda for two thousand years was to convert us. But I feel that times have changed and much of Christianity has turned over a new leaf. These days I welcome interfaith cooperation even when it includes an exchange of ideas. But the Rav's warnings continue to ring in my ears. Any Christian who has ever muttered the words 'conversion' or 'mission to the Jews' must be excluded from any serious religious discussions. The spirit of Esav still exists, but thank God is less pervasive than it once was.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Walk Article-Vayetze



Rabbi David Walk


            Throughout history religions have relied on very powerful visual symbols and images to advance their agenda.  We have all benefited from this reality because much of the world's greatest art was produced for this purpose.  There are many reasons for this phenomenon.  Religions often were wealthy and could commission the art.  Sadly for most of human history the vast majority of people were illiterate and these artistic depictions of religious stories were the best way to teach them.  Often we Jews were the odd man out.  When you visit the great museums of the world, relative to our pagan and Christian cousins, there is scant Jewish representation.  So, the beginning of our parsha is a rare outlier.  We begin this week's reading with a famous and robust image.  Our episode begins with Ya'akov's dream of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven.

            In my many years of teaching, speaking and writing I've discussed Ya'akov's ladder many times (Which rabbi hasn't?), but I'd like to offer a new approach this year and I must acknowledge an article by Rav Itamar Eldar, on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website which pointed me in this new direction.  I hope he'll forgive me that my conclusion is very different from his.   Rav Eldar begins with an extremely important point.  He explains that Ya'akov's departure from Be'er Sheva must be viewed as a paradigm for the plethora of Jewish leave takings from our multitude of transient homes throughout our torturous history.  Every one of these departures was accompanied by an anxiety and apprehension concerning what the new venue would hold in store for us.  The apparition of the ladder was to reassure Ya'akov and his progeny in these trying circumstances, but what was the content of the reassurance?

       One way of answering this question was suggested by Rav Yisroel Hopstien (1737–1814), also known as the Maggid of Kozhnitz.  He wrote:  And Ya'akov was afraid. That is, when he contemplated the length of the destruction of the second Temple, fear and dread fell upon him, saying, when will we come to the end? "And he said, 'This is no other than the house of God'." That is, he was consoled by the fact that evidently the destruction is preparation for the future Temple that will be called God's permanent residence for all of time (Avodat Yisra'el,[2] Vayetze).  In other words Ya'akov was consoled by the promise that we would come home.  The prophecy of the dream was very depressing concerning the short term, but bullish about the long term.  We can make it through our difficult now because of a promising thereafter.  

            There is, however, another point of view presented by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Rebbe of Apt (1748–1825, the ancestor of the Rabbi Heschel of the 20th century).  The great founder of the Apter dynasty of Chasidut wrote:  God consoled him with the promise: "I am the Lord God of Avraham your father… to you will I give it." That is, whatever you are lying upon and worrying about, I will certainly give it to you and to your seed. "I am with you, and will keep you." That is, even when they are in exile, I will be with them and keep them. He strengthened himself and said: "Surely the Lord is here and I knew it not." That is, "I had imagined that God would abandon them there in their exile, and they would be left, God forbid, without His providence. But now I truly see that even His Shekhina is with them in exile.  Ya'akov then returned to his earlier thoughts and communion with God (Ohev Yisra'el,[3] Vayetze).  This is a potent idea which is common throughout Chassidut.  God will be with us wherever we go.  The divine Presence doesn't depend on the place but on the person.

            Which interpretation is correct?  I have a strong feeling that throughout history rabbis have explained the symbol of the ladder based upon the immediate circumstance within the community the rabbi was addressing.  It's not that rabbis twist the meaning as much as rabbis tailor the message to the audience.  The Torah is not a one size fits all text; it must be customized to the consumer. 

            However, I do believe that there is a right answer.  And the correct response is door B.  I think that the central point of the vision is that God will be with Ya'akov and his descendants wherever they may wander.  This is similar to the revelation granted to Ezekiel at the beginning of his book.  There on the banks of the Chebar River in Babylonia, Ezekiel sees an apparition of the Divine Chariot.  This four-sided heavenly vehicle hovers over the Jews in Mesopotamia informing them that God continues to watch over us wherever we may find ourselves.  This great sight became the source for much kabalistic speculation, but much more importantly has given hope to countless generations of Jews throughout our varied Diaspora.

            Two images, one message, but is there a difference between these two metaphors for eternal divine supervision?  Yes, I think so.  The glorious chariot displays the reality of God's movement with the Jews through history.  The emphasis is on mobility.  This idea has given succor to Jews distant from our homeland in location, time and mindset.  The stationary ladder, on the other hand, advocates another program.  The ladder is firmly grounded in Israel, but has infinite reach to extend Divine Presence wherever a Jew may be found.  But that Divine Presence is rooted in Israel, our eternal home.

            Both of these majestic visions have supported our improbable survival all these many centuries.  However, I strongly affirm that today Ya'akov's Ladder must supersede Ezekiel's Chariot as our main focus. If our generation doesn't feel the centrality of Israel to our Jewish identity then probably no generation ever will.  We must acknowledge Divine Presence wherever we may be, but we must feel the gravitational tug of Israel drawing us to its source.  We must sense the power at the base of that ladder calling us home.       

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Walk Article-Toldot



Rabbi David Walk


            How much do we control our destiny?  That's perhaps the most important question in psychology, if not all of science.  At what point do the factors of nature and nurture combine to irrevocably cast the individual into an unbreakable mold?  A friend of mine with a background in psychology once told me that not much changes after toilet training.  I find that to be depressing as a teacher, parent and grandparent. But it gets worse. This week's Torah reading seems to claim that much of what we will ultimately become has already been decided before we leave the womb.  Both the behavior of the twins in Rivka's belly and the prophecy she sought seem to militate for just such a conclusion.  I have a problem with these positions, and I think that we must analyze this idea in our parsha to find a way out of this deterministic dead end.  The place to start is the rearing of Esav, because he's the one who gets written out of Jewish history as a result of factors very early in his life some of which seem to be out of his control.

            Judging Esav is one of the most frustrating enterprises for anyone studying Torah.  The verses themselves give little support for the contempt which our Sages hold for him.  Take for example the famous story in this week's Torah reading.  Esav returns from the field exhausted and famished.  Ya'akov seems to take advantage of his weakened state, and charges him his birthright for lunch.  On the surface the story paints a negative picture of Ya'akov. However based on an anomaly in the text (Genesis 25:29 & 34) our Sages claim that our uncle Esav has just committed adultery, murder and idolatry.  No wonder he was tired! This brings up the query does he get a raw deal from our tradition?  Are we using his story as an opportunity to attack those whom we view as our historical enemies who happen to be his descendants?  I think that the answer is no, and to explain my position I'm going to quote from one of the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon.  This outstanding Torah scholar is Rabbi Ya'akov Medan, with whom I served in the IDF.

            Rabbi Medan makes a number of clever and creative observations.  The first and most important of these is that 'judging Biblical characters as though they were students in the beit medrash (study hall)' is a mistake.  But his comment which I want to deal with here is that to understand Esav we must compare him to his Biblical 'double'-namely King David.  They both have powerful leadership skills, they both have led armies of four hundred men, they both are ruddy, and they both have bloodied their swords.  Here's the difference.  When King David conquers Jerusalem, God sends an angel to kill the former Jebusite king.  David prays to God to end the violence and pays the former enemy cash for the future site of the Holy Temple.  God tells the angel to sheathe the sword and David is grateful and brings offerings at the newly consecrated location.  Esav never sheathes his sword; he lives by his sword, and always will (27:40).

            Is this, perhaps, the argument of Rivkah and Yitzchak about the boys?  Rivkah, perhaps because of the prophecy she received about him, believes that he will never grow and change.  Yitzchak, who never heard that prophecy, has faith that Esav can use his physical prowess to protect the fledgling Jewish nation.

            I would like to suggest a new approach to the issue of what is wrong with Esav, and why there is such a concern that he is incorrigible.  During the famous scene when Ya'akov is cooking the lentil soup, the exchange between them is fascinating.  Ya'akov wants to claim the birthright from Esav, because he doesn't believe that Esav is fit to be the spiritual representative of the family, and Esav confirms his doubt.  Please, remember that the birthright in those days before the Sinaitic covenant meant that the first born performed the role of priest for the family.  It was only after the sin of the Golden Calf that this practice was changed. 

            Here is the exchange:  And Esav said to Ya'akov, "Give me some of this red stuff to gulp down, for I am faint"; and Ya'akov said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright." Esav replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?" (Genesis 25:30-32)

            I believe that the most important statement in the exchange is when Esav says that he doesn't care about the birthright because he's gong to die.   Now this statement is often used to show that Ya'akov was conniving.  He's closing a deal under utmost duress.  Esav is in a weakened and vulnerable state.  I don't think that's what going on at all.  Even though Esav was tired and hungry, I strongly suggest that he was saying something entirely different.  The birthright is part of the covenantal relationship with God which is passed down from generation to generation.  The fulfillment of this compact with God will only be fulfilled in a distant future and by our progeny.  This is clearly stated in the Covenant Between the Parts (15:13-16).  Esav does not care about anything which occurs after his demise.  But we do.

            It's fascinating that in the very next story of our parsha God speaks to Yitzchak for the one and only time in his life and promises him the destiny sworn to his father Avraham.  In this short declaration God mentions the word zaracha (your seed or offspring) four times (26:3-4).  Yitzchak is being told the antithesis of Esav's philosophy.  We may live in the moment, but we live for the distant future.

            We do believe in the concept of Teshuva (repentance) and reform.  It is hard to change, but we believe that it is possible.  We celebrate those who achieve this amazing spiritual makeover.  But we don't see this path opening up before Esav, because he rejects the basic underlying premise that we are connected to a destiny greater than the limiting boundaries of our lives.  Esav was born to be wild and would never change.




Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Walk Article-Chaye Sarah


Chaye Sarah-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            One of the most ironic Midrashim ever written references this week's Torah reading.  This Midrash declares that there are three places on earth concerning which no one can ever question their Jewish ownership, and they are Hebron, Shechem and the Temple Mount.  The reason for this assertion is that each was bought and paid for by one of our ancestors.  Avraham bought the Cave of the Machpelah in beautiful downtown Hebron, Ya'akov bought Shechem, and King David bought the land upon which his son would build the Temple from the last king of the Jebusites.  Pretty ironic, huh?  There are probably no more contested pieces of real estate on planet earth than these three locations, and that's been true for a while, like two thousand years.  Sadly it doesn't look like this situation will change anytime soon.  I always find this Shabbat nerve wracking, because thousands of my right wing family and friends descend upon Hebron to commemorate the purchase of this plot of land.  These are not the most conciliatory Jews, and we are a quite contentious tribe.  This week they face off against the Arabs of Hebron, and they're not our most friendly cousins.  Did you notice my title?  More different groups have said this about Israel than anywhere else.  So, I thought that this would be a good week to discuss our right to proclaim that 'This is My Land'.

            A thousand words (the average length of these pieces) is not nearly enough space to cover this topic.  However, I will review a few of the most famous answers and then present a novel approach to this issue.

            There are those who claim that the special nature of Israel can be explained by natural phenomena and geographic considerations.  The Kli Yakar wrote:   And similarly, the Holy Land is home to peaceful harmony because of its combination of opposites and because it is midway between cold and heat, it being the center of the world and having the middle climate and elevation among the seven climates and elevations, as the verse states: "Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth." The mixing of cold and heat corresponds to the quality of peaceful harmony (Ollelot Efrayim, Jerusalem, 1991, I, p. 67).  So, too, we Jews follow the Golden Mean and must be at this crossroads of the world, because we are meant to be the light to the nations.

            In a similar vein, the mystic Rabbi Shlomo Alkebetz wrote: Just as some countries yield more agricultural produce than others, and some countries produce more silver, gold and precious stones than others, so too all types of perfection flow from this country. Therefore, it is called "the city of justice," because justice grows there, as do other types of perfection. The sanctity of the land is not like that of other lands; it also has a divine element (Brit Ha-Levi, Teshuva, Third Principle, 41).  Again, the Jewish nation is responsible to maintain justice and ethics and must dwell there to receive and then to dispense these blessings.

            That naturalistic approach is also espoused by the modern scholar Prof. Yehuda Elitzur.  He explains that the rain cycle was the clearest and most evident sign of the nature and quality of Eretz Israel, that it is the land of providence, the land which God seeks out, the land upon which His eyes rest from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Rainfall is merely a sign and an example; the main thing is that it is the land of Divine Providence.

            Following in the profoundly Kabbalistic Zionist teachings of Rav Yehudah HaLevy, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote:  Eretz Israel is not a superficial element, a possession external to [the essence] of the nation, merely a means to the goal of [establishing] a comprehensive union and fortifying its material, or even its spiritual, existence. Eretz Israel is an essential element connected by way of a living bond to the nation, attached through its inner qualities to its essence. (Orot).  Israel, both the people and the land are one entity.

            Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (1340-1411) looked in a different direction when he wrote that God is everywhere and relates to all locales.  However, God doesn't relate to them all equally, and, therefore Providence (hashagacha) is different for Israel.  This is because those who live there relate towards God in a special way.  So our Sages have explained that 'Eretz Israel is unique, to the point that they knew by tradition that prophecy rests only in Eretz Israel. ( Or Ha-Shem, ma'amar II, 2, chap. 6).'  First there was the Jewish nation and that dictated the reality of the land.

            This brings us to an idea propounded by Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik in his book The Emergence of Ethical Man.  The Rav acknowledges the uniqueness of his proposal, but clearly proclaims that kedusha or holiness in this world is a result of human effort.  The sanctity of a Torah scroll emerges through the efforts of a scribe writing the words of God upon the vellum.  He extends the concept of Rav Crescas to say, 'the sanctity of the land denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest or the mere presence of the peole in that land.  Kedushah is identical with man's association with Mother Earth (p. 150).'  The Rav insists that there is no 'objective metaphysical quality inherent in the land.'  I think that's why Avraham when he returned from Egypt (Genesis 12:1-4) he stopped at the same locations he had originally visited.  He recognized the holiness which he had himself created by his deeds.

            Sarah and Avraham created this holiness and this relationship to the land.  Again, I quote the Rav, 'A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by sacred people.'  This soil was hallowed by our forefathers by their mitzvoth, prayers and deeds. Our attachment to the land is through emulation of their behavior. I'll leave legal arguments to lawyers.  This is emotionally satisfying. It's my land, because I'm their heir.      

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Walk Article-Vayera



Rabbi David Walk


In various levels of exasperation we Jews often ask, "What does God want from me?'  Over the years many answers have been offered to this query.  Some responses are biting with sarcasm ('blood'), others dripping with saccharin affection ('love' and 'adoration').  But the most famous answer of all was given by the prophet Micah, and is in my bar mitzvah Haftorah (parshat Balak):  God has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).  Sadly, I don't remember that line from my thirteenth birthday, and that's not only because it was so long ago.  In those carefree days I never dreamed I'd someday be writing these essays, and therefore didn't pay much attention to things Jewish.  However, I knew that I'd always be ready with a Red Sox stat or a Boston (yes, they played in Boston in those bygone days) Patriots anecdote.  Anyway, as luck would have it, there is another slightly different answer to my question in this week's Torah reading, and there are two parts to the answer.

I believe that we can find our answer in God's musings before informing Avraham of the impending doom of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Here are the pertinent verses:  Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing? And Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him (Genesis 18:17-19)."  Of course this is the introduction to the negotiations between God and Avraham over the fate of these wayward cities.  God announces to us, the readers, that Avraham must be informed of the plan, because he keeps righteousness and justice.  But what do these two terms imply?

The two expressions in Hebrew are tzedaka and mishpat.  We usually use the word tzedaka to mean charity, but it really means to do the right thing.  In Modern Hebrew we say ata tzodek when we mean that you are correct.  Mishpat on the other hand means according to the law.  One could therefore make the mistake of thinking that mishpat means following the letter of the law and tzedaka means going beyond the legal requirements.  However, you wouldn't be tzodek, right.  The term in Hebrew for going beyond the expectations of the law ischesed.  So, what is the implication of tzedaka?   I think that it means doing the action which the circumstances demand.  I believe that mishpat is the written rules, and tzedaka implies using those rules appropriately to the occasion.  It's not so much bending the rules as applying them according to the dictates of the situation. Even laws must be applied judiciously.

At this point one could say that God feels the need to inform Avraham because he maintains tzedaka and mishpat.  But what is that business at the end of the quote about bringing to Avraham.' that which He spoke concerning him'?  I think that this refers to the Brit Bein Ha'Bitarim, the covenant between the parts (15:13-16) from last week's parsha.  In that covenant God says that all the promises being made to Avraham will be fulfilled in the future to Avraham's offspring.  What kind of deal is that?  I know that people make deals for their heirs to receive cash after their demise. We call that life insurance.  But making a deal which won't be paid out for four generations.  That's unheard of.  Avraham views his commitment to God in an historical light.  He sees the relationship with God as spanning the ages.  It doesn't bother him that he will never see the fruits of his labors.  Once we accept an eternal God, we see no problem with making arrangements for outcomes we will never experience.  Because our children are us.  We view our transaction with God as an ongoing historical movement stretching into an unseen and unimagined future.  We act now for results many years or generations down the line.

Now we can begin to understand another phrase in God's announcement that Avraham must be informed of the fate of Sodom et al.  God says that Avraham 'commands his children and his household after him.'  The promises about future greatness in the land of Israel only make sense because Avraham doesn't only behave morally and ethically, but he demands no less from all of those around him.  Avraham had no problem banishing Lot from his entourage because he saw that certain parts of the Lot household weren't living up to the standards demanded of the Avraham household.  Avraham suffers when Sarah tells him to send Yishmael away, but he heeds God's instruction to follow Sarah's plan.  This is simply because he knows that the Avraham legacy must always be seen in the light of tzedaka and mishpat.  Yishmael doesn't make the cut, and Avraham grudgingly accepts that determination.

God states that Avraham must be informed of the judgment at Sodom-berg, because Avraham will carry the responsibility of moral behavior for all mankind into the infinite future.  Avraham, perhaps alone in his time, must understand how this moral system works because he is the great hope for generating ethics throughout history.  The punishment for these communities isn't executed in a vacuum, but in a context of humanity learning proper communal development.  It's a teaching opportunity. 

Finally we can answer my original question.  What does God want from me?  God wants me to live a life of tzedaka and mishpat and to pass that lifestyle on to everyone around me.  It's an easy answer; a tough assignment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Walk-Lech Licha


Lech Licha-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            If I had my way, I'd like the answer to my title question to be 'Because I told you to!'  But that didn't work with my kids either.  So, now I have to write an entire article trying to answer this question.  But that's okay because I'm always looking for topics for these weekly pieces.  And this week is the best week to ask this question, because we are introduced to Avraham the first true believer.  We want to try and understand how he arrived at this belief.

            The exasperating truth is that the Torah itself gives very few clues to solve this conundrum.  At the end of last week's Torah reading we quickly hear of Avraham as part of the genealogy culminating the Noach story.  However, it's a bit of a cliff hanger.  We've learned precious little about him, and we have to wait a week to really get to know this newly mentioned character.  But there is no hint as to why he should be ready to listen to God's command to 'go forth from your home.'  There are many famous Midrashim which sally forth into the fray to explain that he watched over his father's idol store, or was thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod or saw a burning mansion with the Divine owner calling to him.  The text itself maintains a strict silence on this burning question.  There are, therefore, a plethora of answers to my query.

Over time I have found the most appealing approach is that of Maimonides.  There are two rabbinic traditions which he tries to reconcile.  One is that Avraham discovered the truth about God when he was three, which means that this discovery was somehow an innate intuition.  The other opinion is that Avraham came to this realization at the age of forty, which represents a long intellectual journey of discovery.  Here's what Maimonides says:  Once Avraham was weaned (at age three), he, as a child, began contemplating and thinking day and night, and wondered how a celestial sphere could follow a fixed path without being directed. If so, who directed it? Surely it would be impossible for it to rotate through the heavens on its own! Avraham did not have a mentor, rather he was immersed amongst the foolish idolaters of Ur Casdim, where everyone, including his mother and father, served idols, as did he. In his heart, however, he continued to contemplate, until he realized the way of truth and understood the ways of righteousness from nature, and knew that there is a God who directs the spheres, created the world, and besides whom there is none other Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator (Laws of Idolatry, I:3).

There is another appealing approach expressed by the Sfat Emet stating that the Torah does give us all the information that we need.  The instruction to 'leave your land' was broadcast generally to the world, but went unheeded by everyone but Avraham.  He claims that this injunction is broadcast everywhere all the time, but only Avraham understood the importance of the message.  There was no other eureka moment.  Unlike the other positions listed, in this case we don't have to make up other information.  Basically belief in God is based on revelation.  The one who hears, believes.  The rest of us, perhaps, must check our ears.

So, we have Avraham discovering God in nature, through intellectual investigation, and by means of the Divine call.  However, that still leaves another venue, namely history.  Our God acts in history and leaves hints behind.  Rav Yehdua Halevi describes the God who redeemed us from Egypt and brought us to Israel as a possible basis for belief in this God.  We can add so many historical layers to this belief through the past centuries.  We've seen Jews take a central place on the world stage (for both happy and sad occasions) and we've seen the Land of Israel take its place amongst the world's nations again.  How can we deny that there's been a Providence for us to outlast all our ancient and modern foes to survive and even thrive? 

For all of these reasons and probably others, Avraham sought out God and heeded the call to emerge from the shadows of ancient society to become a beacon to future generations.  But what if there is a totally different way to look at this riddle?  What if Avraham never searched for God? What if Avraham, instead, looked for mankind?  I was reading The Emergence of Ethical Man by Rabbi Joseph D. Solveitchik, and I was looking for an answer to my question about what caused Avraham to believe in God, but I couldn't find an answer.  After some frustration, I decided that the omission was on purpose.  The Rav says:  The Charismatic person (in this case Avraham) revolts against a non-moral legalistic society, whose ends and objectives often collide with the basic tenets of a natural, living morality... Only later does he find out, to his surprise, that with the moral law in himself he has discovered the God of morality beyond himself, and at a still later date he becomes acquainted with this unique being…God helps him to develop his moral spontaneity and creativity (p. 154).

It seems that we've been asking the wrong question all along.  We wanted to know how Avraham discovered God.  Avraham was never looking for God.  Avraham was seeking ethics and morality.  He sought a world which treated people with dignity and respect.  The Rav says that God didn't address Avraham in the commanding, authoritative tone of the Lord but in the comradely, friendly manner of a fellow wanderer.  God is also lonesome, and seeks a companion.  The Arabs actually call Avraham 'God's Friend.'  The Rav avers that in many respects God was closer to Avraham than to Moshe, because they traveled the same path.

Ultimately the question isn't why should we believe in God.  We should instead ask:  What can we do to make God believe in us?  That's what Avraham did.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Walk Article-Noach



Rabbi David Walk


            What natural disaster is the most terrifying?  Tornadoes are pretty bad.  From The Wizard of Oz to Twister, movies have shown horrifying scenes of tornado bred devastation.  But, personally, I'd put my money on asteroids.  They're scary!  One of them wiped out the dinosaurs, and theoretically another could do the same to us.  In the pantheon of potential disasters, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, none could end life as we know it like a big rock from space.  Now that I've provided you all with the seeds of nightmares, allow me to say that to ancient humanity floods were the scariest.  According to an article by Dr Moshe Kaveh, President of Bar Ilan University and distinguished professor of physics (and source for many of the facts in this article) two hundred and seventeen cultures around the world have flood stories.  I didn't know that there were so many civilizations in the world.  And we're one of them.

            There's a tremendous amount of research about our Bible's Flood story.  It seems that the History Channel alone has at least one documentary on the topic every week.  There are expeditions to find the remains of the ark.  There are theories about the amount and source of the water required to do the job.  Many 'experts' calculate the date of the event.  And, of course, there are many attempts to figure out the extent of the flood.  Flood study is an obsession with many that call themselves Bible scholars.  For me the only interesting question is concerning the parameters of the flood.  A flood that truly covered the whole world is really a bit much to take in.  However, there are opinions, beginning with our Sages that the flood was limited in scope.  Some say that Eretz Yisrael was exempt; others say that only Babylonia was flooded, because that was considered the whole world in the good old days.  In reality there were two floods of note in the ancient world surrounding Israel.  One was the flooding of the Mediterranean basin when the Atlantic Ocean rushed in early in the history of mankind.  More recently the Black Sea was formed by the Mediterranean breaking through the Bosporus about five thousand years ago. Famed under water archeologist Robert Ballard pushes this last theory. Who knows?

            Frankly, that kind of speculation ultimately doesn't interest me.  The Bible is neither history book nor geological guide.  However, I'm interested in speculation about why water was chosen as the vehicle for God's wrath.  There could have been many methods of punishing that generation of sinners from fire to plague, so, why water?  It could be that flooding was the scariest natural disaster to people in the ancient Middle East.  Flash floods in the desert are tremendously destructive and super scary.  But we can do better than that.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunzitsch, 1550-1619) reminds us that idolatry, perhaps the worst possible sin, is compared to a fruitless search for water by the prophet Jeremiah:  They have abandoned Me, the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all (2:13).  In the Zohar the expression that God brought a flood of water on the world is followed by the comment that this is a form of avodah or a reference to Divine service to God.  This makes sense because we spend a lot of our prayer verbiage discussing water and rain.  Israel is a dry country, always on the edge of drought, therefore much of our Sukkot prayers were water connected.  Soon we will be adding a daily request for rain in our Shmoneh esreh prayer, and we just began reciting our praise of God as the 'Bringer of wind and rain'.  Water preoccupied the minds of ancient humanity in the Middle East, except for Egypt where water was as regular as sun light.  But for us when we talk about God always paying attention to Israel we mean rain and water resources.  So that would be a bit ironic that this normally scarce resource turned around to become our nemesis through over abundance.  Too much of anything is dangerous, even normally beneficial items.

            Maybe the irony is even greater.  Often we use water as a metaphor for Torah.  Our sages have said there is no water (or life giving elixir) other than Torah (Talmud Ta'anit 7b).  So, a world that doesn't heed God's instructions is inundated with the symbol of God's teachings.  Water is also the vehicle for purification in our tradition.  Maybe the earth's spiritual pollution was so great that the whole world became a mikveh to purify everything.

            But perhaps the reference to water is based on a different scientific reality.  We are mostly water.  Adult humans are about sixty percent water; children are even more.  Babies are seventy-eight percent water.  Some living organisms are as much as ninety percent water.  More than any other substance water reminds us that we are one with our world.  Therefore the essence of our sin was against the natural order of things.  We didn't offend God; we offended our planet.  Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, in his book The Emergence of Ethics, explains that the stories at the beginning of Genesis, especially the Creation chapters, are to teach us that we are an integral part of this world.  Bible scholarship and Greek philosophy (as presented by the early Christian Church) were wrong to view humanity as separate and aloof from our environment and its impulses.  Judaism demands that we see ourselves in a natural context. 

            When we look at these stories at the beginning of Genesis we are presented with many questions.  I think that these questions shouldn't be about the accuracy or technical details of these tails.  Rather we must ask:  What can I learn from these accounts?  How can my life be made better through understanding these narratives?  And, finally, what can I do to improve this wonderful world presented to us by a loving God?  It's about time we concentrated on the big picture these Biblical chapters really describe.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Walk Article-Simchat Torah


Simchat Torah-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            Every Simchat Torah we dance exuberantly with our Torah scrolls.  I, too, am exuberant it's just questionable if what I'm doing can be classified as dancing.  During the Sukkot festival we take our lulavi, and march around a Torah scroll.  We pay homage to God and the Torah for our harvest bounty.  On Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls circle the perimeter of our sanctuary marching around us, as if to acknowledge our devotion to God and the Torah for loyally completing the Torah every year.  It's a wonderful celebration.  The Sfat Emet (second rebbe of Gur, 1847-1905) asks which moment of Simchat Torah is the apex of our joy.  Now, I foolishly would have said the elation is over completing the annual task.  Thank God I wasn't sitting in his class.  He wisely opined that the greatest delight is beginning the journey again.  We're God's children wanting to hear the story again and again, because there is new elation and insight in every retelling.  So, again we are at that cusp between an ending and new beginnings.   

            The ancient world was fascinated by the ouroboros or the snake which eats its own tail.  This symbol of eternal renewal is reminiscent of our never ending cycle of Torah readings.  Certain mystic authorities have hinted at this idea by suggesting that when we end our Torah with the word Yisrael we have the last letter lamed which connects to the first letter of breishit, the beit.  This spells the Hebrew word lev, which means heart, because our heart is in our Torah study.  Therefore, I think it is worthwhile to ask if we can find a lesson in analyzing our Torah's first idea with its last.

            The first verse in our Torah is:  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  The last verses are:  And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).  Our Torah begins with the primacy of God in heaven and earth and ends with the importance of Moshe and his prophesy to our world.  Fitting ideas to begin and end the world's greatest literary work.

            But that's not how we Jews learn Torah.  We have a guide to our tour of Divine thought, namely Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), whom we call Rashi.  Rashi rarely makes original observations.  His work is almost entirely made up of quotes, but he really knew how to choose the best comment for every text.  So, it's extremely informative to check his choices for these texts.  The first Rashi in Chumash is very famous, and here it is:  Said Rabbi Isaac: The Torah should have begun from "This month is to you," (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments. Now for what reason did He commence with "In the beginning?" Because it states in the verse "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan," they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us."  Wow, replace Canaanites with Palestinians and Rashi has quoted daily newspaper articles in Europe and a certain rag in NYC.  Rashi justified our eternal claims to our homeland in a hostile world dominated by Crusaders who claimed the Holy Land as theirs, and went on Jihad to make it so.

            And how does Rashi wrap up the greatest story ever told?  He quotes the final phrase 'before the eyes of all Israel,' and comments: This expression alludes to the incident where Moshe's heart stirred him to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, "and I shattered them before your eyes" (Deuteronomy 9:17, Sifrei 33:41). And regarding this act, the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, "the first Tablets which you shattered" (Exodus 34:1); God said to Moses: "Well done for shattering them!" [TB Tractate Shabbat 87a].  Rashi combines the observation of the Midrash with the conclusion of the Talmud.  The critically important event to which the nation was eye witness was not the ten plagues nor the crossing of the Sea, not even the epiphany at Sinai, but rather it was Moshe's seemingly reckless act of destruction.  Why?  What do we learn from this?  The Siftei Chachamim (R. Shabtai Bass, 1641-1718), the greatest commentary on Rashi, says that we learn the greatness of Moshe, and he adds that we know the Talmud's praise for Moshe's act must be correct because God instructed that the broken tablet also be placed in the Holy Ark.

            Perhaps Rashi's goal was to demonstrate the relevance of Torah and its infinite levels of meanings to his tempest-tossed generation.  His initial comment was about our never wavering belief in our covenant with God and the blessings that relationship implies.  His final comment instructs the nation to show trust and loyalty to our leaders even in difficult times and circumstances.  This has been powerful medicine for a beleaguered people.  I doubt that it was this master teacher's goal, but it also shows the continued relevance of Rashi's commentary.

            I concede to the Sfat Emet that the greatest joy is the renewal of the weekly Torah readings cycle, but that joy is further enhanced by discovering new messages every year.  The enterprise remains fresh and relevant.  Chag Sameach!


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Walk Article-Sukkot



Rabbi David Walk

There is a story about Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, the father of the more famous Rabbi Joseph D. Solveitchik, the Rav, during Rosh Hashanah while he was still the rabbi in Khaslavitch. The man preparing to blow the shofar like the majority of Jews in the town was a Chabad chasid. Here is how the Rav remembers the incident, "When my father was standing on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah and prepared for the order of the sounding of the shofar, a Chabad chasid who was to blow the shofar trembled and began to weep. Rabbi Moshe said to him, 'Why are you weeping? Do you weep when you take hold of a lulav? Why is the shofar different? Are they not both commandments of God?'" The Rav is, of course, sensitive to such remarks, and he wondered why his father contrasted the shofar and the lulav. He went on to explain that the shofar cries and moans and is associated with sin and guilt and the desire to escape from this world. According to the outlook of Chabad leader Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the shofar expresses a yearning to transcend this world and to rise to the realm of the hidden infinite deus absconditus, the hidden God. That mystic attitude resonates with the "ontological pessimism of mysticism." However, the lulav is the fruit of goodly trees. It speaks of an immanent God who dwells in the midst of reality. The lulav symbolizes this world – eating, drinking, smelling, touching, seeing, and this is the world in which halachah operates. The shofar takes us to realms far above this world; the lulav anchors us in this world.

That reference to the 'goodly trees' comes from the Torah's description of the etrog as pri etz hadar or fruit from a beautiful tree (Leviticus 23:40). Rashi explains that the beauty of the etrog manifests itself in two ways. First its fruit tastes like its tree. I don't recommend eating trees, but if you boil the bark of the etrog tree the resulting tea does tastes like the fruit. Secondly, the etrog fruit remains and grows on the tree from year to year. This last phenomenon is apparently unique, and results in huge etrogim. They can grow to the size of footballs or even small watermelons if left on the tree for more seasons.

So, we see that certain mitzvoth allude to spiritual, heavenly realities and other mitzvoth remind us of the Godliness in this world. The shofar falls into the former category and the lulav into the latter. What, therefore, can we learn from the earth oriented mitzvoth? I think that the primary lesson is that nature and earthly wonders are also from God. This idea is especially poignant during Sukkot, because it is a harvest festival, and it would be very easy for a hard working farmer to give himself a pat on the back and to assume all the credit for the bounty bursting the confines of his barn. However, we Jews commemorate this joyous celebration to acknowledge God's part in our successful harvest. Many of the hoshanot poems recited on Hoshana Raba recognize God's role in agricultural success. Even the Pilgrim Fathers referenced verses about Sukkot when they establish the Thanksgiving feast.

There is another important lesson to be learned from the beautiful fruit we wave during this Time of Our Joy. I must acknowledge an article by Rabbi Yair Kahn on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon Virtual Beit Midrash web site for inspiring this part of my article. He begins his exposition by quoting a revealing statement made by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1140) in his great philosophic work the Kuzari, 'Be not seduced by Greek wisdom which yields only flowers but no fruit.' This is a great way to begin a discussion of Jewish aesthetics. We definitely are expected to observe and appreciate beauty, but we see beauty from a certain perspective. This point of view was first propounded in the Garden of Eden. The verse states: Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). Here is a theory of beauty which encompasses the practical as well as the beautiful.

Now we can understand why we shake leaves and fruit, but not flowers. The flower is beautiful, but we wave its product, which is the fruit. The flower is gorgeous and produces the fruit. However, we want to celebrate the fruit which is so amazing, because it insures the propagation of its species through its seeds and provides sustenance to the surrounding animals, including us. We appreciate the beauty which is enhanced by its contribution to the world. Beauty in a vacuum is viewed as dangerous. What is the danger? We go back to Reb Yehuda Halevy. We're concerned with the passion which obsession over beauty can engender when there is no clear contribution to the common weal. Remember, it was beauty that killed the beast.

Beauty can augment a religious experience and that's wonderful. But when there is no discernible purpose or objective we are concerned. God announced the beautiful plants in the Garden were marvelous because of their beauty and their purpose. Eve, on the other hand, reversed the order and praised the fruit for their edibility first and then proclaimed the ultimate goal to be 'a delight to the eye.' She reversed the proper order.

Sukkot is about the astounding beauty of this world in the context of how it enables our greater love and devotion to God. We wave these items because they remind us of the relationship of beauty and nature to our gratitude to God for our world and its bounty. During this season when nature produces the most beautiful display of foliage, it's so appropriate to sit outside and connect our world to our God. Chag Sameach!