Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Walk Article-Shmot



Rabbi David Walk


            Did you ever want to be something else?  Like when I was a kid I wanted to be a Yankee fan, because they always won, and my Red Sox always lost.  But I couldn't, because kids from Boston didn't do that.  Then, of course, George Steinbrenner came along and I couldn't even think about being pro-Yankees.  The team in the Bronx had become the Evil Empire.  Similarly, there are times when I think that I'd like to be a Sephardi.  I'm not even talking about eating rice on Pesach.  I get this feeling on many of those Shabbatot when the Sephardi version of the haftorah is considerably shorter than ours, especially on the Torah reading of B'shlach when they have 31 verses and we have 55.   And that brings us to this week's haftorah, when we don't read the same thing at all. 

The Ashkenazic custom for the haftorah of Shmot is to read from chapters 27-29 of the book of Isaiah (22 verses), while the Sephardim read from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah (also 22 verses, no advantage there).  So, the question is why?  Those passages from Isaiah compare the future redemption of Israel with the exodus from Egypt.  The material in Jeremiah describes how he was appointed a prophet by God.  In other words the Ashkenazim have chosen a prophecy about the future redemption which will parallel the redemption from Egypt.  The Sephardim emphasize the role of Moshe, and how it parallels the role of Jeremiah.  Sadly, they both of these messengers of God will experience the scorn and wrath of a people which is not ready or willing to hear their message.  As God tells Jeremiah, 'You will oppose all of Judah, including its kings and leaders, its priests and people. They will fight you, but they won't win (Jeremiah 1:18-19).'

So, this is a good week to discuss the special role of a prophet in society.  We know from the response to their deaths that Aharon the priest (The entire house of Israel wept for thirty days, Numbers 20:29) was more popular than Moshe the prophet (The Children of Israel wept for thirty days, Deuteronomy 34:8).  But why?  It has to do with their respective roles.  Reb Aharon Lichtenstein OB"M and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contributed essays to a book called To Stand and Serve, which is about being a cohen.  They both give us some insight into this issue.

Reb Aharon explained: The cohen's role is to guard the rituals fastidiously…The guiding principle of his service is to provide routine and regularity…In contrast, the prophet's primary role is to bring down fiery new messages from above.  His role is to induce change.  He is a vibrant character infusing spiritual meaning into their lives and vitality into their service (p. 24).  Simply put, prophets are a catalyst for change.  People don't like change.  Most people find solace in the stability of religious services.  We like to think that we've been doing things the right way and continuing the practices of our ancestors.  Priests provide that comfort; prophets make us uncomfortable.  We'd rather not shake things up.

Rabbi Sacks adds to our image of the prophet.  He observes:  The prophet sees God in redemption, in vast movements of history like the Exodus from Egypt…The prophet is sensitive to the moral tone of society.  He (or she) lives among the people…The prophet knows that the fate of the nation is tied to its morals and morale.  His is an unusual role—in but not of society, an insider and outsider at once (p. 29).  The prophet is a gadfly pointing out the shortcomings of the community and of its individuals.  Almost by definition a prophet can't be popular.

Moshe discovers this truth very early in his ministry.  He is greeted initially with enthusiasm and faith.  The verse records:  Then the people of Israel were convinced that the Lord had sent Moshe and Aharon. When they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped (Exodus 4:31).  Moshe must have thought. 'Wow!  This job is a piece of cake!'  But it didn't take long to bring him back down to earth.  When the Egyptians piled on more work, the following is recorded as the reaction to the Jews seeing Moshe and Aharon leaving Pharaoh's palace:  May the Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us (5:21).  And it only got better over time, later in the desert Moshe informs God:  What should I do with these people? They are ready to stone me! (17:4). What a great job it is to be a prophet!

God knows this.  Jeremiah is, therefore, informed:  For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land--the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah (Jeremiah 1:18).  God provides the thick hide which a prophet must have to survive.  But this is the only way to deliver the message of change and progress.  People want to hold on to the familiar, even if the present reality is rotten.  That's why the Jews continually whined that they wanted to return to Egypt, and that's why centuries later they closed their ears to the warnings of Jeremiah. 

It's a thankless job, but a necessary one.  Often the nation, to move forward, must embrace a new idea or reality.  This helps to explain why so few Jews listened to the Zionist warnings during the 1930's.  People like the status quo.  Change is uncomfortable.

Well, there have been many situations, which awakened my jealousy over the years.  I thought that I would have preferred a lot of life styles over the one I was living.  But I never envied the Prophets.  However, the Jewish nation remains strong and vibrant today because of their courage to inspire the people to evolve when necessary.  We await the next Moses or Jeremiah, but I pity their lot.    

     His goal is to induce change    


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Walk Article-Vayechi



Rabbi David Walk


            Did you ever hear a professional quarterback or baseball pitcher talk about how the game is beginning to slow down for them?  Although I never experienced that feeling in my short and undistinguished athletic career, I think that I get the concept, because I watch sports on TV with super slow motion for every important play.   Then you can notice little things these uber athletes accomplish that the rest of us just dream about doing. But there are also some people who seem to live their lives in slow motion, in other words with greater awareness.  They notice things the rest of us miss, and their observations are so much more profound than others that it's like they're living a 45 RPM recording at 33 RPM speed.  I've encountered a few such people.  They tend to observe and understand things that the rest of miss, because we allow life to pass us by too swiftly.  I think this idea is important to understanding a critical feature in this week's Torah reading, because Ya'akov Avinu possessed this quality.

In this parsha Ya'akov is preparing to die.  He calls in his sons to deliver blessings before his departure for another realm.  There are many controversies about these blessings.  Why does he deliver the rights of the first born to Yosef?  Hasn't he seen enough sibling rivalry?  And then he does it again with Ephraim and Menashe, his grandsons, placing the younger one before the older.  Why does his 'blessing' for Shimon and Levi sound more like a curse?  It actually contains the word 'curse'.   Even though Yosef gets the first born's double portion (two tribes), why does the ultimate leadership (and the Mashiach) go to Yehudah?  But I think that the most critical question, which unlocks the key to answering all the others, is:  Why does he claim that he will reveal to his sons what will befall them 'at the end of days' and then doesn't deliver?  

I am going to disagree with the accepted approach to this entire problem.  Rashi explains:  He attempted to reveal the End, but the Shechinah (Divine Presence) withdrew from him. So he began to say other things (Genesis 49:1, from the Midrash and Pesachim 56a).  In other words, Ya'akov was going to use ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) to reveal all, and God only allowed him to reveal the personal futures of the sons for their respective blessings.  Many commentaries use this same explanation to describe everything that Ya'akov told his sons and grandsons.  Ya'akov was only relating what God told him.  In other words, God showed Ya'akov that Ephraim's descendants would be greater than Menashe's, and that would be true of all the blessings.  However, God didn't want the final scene of human history revealed, so the last act remained a mystery.

I don't see it that way.

It's true that Ya'akov bestowed the blessings based upon distant future realities.  However, I don't believe that Ya'akov based these blessings on a prophecy or Divine vision of what the future would hold.  On the contrary I believe strongly that Ya'akov was delivering his personal predictions based upon his own observations of the sons' behavior.  He predicted that the future would be a continuation of the present.  And he observed the present very carefully.  Ever since the original dreams of Yosef back in parshat Yayeishev, Ya'akov was shomer et ha davar (closely monitoring the matter, 37:11).   He had been watching carefully for a long time, and these blessings or predictions are the result of these observations.  That's why they are so close to the truth but not perfect.  If Ya'akov had prophecy rather than powers of observation, I assume he would have known about the tribe of Levi becoming God's work staff down here on earth.  Instead, Ya'akov just lumps in Levi together with Shimon, based upon their behavior up to that point.  And their 'blessing' is pretty nasty.

The same idea is important to the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe.  Ya'akov had known them for 17 years, and, according to the Midrash, he taught them the traditions of his father and grandfather.  He saw something in Ephraim which would lead his progeny to positions of leadership in the Jewish nation.  Menashe showed many good qualities and these would also be bequeathed to his offspring.  But Ephraim had something special.  I firmly believe this approach to the episode.  However, I still have so many questions.  What did Ya'akov see in Ephraim?  How was he able to look beneath the surface to see so much more than the rest of us notice?

We read these stories over so many years and each year more of the veil is removed revealing greater details into the relationships and character of our forebears.  We still get only a glimpse.  The one character who we really get to observe grow from hasty youth to competent maturity is Yehuda (Hah, you thought I was going to say Yosef, didn't you?).  The early Yehuda is easily seduced by circumstances.  He sees the opportunity for the brothers to rid themselves of troublesome Yosef without soiling their hands with blood.  He spots the woman at the side of the road.  He seizes the moment, takes the chances and throws caution to the wind.  But all that changes.  He repents his indiscretion with Tamar, and decides to take full responsibility for the sin against Yosef by becoming the guarantor for Binyamin.

His behavior change has a profound affect on Yosef and Ya'akov.  Yosef is forced to change his plans, as I described in last week's article, and reveals himself earlier than expected.  Ya'akov is moved by Yehuda's newly acquired level of responsibility to foresee his descendants ruling over Jewish destiny.  I think that all of these conclusions are the result of Ya'akov's patient power of observation.

I believe that we need to look at these blessings in the light of Ya'akov's care and concern in the granting of these blessings.  We see in them advice to be heeded, in some cases to encourage change (Reuvain, Levi, Shimon), and in others to stay the course (Yosef, Yehuda). But most importantly I believe that we must follow Ya'akov's example and watch our children carefully enough to give similarly affective advice.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Walk Article-Vayigash



Rabbi David Walk


            A few years back Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, wrote a fascinating article, as he always does.  I only saw it last week, and it got me to thinking about a critical moment in this week's Torah reading.  He developed an interesting idea about the leadership skills of Yosef.  Lord Sacks averred that Yosef's leadership was based on his mastery of dreams.  He had the three attributes of having dreams, interpreting dreams and fulfilling dreams.  The good Rabbi explained, 'Joseph's most impressive achievement, though, was his third gift, the ability to implement dreams, solving the problem of which they were an early warning.'  With some trepidation, I'd like to amend that third attribute.  I agree with Rabbi Sack's words when he discussed Pharaoh's dreams; Yosef knew just what to do to use those dreams to save Egypt and the known world.  However, with his own dreams I think that the reality is more complicated.

            We all remember Yosef's two dreams first about the sheaves of grain and then about the stars in heaven.  In both of those dreams all of the family members bow down to Yosef, making him the recognized leader in both areas of existence: the physical world and the spiritual realm.  When the brothers plotted against him they stated clearly, 'Let's see what comes of his dreams (Genesis 37:20).'  They assumed that the book was closed on Yosef's aspirations.  But Yosef never gave up.  Last week, as soon as he saw his brothers standing before him in supplication, metaphorical hats in hands, the verse records, 'Joseph knew who they were, but they didn't know who he was. Joseph, remembering the dreams he had dreamed about them, said, "You're spies. You've come to look for our weaknesses. (42:8-9)'" Many commentaries, the Ramban in the lead, explain that Yosef immediately decided to force the dreams come true.  He would arrange through his machinations first for all eleven brothers to bow down to him, as in dream #1, and only then for Ya'akov and Leah, the sun and moon of dream #2, to come to Egypt for the fulfillment of that dream.  It was a bold plan, but it never happened.

            In this week's Torah reading the touching moment finally arrives when Ya'akov reunites with his beloved son after decades apart. 'Joseph gave orders for his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. The moment Joseph saw him, he threw himself on his neck and wept. He wept a long time (46:9).'  What happened!  It's very touching, but Ya'akov doesn't bow!  And Leah's not even mentioned.  All that effort to actualize the dreams, down the drain!  How come?  The Rav, (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) explains (Thinking Aloud on the Parsha:  Breishis, p. 394-397) that if Ya'akov would have bowed then the ultimate malchut (kingship) of Israel would have belonged to Yosef and Yehuda.  That recognition by Ya'akov would have changed the destiny of the Jewish nation.  As we shall see in the blessings next week, great power and wealth are given to Yosef, but ultimate dominion is reserved for Yehuda.  The Rav goes on to explain that the decision to not bow was made by hashgacha (in this case not the OU, but Divine supervision, no trademarked symbol necessary).  If Yosef hadn't revealed himself during his debate with Yehuda over the fate of Binyamin, then Ya'akov would have down and bowed as part of a plea to save Binyamin.  But that scene, never transpired, because, according to the Rav hashgacha intervened.

            With great trepidation, I disagree.  I think that Yosef intervened.  Yosef knew that the fulfillment of the dreams would have sealed his destiny to be Israel's ultimate ruler.  However, Yosef was so great and wise that he saw in Yehuda a worthy opponent.  The Jewish nation deserved a competition between titans to determine the best leader.  He believed in the dreams inevitability until he saw how Yehuda had developed into such a caring person who took responsibility for his brothers.  Yehuda was wiling to sacrifice his own future to fulfill his promise to their father, and save Binyamin. 

            This all happened in an instant recorded with the expression v'lo yachol Yosef l'hitapek (Joseph could not hold himself back, 45:1).  The Rav interpreted that to mean hashgacha made him let down his disguise; Divine intervention overwhelmed his determination to maintain the charade. I think it means Yosef decided that he couldn't hold back the truth from his brothers any longer because it was more important to acknowledge Yehuda's growth and acceptance by the family.  For the first time in a very long period, perhaps many years, he saw a greater good than the fulfillment of the dreams.

            Rabbi Sacks said that Yosef was a dream master because he had the ability to implement his dreams.  I think that Yosef was the dream master because he knew when to discard the dream-or maybe to discard his earlier interpretation of the dream.  Yosef's descendants would attain much power and influence in the Jewish nation.  After all, Yehoshua and the kings of the northern kingdom would come from his family.  But the dreams could mean that his progeny would seize the power, and that ultimate control should belong elsewhere, namely to Yehuda, who had grown to command the respect of brothers and father.  Ya'akov's blessing for Yehuda really says it all, 'You, O Yehuda, your brothers shall acknowledge (49:8).'  And now Yosef acknowledged it, too.

             We all have dreams.  They are important to who we are and who we should become.  We must analyze those dreams to ascertain which are worth pursuing and which require shelving.  Yosef was amazing.  He had the dreams, he understood the dreams, and he could implement them all.  However, he also knew when to apply the brakes.  So, dear reader, dream on, but relegate some to the realm of fantasy, and work hard to make the right ones come true.  As Frank Sinatra crooned, 'It can happen to you.'                          

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Walk Article-Chanukah



Rabbi David Walk


            There's a great irony in our celebration of Chanukah.  This festival is a celebration of our great victory over an alien culture attempting to adulterate our pristine faith.  We overthrew those agents of darkness and, in response, we light a little candle to remember how we retained our purity.  This is a modest affair compared to our other festivals, like Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot or even Purim.  However, in these United States, Chanukah has become our most celebrated and noticeable holiday.  We can't turn on TV or go to the mall without seeing references and symbols of this holiday.  No other Jewish holiday is as publicized to the world at large.   Might that have something to do with another holiday occurring around this same season?  Has another culture affected our commemoration of this humble festival, turning it into a marketing bonanza for every retailer in sight?  Yes, and yes.  I'm not making any judgments.  I'm just mentioning this reality.  It may not be a bad thing at all.  It helps the economy, and many of these retailers are Jewish.  Plus, the Sages wanted us to publicize the miracle, and Oh boy, are we publicizing the miracle!  The Chanukiot are bigger and more obvious every year, because of that other jolly man with a beard, the Rebbe, black is the new red.  Ironic, isn't it?

            But what are we supposed to learn from this celebration?  This holiday must be a teaching opportunity, because otherwise the Rabbis wouldn't have instituted it.  There are many ways of looking at this question and I'd like to share one based on the writings of the Maharal m'Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Lowe, 1540-1608).  He wrote a short book on Chanukah called Ner Mitzva (The Mitzva Candle), and his analysis is very historical in its outlook.  He bases his presentation on some very esoteric visions from the book of Daniel.  The presentations in Daniel are very difficult to understand, but it does seem clear that this prophet was looking at the Jewish experience through the lens of world history.  Many of the apparitions in the book are based on the number four (specifically 7:3-7, the four animals are lion, bear, leopard and 'beast') and, generally, we assume that the quartet that he has in mind are the four empires which ruled our people, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome.  The Maharal espouses a very healthy view of Jewish history.  He avers that our sojourns in strange lands shouldn't only be seen as punishments for disloyalty to God, but as essential experiences which shaped the Jewish national psyche.  Starting with bondage in Egypt the Jewish people was forged in the furnace of adversity. So, the question arises in each of these exiles:  What was the substantive lesson of the Greek experience?

            First of all we must state that the Maharal doesn't see the Gentile nations as peripheral or incidental to the process of bringing meaning and completeness to the world.  They each embodied an issue which the Jewish nation had to address.  This idea is expressed in a famous Midrash from the beginning of Genesis:  'The world was formless and void, and darkness over the surface of the deep; the spirit of God hovered over the waters.'  Reish Lakish explained that this refers to the four empires:  'formless' refers to Babylonia, 'void' refers to Persia, 'darkness' refers to Greece, and 'deep' refers to Rome (Breishit Raba 2:5).  In other words, the world started broken, but will become complete when we have passed through the challenges presented by each of these great civilizations.  Greece is the stage of human development when the darkness will be dispersed.

            It's easy to assume that Greek civilization represents enlightenment and not the darkness mentioned in the Midrash.  The Maharal dismisses that idea by suggesting that many Greek intellectual innovations actually originated with Judaism.  The Maharal bases this position on numerous Midrashim which talk of our Sages meeting with the great Greek philosophers and scientists.  So, the Maharal describes how the Greeks helped our cause by spreading the groundbreaking ideas of Jewish scholars, and making them the world's heritage.  That explains why our later struggle with Greek ideology was so fierce.  Since many of these ideas originated with us, our ancestors were naturally drawn to them.  But when these fabulous ideas were wedded to the Greek pagan life style, we had a problem which evolved from partnership -- to competition -- to war.  And this brings us to the special nature of the Chanukah miracle.

            We had many war time miracles (Joshua, Gidon, Devora, David, et al.), and none of them resulted in a holiday.  So, it's the miracle of the oil which precipitated the festival.  What's so special about this little light?   That single sealed cruse of oil represented the pure ideas not corrupted by the Greek ideology.  This miraculous light represents the ultimate victory of the Jewish approach which will pierce the darkness of the debasement of our heritage.  That's why the candle must stay lit ad sh'tichle regel min ha'shuk (until the customers have left the market place), the Hebrew regel really means 'leg'.  Based on that same noun we have the expression hergal, which means habit.  Habit and rote are the enemies of religious zeal.  So, we keep that candle lit until we have broken the hold of habit over our behavior.  The candle reminds us to let the inner fire gleam through our actions.  We don't allow ourselves to just go along with the crowd; we proclaim our enthusiasm for the true purity of our inheritance.  Normally we place that candle for all to see, because we are so proud of our loyalty to our way of life.  However, in times of danger we place it inside, behind closed curtains, and we are satisfied with just proclaiming our dedication to ourselves.  But the candle carries the true message of this holiday.

            So, we're lucky and proud that we can light our candles for all to see in our modern world, because we aren't satisfied just to celebrate a victory on the battlefield.  We feel the need to commemorate the victory of the spirit.  Our goal is to show the world that blazing fire burning brightly within our souls.  We're happy to see that massive Chanukiah at the mall.  It expresses our aspirations and reminds us to do a little shopping.  Chanukah Sameach! 



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Walk Article-Vayeshev



Rabbi David Walk


                Yosef is one of the more enigmatic characters in our Bible.  The last third of Genesis is devoted to him and his exploits.  Yet we don't quite feel like we know him.  I am often told by students and congregants that they don't like him.  He seems to be a little full of himself.  It's an interesting phenomenon how we personalize the events and characters in Tanach.  And when I try to defend him, my arguments often fall on deaf ears.  The most popular attacks are on his vanity and over blown view of himself.  The two biggest complaints are his enthusiasm in relating his dreams to his brothers and his lack of communication with the family after his rise to power.  Even though I'm not going to address those two issues specifically, I hope that I will present Yosef in a manner which will soften some of his rough edges.

                Yosef is complex.  Aren't we all?  He does seem to grow and mature over the duration of his lengthy story.  But before I discuss that aspect of Yosef, I want to present an interesting point raised by the Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993).  He explains a famous Midrash about Ya'akov in a novel way.  Last week we read that Ya'akov presents himself to Esav by recalling that he dwelt with Lavan all these years.  The word for dwelt is garti, the Midrash turns that into a Gematria (numerical value) of 613, the exact number used to enumerate all the mitzvoth  in the Torah, and the name of our kosher restaurant here in Stamford, CT.  Therefore, the rabbis say that he was telling Esav that although he had dwelt with the evil Lavan for all these years, he still performed all the mitzvoth.  The Rav points out that this can't be true, because the rabbis don't play word games like that.  I would like to add that the statement also isn't factually accurate, because one of those 613 mitzvoth is the prohibition of marrying two sisters, which Ya'akov did in Lavan's house.  So, the Rav opines that the pun is totally different.  He emphasizes the use of the term garti, which means to be a stranger.  Ya'akov remained true to the essence of our tradition because he remained a stranger in this far off land.  That idea is critical for our continued long term existence in exile. 

We need this description of Ya'akov's sojourn to teach us this important concept.  However, the Rav then turns his attention to Yosef and asks why do we need so much description of his time in Egypt?   He explains that Ya'akov and Yosef both spent at least twenty years alone in a foreign environment, but succeeded in remaining loyal to our tradition and destiny.  But their circumstances were very different.   Ya'akov was constantly harassed and abused by his father in law, but Yosef was always successful and admired, even pampered, during his long sojourn.    We need both examples because there have been exiles of pain and there have been Diasporas of plenty and we need both examples to remind us how to stay loyal to the faith in both environments.  Remain an outsider!

But the true growth of Yosef as a leader and historic role model isn't truly noticed until next week.  When he is hauled up out of prison (albeit a privileged incarceration) to decipher Pharaoh's dreams he finally shows the results of a long maturation process.  He interprets Pharoah's dreams and then, unbidden, offers some critical advice, 'So now, let Pharaoh seek out an understanding and wise man and appoint him over the land of Egypt (Genesis 40:33).'  He may have had himself in mind, but I doubt it.  It's hard to believe that he thought that a prisoner (and a foreigner and a shepherd) could be chosen for this important post.  But Pharaoh looked at this young man and saw the man for the job.  Because Yosef had become the character he described to Pharaoh.  He was chacham (wise) and navon (understanding).  This week he's only chacham, and he pays dearly for it.

What's the difference between the two?  Let me use an example.  This week the world of physics celebrates one hundred years since Albert Einstein presented his Theory of General Relativity to the world.  That is one of the greatest examples of chachma the world has ever seen.  Chachma is the 'Eureka!' moment.  When some idea or concept becomes crystal clear to the really smart individual.  Relativity is an example.  The apple hitting Newton's noggin is another.  Funny they both involve gravity.  Yosef's dreams are a third instance.  But Yosef didn't have a clue how to treat this inspiration.  Instead of thinking matters through, he ran to tell the world.  His world didn't react well.  That's because he didn't have havana (understanding, no reference to Cuba).  The navon knows how to apply the breakthrough inspiration.  There are so many instances in history of a true genius never capitalizing on their insights because they no havana.

Now we turn to next week's scenario.  Yosef hears Pharaoh's dreams and with that quick intellect immediately knows what they mean.  Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine are on the way.  But his experiences over the previous few years, with his brothers, with his boss' wife, in prison, have given him insights which have transformed him into a navon.  He immediately tells Pharaoh what to do with this information.  Pharaoh sizes up this still young man and sees that this is the one with both the smarts and the savvy to handle the job.  Yosef spends the rest of his life implementing his dreams in a manner that no longer threatens his family.  More on that in two weeks.

We all need both of those traits to navigate this difficult world in which we find ourselves.  Just being bright isn't enough.   We also require the social and emotional intelligence to apply the flashes of insight to really make our lives better.  In other words, we need what Yosef acquired through his hard knocks:  maturity.       



Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Walk Article-Vayishlach



Rabbi David Walk


                Did you ever notice that at the beginning of many movies or shows there are certain characters who you expect to be villains?  Then later in the performance you're disappointed if they turn out to be good?  Shouldn't we root for everybody to be good guys?  Well, we don't.  I believe that, l'havdil (Let's differentiate between holy and profane.), we do a similar thing with Esav.  Every year we look for ways to demonize this baby turned huntsman turned presumed bully.  But to tell you the truth, the evidence against him is pretty thin.  In every instance recorded in our text, we could concoct a plausible defense for his behavior.    Of course, he sold his birthright.  Wasn't he starving?  Why wouldn't he be mad at Ya'akov after all he stole his blessing?  And this week, he arrives to meet Ya'akov with 400 men.  However, no threat is issued.  Maybe this is how desert chieftains travel.  He may have been full of himself, but that's only distasteful, not a crime.  So, this week let's search for the smoking gun which will incriminate this character and explain our strong antipathy for our ancestral uncle.

                In this week's episode of the Ya'akov-Esav saga, we expect the big showdown, the High Noon moment, if you will.  But it doesn't materialize.  There is anticipation of nasty Esav and his personal army of desert thugs ripping to shreds the encampment of Ya'akov.  In fact he couldn't be more pleasant, even avuncular.  Has Ya'akov appeased him with his gifts; disarmed with his deference?  Maybe, but he's just nice.  Our tradition even denigrates the effusive affection that he shows for his long absent brother.  The verse says, 'And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:4).'  However Rashi records the Midrashic tradition that our Sages debated if he kissed him sincerely or not.  We twist every pleasantry into a controversy, because we want Esav to look the scoundrel.  

                But why?  For many years I presented an answer based upon this verse:  And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau spurned the birthright (Genesis 25:34).  Esav couldn't be the heir to our heritage because the way he ate and drank and behaved just wasn't in consonance with the value system of the Patriarchs.  His behavior was constantly in survival mode rather than focused on a glorious destiny.  His real denial of the birthright was his lack of concern for the future and the yet unborn generations.  For Esav there was only the here and the now.

                This year I'd like to amend that approach.  The key to our antipathy for Esav was evident at his birth.   Here's the scenario:  And the first one emerged ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair, and they named him Esau (verse 25).  He came out of the womb a fully formed seemingly mature young man.  Even his name Esav means 'fully formed.'  'What you see is what you get' basically became his motto.  He wasn't really evil; he just wasn't connected to our world view.  This fully formed reality shaped his thinking throughout his life.  It begat self-reliance which encouraged a rugged individualism which didn't allow him to seek advice or listen to father and grandfather.  Father was already impressed with Esav's prowess with bow and arrow.  Esav felt like he could tell them a thing or two.  I'm not convinced that this made him evil but it did make him unworthy of our patrimony.

                The Shem M'shmuel goes one step further and says that the Gematria (numerical value of the letters) of Esav is 376, which is the same as that of shalom (peace; wholeness). Eisav was entirely at peace with himself. He did not and could not feel the discord that every normal human experiences, the realization that one is not perfect and must improve.  This isn't what we want from our forefathers.  Avraham had to grow and develop into the founder of our creed.  Even Yitzchak knew he needed a helpmate.  He couldn't recover from his mother death without the presence of Rivka.  They understood that life is a journey.  We are an eternal work in progress.

                Ya'akov got it.  This week his name is changed to Yisrael.  Many have pointed out that Ya'akov means 'heel', while Yisrael contains the letters for rosh or head.  Our lives must be a journey towards a better, loftier us.  While Esav had the most debilitating of character defects:  The inability to see or even consider that he had any flaws.  How could he have a flaw?  He was born perfect. 

                Please, forgive me for a small aside.  I am so disappointed in many biographies of our Torah giants.  They seem to follow the exact same pattern:  perfect parents, ideal youth as a prodigy, wonderful marriage and many years as a revered leader and scholar.  How unrealistic and also unappealing.  Where's the tension, where's the reality?  Thank God, our bible is so much better.  Our great leaders became great through toil and strife and conflict.  And their greatest conflicts were often with themselves.  Who did Ya'akov wrestle with when he was all alone?  Clearly, himself.

                God proclaims, 'I fell in love with that youth Israel (Hosea 11:1).'  The word for youth is na'ar, which comes from the root to shake (for Bond fans 'stirred').  God loves us because we are in constant motion, trying to improve, striving for excellence.  When we observe the elderly, we have one of two reactions:  sadness or inspiration.  The difference?  Some seniors look so very static, and that's sad.  Others in their golden years continue to move and grow and improve, and that's inspiring.  It's so wonderful to visit Israel and see that ancient land behave like the youngest of societies.  Everything's up to date in Tel Aviv.  We're the world's oldest surviving civilization, but we have a recipe for success.  Bob Dylan taught it, because he was inspired by Ya'akov:  May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung, May you stay forever young.  Amen!             




Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Walk Article-Vayetze



Rabbi David Walk


            As humanity marched (some might say 'stumbled') from primitive communities towards more advanced civilizations, many critical ideas were represented by powerful and perceptive metaphors.  An outstanding example of this phenomenon was in the development of judicial norms.  More advanced societies wanted to express their dedication to a system of fair justice. So, many ancient cultures symbolized fairness in the judicial system with a magnificent symbol readily recognizable to all of their citizens, namely the balance scale.  This utilitarian device became identified with a sincere effort to carefully weigh all factors before rendering a judgment.  This great symbol was noticed in the very heavens as the astrological sign Libra which dominates the skies during the Hebrew month of Tishre, when we believe the whole world stands before God in judgment.  The balance scale adorns the statue of Lady Justice which stands before many of the greatest courthouses in the world, including the US Supreme Court and the Old Bailey in London.  However, this week's Torah reading presents us with another magnificent example of an ancient metaphor which still informs our perception of reality, and that symbol is, of course, the ladder of Jacob's dream.

            Ya'akov was running away from Be'er Sheva and his brother's murderous intentions to the ancestral home in Padan Aram.  He stops for the night and in his sleep a dream intervenes and 'behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven and he observed angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and at its top stood God (Genesis 28:12-13).'  This device, of course, represents the connection between earth and heaven.  It's crucial for the religious personality to believe that there is a way for us to communicate with and be influenced by the celestial realm.  But what are the criteria for accessing this connectivity?

            A few years ago I asked some classes at Bi-Cultural Day School here in Stamford, CT a variation on that question.  I asked, 'How many rungs are on this ladder?'  The number of rungs would represent the method we would use to achieve this connectivity.  The Midrash suggests that there are four rungs.  One for each of the major civilizations of the ancient world who tried to destroy us, Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome.  In other words, we communicate with heaven through the forces of historical change.  But the kids were very clever.  Some suggested ten steps for the Ten Commandments, others thought 613 for the number of mitzvoth enumerated in the Torah, and the number 7 billion was proposed, representing the idea that every human on earth is a unique pathway to heaven.  However I believe that there is a famous Jewish custom which puts forward another numerical candidate.

            We have a custom at most funerals (with certain exceptions, like dates commemorating happy occasions) to have the pallbearers stop seven times between the hearse and the grave site.  We count the stops with a verse from Psalm 91, 'For He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your paths (verse 11).'  Trust me, in Hebrew there are seven words.  We understand this verse to mean that God sends angels to accompany the deceased on that final journey from earth to heaven. We can therefore understand this short excursion from vehicle to grave as representing a handoff of the deceased from earthly escorts to heavenly ones.  So, it would seem that there are seven steps or stages between earth and heaven.

            This shouldn't surprise us, because in most systems of Jewish mysticism there are seven sefirot or spiritual steps from earth to heaven.  These stages correspond to the seven character traits represented by the great leaders or shepherds of our nation.  Many of us recognize them as the Ushpizin guests to our sukkah.  These are Avraham (chesed, kindness), Yitzchak (gevurah, courage), Ya'akov (tiferet, splendor), Moshe (netzach, eternity), Aharon (hod, majesty), Yosef (yesod, fundamental righteousness) and David (malchut, royalty).  In many Kabbalistic systems there are three more sefirot, but they reside on the heavenly side of the divide between our realms.  They are chachma (wisdom), bina (understanding) and da'at (knowledge).  Of course these are the levels of Divine intellect.  Okay, I access my portal to heaven through these attributes, but how do I know how to utilize these character traits?  That's probably the simplest question to answer so far.  I emulate the behavior of the avatars of these traits.  I gain chesed by studying and copying the behavior of Avraham and so on up the scale.

            This not only makes sense but is reinforced by a famous Midrash.  The verse describing the action around the ladder has a grammatical glitch.  It says that the angels ascend and descend bo.  This Hebrew word can mean either 'on it' or 'on him'.  So, the Midrash suggest that the angels aren't climbing the ladder but are scrambling up our illustrious forebear.  What does that mean?  It means that the bridge between this world and heaven are these great Zadikim.  The Kabblah often refers to the Patriarchs as merkava or chariot.  I believe that this is a similar idea.  The chariot is the vehicle for transporting and broadcasting God's message to the world, while the ladder is the tool for connecting us with that spiritual realm.  How do our prayers and petitions reach heaven?  Through this portal, and our spiritual giants are not only the gate keepers (not to be confused with Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters) but the means by which earthly messages can ascend to the gate.

            I find this idea both inspiring and challenging.  We read these stories of our illustrious grandparents every year because we can be motivated to emulate them.  Nachmanides (Ramban, 1194-1273) avers that the entire book of Genesis is permeated with the theme ma'aseh avot siman l'banim (the deeds of the Patriarchs are a guide post to the offspring).  We should see ourselves as the postmen for this world delivering our prayers to heaven and bringing Divine messages back here.  The ladder is a metaphor and symbol of how we can bridge the gap between our lives and our most exalted aspirations.                        

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Walk Article-Toldot



Rabbi David Walk


                Many of you have probably already figured out that I'm going to discuss the difficult relationship between Ya'akov and Esav.  However for me the title contains a very poignant irony.  My father OB"M was named Jacob or Jack, but far and away his most popular nickname was Red for the small amount of bright hair encircling his bald pate.  He was an amalgam of those dueling twins.  His high school yearbook (Chelsea, MA, 1927) entry read, 'Beneath this rough exterior beats a heart of gold.'  There was much truth in that pithy quote.  My dad was an athlete and a truck driver with a tough veneer, but there was a lot of warmth, care and concern welling up inside.  But my purpose this week isn't to eulogize my father, but to analyze the eternal struggle between the twins born to Yitzchak and Rivka, who seemed to be pure embodiments of the opposite traits of tough versus soft.

                The Torah informs us that the struggle and competition between Ya'akov and Esav was essential to their very being.  That's why their rivalry began in the womb.   The verse says that they in some way struggled (also rendered:  jostled, wrestled, kicked, shoved, fought or tumbled, Genesis 25:22) within Rivka, and she was very worried.  I understand her concern because this is adolescent male behavior, not fetal conduct.  Rashi reports to us a famous Midrash:  Our Rabbis interpreted this struggling as an expression of running. When she passed by the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eber, Jacob would run and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of a temple of idolatry, Esau would run and struggle to come out (Gen. Rabbah 63:6).  This is characteristic of our great Sages.  They explained many textual difficulties in the context of a spiritual dilemma confronting their generation.  In later centuries when the main competition to Judaism was Christianity, Esav or Edom became the embodiment of that challenge to our religion.  Edom could represent Communism or promiscuity or drug addiction.  Take your pick; they all work.

                Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993, the Rav) takes another approach.  He explains in the posthumously published work The Emergence of Ethical Man that the conflict between them was an eternal philosophic one.  They were very wise fetuses.  No, the embryo thing was just emblematic of the eventual debate.  However, although the Rav doesn't say this explicitly, I believe that the true source of the dispute is a later incident.  When Ya'akov is cooking his red pottage (I just want to mention that I also love to make my own soup.), Esav returns from the field famished.  Their interchange at that moment is crucial to understanding their world views.  Esav demands some soup.  Ya'akov sees this as an opportunity to acquire the bechora or birthright.  The birthright was a privilege of the first born male to lead religious ceremonies for the family.  Ya'akov believed that Esav wasn't a worthy spiritual representative for the family of Avraham and Yitzchak.  This exchange should not be confused with the later clash over the blessings.  The conflict over the blessings was significant to Esav, because the blessings were about the family assets as well as the clan's heritage.  Now we must understand Esav's response to Ya'akov's demand of the bechora in payment for the meal.

                Esav replies, 'Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?'  What does he mean by that?  Perhaps, the simplest explanation is that he literally feels near death from hunger and exhaustion as a result of his escapades in the wild, and that he assumes that this meal will save his life.  It is therefore a worthy exchange.  Rashi, on the other hand, quotes a Midrash which explains that many of the services which are the responsibility of the birthright carry a death penalty if incorrectly performed.  So, Esav would rather excuse himself from these activities which he would fulfill in a cavalier manner.  But the explanation which brings us to the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik is that he's not interested in the birthright because its rewards come in heaven and he doesn't expect to get there.  Now we're ready for the Rav's take on this last idea.

                Avraham and Yitzchak have pioneered a revolution in human thinking.  This grand idea is that of covenantal eternity.  Our great covenant with God, although renewed many times, was given only once, to Avraham.   As the Rav says, 'Our historicity is expressed in covenant constancy and identity.  Not only do we remember our past but we relive and re-experience it (p. 172).'  This concept is so real to us that we share not only Avraham's historical experiences but his prophetic vision of the end of days.  In so many ways we are the reincarnation of Avraham through our historical consciousness.  The Rav asserts that this is not a metaphysical reincarnation or a psychological continuity, rather this phenomenon carries a historical duty to continue the covenantal community.  Ya'akov bought into it and Esav rejected it totally.  This is what he meant when he said that he was going to die.  He would die and his life would no longer make any difference.  We proclaim that our lives matter because we pass on this covenantal responsibility to our progeny.  Again, to quote the Rav, the twins 'represent the eternal conflict between a historical natural reality and a covenantal charismatic mission (p. 179).'

                This point of view informs so many of our traditions and practices.  We are trying so hard to capture the essence of long gone events so that we can share our beloved forebears' vision of an ethical existence anticipating a glorious future.  Avraham got it when God told him that all the great events of his destiny, the exodus and conquest of Israel, would be experienced by his descendants after he goes to his fathers in peace at a ripe old age (Genesis 15:15).  He was proud to pass on that legacy to unborn generations.  So was Ya'akov, and so, too, should we.                          

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Walk Article-Chaye Sarah


Chaye Sarah-5776

Rabbi David Walk


                You don't have to be Dr. Sigmund Freud to recognize the special relationship which exists between mothers and sons.  Even though I'll leave the connection between fathers and daughters to others (maybe my daughters), I don't mind admitting that much of my life I behaved and thought in terms of 'what would my mother make of that.'  I truly believe that her values have been a critical moral compass for me.   Her love of books and knowledge always inspired me to want more erudition.  It was her sense of fair-mindedness which often informed my relationships.  Thank God her voice still resides within my brain.  I feel like my mourning for her has been replaced by a celebration of her character, intelligence and wit.  She never learned how to tell a joke (often the punch line preceded the set up), but she was regularly funny.  Our Torah reading presents a totally different picture.  It's at least three years after the death of Sarah and Yitzchak is still in mourning for his beloved mother.  The climactic moment of our parsha is when he finally emerges from this grief.

                Most of this week's reading is taken up with the search for a wife for Yitzchak.  This enterprise is so important to the story of our people that the normally taciturn Torah spends 60 precious verses describing the endeavor.  I'm sure all those details are important to understanding the importance of finding the right life partner, and these facts inform the complex interactions between Rivka and Yitzchak which we read about next week.  But right now I'm interested in the few (5) verses which record the meeting between the couple.  So much is packed into this short space that it's very hard to parse it all.  Yitzchak is coming from Be'er Lachai Ro'I which is perhaps where Yishmael and Hagar lived, he's holding a conversation (praying?) in the field, and then he spies the caravan coming from far off parts of the Fertile Crescent.  Rivka sees him as well.  Her reaction is very modest.  She descends from her camel and covers herself in the presence of her future husband.  It is apparently this unassuming and reserved behavior which inspires Yitzchak to immediately install her in his mother's tent.

                This brief description of their encounter ends with the significant statement, 'and he was comforted after his mother (Genesis 24:67).'  His three years of mourning have ended.  What was there about Rivka which allowed Yitzchak to move on from his grief?  The mystical answer is really quite simple.  Rivka was Sarah.  The tradition is that Rivka was three years old when betrothed to Yitzchak, who was forty.  These numbers are significant, because they point to the fact that Rivka was born as Sarah was dying, which means that as Sarah expired her soul migrated to Rivka as she emerged into this world.  Yitzchak sensed that.  Since I find this view point to spooky to contemplate, I'll present another.

                There is an equally famous Rashi which describes another set of circumstances which drew Yitzchak out of his long funk.  Here's Rashi's comment:  He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; that is she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed (Gen. Rabbah 60:16).  This explanation by Rashi concerned the Maharal of Prague (Reb Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1520-1606) in his super-commentary called Gur Aryeh.  His complaint was that Rashi left out one of the wonders of Sarah's tent.  The Midrash also mentions that the tent remained open on all sides.  So, the Maharal must explain why Rashi didn't include that fact.  He claims that Rashi only mentions these wonders because they are referred to in the Mishna:  Women succumb to the dangers of childbirth as a consequence of three sins: because they are not observant of the laws of niddah, hallah [the portion of the dough separated to be given to the priest], and the kindling of the Sabbath lights (Shabbat 2:6).

                I would to suggest an alternate approach.  I think that the tent door's status was unnecessary to mention, because this was an aspect of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) and that already covered in the issue of the dough, which was miraculously sufficient for whatever number of guests appeared.  The three phenomena listed represent the three essential Jewish categories of Torah, avodah (Divine service), and g'milut chasadim (acts of kindness).  These basics of Judaism didn't disappear totally from the camp of Avraham but they were no longer observed in miraculous proportions.  Everything was low key without the dynamism of Sarah's presence and character.  But now Rivka's personality and presence have brought these values back to the level of the 'good ole days.'

                But what really bothered Yitzchak?  Yitzchak looked around at the world and noticed that the relationship between his parents was unique.  He thought that their partnership in fulfilling God's mission was unique and couldn't be duplicated.  Abram couldn't become Avraham without Sarai becoming Sarah.  Rabbi Soloveitchik called that a covenantal marriage which replaced the earlier marriage model called the biological marriage.  Yitzchak knew that he was supposed to succeed his father in leading this movement, but could he do that without a Sarah at his side?  No, he realized that he could not.  And then along comes Mary, or in this case Rivka, and the empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch.

                Now we know the truth that what Avraham and Sarah had doesn't have to be unique. Once we have the paradigm we can strive to replicate it.  We need a sense of mission and partnership to accompany love and attraction.  Yitzchak's eventual comfort through his new relationship gives us all hope that we can find it, too.  We are all searching for our Rivka, who is attainable if we're all willing to put effort into the relationship.  Dedicated to my Rivka.   



Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Walk Article-Vayeira



Rabbi David Walk


                Often I begin these articles with a light hearted introduction to my quite serious topic, but not this week.  Too many tragic ideas are swirling around in my head to allow comedy to emerge.  It sort of begins with the terrible events of this year's Haj. On September 24 there was a horrific stampede at one of the sites visited by the pilgrims to the annual event outside Mecca.  This progressive crowd collapse was initially reported to have killed 719 people.  Later reports (October 19) have put the toll at 2121, with expectations of that number rising still higher because 1250 pilgrims are still missing and many of the those still in hospital (173) are not expected to survive.  The Saudi Vice Minister of Health officially announced 4,173 people dead in this incident in a press release (October 4), which was quickly removed from official records.  In any event this was the greatest disaster in the history of the Haj far surpassing the previous catastrophic record holder of 1426 fatalities in 1990.  Added to that we're sadly in the midst of terrible terrorist attacks in Israel, which are being touted by Moslems as a defense of the holiness of the Temple Mount.  That holiness cannot bear the prayers of non-Moslems for reasons which I cannot fathom.  Both of these tragedies are connected to a famous episode in this week's Torah reading.

                That stampede occurred during the Stoning of the Devil in Mina, Saudi Arabia.  This is a reenactment of Avraham's interaction with the devil on his way to Akeidat Yishmael.  Of course, this story in the Koran is a reworking of the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak which is the climax of our parsha, with their patriarch Yishmael replacing ours.  And, of course, our tradition claims that the Mount Moriah of the Akeida is none other than Har haBayit, the Temple Mount.  Will the madness never end?

                But my melancholy over the Akeida isn't connected to either of these disastrous developments.  Rather, it's the events of Sunday October 11 which have sent my mind into jumbled overdrive.  On that day Bruce and Deborah Leonard brought their 19 year old son, Lucas, to the ironically named Word of Life Christian Church outside the village of New Hartford in upstate New York.  There they and other parishioners beat Lucas to death during a 14 hour torture session.  It has been revealed that the parents and friends did this because Lucas wanted to leave the secretive church.  This is reminiscent of a news article by Peter Arnett from 1968, when he reported how an American major explained the massive bombing of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre by stating, 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it'.  Now back to our central dilemma: Can it be possible to worship a God who demands that we kill our children to demonstrate our devotion?  The story of the Akeida answers a resounding 'No!'

                Finally, we can turn our attention to the Akeida itself.   There are almost as many interpretations of the Akeida as there are scholars who study it.  Within the rabbinic tradition there are two major approaches.  The first is that of the commentators who describe Avraham as coolly suspending all logical judgment to just carry out his instructions as if they were any other mitzvah, like keeping Shabbat or kashrut.  Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed this idea in the following way, 'We marvel at Avraham's sedateness, complacency and peace of mind.  The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated…in the manner in which he behaved in the face of the most puzzling Divine absurdity.'

The other team of rabbis emphasizes the pathos of this scene.  Our saintly ancestor struggled mightily with this demand of our Maker to offer up his only, beloved son, the sole heir to his legacy.  Three days and nights were spent in agony and anguish.  I prefer door number two.  The Rav may marvel at his version of Avraham, but I mourn such an apparition.

                I find solace in a comment by Reb Yehudah Amital ZT''L, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, who pointed out that we refer to the Akeida whenever we recite Slichot (penitential) prayers.  We begin, perhaps, the most famous and last of these liturgical poems with the words:  May the One who answered our father Avraham on Mt. Moriah answer us, and it continues May the One who answered his son Yitzchak when he was bound on the altar answer us.  They prayed for a way out of the absurdity of the Akeida and God gave them the escape hatch.  A beautiful Midrash expands on this theme:  He placed him upon the altar.  Avraham's eyes gazing into Yitzchak's eyes, and Yitzchak's eyes gazing towards heaven. And tears fell from Avraham's eyes until he was swimming in tears.  He said to him, 'My son, since you have already expressed your readiness to relinquish your blood, your Creator will find a different sacrifice in your place (Yalkut Shimoni).'  Now that's my alta zeidie!  My image of our Patriarchs is one of compassion and empathy, and this ancient prayer quoted in the Mishneh (Tractate Ta'anit 2:1), and probably derived from the work of the Men of the Great Assembly (perhaps 400 BCE) enshrines that vision forever in our prayer books and in our preparations for the High Holidays.

                The crime in upstate New York was a fulfillment of the words of Blaise Pascal, who saw much bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the 17th century, 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.'  Killing children in the name of religion is so heinous that the Torah is disgusted by the worship of Molech, and, therefore, Avraham must have been equally disgusted.  The Dalai Lama recently aired a TV special called Not in the Name of God and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a book of the same name.  Both of those works reflect this humanist sentiment and condemn violence perpetrated in the name of God.  We must finally arrive at the conclusion that acts done in the name of God should be kind and generous and empathic.                   

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Walk Article-Lech Licha


Lech Licha-5776

Rabbi David Walk


                We begin the Avraham Chronicles again this week.  There are three Torah readings in which he is the dominant character.  He is credited with founding the Jewish nation, yet it's not clear exactly why he was picked for this august role.  Often rabbis have asked how come Noach wasn't given the job. Less often do we hear:  How come Avraham got the call?  But I'd like to ask just that this week.  When you look at the story as presented in the verses, it's not easy to put your finger on the reason.  In last week's parsha his name gets mentioned in a simple genealogy without any special mention or explanation.  This week's reading begins with God giving him this detailed instruction to leave home.  Why?  We don't know.  It's almost as if there is something missing from the Biblical record.

                The sages never like these lacunae in the text.  So, whenever there seem to be loose ends in the Biblical record, they use the Midrash to fill it.  This story about Avraham is, perhaps, the most famous example of this phenomenon:  Terach, Avraham's father, sold idols.  One day he went somewhere, and left Avraham to watch his store. A woman arrived, holding a plate of grain.  She said to Avraham: "Take this and offer it before them." Avraham got up, took a stick in his hands and broke all the idols, leaving the stick in the hand of the largest one.  When his father returned, he asked: "Who did this to them?"  Avraham answered, "A woman came, carrying a plate of grain.  She said to me, 'Take this and offer it before them.' I offered it before them, and this one here said, 'I shall eat first.' Then that one said, 'I shall eat first.'  The largest idol got up, took the stick, and shattered the others!" Terach said: "What nonsense are you telling me, are they then conscious?"  Avraham answered, "Do your ears not hear what your lips are saying? (Breishit Raba 38:13)." The story continues that Nimrod the King heard about this incident and had Avraham thrown into a fiery furnace for blasphemy from which he miraculously escaped.  Therefore Avraham was the chosen one because of his crusade against idolatry, and we understand why Avraham had to get out of Dodge.

                This story is so famous that many people think that this narrative appears in the Torah.  Now I must reveal a verity about Midrashim.  They aren't always historically accurate.  Did I shock any readers? Even more than that, they don't always even attempt to give a literal explanation of the text.  They often are an approach to the text which the authors believed was important for their audience.  These tales are often preaching to the parishioners, rather than addressing the text.  So the author of this Midrash (Reb Ado of Yaffo), thought that his flock required a polemic against idolatry, therefore the greatness of Avraham was based on this struggle.  Reb Aryeh Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur, writing in the late nineteenth century, didn't believe that his Hassidim had an issue with paganism.  He instead took this Midrash and explained that the greatness of Avraham was willingness to die for his belief in monotheism.  Avraham invented mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice.  That's great homiletics, making the Midrash relevant, because the Rebbe thought that the Jews of Poland needed encouragement on the issue of mesirat nefesh.

                I want to move in a totally different direction to understand the greatness of Avraham.  Unlike so many rabbis throughout history I'm not interested in Avraham's importance as a theologian or philosopher.  I think that Avraham Avinu greatest contributions to world culture and civilization was in the area of menschlichkeit.  This idea is expressed most famously in Pirkei Avot:  The students of our father Abraham have generosity, a modest demeanor and a humble soul (Chapter 5, Mishna 19).  In other words to be a disciple of Avraham (and I hope we all are) one must be a mensch and have a deep concern for others.  It says in our parsha that Avraham made (or developed) souls who travelled with him and Sarah to Israel (Breishit 12:5). The two founders of our faith had a profound influence on many of those they encountered in their own spiritual journey.  That's significant and maybe the reason for their appointment by God to lead the chosen people.

               But I think that the greatness of Avraham was stated in an even more categorical way in an even more famous statement:  And you shall love your colleague as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18): Rabbi Akiva said, "This is the fundamental principle of the Torah (Sifra 2:12)."  Did you ever ask yourself why Rabbi Akiva decided that this is the most important concept in Judaism? It seems that we can make a case that his decision was based upon the selection of Avraham as God's representative to humankind.  Wouldn't it be logical that God would employ Avraham to fulfill this role because he best exemplified the Torah's most fundamental truth?  There are so many demands upon us by the Torah, like Torah study and Divine Worship, and we often associate those with Avraham's descendants, Yitzchak and Ya'akov.  So, I would like to propose that Rabbi Akiva is teaching this principle of the Golden Rule is the most fundamental one because it was modeled for mankind by Avraham.  That was his mission and his persona.

             Every year we reread these amazing stories.  We should always be moved and inspired by these narratives, but more importantly we must feel the urge to emulate the behavior and character of these spiritual heroes.  Avraham founded our nation and religion based upon his empathy for all humanity.  That's why we must view that value as central and necessary to our continued existence and growth.  God chose Avraham to guide humanity because no one else loved humans as much.                   



Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Walk Article-Noach



Rabbi David Walk


                This is very embarrassing.  There are so many times when I have this great urge to do things which I know are wrong.  Especially when I'm listening to a speaker, I have this itch which I fight to not scratch.  I just want to interrupt and crack a joke or correct what I consider to be an error.  I know that it's not nice, but I feel this need to just do it.  Since I teach middle school, I know for a fact that I'm not alone in this world of impulses.  Not only do these wonderful young people give in to these urges, but even more commonly I see on their angelic (or not) faces the struggle against the desire to perform the dastardly deed of rudeness.  I rather enjoy watching this phenomenon, and sometimes when I'm speaking I will ask, 'So, Johnny (I don't teach any Johnnies, but if any of my students are reading this, you know who you are.) what do you feel that you must say?'  Where do these urges originate, why do we have them, and what do they mean?  I'm not a psychologist or even a wannabe.  I'm just a simple teacher, but I believe that there are answers to these questions embedded in our parsha which deals with the issue of evil.

                I'm sure that most of you out there in reader-land already have a reasonable grasp on the story line in this week's Torah reading.  The world sins and God punishes, big time as in 'How long can you tread water?'  I'm not interested right now in the historicity of this narrative.  That's a fascinating subject for another article.  I'm concerned with the experience of sin and judgment.  The episode really begins at the end of last week's parsha.  There we are told:  And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented ('regretted' or 'was sorry') that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart (Genesis 6:5-6).  BTW the Christian translation called The Message has a more dramatic version of verse 6:  God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night.  I think that's what we'd hear if we could read the thoughts of adolescent males.  But didn't God see this coming?  Why the disappointment?

                God really does give us free will.  Whether God knew that this would happen is an argument, which is irrelevant to our discussion about humanity.  Humans are complex, and can go in many directions.  Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik described the issue in this way:  In the eyes of Judaism, man is in potentia a good creature, a developing creature. He often finds himself, however, in the grips of an overwhelming and irresistible force that drags him downward.  In short, Scripture trusts man, but also suspects and has its doubts about him (Divrei Hagut ve-Ha'arakha, pp. 252-253).  These doubts are expressed even more strongly later in our parsha:  And the Lord said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake, for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21).  This brings us to two questions.  First, are humans so bad?  And why is God becoming so tolerant?

                There are two directions we can go on this issue.  Mankind really is bad.  After all we were just created from dirt. So, we are irredeemable, and God is just being hugely benevolent to allow us continued existence.  As Rav Yitzchak Blazer, a follower of Reb Yisroel Salanter, wrote:  Because man was formed from dust of the ground, his heart inclines to material desires, to eat, drink, and be merry, to covet fortune and riches, to love honor and power, to don haughtiness and pride, to delight in carnal pleasures, in every lowly trait and every despicable desire (Sha'arei Ohr).

                Or we can go in the direction of Rabbi Blazer's contemporary, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who said: An upright man must believe in his own life and feelings that follow a straight path from the foundation of his soul, that they are good and upright and that they lead him along the straight path. A Jew is obligated to believe that the soul of God is found within him, that his entire essence is one letter of the Torah. (Orot ha-Torah, chap. 11).

                In either case, God is giving humanity the right to freely choose the path of one's life.  That's wonderful of the Creator, and I'm sure God has Divine reasons for this but I'm not concerned with God's choices.  They are beyond me.  I'm very concerned with my choices and the choices of mankind.  What has God told me, when we were told that we have an 'evil impulse from our youth'?  I guess that means that my middle schoolers have a chance to overcome these impulses.

                There's a story in the Tiferet Yisroel, by Rav Yisroel Lifshitz (1762-1840), about Moshe Rabbeinu.  A great king sends his court artist to capture Moshe's image.  When the great artist returns the scholars of the realm inform the king that this can't be the great leader, because the picture shows the face of a corrupt and cruel individual.  Finally the king goes himself to visit Moshe to ascertain the truth.  Moshe informs the king that by birth and nature he is cruel and corrupt but he has fought his whole life to overcome these character flaws, and his career is the result.

                It's true we are made of dust and Divine sparks.  It's true that we are naturally endowed with youthful impulses which can lead to both high and low jinx.  But God gives us the opportunity to overcome these baser instincts and to mature into righteous adults.  As Moshe's example teaches, it's all up to us.  God graciously allows that choice.