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89
10/26/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Vayeira
I (God) Appeared [to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]
Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day.

A creative D'var Torah on the Binding of Isaac, by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

Did you ever wonder what Abraham thought about in the years following his "almost-sacrifice” of his son Isaac? In this midrashic monologue based on Parashat Vayeira, we imagine Abraham’s inner struggles:

"As I held up the knife, I knew I had failed. In my passion to please, I lost my head and my son Isaac nearly lost his too.

"Three days before, I heard God talking about Isaac, my son, my only one (from Sarah), the one who was so beloved (Rashi on Gen. 22:2). God said, v’ha-aleihu sham l’olah, "bring him up as an olah,” (Gen. 22:2). I figured God wanted a sacrifice, because the word olah, from the Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, means, "to rise up.” You light a fire, making a sacrifice, and the smoke rises up to God.

"If the Holy One wanted me to sacrifice Isaac, who was I to question? In fact, I rose early to do God’s bidding, completing the preparations myself: I saddled my own donkey and chopped the wood myself (Gen. 22:3). I was so pumped to please that I forgot to consult with Sarah. Didn’t even kiss her goodbye.

"What was I thinking? Maybe I wasn’t.

"This Akeidah (binding of Isaac), the almost-sacrifice of my son by my own hand, remains the most painful moment in my life. Some characterize this incident as an example of deep, unquestioning faith (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p.190) saying I loved God so much I was willing to give up the child we waited so long to bear. Others portray this as a definitive repudiation of child sacrifice because ultimately I did not kill my kid. In each case, I seem heroic.

"Yet each night as I toss and turn, I wonder how I could have so been such a dangerous fool. I completely misunderstood God’s intended purpose (Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, commentary on Pri Ha’Aretz:Vayera, Institute for Jewish Sprituality). That Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, meaning "sacrifice,” also points to the word aliyah, meaning "spiritual uplift.” In retrospect, I realize that God did not specify sh’chateihu, "slaughter him,” but only ha-aleihu, "bring him up.” Did God want me to bring Isaac up top the mountain to introduce him to my passion for the Divine, and then bring him back down? (Rashi on Gen. 22:2; B’reishit Rabbah 56:8). It was supposed to be father-son spiritual "quality time” (Tanchuma, Vayeira, 22).

"In my haste, I sacrificed the protection of my child. I caused our family significant stress and pain. I scarred my son for life. When Isaac closes his eyes, does he also see the horrific image of me raising up the knife?

"Thankfully, the angel of God stopped me in time, providing a ram in Isaac’s place. Afterward, God was kind, but not pleased. Praising me saying, "I will bless you greatly (Gen. 22:17),” reaffirming love for my descendants, God also signaled that humans may no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show our love for God (Rashi on Gen. 22:12).

"The angel’s words may remind some of parents who walk into a freshly painted house to be greeted by their smiling young child saying, "Come see how much I love you.” In the next room, the child proudly shows off a picture of a red heart, drawn on the wall, inside of which are the words, "Daddy/Mommy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love? Many parents would yell loudly. But if we stop first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, "I love you too, my child. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!”

"This incident transformed our relationships. Isaac took off, and we never spoke again. I fear he will skip my funeral. God ceased direct communication with me, using intermediaries from that moment on. Sarah died before I returned home and could tell her.

"And me? I cannot even stand myself. Because I failed the real test. I loved God but I didn’t love God’s child sufficiently (Rashi on Gen. 22:12; B'reishit Rabbah 56:7). Because I didn’t protect my Isaac. That’s the message for future generations: God wants us to love and protect our children as the ultimate expression of our love for God.

"It doesn’t get any clearer than that, does it?”
 

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88
10/19/2018 12:35 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Lech Lecha (Go Forth)
GENESIS 12:1−17:27
The Eternal said to Abram, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

A Letter from Abram
A very creative D'var Torah by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

Dear Mom and Dad,

By the time you read this letter, Sarai and I, and our nephew Lot, will be well on our way to the land of Canaan. I wanted to say goodbye to you personally, but couldn’t figure out how to tell you we were leaving and not coming back. I love you dearly and would never do anything to hurt you.

Why are we leaving? The short answer is that God told me to leave. I know that may sound strange to you, but for some time now I have had a strong feeling that I didn’t belong here. Don’t get me wrong. Haran is a beautiful city and I have enjoyed living here, but it has never been home.

I remember when we left Ur, you told me that one of the reasons we had to go was that it never felt like home. At the time, I couldn’t understand it because it was the only place I had ever known. But now I get it. It is not about where you are born or where you have lived the longest. It is about where you feel you belong, and I just never have felt that I belong here.

I am sure you remember the day a few years ago that you left me alone in your idol shop. At first, I was so proud that you trusted me and gave me the responsibility. I really thought that I could do a good job, but when the first person came into the store I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. And then, well, you remember what happened. I don’t know what came over me, but before I realized what I was doing all of the idols were smashed except for the biggest one. And I felt so good. You were so much more understanding than I expected you to be. Maybe you knew then what it took me much longer to discover.

I remember those stories you used to tell me as a young child about the struggles of the gods Marduk and Tiamat. I was so intrigued by those tales and wanted you to tell me more. At some point, though, I realized that they were just stories. And later I realized that the idols were just pieces of stone. Everyone around me continued to be intrigued by those stories and enthralled with the idols but they just didn’t speak to me anymore.

At first, I thought that there was something wrong with me and I really tried to continue to believe, but my heart wasn’t in it. For a long time I just felt empty and I didn’t think that there was any "being” out there and thought that we were it. I just laughed at those people who bought their little idols, set them up in their homes or stores, and trusted that they would protect them. And then, when something awful happened, they thought it was because they had the wrong idol and would buy a different one. I shook my head.

But soon I felt that something was missing. I would sit up late at night and gaze at the stars and wonder how everything came into being.

"Who created the heaven and the earth and me?” I wondered.

Maybe it was the sun that created everything, I thought. But when the sun set at the end of the day, I knew it could not be the sun. Perhaps the moon and stars, I thought. But they disappeared during the day. Still, I soon came to realize that it couldn’t all be by chance; there had to be someone behind it all, some being that we couldn’t see that must be there.

Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone; they would just laugh at me. "A God you cannot see! That’s ridiculous.”
I felt so all alone, like I no longer belonged here. I guess that is when I first began hearing a voice within me saying, Lech l’cha, "Go! Get out of here.”

I tried to ignore it at first. Where would I go? But each day it grew a little stronger. "Lech l’cha—Go for your own sake! Lech l’cha—Go to your roots/discover who you really are.” Pretty soon it didn’t seem so crazy after all.

And then I remembered. When we left Ur, we were headed to the land of Canaan. That was where we were supposed to end up. For some reason—I don’t think you ever told me—we stopped in Haran and settled here. No wonder I felt like I never belonged.

And that is when I knew that I had to leave. I had to complete the journey we had started. I had to set out for the land of Canaan.

I was so excited and couldn’t wait to tell you. You and I and Sarai and Lot and the rest of our family could make the journey together. But then I realized that perhaps I was meant to go to Canaan and not you. I struggled with this thought for many days. A couple of times I almost blurted out my plans wanting to beg you to go with me. But each time something stopped me.

And then I just knew that it was my moment, my journey, my lech l’cha.

That was just a week ago. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Sarai. I began preparing for our trip; you might have noticed a few things missing from around the house.

I should have been sad. After all, I was leaving you and the rest of the family and this place where we have lived. But I wasn’t sad. And that’s when I knew I had made the right decision.

I never went to bed last night. After you and mom were asleep, I woke up Sarai and told her to get dressed. She was confused at first and didn’t want to go. But then she saw the look in my eyes and knew that it was futile to argue. We then woke up Lot and our servants. After that I placed this letter on the kitchen table we took off.

Please don’t be angry with me. I hope you understand why I can’t stay here and had to make this journey.
And know this: unless you had set out from Ur to go to Canaan, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I am doing. That was the beginning; I am only finishing what you started.

Who knows how it will end up? But I have never been more certain in my life that this is the right thing to do. You will always be with me.

I love you,
Abe 
 


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87
10/12/2018 12:08 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
GENESIS 6:9−11:32
NOACH (Noah was a righteous man; in his generation, he was above reproach: Noah walked with God)
D'var Torah by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

In Parashat Noach, the designation of Noah as an, ish tzaddik tamim, a "blameless” or "wholehearted person in his age” (Genesis 6:9) provides an opportunity to focus on a biblical model for a behavioral ideal. Although Noah’s inner life does not match his behavior. Commentators frequently criticized his conduct, including a lack of compassion.  Nevertheless, the designation of Noah as wholehearted provides grist for understanding the biblical view of ideal behavior.

The Hebrew word, tamim, "whole heartedness,” resonates throughout sacred Jewish literature and is favorably utilized to describe a number of biblical protagonists. The meaning of the variety of closely related words — t’mimei, t’mimah, and t’mimim — is best captured by the opening line of Psalm 119: Ashrei t’mimei-darech, hahol’chim b’torat Adonai, "Happy are those whose way is blameless [t’mimei-darech], who follow the teaching of the Eternal” (Psalm 119:1).

Of course, there are exceptions to rules. Of the Passover Haggadah’s four sons, the one who does not know how to ask is called a tam, translated from the Hebrew as a "simple son,” and portrayed as guileless, immature, inexperienced, and without much, if any, intellectual capacity. His naïve, innocent question, Mah zot? — "What is this?” — casts him as a simpleton who is led to an uncomplicated answer appropriate to his unsophisticated level of understanding. However, this portrayal of t’mimut as the opposite of wise is inaccurate because in most other texts, being a tam is defined by purity, truth, genuineness, being unblemished and blameless, and having integrity (see: Proverbs 10:29). Deuteronomy (18:13) best describes this more expansive and accurate meaning in the command: Tamim tih’yeh im Adonai Elohecha, "You must be wholehearted [tamim] with the Eternal your God.”

Abraham was commanded by God to "walk along before Me and be pure of heart [vehyeih tamim]” (Genesis 17:1). Jacob was described as an ish tam, "a gentle or mild-mannered man” (Genesis 25:27). In two instances, God describes Job as tam v’yashar, "a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).

Jacob ben Meir, known as Rabeinu Tam, grandson of the medieval commentator Rashi and the greatest of the Baalei Tosafot (skilled commentators whose insights form the core of Talmud study) was a man of integrity and wholeness, and certainly not a simpleton. Centuries later, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav reported that he spent all of his life trying to achieve t’mimut, "purity, integrity, undivided faithfulness, and wholeheartedness.” Medieval commentator Bachya ibn Pakuda, the author of Chovot HaLevavot, The Duties of the Heart, further explained the ideal of t’mimut as "…complete harmony between inner and outward actions…. This is what the Holy Writ (in Psalms) refers to in the term "whole-hearted,” when it admonishes us to be "whole-hearted with the Eternal your God,” and commends "he that holech tamim — walks uprightly, works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:2).

Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, once asked: "Should a person strive for greatness or wholeness?” He explained using the example of two challot, one large but sliced and one small but whole. It is customary to bless the whole one because wholeness is more valuable than greatness. By extension, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan of Kovno cited the familiar verse from Psalms (19:8), Torat Adonai t’mimah, "The Torah of God is perfect,” whole, or complete, to explain that a Torah missing even one letter is pasul, "flawed,” and cannot be used because the missing letter destroys its t’mimut, its "wholeness.” Furthermore, so important was tamim, "integrity in Jewish law,” that an entire proceeding was debarred if one witness was disqualified. Similarly, when an individual misses one opportunity to sanctify life, one act that strays from the highest ideals of the Torah, then something is lacking in that person.

T’mimut, "wholeness,” in ourselves and in a broken world in need of tikkun, "fixing,” is the model that Noah and other wholehearted righteous individuals provide Jews in every age. Today, more than ever, the nature of an ish tamim, a blameless or wholehearted person, should serve as a reminder of the noblest ways in which Jews ought to conduct their lives.
 


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86
10/05/2018 01:21 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
B'REISHIT
GENESIS 1:1−6:8

D'VAR TORAH BY:  Ellen M. Umansky
The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).

In Isaiah 45:7, God seems to reiterate both the goodness of light, and the existence of light and darkness as separate entities. As the One who creates all things, "I form light and create darkness," says God, "I make shalom [peace] and create ra [woe, that which is bad, or evil]." Yet in contrast to the plain meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and Gen.1:2, Maimonides' later view was that light and darkness are not entities that exist in and of themselves. Rather each, he wrote, is simply the absence of the other (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 10, commenting on Isaiah 45:7).

My interest, however, does not lie primarily in the nature of light and darkness, but in how we actually experience them. The early verses of Genesis, describing the chaos of darkness accurately reflects, I think, the muddiness of dark thoughts and the sense of aloneness that people often feel when they are literally or figuratively in the dark. In contrast, many of us equate light with physical and spiritual illumination — moments of clarity or meaning often accompanied with feelings of joy and gratitude. These are the moments in which I count my blessings, reminding myself of how many things in my life are good, instead of dwelling on that which is bad.

In those moments, I experience what B'reishit identifies as God's "spirit," ruach, as divinity itself: God, not as a being on high who zaps the light, and eventually the world and all living beings, into Creation, but rather God as a life-source and life-force who helps bring forth and sustains Creation. Ruach can also be translated as "wind" or "breath," words that, like spirit, convey motion. Spirit, wind, and breath can be felt and experienced but not seen. They are invisible forces that energize us, perhaps leading to an awareness of God as a "Power not ourselves that makes for righteousness" — a well-known formulation from Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma (1873), appreciatively cited by liberal rabbis in England and the United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries in sermons, essays, and books, including Mordecai Kaplan's 1937 The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Third printing, The Reconstructionist Press, 1962, p. 297).

Arnold's formulation is reminiscent of a Rabbinic legend identifying the light created by God with the primordial light of consciousness, a light much brighter than the sun that shines on the deeds of the righteousness (B'reishit Rabbah 3.6 and 3.8, The Soncino Press, 1983, pp. 22, 24). Similarly, the great 13th century mystical text, The Zohar, equates the primordial light with the light of the eye, a light showed by God to Adam, which enabled him to see from one end of Creation to the other (see Daniel C. Matt, trans., The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 1, 1:31b [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003], p. 192). Rabbi Lawrence Kushner identifies this "inner structure of consciousness" as a "realm of being that comes before us and follows after us, streaming through and uniting all creation." It is, he writes, "the way of the Tao" or, drawing on the Zohar, a "river of light" (Lawrence Kushner, The River of Light: Spirituality, Judaism, and Consciousness [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1981], p. 94).

Kushner does not limit awareness of this river to the righteous. Ideally, it is available to all who open themselves to the reality of light in the world and in each of us. And when we open ourselves to this reality, we actually may experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the "momentous realness of God," and the "beauty, peace, and power" flowing through our souls as a result of this realization. Thus, as Heschel wrote: "The essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination" by the divine presence (Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955], pp. 138, 140). These memories help us recognize our own experiences of light.

Additional Torah Study Resources:

ReformJudaism.org Torah Study / Leading a Family Torah Discussion



 

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