Archive | September, 2013

Parshah Commentary for Bereshit

30 Sep

This week’s parshah contains one of the most puzzling phrases in the Torah: “And God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26).” The first, and most glaring question that this verse raises is why the first person plural is used. Some commentators simply dismiss this as God using the royal “we,” but it seems strange that God would use the royal “we” here and then never use it again in the entire Torah. So if God is not using the royal “we,” then God must be talking to someone… but mankind has not yet been created, so who is around for God to be talking to? Some Rabbis believe that God is talking to the angels, while others believe that God is talking to the animals. Either of these answers opens up its own set of questions.

How can we be made in the image of animals if all animals look different? And how can we be made in their likeness when we are creatures of rational thought and the animals are not? We certainly cannot be made in the image of the angels because we look nothing like the four-faced, one-legged, split-hoofed, four-winged angels described by Ezekiel, and how can we be made in the likeness of the angels when we are such different creatures than they are? They are immortal and we are not. We require food, drink, and sleep, but they do not. They exist at a set level of holiness, while our actions can raise ours high above theirs or way down below it.
Another question this verse raises is why God would even bother to consult with lower beings in the first place? Surely God knows better than the angels or the animals. Rashi comments that this verse is included to show God’s humility as an example for man to follow, and this concept helps to unlock a potential answer.

If we look at this puzzling phrase as a teaching tool about attributes that God wants us to emulate, we can understand that we have been created in the image and likeness of the animals, the angels, and God. We have been created in the image of the animals in that we share their physical needs and biological cycles, and in the image of the angels in that we do resemble one of their four faces and have similar hands and torsos. We have been created in the likeness of the animals in that we have the complete free will which angels lack, and we have been created in the likeness of the angels in that we have the capacity to understand the effects that our actions have beyond just our basic instincts.

Most importantly, though, we are created in God’s likeness, and thus we must strive to do the things that God does. Just as God visited Abraham when he was recovering from surgery, so too should we visit the sick. Just as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so too should we comfort mourners. Just as God fed the hungry Israelites in the desert, so too should we feed the hungry. Just as God has forgiven Israel’s sins, so too should we forgive others.

From God we received examples of how we can act, from the animals we received the ability to act, and from the angels we received the ability to determine whether our acts are good acts. Just as God acts to make the world a better place, so too should we act to make the world a better place.

Commentary for Simchat Torah

25 Sep

Everyone knows the first verse of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What less people know is the that the first word in the Torah, “Bereshit,” can be turned into an acronym in Hebrew which reads “Bereshit Ra’ah Elokim She’Yisrael Yikablu Torah¬- In the beginning, God saw that Israel would accept the Torah.” And, of course, God turned out to be right. The Israelites did accept the Torah. But accepting the Torah comes with a lot of responsibilities.
Unfortunately, we often put most of our focus on the restrictive aspects of these responsibilities, and as a result, they feel like burdens. Fasting on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av is hard and services on the High Holidays just take so long that we sometimes wish they were just over with already. Not eating foods that everyone else eats sometimes makes it hard to have a nice dinner out on the town with friends. Building a sukkah can be a laborious, time-consuming activity which is made even more frustrating by the fact that you know you will be spending the same amount of time taking it down in less than two weeks, and likely spending at least part of the intervening period having your dinner rained on. To prepare for Passover we clean our houses from top to bottom and bring up what amounts to an entirely new kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, and utensils just so we can entirely change our diet for a mere eight days.
So why do we continue to do all of these crazy things? Because it is our culture. It’s just what we Jews do. Our parents did it, and so did their parents and their parents’ parents all the way back to Sinai. It is the tradition of our ancestors that has been passed down to us. As it says in Deuteronomy 33:4 (probably the most well-known verse in the Deuteronomy portion of the Torah reading) “Moses commanded the Torah to us; it is an inheritance of the community of Jacob.” And so, as God foresaw, we accept the Torah as our heritage and we do these things… though when the time comes, we often do them with a grumble.
On Simchat Torah, we forget that grumble. Yes, High Holiday services might be long and fasting might be hard. Yes, building a sukkah and preparing our houses for Passover might be a lot of work for such a short period of time. Yes, matzah might taste yucky and bacon might look tasty… but isn’t it great that we have this rich culture that dates back thousands of years? That we have all of these unifying experiences that we can all relate to each other with? That we have these unique things that we do that allow us to stand up together as part of a group and say, “We do these things because we are Jews and this is what Jews do; from our ancestors to us to our descendents generations in the future, and we are proud of that!”
There is a big difference between accepting responsibility and enjoying responsibility. Throughout the year we often focus too much on just accepting our responsibilities as Jews, but on Simchat Torah we run and jump and dance and sing to show God and the rest of the world (or at least the neighbors) that we not only accept our responsibilities as Jews, but we enjoy them.

Commentary for Shmini Atzeret

24 Sep

The Torah reading for Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot, seems to be a generic holiday reading, mostly shared with the last days of both Passover and Shavuot. Deut. 15:19 – 16:17 is a general list of the pilgrimage holidays and their specific sacrifices and other laws of their observances. As far as Torah readings go, this section is particularly short. So short, in fact, that if the last day of Passover or Shavuot falls on Shabbat and seven aliyot are required instead of five, we need to add Deut. 14:22 – 15:18 to the reading in order to be able to create seven aliyot with logical ending points. On Shmini Atzeret, however, we read this long, seemingly extraneous portion about the treatment of the poor and the settling of debts for the Sabbatical year no matter which day of the week Shmini Atzeret falls.
The major ritual event of Shmini Atzeret is the special prayer for rain added into the Musaf Amidah. During this prayer we ask God to provide us with water for crops for the upcoming year and invoke the names of our ancestors so that if our deeds have not been good enough to merit a good year, God might show us kindness on their merits.

Water plays multiple roles in the Torah. It is a resource that is fought over for the simple purposes of survival and economic power, and it is used as a libation as part of the sacrifices on Sukkot. It can be used as an implement of destruction, as in the cases of the Noah’s Flood or the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, but it is also present in many of the important acts of kindness found in the Torah.

When Abraham, ninety-nine years old and recovering from circumcising himself, sees three strangers wandering in the desert on an especially hot day, he insists that they come rest in his tent and not only does he bring them food and drink, but also water to wash the uncomfortable, hot sand off their feet with. This is the first recorded act of kindness to a stranger. When Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac, it is Rebecca’s kindness and generosity, letting Eliezer have as much water as he wanted, rather than just the sip that he asked for, and even offering to draw water for his camels as well, that draws him to her.

To escape Pharaoh’s decree that all male Israelite babies be executed, Moses’ mother sends him in a basket down the Nile. Upon seeing the child, Pharaoh’s daughter decides to save his life and raise him as her own, despite knowing that he is an Israelite child and that her father has decreed his death. When he arrives in Midian after his flight from Egypt, the first thing Moses does is defend Jethro’s daughters from a group of shepherds who accost them at the local well.

On Shmini Atzeret, when we pray for water to sustain us for the coming year, we read not just about the laws of the holidays, but about what we must do with the sustenance that water will brings us in order to be worthy of the gift we are receiving from God. We learn to be generous to the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, to forgive debts at the Sabbatical, and to release indentured servants with a fair severance package so that they will not immediately wind up in servitude again. We learn from our ancestors’ examples of kindness so that we will not have to rely on their merits to pray for water, but will be able to do so on the merit of our own kindness.

Torah Commentary for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot

18 Sep

This week’s Torah reading seems to come a week too late. The story of Moses pleading with God to have mercy on the Israelites for the grave sin of the Golden Calf, and God relenting in His punishment seems to be a much better fit for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between before Yom Kippur. In fact, a significant amount of the text of the Yom Kippur service is drawn from Exodus 34:5-7, including the Thirteen Attributes which we invoke when we pray for Divine mercy. Now that the High Holy Day season is over, shouldn’t we be moving on to other subjects? While this is the reading for Shabbat Chol Hamoed of both Sukkot and Passover, Sukkot is mentioned only once, and only as a harvest holiday, rather than having any of its associated mitzvot mentioned. Why, then, is this portion about an accepted plea for Divine mercy read now, on Sukkot?

The first Mishnah in chapter three of tractate Sukkah starts: “A lulav that has been stolen or is dried out is invalid (to perform the mitzvah with),” and an identical statement is made about the etrog in 3:5. 3:6 lists all of the different blemishes that also invalidate an etrog.

The first of these restrictions, the restriction against using a stolen lulav or etrog, seems obvious, but the Rabbis wanted to make certain that no one would think that it was okay to steal for the purposes of performing a mitzvah. Especially after Yom Kippur, the Rabbis feared that one’s desire to perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog might be so great that it would drive him to steal a lulav or etrog if he could not afford one. For this purpose, the Rabbis codified the Halachic dictum that a mitzvah brought about through a transgression is unacceptable.

The source for this is Malachai 1:13, where the prophet declares God’s rejection the people’s offerings because they are bringing sacrifices that are either stolen or sick or lame. That the people would offer the worst of their flock to God, or would steal someone else’s animal to offer to God so that they do not have to give up any of their own property shows rejection of God. The people are willing to go through the ritual motions, but they are not willing to make a true sacrifice, not willing to give up something valuable for God. Just as a stolen lulav or etrog is invalid for performing the mitzvah, so too, is a dry lulav or etrog or a blemished or discolored etrog invalid for performing the mitzvah, because they are like the old, lame, sick, or blemished offerings which God rejects.

Malachai 1:6-14, and this verse in particular, has a very similar message to Isaiah 58:1-5, which is read as part of the haftarah on Yom Kippur. It is not enough to go through the ritual motions. If you do not cease to act wickedly, God will reject your prayers and you will not be forgiven.

One originally Kabalistic tradition that has been adopted by the rest of Judaism is that although Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, the last day on which one can change his or her judgment for the year is Hoshana Rabah, the last day of Sukkot. This week’s Torah reading, the laws of the lulav and etrog, the humility we show by living in a sukkah and forgoing to the protection of our houses to expose ourselves to the elements of nature which God commands are all a reminder to us that while the High Holy Days may have passed, we must now focus on ensuring that our words on Yom Kippur do not become the empty ritual that Malachai and Isaiah spoke out against. Now is the time when we must start proving ourselves worthy of Divine mercy that God shows us on Yom Kippur; the same mercy that he showed our ancestors in this week’s Torah reading.

Commentary for Sukkot

18 Sep

The High Holy Day period can be a tough time. At the beginning of the month of Elul, a full month before Rosh Hashanah, we start to reflect on the past year. We dig up all of our sins, for the next forty days, we try to make restitution for them. We apologize to those we have hurt, and try to identify strategies for not making the same mistakes again. From the beginning of Slichot until the end of Yom Kippur we spent long hours in shul, praying for Divine mercy and humbling ourselves before God. We bow low before God. On Yom Kippur we forgo bodily needs such as food and water, and we say “before I was formed, I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed, I am still the same as if I had not been formed. I am but dust in my life, so surely I shall be dust in my death. Behold- before You I am a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.” We confess our transgressions and we acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands. Obviously this is a necessary and important thing to, but that does not change the fact that it is usually quite depressing.

After the High Holy Days we can often be quite down on ourselves. Anyone would be after spending over a month going through the past year with a fine-toothed comb specifically to see what you have done wrong. While this attitude of extreme sadness and humility is desirable during the High Holy days, it is not something we should carry with us for the rest of the year. Five days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, referred to in it’s Kiddush as “the time of our happiness,” to help us find the right balance for the rest of the year.

Sukkot is a holiday all about balance. For most Jews, Sukkot is defined by its two major ritual objects: the sukkah and the lulav and etrog bundle. The sukkah is a meager shelter that takes a lot of effort to build. If it is too big or the roof is too good, it is unkosher. Living in this bare-bones hut, especially when it is right next to our nice, modern houses, symbolizes the humility we have come to know from the High Holy Day season, but the sukkah also helps to raise us up as well. While the sukkah is not allowed to be too big or to have too good a roof, a sukkah is also unkosher if it is too small, or if the roof is not good enough, or if the walls do not provide enough protection. While we might be humbled by it, the sukkah also reminds us that we are not nothing. We have put a lot of hard work into our sukkah, and it is okay to be proud of it.

The lulav and etrog bundle also symbolizes balance. It is made up of four parts; the lulav (date palm), the hadas (mertyle), the aravah (willow) and the etrog. The etrog both provides food and has a smell. The lulav only provides food, while the hadas only has a smell. The aravah does neither, but it is just as essential for the whole as the etrog, which does both. Compared to building a sukkah, acquiring a lulav and etrog bundle is quite simple. All you have to do is find someone who is selling them, and buy one. Despite this, we still take as much pride in our lulav and etrog as we do in our sukkah, and often pay for fancy holders for them and try to find etrogs that are as perfectly yellow as possible.

Sukkot, the time of our happiness, works to counteract the sadness that often comes with the High Holy Day Period. We try to retain our newfound humility, but we temper it with the sense of pride and joy worthy of a holiday, to help us get adjusted to the rest of the year.

Commentary on Jonah for Yom Kippur

13 Sep

Jonah is not like the other prophets. Most prophets are famous for some famous deed of piety or leadership, such as Moses for his wisdom and leadership of the Israelites in the desert, or Elijah for his glorification of God in his showdown with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel. Others are famous for particular quotes, such as Amos’ “let justice roll on like a river and righteousness as a mighty stream.” They are people whose examples we should follow, and whose words we should live by. Jonah, on the other hand, is most famous for disobeying God and getting eaten by a fish, and sets a perfect example of how we should not act.

The book starts out with God giving Jonah instructions, and rather than follow them, Jonah runs in the opposite direction of where God tells him to go. Rejecting God’s initial call is nothing new for a prophet. Not everyone has the perfect faith in God shown by Isaiah, and that is okay. Moses and Jeremiah also rejected God’s initial calling to them, but while they do it for reasons of humility, Jonah rejects God’s charge because he just doesn’t seem to care about helping the people of Nineveh.

So Jonah gets on a boat headed for Tarshish, but on the way, God sends a storm that is so precise that it targets only Jonah’s ship. Everyone on the boat clearly realizes that such a thing must be of Divine origin, and so they all go to pray to their gods to try to abate the storm. All except for Jonah, who, knowing that he was guilty and that they were all in mortal danger solely because of him, decided to take a nap. The 15th century commentator Abarbanel says that Jonah felt so ashamed of himself that he did not want to face God, and so went to sleep, accepting of the death penalty he assumed was coming, only hoping to die peacefully in his sleep. When the captain wakes him up, Jonah immediately confesses that he is the one who has brought this danger upon them all and tells them to throw him into the sea to appease God and save themselves. Jonah’s willingness to suffer the unpleasant death of drowning alive just to save the lives of a few sailors indicates that Jonah seems to have learned his lesson, and after his acceptance of God’s will during his prayer in the belly of the fish, God has the fish spit Jonah and repeats his instructions to Jonah. This new Jonah, who was willing to suffer an unpleasant death just to save a few sailors sets off to do what the old Jonah refused to do: inconvenience himself for a few days in order to help save a city of thousands.

But as it turns out, Jonah has not learned his lesson. The people on Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning and repent from their wicked ways and God, seeing their repentance, spares them… and this makes Jonah unhappy. God chastises Jonah for this, and seeks to teach him a lesson once more with the metaphor of the ricinous plant. The book ends with this chastisement. Jonah’s response, if any, is unrecorded, and we do not know if Jonah learns his lesson.

We read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur to remind ourselves that we are not like Jonah. Jonah was so ashamed of his sin that he could not bare to face God. Ashamed of them though we are, we come to shul on Yom Kippur to face God for our sins. Jonah’s unresisting acceptance of the death sentence he thought was coming to him shows that he did not believe that he could do better (and his inability to learn his lesson seems to indicate that perhaps he couldn’t). Of all the prophets who prophesied doom in the Bible, Jonah’s is the only doom that does not come to pass because of the people of Nineveh realized that they can be better and they repent. Like them, we believe that we can do better, and on Yom Kippur we come before God to repent and pledge to be better people this year than we were last year.

Commentary for Rosh Hashanah

4 Sep

No item has become more associated with the High Holidays than the shofar. Every ad in every newspaper for every High Holiday service has one on it somewhere. The reason for this is that the shofar speaks to us. It is quite amazing, really, when you consider that, at its core, the shofar is just a loud noise. Prayers and sermons have an entire language’s worth of words (or even two or three) to choose from to find the exact meaning they want to convey in order to speak to us, but they often do not truly move us in the way that the seemingly uninterpretable sound of the shofar can.

Although the minimum required number of shofar blasts is only thirty, there in a old custom in many places to blow the shofar one hundred times. The reason for this comes from a midrashic interpretation of Judges 5:28-30 that Sisera’s mother cried one hundred and one times when her son was late to return to from battle. Sisera was the commander of the army of the Canaanite kingdom of Hazor, and had been oppressing the Jewish people for twenty years at this point, and the bible seems to go out of its way to point out Sisera’s particular desire for raping and pillaging. Indeed it is the thoughts of Sisera out raping and pillaging that she uses to comfort herself when she thinks there is a possibility that he might have perished. Sisera and his mother were cruel people, and we blow the shofar one hundred times to evoke Divine mercy and hope that God will not judge our sins so harshly as to need to send such terrible punishment against us.

But what about that final one hundred and first sob?

While Sisera was a terrible person and his mother’s ability to find comfort in his cruelty to others is deplorable, they were still people. We blow the shofar only one hundred times so that we can remember that final sob. Sisera’s mother loved her son, and his death greatly saddened her. Although the Egyptians are the villains of the Passover story, we still take the time at the Seder to remember their suffering during the Ten Plagues. When the angels start to sing and dance upon the completion of the liberation of the Israelites when God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, God chastises them, and he similarly chastises Jonah for his resistance to helping the people of Nineveh, because, as God illustrates to Jonah with the parable of the ricinous plant (Jonah, chapter 4), God cares deeply about all of His creations, be they Jewish or not, human or not, or even if they are terrible people.

The High Holidays are a time of personal examination and retrospective reflection. We do not blow a hundred and first blast of the shofar to remind us that we must reexamine all of our decisions, no matter how clear-cut black and white they seem. No matter how pure our actions or intentions, someone might have been hurt, and no matter if the injured party is a good friend, a total stranger, or even someone we have a legitimate reason to quarrel with, we must attempt to emulate God and care about the feelings of all people.