Archive | October, 2013

Commentary for Chayei Sarah

28 Oct

This week’s parshah contains the most difficult cantillation mark in the Torah: Shalshelet (Gen. 24:12, above the first word). The major reason that Shalshelet is so difficult is because of its length. It is about twice as long as the next-longest cantillation mark, and about three times as long as the longest of the common cantillation marks. Fortunately, Shalshelet is also one of the most rare cantillation marks, appearing just four times in the Torah.

The length of the note, the music, and its shape (a vertical line that zig-zags back and forth) are all used to emphasize an extreme inner struggle going on for the character in question. This week, though, is different from all of the others. In all of the other cases, the inner struggle taking place is fairly easy to identify, but in this case, Abraham’s steward Eliezer just seems to be making a desperate plea to God to guidance. Hardly the sort of thing that requires an inner struggle.

Given his situation, his reason for asking God for guidance is easily understandable. Abraham has tasked him with an extremely important mission, but given him so few specifics that the task must seem impossibly daunting. So Eliezer headed off alone to a far-away land to sort through all of the maidens in the land to find not just any woman, but the right woman for Isaac.

Abraham, of course, had his reasons for sending Eliezer on this mission. Not only was Eliezer Abraham’s most loyal and trusted servant, but he was also from the same general region, so he would have a better grasp on the language and the culture. Perhaps he understood it a bit too well.

Though Eliezer had converted to Judaism like the rest of Abraham’s household, being re-immersed in the culture he had grown up with had a major effect on him. Seeing the idols and soothsayers he had grown up with reminded Eliezer of how simple his previous life had been, before he had starting working for Abraham, a man labeled “the outsider” by the Canaanites among whom he lived. He never lost sight of the mission, but he seems to have lost a bit of faith in his new God. Wouldn’t the woman he was being sent to find, as well as the children she would bear Isaac, have an easier life if they just worshiped the same gods as the people around them?

So when Eliezer begins to pray for guidance, he’s not even sure whom he should pray to. He has this long inner struggle of the Shalshelet and prays to God, but addresses God as “the God of my master, Abraham” rather than as his own God. The format of his prayer is controversial as well, as his prayer for guidance is actually criticized by the Rabbis of the Talmud as being a formula for Biblically forbidden divination (Chulin 95b).

Even though Eliezer seems to lose his faith here, using a pagan form of petition for guidance, God still answers his prayer, and does so immediately. Having one’s prayers answered in the Bible is a sign of one’s devotion to God. Although Eliezer might not have formulated his prayer correctly, God accepted it because deep down, he believed his prayer in his heart and his intentions were good, and in the end, that is what matters to God.

Parshah Commentary for Vayera

18 Oct

Divine reward and punishment are major themes in the Bible. It is one of the major focuses of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as most of the books in the Prophets. Many of the prophets receive their calling from God in order to warn the Israelites to repent or else they will face God’s wrath. Even some non-Jewish civilizations are send a messenger to tell them to acquiesce to God’s will or else. In the book of Genesis, though, the standard sequence of events leading to Divine punishment is different than it is in the rest of the Bible in one very striking way: There is no warning. God just swoops in and punishes humanity’s wrongdoings with no appeal. This week’s parshah is a turning point that will shape God’s relationship with humanity for the rest of time.

At this point we have seen one previous examples of God punishing humanity on a large scale: The story of the Noah’s flood. God made an effort to save the few righteous people on the Earth, Noah and his family, and seems to have simply condemned all the others to die with no warning.

A few generations have passed since then, and there are now two cities called Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are all acting wickedly. They take advantage of the poor and the weary, stealing, killing, and raping without a second thought. The only reason that Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family do not suffer a similar fate when they move there is because of the military protection of being a relative of Abraham, whose might was well known in the land after the War of the Five Kings (Gen. 14). Lot’s family’s move to this den of iniquity has created a situation similar to that of the flood: One family of righteous people living among sinners so awful that God has chosen to destroy them.

This time, though, God does something differently. Before destroying the cities, God informs Abraham of His decision, and Abraham does something unprecedented in human history: He begins to argue with God! “What if there are fifty righteous people in the cities? Surely You wouldn’t destroy fifty righteous people because of the way their neighbors are acting?!”
God agrees and says that if there are fifty righteous people in the cites, He will spare them. But even though God has conceded the point, Abraham keeps pressing. “What if there are forty-five righteous people in the cities? Surely if You would save fifty, You wouldn’t destroy forty-five just because a mere five are missing?!” God concedes the point again, but Abraham keeps going, right down until the case of ten righteous people in the cities. Unfortunately there were not even ten righteous people between the two cities, and so God destroys them (though he rescues the righteous people, Lot and his family, first), but Abraham’s willingness to argue on behalf of his fellow man has restored God’s faith in humanity.
This was the second time God had decided to destroy people for their sins, and twice so far, no one had stepped up to help those people. Noah, knowing full well of the fate that would befall the rest of the world, never once tried to warn the rest of his generation to change their ways. Now Lot, a righteous man, has come to live in a city full of wicked people, and while he and his family have remained righteous themselves, they have not lifted a finger to try to change those around them. But now Abraham has advocated sparing even the wicked people of a city so that they might repent, and on his merit, God changes the way He deals with humanity. From now on, God will warn humanity to change their ways, giving them a chance to repent and avert punishment. We must be like Abraham. It is not enough to be righteous ourselves, but we must do what we can to help others be righteous as well.

Commentary for Lech Lecha

11 Oct

“Abram was ninety-nine years old, and the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him “I am El Shaddai (a name for God which derives from “giver of benefits”); walk in My ways and be tamim. And I will establish My covenant between Myself and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous (Gen. 17:1-2).” The Hebrew word tamim has been translated many different ways by different scholars, but is usually translated “whole” or “perfect.” The next fourteen verses lay out this new covenant, by which Abram and his descendents can become “whole” or “perfect.”

The terms of the covenant are that God will make Abram’s offspring very numerous. He will give Abram and his wife Sarai a child, and through that child Abram’s line will continue and they will be given the land of Canaan as a Divine inheritance. In return, Abram must change his name to Abraham and Sarai must change her name to Sarah. They and their descendants must worship God forever, and on the eighth day after they are born, all males must be circumcised.
The concept of circumcision, the removal of a part of the body, seems at odds with the concept of being “whole.” How is it possible that in order to be “perfect” we must alter our physical form the way our perfect Creator fashioned it?

Obviously God could have created a perfect world if God had wanted to. A world where there is no crime or hunger or poverty and everyone was compelled to follow all of the mitzvot. In such a world, we would all be like the angels, who are only capable of performing the specific tasks that God sets for them and never able to disobey, but there isn’t much glory in winning a rigged game.

Tradition tells us that the angels, being Heavenly creatures and only doing God’s will, have a higher, static base level of holiness than we do, but when we do mitzvot we reach a higher level of holiness than angels ever can because we are making a conscious choice to do so.

The highest levels of holiness can only be achieved through conscious human action. Just as Abraham had to take actions like leaving his father’s household, traveling to Canaan, and circumcising himself and his son in order to become more “perfect” and to fulfill his “whole” potential, so too should we make the conscious choice to take action and do mitzvot to achieve our whole potential.

Parshah Commentary for Noach

4 Oct

This week’s parshah seems to be a very low point for humanity because we have two entire generations of humankind that sin gravely enough to warrant Divine punishment. The first of them, the generation of Noah, are wiped out by a supernatural flood, while the second, the generation that built the Tower of Babel, is dispersed all over the Earth and forced to speak different languages. In comparing their sins, the Rabbis make a startling discovery: the generation of the Tower of Babel, who rebelled against God’s Divine authority, were only punished by being dispersed throughout the world, while the generation of Noah, whose major crime was mere theft (granted, in large amounts and sometimes by violent means) was entirely wiped out, save for one family. How is it that the generation who rebelled against God in an open attempt to make war on the heavenly courts (Gen. Rabbah 38:7) was given a less severe punishment than the generation who, when it comes down to it, did nothing more than commit the all-too-common crime of theft in large amounts?

The key difference between the two generations lies in their treatment of other human beings. While the people of the generation of Noah only looked out for themselves would steal from each other without a second thought, the people of the generation of the Tower of Babel were unified, working together to achieve a common goal which was meant to glorify the human race and its accomplishments. In Noah’s generation, people would steal from each other without a second thought. They considered themselves and their own needs, but never cared about how their actions would affect others. They were greedy to an extreme, and they were punished accordingly.

The story of Noah is always read on the Shabbat that immediately precedes the seventh day of the month of Cheshvan. On that day, Jews living in Israel make a change in their weekday Amidah (due to climate difference, we in North America make this change on December 5th). In the brachah “Mevarech Hashanim” (The One who blesses the years) we ask God for sustenance, both physical and financial. Because of the agrarian nature of the society in which this brachah was written, both of those are covered by asking God for an abundance of crops. On Cheshvan 7th, Israelis change the phrase “v’ten brachah al pnei ha’adamah” (and grant a blessing upon the Earth) is changed to “v’ten tal u’matar livrachah al pnei ha’adamah” (and grant dew and rain as blessing upon the Earth). We pray to God to send us the proper amount of rain to bring us physical sustenance and financial success, but as we see in the story of Noah, the same rain that is essential to sustain us can be used for destruction as well. If we are excessively greedy and ask for too much, if we focus too much on our own desires to the detriment of our fellow man, God will teach us that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.