Archive | October, 2015

Commentary for Lech Lecha

27 Oct

This week’s parshah marks a big step in the development of humanity’s relationship with God. More precisely, it is a big step in humanity’s understanding of its role in its relationship with God.

 

In this week’s parshah God tells Abraham his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shores, but they will also be oppressed for four hundred years in a land not their own. Previous human interactions with God had taken one of two forms: either God would punish them for doing wrong, or God would do or say something nice, whether it was to give a blessing, such as to Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation, or give Noah instructions on how to save his family from the flood, or in the case of Abraham, offer to make him a great nation in exchange for going to Cana’an, but with not actually pressuring Abraham to do so with any sort of “but if you don’t…” clause.

 

Our parshah marks the first mention of the faithful having to suffer seemingly for no other reason than because God wants it to happen. There have been a few tests of faith before this (most notably Abraham and Sarah’s separate but related ordeals in Egypt), but those were about putting the faithful in a bad situation and seeing if their faith would hold up, rather than letting them know in advance that they will have to suffer for their faith. Abraham accepts this lot, the suffering of the descendents he and his wife so badly wish to have, without complaint.

 

Rabbi Yochanan points out in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that this conversation is the first time that anyone refers to God as “Adonai,” meaning “my master (Berachot 7b).” This conversation is also the first time that anyone addresses God using the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter, unpronounced “true name” of God that we normally translate as “The Lord” and read as “Adonai.” The only time we don’t read it as “Adonai” is when the word “Adonai” immediately proceeds it, in which case we pronounce it “Elohim,” another name for God, which is also occasionally used to mean “judge.” By using both of these terms together, Abraham becomes the first person to acknowledge that God is more than just the judge who weighs our deeds and gives us either a punishment or a reward. God is also a master to be served; not out of fear of punishment for disobedience, but out of trust that God is guiding us towards an ideal world. Obeying God’s will often leads to us making sacrifices and facing discomfort, and in those times it is important to remember to trust in God rather than following our very human instinct to dismiss anything as soon as we realize it requires sacrifices from us.

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Commentary for Noach

16 Oct

This week’s parshah contains the story of Noah. Humankind as a whole is acting wickedly, so God decides to destroy them. God commands Noah to build an ark and take on board himself, his family, two of each animal and seven pairs of the kosher ones, and wait there until the flood ends. Noah does so and everything turns out fine, and at the end of the story they all get off the ark and start to repopulate the world with everything being good as new.

One question often asked of this story is what, exactly, was the point of the ark? If God wanted to restart humanity with just Noah and his family, why go through all of the rigmarole of having Noah build an ark of specific dimensions and sending the animals over to Noah and wasting all of this time (over a year’s worth) waiting for Noah to build the ark and then having this big flood and then waiting for the water to recede? Shouldn’t an omnipotent God be able to snap God’s metaphorical fingers and just make all of the wicked people disappear?

There is a famous joke about a pious man who prays every day that he will win the lottery. After sixty years of this, he passes away, having never won the lottery. When he gets to Heaven he asks God why, after so many years of piety and scrupulous observance, God never answered his prayer, and God responds, “Because you never even bought a ticket.”

While the joke is humorous, its message is quite serious: God helps those who help themselves. God’s commandment to Noah is to “Make for yourself an ark (of Gofer Wood) (Gen. 6:14).” If Noah and his family are to be the progenitors of a new humanity, they must understand that a perfect world requires a partnership between humanity and God. It is not enough to merely refrain from sin. If we want to work towards and ideal world we must give charity, observe mitzvot, and help others. If we want a better world, we must go out and actively do good in that world to make it better.

Commentary for Bereishit

9 Oct

This week’s parshah traces history from the very beginning of creation until the time of Noah. We read about creation, about Adam and Eve’s lives in the Garden of Eden and the events that result in them being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and punished by God. We read about their children, Cain and Abel, and about their descendants all the way down to the time of Noah. Although it is not mentioned in the text until chapter six, humanity has been becoming increasingly rotten this whole time, and God finally gets fed up with them and decides to wipe them out.

 

When Noah is born, the Torah explains to us the reason he was given his name, which means “comfort:” “And he named him Noah, saying, ‘this one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord cursed (Gen. 5:29).’” The curse in question was God’s punishment for Adam for eating from the Tree of knowledge, which was that mankind would have to work the land in order to get food, as opposed to inside the Garden of Eden where food and vegetation grew on their own. The belief at the time was that the curse would last only as long as Adam was alive, and Noah was the first child born after Adam’s death.

 

It speaks volumes about the mindset of those generations that they would automatically blame any problems they were having with their crops on the long-ago actions of someone else rather than even consider that they themselves might be at fault. As God tells the Israelites later on many times, if we do what is good in the eyes of God we will be rewarded with a good harvest, but if we don’t, God will hold back the rains and there will be famine. Even after Noah was born the people continued to do wrong, never once considering that any hardships they suffered could possibly have been their own fault, until the day when God brought a great flood and wiped them all out.

 

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We should all take heed of the lesson that the people in our parshah never learned. We should never write anything off as being entirely someone else’s fault without first carefully and honestly examining the issue to determine if we have helped cause the problem and how we can fix it.

Commentary for Simchat Torah

2 Oct

In many ways, Simchat Torah is a very strange holiday. For one thing, its festivities are not in any way biblically ordained. While we are commanded to rejoice in the Torah, the idea of having a special day where we dance with the Torah and celebrate finishing one cycle of reading and starting a new one was invented by the Rabbis and added on to the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Once Diaspora communities sprung up and started to celebrate two days of holidays instead of one in order to make sure they covered their bases and were celebrating at the right time, Simchat Torah was split off from Shemini Atzeret and rather than celebrate both parts of the holidays for two straight days, we split them off and do Shemini Atzeret stuff (such as Yizkor and the prayer for rain) on the first day and do Simchat Torah stuff (dancing, finishing, and restarting the Torah) on the second day. This, in turn, has lead to a very unique situation where Jews in Israel have adopted a custom developed specifically for the Diaspora, going out and dancing with the Torah on what would be the beginning of Simchat Torah in the Diaspora, at which time the combined Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret in Israel would have already ended.

Simchat Torah also has some parts to it that appear a little strange conceptually. For example, the big moment of the holiday is when we finish reading the last parshah in the Torah, and then go start reading from the beginning again to symbolize that there is no end to what we can learn from the Torah. But then for the haftarah we read the beginning of Joshua, which picks up right where the end of the Torah leaves off. If the point of the holiday is that we are going back to the beginning of the Torah, why are we reading the part of the story that comes right after the end?

In discussing the idea of finishing the Torah and then immediately starting from the beginning again, much has been made of the fact that the last letter of the Torah, lamed, followed by the first letter of the Torah, bet, brought together in this never-ending chain of reading the Torah, spell the Hebrew word “leiv,” meaning “heart,” which symbolizes God’s eternal love for us, and our love for God and the Torah.

Much less has been made of the fact that the last letter of the Torah, lamed, followed by the first letter of the book of Joshua, vav, spells the Hebrew word “lo,” meaning “to him.” The first two verses of the book of Joshua firmly establish that the mantle of leadership, and with it the story of the Jewish People, has now been passed to him. The first verse in the much later Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot similarly establishes the passing down of the mantle of the Torah and the spiritual leadership of the Jewish People from Moses to Joshua to the succeeding generations.

On Simchat Torah we celebrate and show our dedication to both of these concepts. We sing and dance with the Torah, and upon completing it we immediately start to read it again, showing the idea of leiv: our eternal and continuous love for God and this precious gift of Torah that God has given us. And in doing so, we- us here today- welcome and celebrate the idea of lo: that the spiritual future of the Jewish People and the responsibility to safeguard the Torah lies in our hands.

Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

2 Oct

Shemini Atzeret appears to be a holiday that isn’t about much at all. It has absolutely no unique mitzvot of its own, and is always referred to in the Torah as “the eighth day” after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot. How do we celebrate a holiday when we have almost no clues as to what it is about and what makes it different from other holidays?

Shemini Atzeret is the last holiday before the start of the rainy season in Israel, so one ritual that has become attached to Shemini Atzeret is the special prayer for rain added into the Musaf Amidah. We do not actually pray for rain itself on Shemini Atzeret, but rather we pray that the rain that does come this year will be productive and not destructive. We do not actually start praying for rain for another two weeks. One of the explanations given for this is because this allowed time for all of the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Sukkot and

Shemini Atzeret to make it back home in time before the rain starts.

Judaism is a religion that teaches us to look out for our neighbors. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves and not to stand by while our fellows are in danger.   In many places in the Torah, including the Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret, we are told to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the destitute. Judaism teaches us the importance of community, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about.

We are told that Shemini Atzeret is to be “a gathering for you (Num. 29:35).” The word “atzeret” actually means “gathering,” and it comes from the route meaning “to restrain.” In this case, we are restraining ourselves from leaving after the end of Sukkot and taking another day to spend with our community. Shemini Atzeret does not overtly draw attention to any specific mitzvot or ideas because doing so would take the focus off of the fact that Shemini Atzeret is a day of rest for us to spend with our community.

Commentary for Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot

2 Oct

This week’s Torah reading is a special reading for whenever Shabbat falls on a non-Yom Tov day of Sukkot or Passover. It begins with Moses pleading with God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. It then continues with God forgiving the Israelites, but once again warning them not to turn to false gods. It then concludes with a loose collection of laws related to Shabbat and holidays and holiday sacrifices before closing with the seemingly unrelated prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.

 

This commandment appears in the Torah in three different places (Ex. 23:19, Ex. 34:26, and Deut. 14:21). Rabbi Ishmael on Chulin 115b teaches that the three appearances of this commandment are to teach us that there are three different aspects to this prohibition: the physical act of cooking them together, eating them together (even if someone else cooked it for you), and deriving benefit from the two being cooked together (you can’t own a restaurant that sells it even if you don’t do the cooking and you never eat the food).

 

Today, on Sukkot, we find ourselves in a very similar position to the one our ancestors were in at the end of this week’s Torah reading. Yom Kippur was barely a week ago. We have just been forgiven for our sins, and are ready to forge ahead into the new year, having promised to rededicate ourselves to God and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past year. Sukkot is our first big chance to do all of the positive holiday mitzvahs we can, but the “thou shalt” mitzvahs are usually not the ones that we struggle with the most. Our Torah reading ends with the negative commandment “do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” to remind us to be mindful of the negative commandments as well, and because its three prohibitions serve as an example of how we can help ourselves from falling into old patterns of sin in the coming year: by not just following the letter of the law, but by removing ourselves from situations where such things would feel commonplace to us.