Archive | November, 2016

Commentary for Chayei Sarah

30 Nov

In this week’s parshah Sarah dies at the age of one hundred and twenty-seven, and becomes the first person recorded to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (some midrashim state that Adam and Eve were buried there first). In Gen. 23:2 the Torah records that Abraham gave a eulogy for his wife. In this verse the letter kaf in the word “eulogize” (livcotah) is written smaller than the other letters. The letter kaf has a numerical value of twenty, so Peirush HaRokeach explains that this extra-small kaf is meant to draw a connection between Sarah and her grandson Jacob- the last person buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs- who lived to age one hundred and forty-seven, twenty years longer than his grandmother.

Jacob and Sarah are two of the four people in the Torah to have their names changed by God or one of God’s emissaries. Sarah’s name was changed to Sarah from the original Sarai, and Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. Both names have their root in the Hebrew verb root S.R.R., meaning one with authority. Both are also noted for doing things that seem disagreeable to us today, but which were ultimately in accordance with God’s will and necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish People.

It is interesting to compare Sarah and Jacob to the other two people who had their names changed, Abraham and Joshua. Unlike Sarah and Jacob, their actions tend to be a bit more agreeable to our modern sensibilities. Joshua is admirable for his leadership, courage, and optimism, while Abraham was noted for his kindness and intercession on behalf of others, only doing things we today find distasteful (such as banishing Hagar and Ishmael or preparing to sacrifice Isaac) after a direct order from God. Instead of being modified by changing letters as with Sarah and Jacob, and being linked by a common root, Abraham and Joshua’s name changes were achieved by simply adding in a letter. In the case of Joshua the letter Yud was added to change his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua, and in the case of Abraham the letter Hay was added to change his name from Abram to Abraham. The letters Yud and Heh together are commonly used as an abbreviation for the Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter Name of God which we today translate as “the Lord” and read as Adonai (or on rare occasions, Elohim) because we are not completely sure of the vowelization and it would be blasphemous to mispronounce it.

The Tetragrammaton is used in the Torah to emphasize God’s mercy, so when viewed in this context, it often seems to us today like Sarah and Jacob are getting the short end of the stick. For that reason it is important to remember that all of these changes were approved by God, and Sarah and Jacob’s actions were just as much in accordance with God’s will as Abraham and Joshua’s. While compassion and optimism are laudable traits, it is important to remember that sometimes a broader, more long-term view is called for, and we must act not in what seems to be the nicest way to act right now, but in a way that will ultimately result in the best possible outcome for all involved later on down the road.

Commentary for Vayeira

21 Nov

This week’s parshah opens with Abraham and Sarah receiving a visit from three angels who inform them that, in one year’s time, Sarah will bear Abraham a child. Sarah is skeptical, due to the extremely advanced age of those involved, and responds to this news by laughing to herself about the clear impossibility of such a thing. Sarah’s laughter is recorded in Gen 18:12, and is immediately followed by God asking Abraham “why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: ‘Shall I really bear a child though I have aged?’ Is anything beyond the Lord (Gen 18:13-14)?” This is one of just four places in the Torah where God asks someone a direct, non-rhetorical question, and all four of those questions are rebukes. This one seems to differ from the others, however, in that unlike the others (Adam in Gen. 3:9, Cain in 4:9, and Balaam in Num. 22:9), the person being rebuked here appears to be being rebuked for the actions of another.

In reality, God is not rebuking Abraham for Sarah’s conduct, but rather for Abraham’s own conduct that helped cause Sarah to react the way she reacted. The reason Sarah reacts with incredulity here but Abraham does not is because this is not the first time Abraham has heard this news. At the end of last week’s parshah, God tells Abraham that within the next year Sarah will bear him a child, and Abraham reacts almost exactly as Sarah does, laughing skeptically at the concept of a ninety-nine year old man and a ninety year old woman conceiving a child, when they could not even manage to do so in their younger years (Gen. 17:17). God tells Abraham that it will happen; a miracle will occur, and he and Sarah will finally be able to conceive the child they have desired for so long. One would think that Abraham would rush home to tell Sarah the excellent news, but as her reaction upon hearing it announced shows, Abraham did not do so.

Usually when God tells someone important news, they are meant to share it with those involved. This happens all throughout Moses’ interactions with both the Israelites and the Egyptians, and throughout the stories of the prophets, some of whom seem to be tasked almost exclusively with bringing news of an upcoming Divine punishment that will only be averted if the people cease acting wickedly. Perhaps the most famous instance of someone trying to avoid sharing God’s news with those involved is Jonah, who attempted to flee rather than inform the inhabitants of Nineveh that God would destroy them if they did not cease their wicked ways. While no explanation for Jonah’s actions is given in the text, Radal posits that Jonah was concerned that if the people of Nineveh did repent as God desired and thus God did not punish them, Jonah would be accused of prophesying falsely, and that people would assume that the reason no punishment came was not because of the people’s repentance but rather because God either did not exist or lacked the power to punishment, and as a result, God would be denigrated in the eyes of the people of the world.

It seems odd that someone who has spent a lifetime putting his faith in God’s promises would suddenly start to doubt them; so perhaps a mindset similar to Jonah’s can be ascribed to Abraham here. He had no problem preaching to the world about the existence of God when he could hold up a loaf of bread and say that it was God who was to thank for the existence of the bread, but when put in a position where he would have to prophesy this seemingly impossible conception, he was worried that should no child be conceived, people would start to doubt God’s power and Abraham would be undoing all of the work God had commanded him to do.

As a result of his doubts, Abraham did not tell Sarah about this news, so when she heard it now she too expressed her doubts. It is important to note that Sarah’s doubts were the very same doubts her husband expressed when he first heard the news, and like her husband, she is rebuked (in Gen. 18:15) both for her skepticism and her attempt to hide that skepticism.

Both husband and wife are now aware of the other’s skepticism of this prophecy, and yet they do indeed conceive a child together, showing that together they were willing to at least give God’s promise a chance. This is the lesson that we learn from Abraham and Sarah: it is not our job to worry about whether the fulfillment or lack thereof of God’s promises will make God look good. Our job is to do what is required of us for the fulfillment of those promises and have faith that God will deliver on the rest.

Commentary for Lech-Lecha

21 Nov

This week’s parshah begins with God’s famous commandment to Abraham to “go for yourself from your land, from your kinsman, from your father’s household, to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” There has been much commentary written on different aspects of this verse, dealing with things from the momentous step this was in the relationship between God and the Jewish People to the emotional bonds we form and the difficulty of leaving our family and the surroundings we know. Surprisingly little, however, has been written about what this meant for Abraham himself, there in that time.

We were introduced to Abraham at the end of last week’s parshah. His father was named Terach and he had two brothers, Nachor and Haran. We are also told that Haran died an early death in front of his father, and that afterwards Terach, Abraham, Nachor, and Haran’s son Lot left their home of Ur-kasdim. Attempting to ascertain why the seemingly extraneous details of Haran’s death and the fact that he died in front of his father are included in the Torah, Bereishit Rabbah follows up on Rashi’s well-known midrash that upon discovering that God is the One True God, Abraham smashed up the idols in his father’s idol shop with another midrash: Terach turned his son in to the authorities, and King Nimrod sentenced Abraham to be burned alive in a fiery furnace. Abraham managed to hide for thirteen years before he was finally caught. Abraham’s brother Haran was unsure whether to side with his brother or his father and his king, so he resolved that he would see what would happen when Abraham was thrown into the furnace: if he died then Haran would declare his support for the king’s point of view, and if Abraham miraculously survived then he would declare his support for Abraham’s new concept of monotheism. Abraham was thrown into the furnace, but God protected him and he emerged unscathed. Seeing this, Haran declared his support for Abraham, so Nimrod ordered that he, too, be thrown into the furnace, but because his support was conditional- as opposed to the full faith shown by Abraham- God did not protect Haran and he died there, in Ur-kasdim, in front of his own father, who felt responsible for his son’s death.

Because of this, Abraham’s family left Ur-kasdim to make a new life for themselves in the city of Charan. There Abraham married Sarah, and they preached monotheism, and as most interpretations of Gen. 12:5’s “the souls they had made in Charan” indicates, they were very successful at it, amassing many followers. Pirkei Avot 5:3 teaches that God tested Abraham’s faith and character ten times, most lists of which list destroying the idols in his father’s shop and walking into the fiery furnace, ready to martyr himself for God as the first two. After these two tests, the only person who ever considered adopting Abraham’s new idea- his own brother- is dead. And now God is commanding Abraham to go to this new land, to which he will surely be joined by his wife, his brother’s son Lot, and his many followers, putting them at risk of whatever dangers await Abraham in that place as well. After his brother’s death, this is surely weighing very heavily on Abraham’s conscience.

Abraham follows God’s command, and his wife and nephew and followers come with him, and soon after their arrival a famine hits the land. Gold commands them to go to Egypt, where Sarah is kidnapped. After that ordeal it is Lot who is taken prisoner, and Abraham must lead his followers into a war to rescue him. More and more tests ensure, but in each of them Abraham, his family, and his followers emerge unscathed because of their faith in God.

Interestingly, Gen. 12:1 can also be translated as “go for yourself… to the land so that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” What is God trying to show Abraham? That what happened to Haran is not an indication of what will happen to everyone who follows him. Abraham showed faith in God and so now God shows Abraham what he needs to see to regain some faith in himself. God teaches Abraham a lesson we can all benefit from: don’t let your past failures discourage you from future success.

Commentary for Noach

21 Nov

In this week’s parshah we read the story of Noah. When people think of this parshah, the first two numbers that often come mind are two (for the number of each animal and bird initially brought onto the ark) and forty (forty days and forty nights of rain, plus Noah waited an additional forty days after the water receded to the point where he could see mountaintops before sending out the raven), but the number that appears most often in the story is the number seven. In most of these instances, the number is referring to a seven-day period, which Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in his popular Shabbat hymn “Yom Shabbaton,” connects the final instance, in which Noah waits a week before sending the dove out for a third time and the dove does not return to the ark, to Shabbat (“on it the dove found rest”).

Following Rabbi Yehudah’s lead, the other occurrences of the number seven in the story of Noah can also be connected to aspects of Shabbat. The most straightforward and simple of these is Gen. 8:4, where we learn that “The ark came to rest in the seventh [month]. We cease journeying on Shabbat, and so did the ark and all of those in it. In Gen. 7:4 God tells Noah that the flood will start in seven days. The Etz Chayim chumash explains that, “presumably, this is the period of time needed for the future occupants of the ark to get aboard and be properly accommodated (p. 44).” In other words, they spend six days doing work and preparing for what was to come on the seventh day, just as we prepare for Shabbat during the week.

The fourth instance of the number seven is the seven-day period that Noah waits in between his initial sending out of the raven and dove (in which both returned empty-beaked and empty-clawed), and the second instance of sending out the dove. This is the famous moment where the dove returns to Noah with a fresh olive branch, indicating that fresh vegetation had begun to grow again.   Just as Noah received this sign that nature was being revitalized on Shabbat (it takes place seven days before the day that Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Shabbat so it, too must be Shabbat), our spirits are also revitalized via Shabbat.

While those four instances of the number seven connect to the more physical and spiritual aspects of Shabbat, the remaining instance connects to an aspect of Shabbat that is more psychological in nature. At first God only told Noah to collect two of each bird and animal. Then, in Gen. 7:2-3, God tells Noah to collect seven male-female pairs of each “pure” bird and animal. Many midrashim envision pre-flood human society as having been vegetarian. If that were the case than the prospect of a long flood would be extremely disturbing to Noah and his family because they knew that after a certain point their vegetables and fruits would go bad and they would have no way to replenish them. To assuage these fears, God lets them know that there are some animals that it is okay for them to eat, and that they should bring along extras of those so that their own need to survive doesn’t cause them to wipe out another species.

Many times on Shabbat we feel anxious. We worry that we are wasting a day that we could be working to earn extra money to sure up our financial situation, or we feel cut off form the outside world because we don’t know what’s going on because we can’t use the TV, radio, or internet to get the news. With this gesture, God reassured Noah’s family that their needs would be met during this time when they were cut off from their usual mode of living, and we can help settle our anxieties by understanding that that reassurance extends to us today. Shabbat is a day of rest for the body, the mind, and the spirit. It was so for the passengers in the ark and it can be for us as well if we are willing to let it.

21 Nov

This week we read the story of creation from the Torah, and later on during services we will hold the Torah for the announcement and blessing of the new month. The fourth day of creation is a fascinating one to examine in the Torah because it is so out of step with our modern conceptions of that which was created.

In Gen. 1:14 the purpose of the sun and moon is set forth as acting as markers for the passage of time. Today that purpose has mostly fallen by the wayside due to the advent of calendars and digital clocks. If we built a giant sphere around the Earth that could provide us with all of the heat and energy that the sun does, people would not start missing their appointments because they don’t know what time of day or day of the week it is. Today we only use the sun and moon for this in very limited terms. We think of the sun as the big bright thing in the sky during the day and the moon as the big shiny thing in the sky during the night, but unless we are calculating important Halachic times or dates, we rarely care about the position of the sun or the shape of the moon in the sky. This conception of the sun and the moon fits in more with Gen. 1:15, which, when read in the larger context of the fourth day of creation, comes across as more of a detail to allow the sun and moon to fulfill their purposes in 1:14 than it does as an actual purpose in and of itself.

Another interesting note to support this is that during the fourth day of creation, the sun and the moon are not referred to by those names at all. They are merely referred to as the “greater luminary” and the “lesser luminary.” The terms “sun” and “moon” only come about later. The use of these more familiar terms can be connected with the emergence of the worshipping of the sun and moon as idols. There is a midrash which explains how God had come to be “forgotten” in the world, with humans starting out by praising the sun and moon as key parts of God’s creation and slowly over time replacing the invisible God with the very visible celestial bodies whose effects they could see. Thus human forgetfulness and lack of searching for the greater truth perverted the sun and the moon from their proper purpose and made them instruments of idolatry.

Unsurprisingly, human forgetfulness and lack of desire to search for a greater truth often leads us to make the same mistake our ancestors did. Nowadays, however, it is not the sun and moon who we pervert by forgetting their purpose; it is ourselves. We are often told that we have been put here to live a “good life,” and that is true. The problem is that we often focus on making sure out life is materially good instead of morally and spiritually good. We must not allow ourselves to make the same mistakes our ancestors did. Just as a thorough examination of the fourth day of creation reveals the true purpose of the sun and the moon, so too will an honest and thorough examination of ourselves reveal our own true purpose.

Commentary for Simchat Torah

21 Nov

On Simchat Torah we read the end of the Torah, which coincides with the end of Moses’ life. The final chapter functions as a eulogy of sorts for Moses. We are told that his life’s work lives on in the form of Joshua being prepared to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and then that he died, that he was greatly missed by all of Israel, and finally we are given a few verses praising his greatness and his special place on our history.

 

The final three verses of the Torah read, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord had known face to face. As evidenced by all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land. And by all the great might and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deut. 34:10-12).”

 

At first glance, the final verse is a little troubling. Moses dies now, outside of the Promised Land because not being allowed to the Promised Land is his punishment for not following God’s instructions in Numbers 20:7-13, creating a situation where an observer could have come to the conclusion that it was Moses, not God, who had the power to bring forth water from a rock. While Deut 34:11 makes it clear that it is referring to wondrous acts that “the Lord sent him to perform,” 34:12 simply refers to other amazing displays of power that “Moses performed” without explicitly making clear that it was from God, not Moses, that the power truly came. How could it be that in God’s own eulogy of Moses, God makes the very same mistake Moses was punished for making?

 

God does not make mistakes, so therefore a new interpretation is needed. Rashi provides this interpretation, saying that we should take the verses at their face value. 34:12 is, indeed talking about actions that Moses took, but the statement is not blasphemous because it is referring to regular human things that Moses did without any help from God. Rashi equates “great might,” which in the Hebrew literally translates to “strong hand” as carrying the Two Tablets down Mount Sinai. They were made of stone, so they were very heavy, and yet Moses willed himself to carrying them down the mountain, showing his strength of will and his determination not to disrespect this holy gift from God by putting it down on the dirty ground for even a moment. This amount of respect for God and God’s gifts to us is an example we should all follow.

 

Rashi identifies the “awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israeli” as throwing those same onto the ground, shattering them, when he came down the mountain only to be greeted by the sight of the Israelites abandoning God and worshipping the golden calf instead. By throwing the tablets down, Moses showed the Israelites that this was an extremely grave matter and they all needed to immediately stop and listen to him. This is the final lesson we learn from Moses in the Torah: It does not matter how often a leader talks with God or how many great deeds a leader is credited with; a leader who cannot effectively communicate with and influence the actions of the people is no leader at all.

Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

21 Nov

Shemini Atzeret is probably the strangest of the Jewish holidays- and that is assuming that you take the position that it is even its own holiday at all as opposed to just the final day of Sukkot. Even its name is strange. While the “Shemini” part clearly translates to “eighth,” (as in the either “the eighth day of Sukkot” or “the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot), the “Atzeret” part is trickier. “Atzeret” can mean either “gathering” or “cessation.”

Despite the word never being used to describe it in the Torah, the Gemarah occasionally refers to Shavuot as a day of “Atzeret” as well. While this seems baffling at first, a closer examination reveals that these two holidays do share some quirky characteristics.   These are the only two holidays whose dates are not explicitly set forth in the Torah. While the Torah tells us that other holidays start “in the X month on the Y day,” these two holidays’ dates are deduced from the dates of other holidays. Shavuot is the day after the forty-ninth day after the first day of Passover, while Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot. Thus, both of these holidays can be seen as a cessation of counting. Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer, the seven-week period from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, during which it is a mitzvah to count each day. On Shemini Atzeret we cease counting not only the seven days of Sukkot necessary to deduce that today is the eight day- Shemini Atzeret, but also the seventy bulls sacrificed over the course of Sukkot (representing the other nations of the world, of which there are traditionally seventy). Shemini Atzeret completely breaks from the pattern of the sacrifices of Sukkot, which starts with thirteen on the first day and decreases by one on every successive day. By contrast, Shemini Atzeret has only one.

The bulls sacrificed on Sukkot are well known to many Jews nowadays not for their own mitzvah but for their inclusion in a debate recorded in the Gemarah (Shabbat 21b) about the proper way to light Chanukah candles. The school of Shamai says that we should light eight the first day, seven the second day and so on in accordance with the Sukkot sacrifices, which could not be performed at their proper time that year because the forces of Antiochus and their followers had rendered the Holy Temple impure. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, says that we should light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on, due to the general principle of ma’alin bekodesh [v’ein moridin]- “we go up in matters of holiness [and do not go down].” While this principle is fairly easy to apply to Shavuot (we finish counting the Omer, then celebrate receiving the Torah, going from one mitzvah to all of them), we seem to run into a b it of a snag trying to apply it to Shemini Atzeret, where we go from the many sacrifices of Sukkot to just one for Shemini Atzeret.

The answer to this problem lies in the “gathering” facets of these two holidays. On Shavuot, all of the Jews, past, present, and future, were gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The rabbis make much ado about the fact that every single person there accepted the Torah “as one voice (Ex. 24:3).” The reason that rabbis are so impressed with this is simply that they didn’t have to do so, but every last one of them still chose to do so.

Judaism applauds going above and beyond the call of duty, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about. Unlike Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, there is no obligation for every Jew to appear at the Holy Temple on Shemini Atzeret, and yet the Israelites would do so anyway. While the seventy bulls sacrificed on Sukkot represented the other nations of the world, the one sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret represented the Jewish People, who have chosen to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Noachide laws in order to be closer to God. In this way, on Shemini Atzeret, we are ma’alin bekodesh.

Combining these concepts, we can finally understand the name of Shemini Atzeret. The number seven in Judaism represents a sense of completeness. On Shavuot we have just finished the mitzvah of counting the Omer (seven weeks of seven days each) and now, as we begin an eighth week, we move on to something even bigger and better in accepting all of mitzvot in the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret we have finished the seven days of Sukkot with their seventy (7×10) obligatory sacrifices, and now, on the eighth day, we voluntarily gather together to oversee the performance of one more sacrifice to show our desire to go above and beyond the call of duty in service to God. On Shemini Atzeret we gather together to turn an end into a new beginning.