Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Archive for October, 2008

The Israel Ride Countdown – Four Days to Go

Posted by rabbiart on October 31, 2008

Everybody in the U.S. is counting down to Election Day, when one way or another things will quiet down. We’re counting down to that one (no reference intended), but we’re also counting down for when we leave for Israel. Can I say – motzei Election Day?  We fly out Tuesday night to EWR (aka the beautiful Newark airport) and then we take off for Israel at (scheduled departure) 3:50 PM Wednesday afternoon.

Right now my computer is running on Israel time as we fill up our calendar with appointments.  And I’m weaning myself off coffee/caffeine in preparation for the Jet Lag Diet Sunday thru Tuesday.  After watching Carol use the JLD and fly to several continents without any jet lag, I became a believe when we went to England for a wedding and she forgot to do it.  I had always thought it was a myth because Carol would sleep the whole flight while I fidgeted next to her.  So why would she be tired on arrival?  But on that trip she was jet lagged like a normal person!  Sometimes a counter-example is the most convincing.

I’m pounding on the last intense training because once we leave I won’t ride a bike for almost a week.  So I’ve got my bike inside on a trainer (thanks David Sherman!), and I’ve been pedaling like a crazy person.  Last night I did an hour straight, followed by a half hour with only a ten minute break in between. (You do NOT want to try this at home).

We just got our temporary Israel phones, which apparently will only work once we’re in Israel, because I set them side by side to try them out, and I could dial, but not receive.

Next up – piling up the clothes and gear, laying out everything in suitcases, and making sure I have the right tools to take my pedals off the bike and bring them with.  Are we excited? You betcha (ooh, those Palinism’s hurt) and I’m not winkin.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Leave a Comment »

This Week’s Word – הַתֵּבָה

Posted by rabbiart on October 30, 2008

This interpretation is inspired by a lecture given by Rabbi Akiva Tatz.  You can listen to the lecture – The Word, The Ark & The Tower yourself if you wish, and if you have about seventy five minutes to devote to it. I want to thank my good friend Chauncey Bell for turning me on to Rabbi Tatz.

Is our parshah simply a story of a man, a boat, and a flood?  Or does it have deeper significance? (You know the answer to that one!).  We start with the word usually translated as “ark” – תֵּבָה.  (teivah).    Teivah is also the word for the aron hakodesh in which we store the scrolls of the Torah. The Babylonian Talmud in speaking of the shaliach tzibur davening the Amidah, refers to him as going before the teivah. Teivah is also the word for “word.”  Finally, according to Rabbi Tatz, teivah can also be used to refer to the containers of the tefillin that hold the various parchments.  So in spite of its enormous size, there is more to the ark than meets the eye.

Noach is building a teivah. A teivah holds the Torah, or tefillin.  We pray in front of the teivah.  Teivah is also  “word”, particularly a word that has meaning and signficance.  How does HaShem create the world?  With words.

Now when we read that HaShem tells Noach to build a teivah, we begin to glimpse the deeper significance of the story. Add to what we have said so far the traditional teaching that the Torah is is HaShem’s blueprint for the creation of the world.  Noach is being invited to partner with HaShem in re-creating the world!  Talk about finding favor “in the eyes of the Lord”.(Breshit 6:8)  Or (Grateful Dead reference for Bob and Lori Jaffe) waking up to “find out that you are the eyes of the world”. (See full lyrics here and examine its relationship to the Parshah.)

Our word also figures mightily in the story of the Tower of Babel.  In Chapter 11 the whole world speaks one language and one speech. People have learned to make things.  Possessed of a technological impetus, they decide to build a tower to the heaven and make something, so they will not be scattered all over the earth.  What do they seek to make?  A Name. (As Rabbi Tatz likes to say in his lectures “you already see where I’m going here” (- except in this case, it’s where Rabbi Tatz goes in his lecture on this subject).

Who creates the world anew each day? HaShem -The Name! What is wrong with people seeking to build a tower and prevent dispersion?  Perhaps nothing.  What is wrong is to seek to usurp The Name with a Name.  Noach was invited to partner in creation with HaShem because Noach had found favor with HaShem.  These folks had not.

The Torah makes an interesting play on words, which comes out strongly when reading from the scroll itself, which is unvocalized. (stay with me here – another Tatz-ism).  In verse four the mob seeks to make for themselves a שֵׁם (sheim – name).  In verse seven HaShem responds by saying

הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ

“Therefore, I will descend and confuse there (שָׁם) their language, so they will not listen/here/understand each other’s language.” Does G-d punish the mob by confusing their language and scattering them?  That is certainly the pshat (simple meaning) of the text.  The deeper meaning is that the people of the mob are already confused.  They think they have a right to partner in doing the work of creation! But it’s not a right, its a privilege and an obligation, and only l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven), i.e. in alignment with HaShem’s plan and purposes, not – as the verse says – to get a name for themselves.

The story of the tower is a story of an almost good idea gone bad.  The mob wanted to make a great name, they simply chose the wrong name to make great.  They tried to add the glory of G-d’s name to theirs. They should have directed their efforts to adding to the glory of G-d’s name.  As we say in the Kaddish, to magnify and sanctify HaShem’s Great Name.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Who is Noah?

Posted by rabbiart on October 29, 2008

Like any good cliff-hanger, the Torah leaves us in suspense at the end of Parshat Breshit with HaShem intending to blot out not only the humans, but also the animals HaShem had made. We read the astonishing statement that HaShem has regrets and – perhaps – no longer sees his creation as tov!

וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ; וַיִּתְעַצֵּב, אֶל-לִבּוֹ.

HaShem regretted that He had made man on/with the earth; he was saddened in his heart

Breshit 6:6

We are left wondering will HaShem really destroy all of his own creation. But suddenly – in the final verse – a new character appears who may save the day.
“וְנֹחַ, מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה Noah found grace in the eyes of HaShem.” Who is this man called Noah?

Our parshah (one of the six in the Torah named for an individual) opens with this equivocal statement.
אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a tzadik, tamim in his generations; with Elokim walked Noah.”

Rashi reminds us that our ancient interpreters saw two meanings in the strange construction of this verse. One interpretation is that Noah was righteous in his generation, and if the rest of the people of his generation were righteous, Noah would have been even more righteous. The other interpretation is that Noah was only righteous compared to the other people of his generation. Had he lived in the time of more righteous generations – in particular the generation of Avraham Avinu, he would not have been considered righteous. The latter interpretation is supported by the opening verse of the next chapter.

One of the two words describing Noah is also applied to Jacob, whom the Torah describes as an ish tam; a simple or quiet man. But Noah and Jacob are two different individuals. At every opportunity Jacob questions HaShem and proposes to make deals with HaShem. Noah is given a commandment that must have been incomprehensible, and without question he obeys.

“These are the generations (in the plural) of Noah”. Noah was “… whole-hearted in his generations (again in the plural).” Perhaps this is the secret key to intepreting the verse, and understanding the character of Noah.

In my eighth grade English class (lo, these many moons ago) we were given an assignment about Ben Franklin. We had to decide whether Franklin’s inventive genious was specific to his time, or whether, had he lived in our time, he would still have created many inventions. As a twelve year old, I thought that Franklin was a creature of his time, and would not have been a successful inventor in the mid-twentieth century. Now I believe that his personal qualities would have transcended his time and place.

When I read of Noah rising to the occasion, especially after getting a sense of how ridiculous this whole endeavor must have seemed to him (see previous post and go listen to Cosby), I see Noah as a whole-hearted righteous man – for any generation! Against the flood of destructive behavior, Noah was willing to stand alone.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Israel Ride Gets Closer!

Posted by rabbiart on October 26, 2008

Well, another Sunday, another day of girding up my loins (as Bridge expert Charles Goren used to say when suggesting a boldly aggressive bid or play) asking people to donate.  How fun!…not.

More fun is that the official “arrival packet” has arrived.

I’ve made contact with Barry and Arza Churchman, USY advisors extraordinaire that I haven’t seen since December of 1968 when I crashed the International USY Convention in Chicago and got caught by Barry.

Friend and Israel Ride donator Josh Burton will be in Israel at the same time so we can have a story about traveling some 8000 miles and seeing someone we davened with yesterday!

We’re going to Petra the day after the ride ends. We’ve been waiting to do this for at least a dozen years.

About $2100 raised, and $1500 to go…. and 300 miles to ride.

Posted in Israel Bike Ride | Leave a Comment »

Studying Parshat Noah

Posted by rabbiart on October 26, 2008

Is there any better way to start the new week, and the study of the next Parshah, with the best midrash about Noah ever created?  (with apologies to all our sages) Right! Here’s Bill Cosby’s midrash on Noah.

Could Noah have been any more incredulous in the actual event than the reaction that Cosby gives us?   At the end of Parshat Breshit we learn simply that
נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ. Noah was a tzadik, tamim in his time, walking with himself with Elohim because he found grace with Hashem.

At the beginning of our Parshah, Noah is given an explanation (verse 13), a set of marching orders (verses 14-16 and 19-21), and a promise (verses 17-18).The Torah then reports (verse 22) that Noah did as HaShem commanded him.  The wording of that verse seems to speak to our amazement that Noah would react as he did.

וַיַּעַשׂ, נֹחַ:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ, אֱלֹהִים–כֵּן עָשָׂה

Thus did Noah; according to all that Elohim commanded him, so did he.

It is as if the Torah anticipates the reaction of the reader. First the Torah proclaims that Noah did as Elohim commanded him, then seems to pause for our reaction of disbelief and then responds by saying, in answer to our amazement — yes, he did!  Noah did as HaShem commanded him.

Given the First Couple’s failure to obey the commandment given them, was HaShem perhaps also amazed at Noah’s complete responsiveness, which is underscored in the next chapter as well (Breshit 7:5). Does human behavior surprise HaShem? Is this possible?

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Studying Breshit – Tov and Lo Tov

Posted by rabbiart on October 24, 2008

Consider the two Hebrew words טוֹב (tov) and רָע (ra). Now try to forget what’s in your brain about how these words are usually translated.  OK, try harder <grin>.  Now remember that Biblical language often uses a pair of “opposite” words to express a complete range of qualities. For example אוֹר (or – light) and חֹשֶׁךְ (hoshekh – dark). In the fourth verse of the Torah, HaShem divides or from hoshekh. So we get light, darkness, and all the accompanying shades of grey.  Perhaps HaShem (or physicists, not to equate the two), can tell exactly when light becomes darkness, but for humans, the passing of day into night and night into day is a gradual process, at times almost indiscernable.  Watch a sunrise and try to pinpoint exactly when night has turned to day.*

On the first day HaShem creates light and looks at it, and sees (decides?) that it is tov.

On the second day HaShem organizes the waters above and below a רָקִיעַ(rakiya – firmament). HaShem calls the rakiya by the word שָׁמָיִם (shamayim – heaven, or sky, depending on context).  The judgement of tov is conspicuously absent.

On the third day HaShem organizes the waters under the rakiya so that the dry land appears. Hashem calls the dry land אֶרֶץ (eretz – land, and perhaps not accidentally, when we say eretz in certain contexts, we are referring to eretz yisrael – the land of Israel). HaShem sees that the eretz is tov.

On the fourth day HaShem creates specific lights and sees that this is tov.

On the fifth day HaShem creates all the animals and sees that this is tov.

On the sixth day HaShem creates humankind in HaShem’s image and in both sexes, and reviews all of creation and with a different phrase וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד (v’henai tov me’od – behold it is very tov) the creation is pronounced as very tov.

The judgement of “very tov” on the sixth day is noticeably different from the judgement of the other four days.  The first four times, HaShem sees/decides that an aspect of creation is tov. It is as if to say that something is tov only if HaShem says it is.  On the sixth day after the creation of humankind, tov seems to have taken on an existence of its own.  HaShem sees everything that HaShem has done, and “behold, it is very tov.”  The quality of tov is no longer exclusively HaShem’s to judge and proclaim, and this itself is very tov.

The partnership between HaShem and humankind has begun…

An attempt to reach a different and most likely midrashic definition of tov and ra.

In the second chapter – usually understood to be an alternate story of the creation of humankind – HaShem sees that the condition of loneliness is not tov לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ (it is not tov for the man to be alone). See verse 18.

Now we are in a position to attempt a definition of these two words – tov and ra – that does not simply translate them into allegedly corresponding English words.  The “opposite” of tov is the absence of tov, or “not tov“.  Ra is therefore also the absence of tov.

What is not tov? Loneliness. Empty spaces in our heart.

What is tov? From the evidence of the creation story we learn…  Light is tov. Dry land is tov. Being able to see, even at night, is tov?. The existence of all living creatures is tov. And on the sixth day, the fullness of creation is very tov. In spiritual or emotional terms, togetherness, cooperation, being in alignment with each other are all tov.

Echoing Rashi, we can ask, what is the purpose of the creation story?  To tell us what our purpose is.  What is our purpose?  To be tov and to partner with HaShem in creating tov, and filling the empty spaces in our hearts and in the world, with tov.

Shabbat Shalom

*Talmud Berachot deals with this exact question when establishing the earliest permissable moment for saying the morning shema.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Studying Breshit – Why start with creation?

Posted by rabbiart on October 24, 2008

Rashi asks – Why does the Torah begin with the creation story?

Rashi opens his commentary by asking why the Torah does not begin with the first commandment given to the Israelite people as a people. This commandment is given in Shemot 12:2. The verses there describe the setting aside and later eating of the Pascal lamb.  He rules out other commandments found in Breshit that apply to the Jewish people by saying that they could have been included with laws in the Torah that come after Shemot 12.

Why does Rashi propose to rule out – so to speak – everything in the Torah before Shemot 12:2 and then include it back in?  The purpose of the creation story is to establish that the earth belongs to its Creator.  The Creator owns the earth and can assign portions of it as the Creator wishes. Specifically, the Creator at one point gave it to the seven nations who occupied it before the Israelites came back from Egypt.  The Creator can choose to take that land away from the seven nations and give it to Israel.  Therefore, in Rashi’s thinking, the Jewish people have a defence to any accusation that it is not entitled to the land of Israel.  Sovereign rights in any part of the earth belong to the Creator, and it is the Creator’s right to parcel it out as the Creator desires.

Rashi’s argument is compelling — to Rashi!  And to anyone who stands “inside the circle” with Rashi.  I suspect it wouldn’t work too well in the U.N. General Assembly, l’havdil.

Rashi’s argument suggests two points of departure, or orientations, for studying Torah; creation of the world, and creation of the Jewish people.  The Torah tells both a universal and a particular story.  But it is not as simple as reading Breshit as the universal story and the latter four books as only the story of the Jewish* people.  A good number of the mitzvot given in the latter four books serve to heighten Jewish sensibilities toward all people, not only Jews.  After all, we are constantly reminded to take care for the ger** – stranger among us. (Here’s an example)

As a Jew, I might say that I am twice-created; once as a physical entity (the creation story), and once as a sentient and spiritual being (a member of the community who escaped from Egypt and accepted the covenant).

*I’m using the term “Jew” even though that particular label does not come into the language until much later in the Biblical period.

**The term “ger” eventually came to mean a person who voluntarily becomes Jewish, or who is on the way to becoming jewish. IMHO, the original meaning is the stranger or non-Jew.  We are told to remember that we were gerim (strangers) in Egypt.  Certainly we were not voluntary Egyptians, or on the road to becoming Egyptians.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Leave a Comment »

An Important Milestone for the Israel Ride

Posted by rabbiart on October 22, 2008

Thanks to everyone who has donated so far, and especially thanks to some donations in the last week, I’ve now crossed the $2000 threshold on my way to the minimum of $3600.

As the calendar moves, its now less than two weeks until we leave for Israel, and three weeks from today the bike ride actually begins!

Posted in Israel Bike Ride | Leave a Comment »

Studying Breshit – Just One Letter

Posted by rabbiart on October 20, 2008

My friend and “brother” Warren Gould knows I like to say that my definition of an ideal session of Torah study concentrating on only the first letter of the passage. This is entirely possible when reading Parshat Breshit. Many, many midrashim have been built on the first letter of the Torah, which is of course the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew aleph bet.

I learned this interpretation from Bedibur Echad (see previous post). That the Torah begins with the letter bet signals that the unity of creation is made of two worlds within it; worlds that are – to an extent – in competition with each other.  The author comments on the names of the two sons of Adam.  The elder is name קַיִן (Cain) and the younger is named הָבֶל  (Abel).  The root meaning of Cain is the word קונה (Koneh – to acquire or purchase). This is underscored in Breshit 4:1, where the text makes sure to give the meaning, as Eve says  קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה (I have acquired a male person through HaShem). The author translates הָבֶל (havel) as breath. In Talmudic literature havel is a word for breath and breathing.  So Cain represents the physical world and Abel represents the spiritual world. What we might learn from this?

The physical world must by nature precede, and be a pre-condition for, the spiritual world.  Too much emphasis on the physical will distract us from, or even defeat, the spiritual side of our beings.

This is probably something that we instinctively “know”, but it is interesting to see it brought out through the study of the text.

דבר אחר (Davar Acher aka A Different Interpretation).  The letter bet also functions grammatically to indicate that something is used as an instrument.  For example the phrase “I write with a pencil” can be written asאני  כותב בעפרון.  Using this grammar to interpret the first word of the Torah, (whether technically correct or not) we could say that HaShem created the world with “a beginning”.  Or perhaps, since in רֵאשִׁית (reshit) we also see the word for “head”, we might say that HaShem created the world with HaShem’s head, or with a specific purpose in mind. Renita Weems (in Genesis: A Living Conversation, p. 7) comments “I’ve always thought “It was good” meant “It works. It has purpose… something that is ‘good’ works. It fulfills the purpose for which it was created.”

As I’m sure the reader knows, the letter bet has the numerical value of two, as if to signal that there will be two stories of how (and why?) the world is created. And of course, the creation is not complete until two people have been created.  We might also say that two worlds are created.  There is the physical world of six days of work, and the spiritual world of the seventh day – Shabbat.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Leave a Comment »

Studying Breshit – who is obligated to have children?

Posted by rabbiart on October 19, 2008

This coming Tuesday night we of course complete the Torah and begin the Torah again, and on Shabbat we read Parshat Breshit.  As they say in show business, everything old is new again.  What show did that first appear in?  Does anybody know?

Studying Breshit is at the same time easy and challenging.  Plenty of good provocative material, but what can one say that hasn’t already been said?  Inspired by Beth Sirull’s mention of making a list of reading material in preparing for a drash, here’s what I’m reading as I study Breshit.

  • Martin Buber — On the Bible (in translation of course). In particular his chpater on The Tree of Knowledge
  • Asher Ben-Zion Buchman — Bedibur Echod: Thoughts on the unity of the weekly sidrah by
  • Bill Moyers — Genesis: A Living Conversation
  • Elliot Dorff — Knowing God:Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable (just the section on Creation pp. 61-66)

Of course I always check Sefer HaHinuch (The Book of Education) for mitzvot in the parshah. Always a good place to start; there is one mitzvah in Parshat Breshit; to “be fruitful and multiply”.  Right off the bat we are confronted with distinctions between men and women.  According to the author, quoting a R. Meir of Dvinsk “It is not unlikely that the Torah freed the woman from the religious obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” and imposed it only on the man, because… the woman endangers her life in pregnancy and childbirth [and hence it could not be made her religious duty]”  On the other hand, he says “But only for the preservation of the species did HaShem so form her nature that her yearning to have children is stronger than the man’s.

Here’s a good opportunity to wrestle with the Torah and with the tradition that interprets it.  IF we were to say that childbirth is no longer dangerous (true in many countries of the “developed world”), THEN we could say that there is no reason to exempt women from this obligation.  Of course, we could always go with the undeniable fact that it is women who bear the major role of pregnancy, childbirth, and even to this day, child-raising.  So how could this mitzvah not apply equally to both men and women?

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: | 1 Comment »