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Archive for November, 2009

Parshat VaYetze – Dream a little dream of ….

Posted by rabbiart on November 26, 2009

On the second day of creation HaShem creates a rakyia (usually translated ‘firmament’) that separates the upper waters from the lower waters.  The rakiya is called shamayim (‘sky’ in the physical sense, ‘heaven’ in the religious sense).  This is the only act of creation and naming that takes place on the second day.  This day is the only day which HaShem does not see as “good.”

If HaShem can be said to reside anywhere, it is above the shamayim in a place where humans cannot reach.

After starting his own lech-licha journey, Yakov stops in “a place”.  The Hebrew is  וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם (usually translated as “he lighted” or “he stayed” in a place.  The word paga can also mean wounded, injured, or afflicted, and surely Yakov is all of those, even if his wounds are self-inflicted.

About this place Rashi comments that it is Mount Moriah, where Yakov’s grandfather had almost sacrificed/killed Yakov’s father.   It is at Mount Moriah that we see one of the last creatures made during the first week of creation; the ram which is created in the moment between the end of the sixth day and the beginning of the first Shabbat.

Rashi  – quoting from Midrash and Talmud – also points out that the wording of our verse is  unusual.  He says that the verse should have said that the sun set, so Yakov stayed in that place.  Whether simply a pretext for the comment or not, the point is that it is not accidental that Yakov spends the night in this particular place.  It is as if only in this place do heaven and earth meet; where perhaps the rakiya does not completely separate the domain of HaShem from the earthly domain of humankind.

Yakov dreams – as we know – of a very unusual ladder on which messenger/angels ascend and descend. The ladder reaches toward the heavens. After Yakov’s dream of a visitation from HaShem, he awakes and proclaims (in translation) “Surely HaShem is in this place, and I did not know this.”  Yakov recognizes the place as a gateway to the heavens.

Three verses later Yakov has reverted to his deal-making negotiating self.  If HaShem will be with him, and guard him, and feed him, and if he returns peacefully to his ancentral home, then he will accept HaShem as his god and then he will act as a believer.

It is painfully easy and tempting to slam Yakov for his deceitful behavior and his conditional (at best) acceptance of HaShem’s promise and presence in his life.  But if we reflect on our own lives, we are likely to see ourselves in Yakov.  It is the rare person who does set conditions and make deals.  It is even more rare (but how fortunate) to have a constant and steadfast belief in and sense of HaShem’s presence in our lives.

For most of us (or should I just say – for me!) a clear  sense of G-d’s presences is infrequent and transitory.  There are moments when we an see, like Yakov, “surely G-d is in this place”, but there are many more moments when we are in a state of  “I knew it not.”

On the pshat level this story is simply about a wounded man fleeing his misdeeds who has a powerful dream and a moment of enlightenment.  But at a deeper level, Yakov’s story is one that we all share, and it delivers a reassuring message.   Verse 16 comes to tell us, that whether we know it not – HaShem is in “this place.”  And the place where we are, wherever it is, can be the gateway to heaven.

Why is the usual proclamation of creation – HaShem saw that it was good – missing from the second day?  Because the second day marks the =separation of G-d and humankind.  In HaShem’s regarding of the design, this separation is necessary – but it is not good.

Yakov’s dream reflects Hashem’s desire for humankind; that we dream of a ladder to climb, that unites and cements our partnership with HaShem in creating and finishing our world.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Vayetze – Jacob Left

Posted by rabbiart on November 25, 2009

Our parshah begins with a simple six word verse that seems to merely set the scene for what is to follow.

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה

Yakov exited from Be’er Sheva and headed toward Haran.

The Hebrew word vayetze is simple in meaning; “he went out.” When we think about the story that comes before it immediately takes on a variety of shadings and meanings.

Yakov exited.  He exited his relationship with his brother.  After seducing his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of soup and stealing his rightful death-bed blessing, he has abandoned any relationship with his brother.  He will not even see his brother for twenty years, but he will carry with him a burden of guilt and a palpable fear of what his brother would do to him.  Perhaps he knows of Esav’s vow to kill him as soon as the mourning period for his father is over.

וַיֵּצֵא Yakov exited. He exited his relationship with his father. Yitzhak, we are told by the text, had always favored Esav. After realizing how Yakov had deceived him, could he have felt any love for him?  This relationship too was damaged, if not completely destroyed.

וַיֵּצֵא Yakov exited. He exited his relationship with his mother. He had done what his mother told him to do.  She had said she accepted the responsibility; that the curse be upon her. He had always been a mama’s boy, but now he would have to become a man.

וַיֵּצֵא Yakov leaves his family behind him.  He is estranged from his father, his mother and his brother. He is not just leaving a geographical location called Be’ersheva; he is leaving the life that he has known behind him.

מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע
Avraham dug wells in Be’ersheva, had a dispute and resolved it. Yitzhak dug the same wells that his father dug before him, and called them by the same names his father had called them.  (The Philipstines had stopped up the wells in the interim).  Yakov will not dig the wells of his father and his grandfather. He is estranged from his family history and traditions.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה
Where does Yakov head? Toward Haran. This too is a powerful reminder from the text of the
loneliness of Yakov.  When his grandfather gathered his family and went toward Haran he was leaving his native land, his birthplace and his familial home.

This seemingly simple and straightforward verse that looks like it is nothing more than a restatement of “where we were before commercial break” is meant to tell us something about the heart of Yakov’s existential
condition. Yakov is a man who  is all alone in the most fundamental part of his being. If he is to go anywhere at all, he can only go upward from this point.

So of course this wounded and broken man dreams of a ladder that reaches into the heavens. In this the Torah gives us a powerful message; in the moment of our hitting rock-bottom, it is not only the case that we have nowhere to go but up; rather – the Torah tells us – we will go up; all we have to do is get on the first rung of the ladder.

Iin the story of the ladder Yakov quickly finds a deeper and more fundamental truth; he is not alone.  We are not alone; rather HaShem is with us, waiting for us to begin our own ascent. And… if we do, HaShem will send messenger angels to help and accompany us.

Shabbat Shalom

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Arava Institute Israel Bike Ride – I’m over 10% of my goal !

Posted by rabbiart on November 24, 2009

I want to take a moment and thank my early contributors whom you see listed on the left. Thanks to their help I am over 10% of my goal of raising $5,000 for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.  We’re big fans of SYTYCD (don’t worry if you don’t know what that is), so I have to do my text-based Mary Murphy imitation and say Whooooooooooooooh!

Now… if some of the friends thinking about joining me on the ride will just decide to get on the  Israel Bike Ride version of the Hot Tamale Train (yet another Mary Murphy reference).

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Mitzvah Milers Go To Israel for the Israel Ride 2010

Posted by rabbiart on November 19, 2009

Withe the permission of Captain Dan Siegel, we are naming our Israel Bike Ride team the “Mitzvah Milers.”The Mitzvah Milers  team was formed by Dan and has ridden together to raise money for a cure for Multiple Sclerosis for almost a decade. You can help us get off to a quick start in our fund raising for the Arava Institute by making a donation to the Mitzvah Milers – Israel Bike Ride team right now. Fred and I – and the members that will soon be joining – hope that you will.


L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim – on wheels!

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Aleh Toldot Yitzhak Now the Jewish story begins #Torah

Posted by rabbiart on November 18, 2009

Torah students everywhere know that (how many? can you name them?) a small handful of parshiot are named after individuals. Last Shabbat was one of these – chayei Sarah. This week we read toldot. It opens with these words –  וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק    – but it quickly moves on to the story of Jacob and Esau.  Yitzhak gets almost no respect.  Pinchas gets a parshah named for him, Balak gets a parshah named for him. Even Korach gets a parshah named for him?Why not Yitzhak? About all we can say is that neither his  famous father nor his famous son get a parshah name. Given he seems to be a pale shadow of either one, it doesn’t seem that unfair. Who is Yitzhak and what is his role in the founding of our people?  It is in his generation that the uniquely Jewish story begins to unfold


Yitzhak and Yishma’el are both on the receiving end of some brutal treatment by their father, and they go their separate ways.  The half-brothers are joined together  again only when they reunite to bury him in the double cave of Machpelah, and the text is at pains to mention that they are – still – the sons of Abraham.

וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל, בָּנָיו, אֶל-מְעָרַת, הַמַּכְפֵּלָה

Yitzhak and Yishma’el, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah

Immediately afterward, the Torah gives us a geneology of Yishmael, followed by its resumption of Yitzhak’s story.  Unless we believe that the Torah thinks we don’t know who these men are, it is clear that they are specifically associated with their father Abraham in order to teach us something. In verse 12 we read  וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם  (these are the generations of Yishma’el, son of Avraham) and in verse 19 we read וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם   (these are the generations of Yitzhak, son of Avraham).

The brothers are equal in relationship to their father, but not equal in their treatment by the text, for in verse 11 we read that – after Avraham’s death- HaShem blessed Yitzhak his son. Nothing is said about blessings for Yishma’el.

Until the opening of our parshah (or, if you prefer, the last aliyah of chayei Sarah), the Torah’s story is “universal”.  Everyone is still part of the same family, even if only at funerals. We probably all know families like this; estranged but not separated, meeting at funerals and saying “we should be together in happier times.” But sadly, never carrying through this vague thought, or perhaps never meaning it at all; merely finding something to say at an awkward moment.

From this point forward in the Torah, the line of Yishma’el is a story that can only be separately told, because this is now “the story of Yitzhak”.  One brother is in, and one brother is out.

As if to be sure we understand what is happening, the Torah moves in the short space of a single aliyah (full reading version) to the next pair of brothers who will separate. The quarrel begins over soup and will explode into a fight over Yitzhak’s death-bed blessing.  The second brother is banished from the family, off to create a legacy of his own. He departs in hate and with a promise to kill his brother as soon as the mourning period is over.  Once again, one brother is in, and the other brother is out. The story of our people seems to be getting off to a problematic and troubling start.

All drashot, and all drasha-makers, look to see what we should learn from the parasha. This parsha is challenging, with its tales of brothers quarreling, and with “the Jewish brother” behaving in a rather deceitful and despicable manner.  Certainly the Torah does not intend for us to learn that we should lie and cheat in the service of our people!  That would be unthinkable.

Like all parshiot, the story resonates with the events we live out in our own lives. The unfortunate quarrel between the descendants of Yitzhak and the descendants of Yishma’el are very present in our time, and as distressing to consider as it is to read of Yakov purchasing birth-right and stealing blessing.

Because we reread the Torah each year, we know how this particular brotherly conflict turns out, even though the re-meeting of the brothers will not happen until two Shabbatot hence.  But when we arrive at that point in the story, we see a humbled and apologetic (though fearful) Yakov and a generous and forgiving Esav.

Perhaps the teaching of this parshah is simply that while conflict and in-fighting occur, there is always the hope for for forgiveness and reconciliation.  For has not HaShem created enough blessing for all the world to share? We should only be blessed to live long enough to witness peace and harmony between brothers being lifted up off the parchment of Torah, and brought powerfully and completely into our lives, speedily and in our day – bimherah ubiyamenu. Amen

Shabbat Shalom


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Israel Bike Ride 2010 – Welcome Fred Passman

Posted by rabbiart on November 18, 2009

Fred has registered.. Whooooooooh!

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Israel Bike Ride 2010 for the Arava Institute

Posted by rabbiart on November 18, 2009

In Israel Bike Ride related news, I’m now registered, recruiting and raising money. (Did it, invented a “3R”s for this trip). We are forming a team that stretches from coast to coast – seriously. We have three “committed but not yet registered” and three more “interested.” If you would like to support me, just click right here to support Art for the Hazon-Arava Institute Israel Bike Ride 2010. Bringing peace to the Middle East one spoke at a time!

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Rosh Hodesh – Does HaShem Sin!?! Really! #Torah

Posted by rabbiart on November 14, 2009

The first commandment given to the community of Israel is to observe Rosh Hodesh. Unlike the festival holidays, no specific reason is given for this observance. Rashi opens his commentary on the Torah by asking why the Torah does not begin with this verse, since the Torah appears to be given for the purpose of articulating the mitzvot. (Rashi is actually setting up a straw man which he then proceeds to demolish, but that’s a different conversation.)Why is observing Rosh Hodesh the first communal commandment? Could it be possible that HaShem sinned in connection with Rosh Hodesh? Is it heretical to even ask such a question? Do we not read elsewhere that “the Rock is perfect in all his works, and all his pathways truth”?Answers to follow, but first this non commercial message. If you haven’t heard of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies go check it out and watch this video. I’ll wait.Inspired? I hope so. Please think about supporting this wonderful institution, and now, back to the drash. Traditionally – Rosh Hodesh is understood to be a day of human renewal, just as it marks the observance that the moon has started to renew itself after its disappearance at the end of the prior month. In fact, the Jewish month begins precisely at the moment when the moon begins its new cycle; while it is yet not visible to the human eye.


The Torah mandates that a sin offering be brought on Rosh Hodesh. BaMidbar 28:11-15 describes the offerings for Rosh Hodesh, concluding in verse 15 by specifying that “one male goat shall be brought for a sin-offering l’adoshem along with the continual burn-offering and the drink offering.

וּשְׂעִיר עִזִּים אֶחָד לְחַטָּאת, לַיהוָה, עַל-עֹלַת הַתָּמִיד יֵעָשֶׂה, וְנִסְכּוֹ.

The word l’adoshem does not appear in connection with other sin-offerings on other festive holidays, giving license to midrash makers and kabbalists to read that this sacrifice is not made to HaShem, but by HaShem. A radical notion to be sure.

This startling interpretation has its basis in Talmud. On Hullin 60b we find a discussion of the sun and moon which begins with an exposition of Breshit 1:16. According to R. Shimon ben Pazzi the moon and sun were created at the same size, whereupon the moon pointed out to the Creator that “two kings cannot wear one crown.” The KBH responded by commanding the moon to make itself smaller. The moon’s feelings were hurt, and the moon was inconsolable, so the KBH finally said “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” Resh Lakish sums up the discussion by saying “Why is it that the male goat offered on Rosh Hodesh has the additional phrase l’adoshem? Because the Kadosh Baruch Hu said – Let this male goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller!”


R. Avi Chermon points out that the Gemarah passage should not be taken literally.

He in turn learns this from Rav Kook. HaShem created a world in which it is possible to sin. Often this is understood to be a natural consequence of free will, but in this case, it has a different purpose. Quoting from another great rabbinic teacher – the Ramchal – “Hashem’s wisdom decreed that in order for the good to be complete, HaShem wanted the one who benefits to be the master of his good. One must acquire the good on his own, not through an external means.”The world is full of both destruction and creation (hmmm… sounds like capitalism a bit). Both can be part of the kedusha that is inherent in HaShem’s design of the world. When Moshe destroys the first set of tablets, he makes it possible for Israel to “earn” the commandments.

So when the Gemara says that HaShem asks for an atonement for making the moon smaller, HaShem is really saying that HaShem has deliberately created a world in which sin is possible, because atonement for sin repairs and completes the world – tikkun olam. In this reading, HaShem has created a world in which the destructive impulse can be harnessed for creation and construction.

Our role is both to sin – because we are human and fallible – and then to atone. This is the way HaShem has designed for us to partner in the works of creation.

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The Life of Sarah – and what a life it was #Torah

Posted by rabbiart on November 13, 2009

Consider the journey of Sarah. We meet her for the first time when Avraham’s father takes the family out of Haran, intending to go to Canaan, but settling in Haran. Having gotten the family that far, her father-in-law dies, never to reach Canaan.Having settled with the family in Haran, she is uprooted again, this time by her husband, who hears and responds to a strange and mysterious voice who invites Avraham on a journey to a far off unknown place; a place that – the voice says – “I will show you”.


We often focus on Avraham and wrestle with the times when he argued with HaShem and the times that he stayed silent.  Notice that we hear nary a word of complaint from Sarah when she is uprooted not once but twice.

What do we know about Sarah? Apparently, she was quite beautiful in her physical appearance. When we consider the not once but twice episodes where Avraham has her masquerade as his sister rather than his wife, we might wonder if, had Sports Illustrated been around at that time, she might have been the first Jewish woman to make the front cover of the dreaded Swimsuit Edition.

The Torah – and our tradition – places little emphasis on physical beauty, preferring to put the focus on – and value – inner, might we say spiritual, perfection. Here the life of Sarah begins to get more complicated.

The Torah chooses to be a bit mysterious about what when on when Sarah was “taken into Pharoah’s house.

וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה, וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.

The Pharoah’s officers saw her, and praised her to Pharoah, so she was taken into Pharoah’s house.

All we know was that Avraham did pretty well as a result, and HaShem punished Pharoah on account of Sarah, because she was in fact Avraham’s wife.

Sarah is barren, unable to conceive, so she performs an act of great selflessness, which she quickly comes to regret.  Once Hagar produces a son for Avraham, Sarah treats her ever more harshly, ultimately demanding that mother-and-child be exiled from the family. She blames her husband for the problem.

Finally, Avraham is promised by HaShem that Sarah will bear him a son. When she hears the news for herself she laughs! Or maybe she rejoices. Or gets playful – in a good way. Whatever, a woman barren all her life, well into menapause, has a child. As the child starts to grow, Sarah acts as any fierce mother might, protecting her child, banishing his rival.

Yet when father takes son off on a journey of sacrifice, Sarah is once more silent. As Avraham and Isaac walk off, she must be thinking that she will never again see her son.  But…she is silent.  And the next thing we know…she is dead.

The midrash on our parsha’s opening verse is so familiar the reader has probably been waiting for it to show up. Rashi’s version (Breshit Rabbah is not available on line as far as I know) is here. The claim is made that even when Sarah was one hundred years old she was without sin.  Perhaps the midrash is carefully sliding over the last twenty seven years of her life, when – most likely – the incidents of Hagar and the binding of Isaac occurred.

The midrash also has it that Sarah died at the very moment Isaac was saved.  A life for a life as it were.  Perhaps this is where Sarah’s inner beauty is revealed, at least in a midrashic reasoning-backward kind of way.  We might ask Sarah if we could, or we might ask any mother “would you give your life to save your child”. I think we are safe in deciding we know what the answer would be.  Surely she would have said to HaShem “take me but spare my child.”

Here (if the reader is with me so far on this) is the spiritual perfection of Sarah that we might emulate any way we can – putting the interests of others ahead of our own. Not to the point of death except for those closest to us, but in significant ways that matter.

Would that make the world we live in more conforming to HaShem’s plan in creating it?  Yes.  It would. May we learn from this parshah to emulate the most perfect part of Sarah’s beauty, and by doing so, make our contribution to Tikkun Olam – the perfecting of the world.

Shabbat Shalom

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Time Out for Hope in the Middle East

Posted by rabbiart on November 13, 2009

In honor of “Hug a Jew Day” this video on the Arava Institute, where Jews, Moslems, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and even some North Americans study together and form lasting friendships.  Watch this video and you’ll have a good Shabbes, and want to hug everybody.  Really.  If it makes you think about joining me in Israel Octboer 2010 for a five day bike ride in support of the Arava Institute, so much the better.

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