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Archive for November, 2014

Parshat VaYishlach: Dina – From afterthought to central character

Posted by rabbiart on November 29, 2014

This Shabbat that just passed I had the honor of reading Rev’ii, the fourth aliya.  In this aliya we are in the middle of birthing.   Zilpah, Bilhah and Leah are popping out sons at an average of about one every three verses. Each birth is accompanied by a naming, and an explanation of the name.  Once we get to Rev’ii the action slows down a bit, as Reuven goes out into the fields to collect some  דוּדָאִים (du’da’im), (usually translated as mandrakes). After some negotiation over the mandrakes, resolved by deciding that Leah will get to sleep with Jacob, the birthing continues apace.  In 30:17 Issachar – son #5 of Leah – is born, named and explained.  Two short verses later Zevulon – son #6 – is born. Then without preface, explanation or follow-on remarks, we read verse 21.

וְאַחַר, יָלְדָה בַּת; וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָהּ, דִּינָה

(It is as if the text reads oh, by the way) afterward, she had a daughter, and she named her Dina. An afterthought, one daughter among the sons.

The story then continues with the opening of Rachel’s womb and the birth of Joseph. The parshah ends with Lavan and Jacob parting ways.

Flash forward to this coming Shabbat. After Jacob and Esau resolve their relationship (perhaps), Jacob settles the family, and Dina goes exploring. Her little trip will have quite the impact on the brothers, and on relationships with the local inhabitants.  She encounters Schem, the son of Hamor.  Schem rapes Dina, and afterwards falls in love with her. Hamor comes to negotiate with Jacob, but he has decided to keep quiet וְהֶחֱרִשׁ יַעֲקֹב .  Instead, his sons spoke for him. They proposed a mass circumcision, which they did not anticipate being accepted.  On the third day,  Shimon and Levi commit mass murder, killing all the men of the town, an act we today would surely call terrorism. Jacob’s silence until now is puzzling.  Why didn’t he take charge? What did he think of the brothers’ demands? Is this the outcome he wanted? In the aftermath Jacob speaks. He complains to the brothers that they have caused trouble for him. He does not say what they did was wrong!

Flash backward now to events of the summer just past in Israel. In the town of Rishon LeTzion  Mahmoud Mansour and Morel Malka were getting married. Protests ensued and hateful things were said. Why? Because Morel had decided to adopt Islam, and thus to some was betraying the Jewish people.   At least new President Reuven Rivlin  got it right, commenting “Not everyone has to share in the happiness of Mahmoud and Morel – but everyone has to respect them.”  Fortunately, there was only a lot of yelling and screaming and no actual killing, so perhaps have come some way from Biblical times. But in Israel as around the world, we all have a way to go in subduing our prejudices.

Would that we live in a time when we all want to share unreservedly in each other’s happiness.


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The “Jewish State” Bill, Pathways of Peace, and Tikkun Olam – What in God’s Name are they thinking!

Posted by rabbiart on November 27, 2014

On Thanksgiving Day in the United States, as Americans we should remember that we are all immigrants who in one way or another have made a new life out of the American Indian. (For a most devastating midrash on this subject listen to The Firesign Theatre doing “Temporarily Humbolt County”).  As Jews we should be greatly concerned over the “Jewish State” bill being pushed by zealots in the Knesset.  For a most emotionally devastating  experience, read the claims of both sides on the intent, purpose and effect of this bill.  There is a common thread that binds these two topics together: the concept of Mipnei Darchei Shalom.  Are we making hate? Or are we making peace?

Literally translated, darchei shalom are ‘pathways of peace’. We need to consult our sources for the intention of this phrase. We need to ask ‘are we walking toward shalom or away from it?

The classic text for this concept is Mishnah Gittin 5:8. The Mishnah enumerates a number of things that are enjoined in the “interests of peace”.  It begins with that most prized of honors, an aliyah to the reading of the Torah. To prevent arguments, a cohen is called first, followed by a levi and then a yisrael. On shabbes this means one priest, one levite, and five members of the general community of Israel.  The text lists a number of other rules enacted in the interests of peace. It concludes with this rule (Danby Mishnah, p. 314). “They do not try to prevent the poor among the gentiles from gathering gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner – mipnei darchei shalom.

A bit later in the Gemara (daf 60b) we find a teaching about water rights. R. Shimi b. Ashi goes to R. Abaye and asks for lessons. Abaye needs time to irrigate his fields. (The Gemara has just previously discussed whether those whose fields are lower down – farther from the source of the water – or those higher up, have first right to the water).  R. Ashi goes to the people higher up and tells them the people lower down have the priority rights. He then goes to the people lower down and tells them the reverse. Having put both groups on hold, Ashi dams the watercourse and irrigates the fields of R. Abaye.

When Abaye finds out, he refuses to eat of the produce from his field for an entire year!

What does this passage have to do native American Indians?  What does this passage have to do with the “Jewish state” bill?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.

Think of native American Indians both as a people and as a proxy for all the underclasses in arguably the wealthiest country in the history of humankind.  Ask yourself  -are we walking toward shalom? – translating it here not as just ‘peace’ but wholeness, completeness, fully integrated (that word chosen deliberately!) into our society. Are we acting in ways of darchei shalom? Are we recognizing all are fellow inhabitants as created b’tzelem elohim?

Think of the “Jewish State” bill.  I can’t know but I definitely wonder.  Are its proponents walking the paths of darchei shalom?  Or are they acting like R. Ashi and playing both sides against the middle; misrepresenting their intent and purpose so that they can simply water their own field?

Far be it from me, an American Jew living safely and comfortably in California, to comment on Israeli politics. (That of course is code for “I will now proceed to comment on Israeli politics”. )

Some Knesset members are considering walking out of the Knesset when this bill is presented. If they do, and I hope they do, and I hope the voices of former president Peres and current president Rivlin will prevail. We must ask our fellow Jews “are we recognizing all our fellow inhabitants as created b’tzelem elohim?  If Knesset members flee the governing coalition, if they walk out of the Knesset, if they refuse to play any part in this, then they will be following the example of one of the great Talmudic voices, and refusing to eat from the produce of this poisonous legislation.

They – and we – will be walking the pathways of peace.  In the words of the Psalmist, traditionally ascribed to the greatest warrior-king of the Jewish people – בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.  Ask for peace, seek peace, work for peace, and pursue it. And for hamavin yavin, check the first part of that verse as well.

Happy Thanksgiving Day

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Parshat VaYetze: Jacob and Lavan, Israelis and Palestinians, the Mount and the Mosque

Posted by rabbiart on November 25, 2014

In his beautiful work of Torah interpretation (Torah of Reconciliation) Rabbi Sheldon Lewis describes the mutual non-aggression pact constructed by Jacob and Lavan. “This is reflected in the narrative in several ways: there are two stone markers, two meals, two place-names, the deity is twice invoked and by separate names” (p.83).

Implacable enemies decide to coexist peacefully.  “The naming of separate deities together seems especially noteworthy.  The peace into which they enter seems cold, but it is solemnly undertaken” (p,84) . Lavan says to Jacob, “May the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor – the gods of their fathers – judge between us.” (Robert Alter translation p. 175).

Professor Alter comments on this verse  and specifically ‘the gods of their fathers’ “These words… must be a gloss, perhaps occasioned by the discomfort of a scribe or editor with the exact grammatical equation between the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor in Laban’s oath”.

Two gods, two place-names, two markers, and a great deal of discomfort on the question of equality.  Now we are getting somewhere.

It is impossible for me to read this story and not immediately think of the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Or to be more precise, Jewish Israelis and Moslem Palestinians. Two gods, two place names, two buildings (the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary), two claims to the land, two names for a certain, distant day in 1948. This list feels like it might be endless.

This week in Israel a bill is being debated that would make changes to the Basic Law.  It would elevate the status of Jewishness and lower the status of all non Jewish aspects of the State of Israel. Jews are arguing over this bill. Nu, what else is new.  Some say this is a great idea that simply expresses what Israel is – the homeland of the Jewish people. But others say it is a terrible mistake, both in its intent and in its timing.

The story in our Parshah concludes with a ritual covenental meal, characteristic of treaties in that era.  Jacob calls to his ‘brothers’, they eat bread and stay there the night.

וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל לָחֶם וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר

Since Lavan does not leave until the next morning, and because Rashi comments on ‘brothers’ to read it as ‘his friends that were with Lavan’, and believing it inconceivable that Lavan’s minions but not Lavan would have partaken of the meal.  So they sat down and ate a meal together. Nobody went anywhere until the next day.

As my friend Suleiman said to me recently in Israel “There are good people on both sides”.  Undoubtedly this is true. Sadly, we must admit there are bad people on both sides as well.

According to the text, there is no way to look at Laban as a “good guy”. Yet Jacob was able to make a pact with him and so avoid conflict and bloodshed, even though his beloved Rachel was in fact a thief who had stolen something precious from her father. Without this pact Jacob would have been caught between the rock (of Lavan’s enmity and pursuit) and the hard place (of Esau coming at him with 400 men).  With it, he is able to put his dubious past behind him, and find reconcilation with his brother.  (We’ll save examining the dots over the word for another time).

Given the sad and threatening resurgence of antisemitism around the world, I have been thinking lately that “We are all Israelis”. What Israel (painting with a very broad brush) does affects Jews in the diaspora. What diaspora Jews do has the potential to powerfully affect what happens in Israel.  Most likely, the best we can hope for is a mutual non-aggression pact with the people who also have a claim to The Land. But that would most assuredly be better than what we have now.  And it is certainly a teaching that we can learn out from this week’s Torah portion.

Let me end where I began, with a snippet from Rabbi Shelley.  “In the Torah’s culture, which is so wary of any deviation from recognition of One God, the inclusion of a pagan deity seems remarkable. It is a testimony to the appreciation of what it takes to be a peacemaker. (emphasis mine).  Agreeing to naming a pagan god is not judged badly when the result is peace.

Yirtzeh HaShem we can learn to share, and maybe one day we will have a meal where we are definitively breaking bread with our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat VaYetze – One Came Out, the Other Went Out, Two Woke Up!

Posted by rabbiart on November 24, 2014

We always must pay attention to the specific words, especially the verbs, when studying the text.  In the first aliyah of our Parshah we have two words which make us think of other stories in the Torah.  One – VaYetzei – looks backward. The other – VaYikatz – looks forward.

Often we are faced with the challenge of reading the text with a fresh set of eyes; difficult to do when our practice is to read this same text each year, and more or less at the same time. Sometimes it is an advantage to know the story as well as we do; remembering what has come before, anticipating what is yet to come.

Our Parshah begins with the word VaYetze –  וַיֵּצֵא. Jacob went out from Beer’sheva.  We know, of course, that he is in full flight from the revenge that he fears his brother Esau will take upon him. He hasn’t said it out loud, but Esau has planned to slay his brother.  Their mother Rivkah, although or perhaps because she favors Jacob, can feel Esau’s anger. She directs him to flee to Haran and stay there some time, until Esau’s anger is calmed.

All this is necessary because Jacob, the younger son, has taken his elder brother’s birthright, catching him in a moment when he is weakened by hunger.  And then by guile he has – let’s call it what it is – stolen the blessing intended for him.

With its opening word – VaYetze – the text reminds us of why this is so.  When the twins are born (Breshit 25:25) there is an earlier VaYetze. Speaking of Esau, the text says “the first came out ruddy and red, covered with hair”. Had Esau not come out first, the birth order would not have needed to be reversed. Esau would not have been Jacob’s antagonist, and never thought to kill him.

We read on a bit in our story, until Jacob is dreaming and suddenly – VaYikatz – Jacob wakes up.  He immediately concludes “Without doubt YHVH is in this place, but I, I did not know this”. He is immediately afraid and full of awe, so he names it Beth-El, the House of G-d. But when we the reader come to VaYikatz Ya’akov we are immediately reminded of another antagonist – Pharoah.  Pharoah similarly wakes up suddenly from his dreams  – VaYikatz Pharoah –  not once but twice, and demands to know their interpretation.

Jacob went out, and he woke up. He took a blessing from his brother, and now Esau is coming behind him. The consequences of his own wrongful behavior (notwithstanding Rabbinic tradition which goes out of its way to justify it) pursue him. He is already estranged, and remains so, from his brother his twin. This when the almost universal report from twins is that they feel each other’s experiences and long for mutual closeness. We wonder, did Jacob ever have that feeling.

Pharoah lies waiting in Jacob’s future.  His children will encounter Pharoah first, but eventually the two men will meet. Jacob gave Pharoah a blessing, and then – Vayetze miLifnei Pharoah – He went out from the presence of Pharoah.

A D’var Torah should end with a conclusion, or a call to action, or an observation about the state of affairs in the world. Jacob mistreated his brother (again, sorry Rabbinic tradition), eventually his children became slaves, strangers in a land that was strange to them. Younger and older struggled, even in the womb. Who was the rightful owner of the inheritance? Who should live in the land? Who should own the land? Who is the rightful inheritor of HaShem’s promises to Jacob, his father, and his grandfather? Sadly, this argument continues to the present day. Do we yearn for closeness with our brother? Perhaps in our lifetime the argument will turn to a conversation, and all of Avraham Avinu’s children will learn to share, and live in peace together. I’ve paraphrased a Robert Heinlein book title, why not paraphrase a bit of Theordore Herzl.  IF we will it, we will wake up, find out it is no dream, and go out from the painful place where we are and truly enter into the House of G-d.

This drash came to me in a flash at morning minyan. As the long-time Gabbai of our shul David Gallant (alav hashalom)  used to say when he was finished giving a drash at minyan. “That’s enough for now”.

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Parshat Toldot – He Dug his Father’s Wells: A Personal Reflection

Posted by rabbiart on November 21, 2014

In this week’s parshah we read of Isaac digging water-wells that had been stopped up after his father Abraham had originally drilled them. As he dug them, herdsmen of Gerar fought over ownership of the wells and their water. Only when Isaac moved along to Rehoboth did he re-open a well that was able to stay open.

Hold that thought.

A number of years ago I was on a trip in Canada.  My watch broke, so I went out and bought a new one.  It keeps analog time, and also the day and date.  To adjust the time you pull the stem all the way out.  To adjust the day and date you pull it and spin it one way or the other. Lately the day/date function has stopped working, so I have to spin the time forward to adjust the day/date when a month has less than 30 days. (All together now… “30 days hath September, April, June and yada yada yada”).

As I’ve gotten older, my wedding ring has become increasingly difficult to slide on and off over the knuckle of my finger.  Even with a recent loss of weight (yeah Israel Ride) it hasn’t gotten easier. So I went to the jewelry store to have it enlarged. The owner asked me if I had any gold at home, which would lower the cost.  I rummaged through some drawers and found two watches. One was the watch that broke in the previous paragraph, and one was my father’s watch (aha, there is some sort of connection to the parshah here) which I took possession of as a memento after he died.  Turned out these two gold watches are just gold-plate, but no matter.

Anyway, I had a new battery put in Dad’s (alav haShalom) watch, and as I took it back from the jeweler, I discovered that it had the same design as the watch I had purchased up in Canada.  I had bought my father’s watch!

Isaac generally is considered to be the ‘weak link’ between patriarch Abraham and patriarch Jacob.  His father almost killed him, his “uncle” found him his wife, his favorite son played a ground-shaking trick on him. Frankly, he comes across as a bit of a wuss, and as Frank Sinatra said on his 50th birthday concert (with the incredible Count Basie band) “I cleaned that one up for you!”

Maybe Isaac was really really content to follow in his father’s footsteps, both literally and figuratively.  His life. His choice. Isaac’s father founded a family that continues to this day. My Dad did likewise.  Isaac’s father is a great historical figure; three great religions claim him as their original inventor.  My Dad was no historical figure, he was just a man with a quiet dignity about him.  Like so many men of his generation, he went right over the day after Pearl Harbor and signed up. Fortunately, he made it home in one piece. Isaac got chased out of Gerar by Abimelech king of the Philistines, because he had become too rich.  My Dad never got rich, but he did well enough that his three children eventually received a financial inheritance in addition to everything we learned from him.  And he was part of the generation that fought against the worst person and the biggest enemy – in the history of the world – that the Jewish people ever faced. I’m not saying that person’s name (may it be wiped from the history books and forgotten).  My Dad’s generation kicked his evil, sorry ass (and I’m not cleaning that one up).

This one’s for you, Dad, and I’ll see you again when I travel the path you have already taken.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Toldot – The Akedah – A Radical Reinterpretation

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2014

Our Parshah opens with this verse.   וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם:  אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק  or in the English (Robert Alter translation). “And this is the lineage of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac”. See Breshit 22:19

There are only two places in the Tanach where the word “Abraham” occurs in succession.  The other instance is at the end of the Akedah, in the moment when Abraham has lifted the knife to slay his only son – not counting Ishmael, that is.

In every case where HaShem (or HaShem’s designated representative) calls upon Abraham to respond, he responds promptly with Hineni.  Literally translated the word means “here I am”, but it should be understood as “I am ready”.  In only one instance does Abraham not respond when he hears his name being called; when he knows that the act he must now perform is to slaughter Isaac upon the temporary altar he has just built.

Why is Abraham’s name called out twice in this moment?   Is it as simple as ‘so the angel called his name twice, what’s the big deal with that?’.  This interpretation is not possible, because we are taught that every letter, much moreso every word, in the Torah is deliberately and consciously placed, and therefore laden with meaning. So we must look for clues in this verse and in our verse from the Akedah – Breshit 22:11.

Reading the trope signs, in our Akedah verse, the second mention of “Abraham” appears on the etnachta which signals the mid-point of the verse.  Almost always, the etnachta is preceded by a mercha or a tipcha or some combination of the two.  In our verse, the first “Abraham” is cantillated not with either of those signs, but with a munach. Furthermore, in printed versions of the Tikun which Torah readers use to prepare their readings, a vertical bar is printed between the first and second “Abraham”s.  In other words, not the normal or expected Torah trope. Something is being indicated. There is some kind of break between the first and second “Abraham”.

The tradition tells us that Abraham was confronted with ten tests, all of which he passed.  The call to sacrifice his son is unquestionably the biggest and most difficult of all these tests.  And according to the plain meaning (pshat) of the text, Abraham passed the test because HaShem’s messenger angel proclaims (Alter’s translation again) “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Any parent, hopefully any person, is horrified at the idea that Abraham would have been willing to kill his long-awaited, hoped for, prayed for son. And to go home to tell Isaac’s mother what he had done?  He would have been in the husband dog-house for the rest of his life.

I prefer a different interpretation, and if we have to “go to the midrash”, to justify it, then that’s what we have to do. I prefer to believe that – in colloquial terms – the sacrifice of Isaac was “never gonna happen”.  I prefer to believe that Abraham believed it was “never gonna happen”.  In every moment of the three days journey, Abraham must have been believing in, and looking for, a way out.  When the moment comes and his name is called, Abraham does not respond with Hineni! A second call-out is required. Only then does Abraham answer. And he hears that no sacrifice-your-child is required.

In our parshah, Abraham’s name again occurs twice in succession. In this case, the first “Abraham” is at the mid-point of the verse, cantillated with an etnachta. The second ‘Abraham’ is over a tipcha, because the meaning requires that the usual order of mercha, tipcha be reversed.

Our verse emphasizes the relationship of father and son.  Isaac is the son of Abraham, Abraham is the father (begot) Isaac.  This second repetition – Abraham, Abraham – is only possible because of the first. When chanting, or listening to the chanting of this verse, we hear a clear pause between the first and second “Abraham”. This is a critical clue.  It tells us that there was most definitely a pause between “Abraham” and “Abraham” at the ultimate moment of the Akedah.

Abraham kill his son?!?!

Never gonna happen.

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Chayei Sarah – A personal reflection

Posted by rabbiart on November 14, 2014

This D’var Torah is dedicated to the memory of my mother – Shirley Gould.  Her Hebrew name was Sarah.  Readers undoubtedly know the six parshiot that have the names of real people; Noach, Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas.  Were we to rate these six, the last three would immediately fall to the bottom of the list. Noach was a “pre-Jew”.  His story is part of the foundational myth of the creation of the world.  So maybe he comes in at third place. Having watched the movie “Noah” on the way back from Israel, where Noah sports well developed musculature and excels at hand-to-hand combat I have to say Noah was no Russell Crowe, or maybe Russel Crowe is no Noah.  On a more serious note, carpentry/boat building doesn’t quite compare with being an advisor (Yitro) to someone who spoke face to face with HaShem, or gave birth (Sarah) to the entire Jewish people.

(BTW Here’s a really good article exploring why the six people mentioned above merited a parsha named after them. )

Like my mother (עליה השלום), Sarah Emoteinu had a hard time giving birth.  When she found out she was to have a son, she laughed in utter astonishment.  Unlike my mother, who was incapable of anything but extremely blunt speech, Sarah attempts to do a little packaging, denying to HaShem that she had laughed upon hearing this news.

Although the name of the parsha means ‘the life of Sarah’, there is almost nothing about Sarah in the parsha.  The first meaningful story in the parsha is the tale of Avraham Avinu purchasing a burial plot for Sarah. That story is prefaced by this verse: Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her. A negotiation ensues.  At least no stones are thrown, and no guns are fired. Abraham purchases the double cave.

Sadly, there is to this day an ongoing dispute over “who owns the rights” to Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron.  Stones are thrown, guns have been fired, and people have been killed. As in our original story, suspicion is present, and trust is absent.  In the Parsha, Ephron the Hittite offers the cave and the field it is in as a gift to Abraham.  Abraham, for his part, insists on paying full value.  Between the words we see a delicate dance over who will hold the ownership rights to this land.

3,000 years later, nothing has changed. Two peoples, two narratives, two competing claims.

On the Arava Institute Israel Ride this year I made a new friend – Ahmed Sayara – who is an alum of the Arava Institute.  He lives in Hebron and participates in a ‘dual narrative’ tour. In this tour one hears from a Jewish family in Kiryat Arba and then goes over to the Arab side and sees things through a different set of eyes.  When speaking to the riders about his vision of the future, Ahmed said he did not expect to see the conflict settled in his lifetime.  But he said – perhaps we can move to a situation where we are only throwing chairs at each other and calling each other a**hole.

This would indeed be progress!

Shabbat is the time when we leave the ‘real world’ and get a taste of how the world is supposed to be. When we eat bread we say the b’rachah hamotzei lechem min ha-aretz. I heard a drosh once that during the six days of the week the b’rachah refers to bread that is created by the efforts of humans, but on Shabbat it is as if HaShem literally (and I don’t mean metaphorically!) brings bread forth from the earth.

Perhaps one day we will live in a ‘real world’ where bread comes forth from the earth, Kiryat Arba and Hebrew refer to the same place in the same way and all narratives come together so that we can all live together in peace.

Shabbat Shalom

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