Torah Commentary


Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

A wonderful midrash responds to a logical question asked on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, during which we read about the building of the elaborate mishkan (sanctuary) in the desert. Since the Torah records that the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians of their gold and silver, we know where the precious materials for the mishkan came from. The Israelites' flocks were the source of the material for the curtains in the mishkan. But verse after verse calls for wood. In particular, cedar wood. Where could the Israelites have found such abundant wood in the desert? The Midrash Tankhuma tells us that Jacob planted them. When he went down to Egypt, he said to his sons: "My sons, in the future you are destined to be delivered from there, and when you are redeemed, God will tell you to build Him the mishkan! So plant cedars now so that when you are told to build the mishkan, the cedars will be ready immediately." And so they planted the trees as they were told to do.

As Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki points out, this midrash elevates the act of building to a cross-generational spiritual project. It is easy to read these parashot as a musical rendition of dry architectural plans, as if spiritual space were created just of metal, wood and well-made joints. But the midrash probes deeper, asking us to consider that the building of the mishkan was anticipated for centuries, and that generations long gone contributed to, and thus had a stake in, what was built in the desert.

What a natural linkage to our times, and to our own project of building a new sanctuary and new school building. Both for those intimately involved in the project, and those who have seen the signs and banners and renderings and capital campaign updates…and wonder when this project will be completed, it is all too easy to reduce this project to just another collection of wood and metal. And yet we should understand that Jews of yesterday and tomorrow are stake-holders in our building. Just as Jacob planned so that his descendants could find God more directly on their journey, so we plan, and invest, now so that our children and grandchildren will know how central Judaism must be in their lives.

At times, I hear this refrain, and I resonate with it: wouldn't it be easier if this project were already done? Wouldn't it have been simpler had we inherited this well-lit, acoustically sound grand-but-intimate sanctuary, as well as this state-of-the-art, firmly-functioning, gym-equipped school building? All fully paid for? I suppose it would be easier. But not necessarily preferable. Rabbi Suraszki also points out what was lost when the Israelites transitioned from their temporary mishkan to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. In exchange for certainty and stability, they had to surrender the energy of building. The courage, creativity and vision that is required as builders is not as much in demand as inheritors. When the project is complete, how easy it is to take it for granted.

Of course, we'd like a healthy balance. We'd like a completed project, enabling a far-reaching and vigorous vision, so that those who come next can both inherit the fruit of our labor, and also understand the value of their own ongoing contributions.

(Oh…and if you haven’t made your commitment yet, our campaign closes on June 30th! Let’s talk…)

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Ki Tissa 3/18/17

Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern

I Became a Bat Mitzvah

Face to face, פנים אל פנים. Think about your face. What do you look like? How do you use your face to express your feelings? When do you choose to speak, or listen, or show emotion and impressions on your face? Are you aware of the face you are making all the time? Our face is the one part of our body that we are unable to see without assistance. We need a mirror, picture, someone else to tell us we have food in our teeth, or another person’s reaction to how we are choosing to express ourselves.

16 years ago, on shabbat Ki Tisa, I chose to express my Bat Mitzvah words of Torah through the image of Moshe’s radiant face. ’ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו’ “And Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while God spoke with him (Exodus 34:29).” The effects of God’s words, ordinances and relationship had physically changed Moshe’s face. However, he did not know until he approached the people as leader and commander, and they interpreted this change to be Divinely inspired and powerful. Moshe’s face lit up, according to thirteen-year-old Me, (as well as Rambam) as a result of humility and his special relationship with God. God, with the presentation of the second set of tablets, is thought to have shared for the first time the Oral Law with Moshe. We become “enlightened” and perhaps we flush with wonder and sudden awareness of our absolute presence in a heightened moment, prompted by teachers, mentors, family and friends. How much more so Moshe after closeness with God.

Today, this parasha is more to me than just the moment of Moshe’s radiance. It is about other faces as well. In the beginning of the parasha, Moshe challenges God’s quick anger against our careless ancestors, saying, “Why, Adonai, should your anger be kindled against Your people… (32:11).” The words for anger are חרה אף, a common way to refer to God having a temper tantrum, but literally means “burning nose.” Moshe could envision God, like a teased and tormented bull, nostrils aflame and a smoke. And like a mirror held up to the unseen face, Moshe was allowed to unmask God’s face to God, consoling and tempering God’s response. And the student became the teacher.

Moshe then speaks to God face to face, פנים אל פנים, “as a man would speak to his companion (33:11).” Communicating face to face, looking into another’s eyes, and acknowledging a shared presence and closeness demands trust, security and respect. And maybe love. Intimate communication exposes vulnerabilities. We are unshielded and unable to see ourselves. And yet, we are distracted when sitting opposite someone whose back is to a mirror, drawing our attention to our own image as if to see us as the other might see us.

We are each of us both consumed in our own lives and yearning for another(s) to share with us how we are loved, perceived, heard in the world. We need to do a better job of seeing faces. Today our world is extremely small, knowing about tragedy and calamity all over, and yet we do not know these people face to face, so we hide behind computers, and phones and generously give our assistance. We need to look deeply at others and not be complacent about the “close, small world” that is digitally paraded across multiple screens, as if that is the same as being with someone. However, I can’t share the presence of me, the smell and warmth of me, or the touch of me except by being near and looking into your face. I can cry to the accompaniment of videos of far-flung sufferers, but any action I take will be remote and my deep humanity will be unshared.

However, what would the world look like if we each gave of our time, money, aid and also listened, and mirrored the faces in from of us? Our faces would become radiant! Our faces must become radiant! We must share enlightenment, anger, disappointment, fear, relief, joy and humor, as did Moshe with God. Try פנים אל פנים, “face to face”. Get close enough to be a mirror. And glow!

Mishpatim 2/25/17

Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern

Your Burden is My Burden

This past Monday the Jewish community in St. Louis, Missouri awoke to a vicious attack on its local Chesed Shel Emet cemetery. Over 200 headstones were found toppled or damaged. Unfortunately this is not the first act of anti-Semitism that has rattled our community this year. Some 53 Jewish community centers have received a total of 68 bomb threats in just the last six weeks. In the wake of the latest vandalism, however, an astonishing act of chesed, lovingkindness, and solidarity took place. Two Muslim-Americans launched an online fundraising campaign to repair the damage, and they have raised roughly $122,000 from over 4,186 donors just this week. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American and an outspoken advocate for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against the State of Israel, co-led the fundraising effort with activist Tarek El-Messidi. While plenty of Jews are offended by her politics, it is hard not to be moved by this incredibly generous response from our Muslim brothers and sisters and fellow Americans.

In parashat Mishpatim, God instructs the Israelites in some basic laws for creating a just society. One of these laws concerns an Israelite’s obligation when s/he sees an enemy’s donkey collapsing under the weight of its burden. While you “would normally refrain from raising it, you must surely raise it with him” (Exodus 23:5). The Talmudic Sages understood this to mean that one should unload the burden from the animal and repeat the action even four or five times if necessary, since the verse states emphatically, "you shall surely help" (Bava Metzia 32a). It’s possible to read this verse as an act of kindness to prevent tza’ar ba’alei hayim (the suffering of living creatures). After all, while you may feel no obligation to assist an enemy, why should the innocent donkey suffer? But I believe there is a deeper message in this verse about people coming together and transcending their differences.

The verse does not say “you must surely raise it,” but rather offers a surprising construction: “you must surely raise it with him,”(Hebrew עִמּוֹ). Hizkuni, a 13th-century French commentator, argues that such a burden would be too heavy for one person to lift. It would require two people to unload it (possibly in numerous attempts), with one person standing on either side of the animal. The Talmud even teaches that if the animal’s owner sits down and says, “since it is your mitzvah, if you want to unload, unload,” you, the onlooker, are exempt from unloading the burden, because you must perform the act with the owner, provided he is physically able to (Bava Metzia 42a).

Muslim-Americans are, of course, not our enemies. And while tensions have arisen over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lately, given the political climate Jews and Muslims seem to be “forging alliances like never before” (See “How Trump’s Politics and Rhetoric are Forging Alliances Between U.S. Jews and Muslims, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2017). Now is a time for us to work together to lift each other’s burdens, especially regarding the concerns we share as Americans. The Torah’s message is clear: Your burden is my burden and my burden is your burden. Some Jews see in the president’s immigration policies, including the ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries and arrests of undocumented immigrants, echoes of their own families’ refugee stories. Because our Torah repeatedly emphasizes the mitzvah of welcoming and loving the stranger, some Jews are protesting these policies, joining in marches and prayer vigils to show solidarity with targeted groups. We also saw women from different communities supporting one another when they joined together in the Women’s March last month, co-organized by Linda Sarsour, who helped launch the stunning fundraising campaign to repair the St. Louis Jewish cemetery.

Sarsour, El-Messidi and the thousands of other Americans who have contributed to this effort to repair the cemetery and stand with the Jewish community are helping us shoulder our burden in the face of an Anti-Semitic attack. How can we stand with Muslims and other minority groups when they feel threatened? How can we show support to people in our society who are feeling oppressed and insecure? For the burden is too great for anyone to shoulder alone.

Bo 2/4/17

Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern

Close your eyes. Darkness. Open your eyes. Light.

When you close your eyes, you still see: Your mind amps up with access to dreams, memories and creativity. Likewise, when our eyes are open, we sometimes do not see. Not only might we be inured to the miraculous wonders that envelope us constantly; but our other senses might be dulled in deference to eyesight.

Clear your mind…now close your eyes. What did you see? Open your eyes, and is the world more clear?

In Parashat Bo, the plague of darkness is inflicted upon the Egyptians (Exodus 10:21), “And God said to Moses, put out your hand to the heavens and there will be dark on the land of Egypt, an increasing darkness.” The midrash explains “increasing darkness” as one of growing fear and frustration as the people struggled in response, much like a victim trapped in quicksand, whose situation worsens with the writhing. The darkness was like sand between our fingers and in our lungs: Exodus Rabbah 14:1-3, “The darkness was doubled, redoubled, and thick to the degree that it was tangible.”

The text goes on to say (10:23):

לא-ראו איש את-אחיו ולו-קמו איש מתחת שלשת ימים ולכל-בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם

“an [Egyptian] man did not see his brother, nor did he rise from his place for three days, but for all of B’nei Israel, there was light in their dwellings.”

This darkness was disabling, mummifying the living sufferers, and blinding them in isolation from their fellow sufferers. The Chiddushei HaRim, Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter (19th century), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidim, comments that this is the greatest darkness, when a man cannot see his fellow. “In which, a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow person.” If this is to happen, the person is obstructed from their own personal development as well: “…nor did he rise from his place for three days.”

If we close our eyes, we can dream, hope, and imagine the social architecture of our future. Most importantly, we can still feel those around us, seeing one another in safety, compassion and empathy. With what little light breaks through we must envision a world of caring and sharing, of community and oneness, of plurality and fairness, welcoming the stranger as we were so often strangers. This week, many of our own community, and the broader global community, stood up in this depth of dark and made sure that we had light. Made sure that we could see one another, feel each other in hugs, cries, concerns and fears. Made sure that when the dark was less thick, that the light being shown was not just to see, but to vision a world of difference. We strive to look into someone’s eyes, draw close to them and say, “I am here for you; my community and country are here for you; you matter.”

In Tractate Megillah there is a story, “Why should a blind person care whether it is dark or light? And then the following incident occurred – ‘I was once walking on a dark night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘My son, why do you carry this torch?’ He said to me ‘As long as I have this torch, people see me and save me from the holes, and thorns.’”

God did not inflict darkness to blind us. God inflicted darkness to show the reliance we have on those around us, on the light that we bring to others’ lives, and that we ennoble humanity by shedding light on the world.

May we, on this Shabbat especially, reflect on the light we bring to this world and find the darknesses that are seeking our light.

Vaera 1/28/17

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder

Water is Life

In recent months, the water supply and sacred land of the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock in North Dakota have come under attack by construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The project, initially routed near Bismarck, the state capital, was deemed too risky for the water sources there given the frequency of oil spills, and so was rerouted by Standing Rock instead. Protesters call this “environmental racism.” In response, the tribe has made its rallying cry “water is life,” and, with the help of allies, is seeking to halt construction of the oil pipeline, which would run through the upper Missouri River, the only water supply for the Standing Rock reservation. While the debate rages over the pipeline’s construction, one thing is clear to me: to attack a people’s water source is an attack on its very life and dignity.

What does it mean to attack a people’s primary source of life? The first plague that God brings on the land of Egypt in this week’s parasha, Va’era, is an attack on the Egyptians’ water source, the Nile. Midrash explains that since there is little to no rainfall in Egypt, the people rely on the rising and falling Nile to water the land. God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh bathing in the Nile and say that because you have ignored God’s call to “let my people go,” God will turn the water in the Nile into blood, cutting off the Egyptians’ life source and killing all life in the river. If water signifies a living people and tradition, then blood signifies the slaughter of that people and their way of life.

In response to Pharaoh’s and Egyptian society’s callousness and oppression of the Israelites’ dignity, God punishes Egypt by removing that which sustains it and allows the people to provide for themselves. In other words, God takes away their dignity. A midrash explains that because the Nile was Egypt’s water source, it was also considered a deity. “Why were the waters first smitten with blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile, and God said, “I will smite their god first and then his people’” (Shemot Rabbah 9:9), alluding to the final plague, makat b’khorot, the slaying of the first-born son. The first step toward killing the Egyptian people is destroying their water source.

The latest attempt with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to destroy the Lakota tribe at Standing Rock follows a history of genocide, broken promises, land theft, missionizing, and cultural oppression of Native Americans in this country. We should hear this story and recall our people’s suffering in Egypt, Europe, and elsewhere. Our story links us to other peoples who have endured oppression and survived. The Torah urges us as a result of our experience to recognize the sanctity in all human life. We are instructed not to oppress the stranger “for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9). Our story is meant to teach us empathy. While the Native Americans are not strangers in their land, this pipeline seeks to separate this people from their land and water, rendering them strangers to each other.

Water is a frequent metaphor for Torah in Rabbinic tradition. Just as water bubbles forth, gives life, and is capable of transforming an arid place into a thriving place, so too is wisdom from Torah never-ending, sustaining of human life, and transformative. In a midrash on a verse about the Israelites’ journey, “They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus 15:22), some rabbis of the Talmud explain this to mean that the Israelites went three days without Torah and became exhausted as a result. For this reason, it was instituted that they should read Torah three times a week (Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday), just as we do today, “so they should not be kept for three days without Torah” (Bava Kama 82a). You could say that for the Jewish people “Torah is life.”

What should we do when the values of our “water” are under attack, when empathy and dignity of human life are challenged? Let us stand with Standing Rock, advocate for the protection of their water source, and pray that “justice will well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

Shemot 1/21/17

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz

In honor of 3 birthdays: my brothers Jonah and Sammy and my grandfather Bill Goodglick – for teaching me to lead with my feet, and to be honest, kind and intentional with my words

On January 16, the nation celebrated a man for whom there are 4 famous words associated, “I have a dream.” Today, the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are more powerful, poignant and pressured than at any other time I can recall. As our government transitions into new hands, it is easy to fear that liberal religious tolerance is targeted, stereotypes are heightened and social justice is threatened.

We began the week in memory of Dr. King as well as with the start of reading a new book of Torah. By chapter 4 of Parashat Shemot, we are already immersed in stories of Moses as anxious and self-conscious in his newfound leadership. In verses 15-16 God tries to calm and prepare Moses for his important leadership role by saying:

“You shall speak to [Aaron], and you shall put the words into his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you both [as to] what you shall do.

And [Aaron] will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader.”

Moses’ birth story aside, this is an insecure, shy, stuttering spokesperson through whom God will invent a new nation, a new kind of people, a new way of understanding a community’s bonds to the divinity of its Creation and to each of its people, low or high. What kind of a leader is Moses? Torah teaches that we are led by following the actions, the compassions, the visions and the moral conflicts that trail-blaze a new legacy. Dr. King, unlike Moshe, was not cotton-mouth muzzled and he spoke as the greatest prophets spoke. He also sacrificed physically and emotionally to lead with his body and soul, marching arm-in-arm with activists, stepping first, like Nachshon, into the, as-yet unmoved, depths of stillness and hatred.

As Jews, one of the most famous aspects of the March on Selma, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s infamous “praying with our feet” mantra. In our parasha, Aaron and Moshe are tasked with the management of a people. However, the leader is Moshe because he acts, he does not just preach or speak for others, he fights for “the other” and their rights to become unified with the worldly whole. “I will be with your mouth and his mouth.” God was with the words of Aaron and the character of Moshe.

With this sermon begins a week of change for our country. A moment where we pray for Dr. King’s sermon to ring true in all communities, for Rabbi Heschel’s mantra to jump people on to their feet to make the change they wish to see and to listen for the Godliness in our voices. Choose words of leadership, of power, of criticism and of praise carefully. God is with our mouths and we must be both Aaron and Moshe. We must act and speak for action. But first we listen. We must listen to lead, and speak to motivate others to find the courage in themselves to be leaders. I pray that this Shabbat you find your voice, the voice that speaks truth and honesty for you as a leader of the Jewish people.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Vayehi 1/14/17

Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas

Sacred Endings

Joseph lived to see children of the third generation (shileishim) -Genesis 50:23
The book of Genesis begins with an open letter and ends with a closed one. The big bet at the beginning of the B’reisheet is bookended by the big mem sofit in this week’s parshah, Vayehi (pictured above)1. The passage describes Joseph, at the end of his life, appreciating his family and considering his legacy. The big mem appears at the end of the word shileishim - third generation. Like kaf, nun, peh, and tzadi, mem is one of the letters in the Hebrew language that takes a final form - meaning, it looks different when it occurs at the end of the word. Perhaps the large final mem is calling attention to the fact that the book is coming to a close.

The Hebrew letters are considered to have mystical qualities. Even the shapes of the letters themselves are imbued with significance. Ancient rabbis appreciated the openness of the letter bet with which the Torah began (pictured below). R. Levi points out that the bet is closed on all sides except for the one to its left. In a right to left language, the bet serves as an open bracket. Extrapolating, R. Levi suggests that we ought not philosophize about what came before the moment of creation, but rather to focus our mental energy on everything that happened from that moment onwards.2

Similarly, commentators see significance in the shape of the final mem. The mem sofit is a closed letter - a complete square - and is thus seen as a symbol of completion and finality. One commentator3 on the mem in this week’s parshah calls our attention to another anomalous mem later in the Bible. In Isaiah 9:6 (pictured below), tradition prescribes that the mem in the word l’marbeh be written in the closed form, despite its position at the beginning of a word. This tradition, ostensibly breaks the rules of the Hebrew language and the sight of it is surprising to the Hebrew reader.
The passage in Isaiah describes the end of days when a Messiah from the Davidic line will usher in an era of peace. These two exceptional mems are pointing to some poetic message about sacred endings.

The story that began with the creation of the universe, ends with an image of an elderly man, imparting his wisdom and blessings to children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Genesis is a book of beginnings, it tells us about where we come from. But it is also has a vision of where we are headed. On the personal level, each of us is asked to consider the end of our days. What wisdom do we wish to transmit to future generations? How might we live our lives today, so that when that day comes, we can greet it with equanimity. On a human level, Genesis hints at the end of all time - when we believe a more peaceful and just era will supplant the current reality. In this subtle way, Genesis is a book that encompasses all time - from the very beginning to the very end. As we close this book, we hope that its inspiration has brought us closer to the Bible’s vision of a more complete world. Such a vision begins with achieving peace in a single family and ripples outward to the entire universe.
1 Many Torah scrolls (including at least five at Temple Beth Am) do not reflect the tradition in Mahzor Vitry to make this mem large. There are different scribal traditions relating to the big and small letters.
2 B’reishit Rabba 1:10
3 Mahari Katz - Hosafot L’fa’aneah Raza

Vayeshev 12/23/16

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

I have been thinking a lot recently about the spirit. The soul. The part of us that is clearly us, but is ethereal and non-tangible. The part one cannot locate in any spot in our physiology, but which is essentially us.

I think about this when I counsel and comfort the bereaved, and encourage them to lean in to the notion that there can be relationship beyond what is corporeal; that one can love a soul even if one cannot hug it. I think about this when I think, when I hope, when I fantasize… and I wonder who or what is the actual force within me producing those thoughts, hopes and fantasies. Can it really be reduced to pure physiology, neurotransmitters, axons and neural pathways? Is there an “I” that is beyond my cell structure?

And I think about this when I consider a lovely teaching about Hanukkah by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, who was the first rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic dynasty. He notes that for most Jewish holidays the primary symbol is a tactile one. Most of our symbols have physicality: the matza on Pesah which we can hold, crumble and taste (OK…not much taste, but you get the picture); the sukkah on Sukkot which we build, sit within and are physically protected by…not to mention the lulav and Etrog which we cradle, wave and smell. Against that norm, Rabbi Shneur Zalman notes that Hanukkah seems to stand apart. Its primary symbol is utterly non-tangible. It is light. Flame. The piercing of darkness. One can see a flame, feel its heat and sense its warmth. One can attempt to follow the contours of a flickering candle, but it is elusive, dancing and changing its shape constantly, pushing the observer to wonder in what way this flame, this “thing” actually and tangibly exists. According to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, this is apt because the message of Hanukkah is about the triumph of the spirit, the Jewish will; Hanukkah is meant to celebrate and release Jewish light.

The Jewish spirit is indeed strong. Not always (ever?) fully unified. But persistent and determined, across generations and transcending calamities. And we are entering (or are already in the midst of) an era in which that very intangible Jewish spirit will be tested in meaningful ways, and through which, therefore, Hanukkah’s enduring message will need to be broadcast and lived out beyond the last week of December. When Jews in Whitefish, Montana, including a rabbinic colleague of mine, are targets of severe, Nazi-overtoned anti-Semitic hatred in response to their organizing in order to reinforce that Whitefish is not a city of hate despite its being the home city of Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi who coined the term “alt-right, and the city in which his mother still resides…the Jewish spirit is tested. When a Jewish family feels pressure to flee, anonymously, Lancaster, PA after threats against them accusing them of using their “Jewish influence” to cancel the local public school’s production of a Christmas-themed show…the Jewish spirit is tested. And when our country, historically the most embracing of Jews and Judaism of any country to ever exist, finds itself painfully divided, with identified and proud Jews spread out across the political spectrum and set of arguments; and when accusations fly regarding who, after all, owns the larger piece of the “Jewish truth” and “Jewish morality” pie as pertains to America’s policies and parties…the Jewish spirit is tested.

We all exemplify and thus will release Jewish light differently. Some of it extends from our particular educations and the accidents of our birth and circumstances. Some of that difference emanates from reasoned and thoughtful distinctions about what Torah means, and ought to mean. Some of that variety is untraceable, connected to each of our truly unique and inimitable—and intangible—spirits which flicker inside of us. I proffer no hope that we will or should all agree. But I do hope that this Hanukkah season will awaken the truest and brightest lights within us all, and encourage each of us to use our flame to illumine whatever it is we feel is most darkened.

Shabbat Shalom

Vayishlah 12/17/16

Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas

Then Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and he fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept. --Genesis 33:4

Jacob and Esau were rivals from the womb, which sets the stage for an emotionally charged reunion in Parashat Vayishlah. Jacob splits his camp into two lest Esau approach with violent intentions. After years apart, Jacob is unsure if Esau is still filled with rage. Does he still harbor resentment over the stolen birthright? At this moment of peak tension, the text reports that “Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept,” (Genesis 33:4) The reader breathes a sigh of relief. The brothers soften and, ostensibly, experience a genuine moment of reconciliation.

But there is a rabbinic debate over the sincerity of this exchange that hinges on a striking textual anomaly. In the Torah scroll, the word, “vayishakeyhu - and he kissed him” has dots over each letter in the word (see picture above). There are nine other instances of these dots in scripture and many believe that they serve the function of highlighting a word as dubious to the original text. Rather than erase a word from the Torah, scribes indicate their suspicion by putting dots over the letters. The tradition seems to be skeptical of Esau’s kiss. Rashi comments that the dots serve as a hint that “Esau did not kiss [Jacob] with his whole heart.” In that same midrash, Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai voices a dissenting opinion that Esau’s kiss was, in fact, sincere. The dots appear to capture the Jewish ambivalence towards a powerful older brother figure extending a gesture of love and rapprochement. Given the Jewish historical experience, one can hardly blame the rabbis who suspect that Esau may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Another tradition tells a fantastic story about this moment of brotherly embrace. In a clever play on words, B’reishit Rabbah suggests that Esau did not come to kiss him (לנשקו - lenashko), but rather to bite him ( לנשכו - lenashkho). According to this midrash, a miracle happened at this moment -- Jacob’s neck turned into marble. Both brothers then proceeded to cry - Jacob on account of his neck and Esau on account of his teeth. This interpretation subverts the plain meaning of the story in the text. Tears that appeared to be expressions of emotional release and love are recast as tears of pain. Although not explicit in the midrash, I always imagined that this interpretation viewed the dots above the letters as bite marks on Jacob’s neck.

Was it a genuine moment of reconciliation (a la R. Shimon b. Yochai) or was this yet another instance of the aggressive Esau attempting to hurt his younger twin? Perhaps in the debate over these mysterious dots we can find a rorschach test for our own willingness to trust those who were once our enemies. I’ve spoken with siblings who have clashed throughout the years and now wonder if an overture made by a sibling is sincere. A couple who has endured a contentious divorce wonder if they can trust their former life partner. The same is true of political rivals. When Sadat came to visit Jerusalem in 1977, I imagine there were many who were suspicious of his motives. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands at Camp David, many wondered if he could be trusted. Sticking out one’s neck to embrace an enemy is fraught with fear and vulnerability, but it also opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation and peace. Without the courage to risk being hurt in our relationships, we can expect the cycles of anger and pain to persist. A kiss is awfully close to a bite - may we be wise and cautious like Jacob taking tactical measures to protect ourselves and the ones we love from harm. And may we also find the inner courage of Jacob to be open to embracing our enemies with hopes for peace even at great personal risk.

Vayetze 12/10/16

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz

This drash is written in honor of my brother, Jacob Lev’s, 24th birthday for embodying what it truly means to be a thoughtful, spiritual man of full-­‐heart:

Stop for a moment and focus on your heart. Notice your breathing. Listen to the thumping, rhythmic beats. Watch your belly rise and fall. Now try and feel your heart. Some feel pain, others love. Some feel wholeness, others brokenness. Some feel full, others feel vast. Our heart is the most important muscle in our body, not only Flowing with and pumping blood through our organs but, as the Gemara translates, our לב (lev), is also our mind. Feelings often generate how we think, how productive we can be, how we choose to motivate ourselves to act on and what to learn about in order to effect change. Our heart connects us to our mind; the most spiritual affirmations to our most physical sustenance.

In Va’yetzei, Jacob steals a heart. Jacob, having now both Rachel and Leah as his wives, wants to return to his father and his homeland, and sneaks away not saying goodbye to Lavan or anyone else in the community:

ויגנב יעקב את לב לבן הארמי על בלי הגיד לו כי ברח הוא

“And Jacob stole the heart of Lavan the Arami, for not telling him that he was Fleeing.”

Lavan’s daughters are his life, his physical and spiritual nourishment. When they are gone, his source of life is as if stolen. The Torah could have used the word “broken” or “crushed,” instead the word “stolen” is repeated multiple times in Genesis chapter

31. There is no sense of Lavan’s heart still being within his body to be crushed or broken, without his family. It is as if there is a hole left where this vital organ used to pump life. Therefore, though Jacob intends to enliven his family with bringing Rachel and Leah home, does he consider the emotional consequences thrust on Lavan and everyone of that household as a result of his actions?

Empty hearted, Lavan goes on a search to revive himself by Finding Jacob and his daughters. Once upon them, he says to Jacob:

מה עשית ותגנב את לבבי ותנהג את בנתי כשביות חרב

“What did you do that you stole my heart and you treated my daughters like prisoners of war?!”

The Netziv, Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin of the 19th century, says that geneivat ha-­‐lev, the stealing of Lavan’s heart, has to do with Jacob showing, in his taking away of Rachel and Leah, that he does not love or honor them as any father would want their daughters to be loved. Lavan’s heart was “stolen away” by Jacob’s actions. Even if Jacob is correct, to leave with Rachel and Leah expands?? Jacob’s heart and yet leaves Lavan void. The image above shows a person stealing another’s heart, usually connoting falling in love, however, from the visual we see that the person stealing now has two hearts, leaving the other empty, without anything.

Focus back on your heart. Feel the beating, notice your breathing, watch your belly rise and fall. This is all possible because you have a heart. No, I do not mean a physical organ pumping blood, I mean family, friends, community, tradition, religion, social justice, etc. You have aspects of your life that keep you going, that keep the blood Flowing. Lavan knew, from the absence of his family that to be a Godly, full man, he needed them in his life. It’s hard to know if Jacob and Lavan are ever resolved in their hearts, which makes it all the more important that when we feel unresolved or have our hearts stolen, that we do the things we need to do to help our hearts keep beating. What makes up your heart? Without what in life would your heart be stolen? I pray for us this Shabbat that we take time to recognize the drumming of our heart, what keeps it beating, and keep Filling it with spiritual and personal nourishment.

Hayei Sarah 11/26/16

Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas

And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. - Genesis 23:2

When Abraham learned of the death of his wife Sarah, the Torah tells us that he “proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her (v’livkotah).” By tradition, the letter kaf in the middle of the word “and to weep over her” (pictured above) is written smaller than the other letters. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how this scriptural oddity is the source of a debate over how much Abraham cried while mourning Sarah - some argue that it was minimal, others that it was excessive.

Read another way, however, the small kaf hints at a different matter entirely. If we remove the kaf from the word “and to weep over her (v’livkotah),” the meaning of the verse changes. Without the kaf, the word “livkotah” reads - “ul’vitah - Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and for her daughter.” Did Abraham and Sarah have a daughter that the Torah did not mention? Rabbeinu Ephraim, one of the medieval Tosafists and Rabbi Judah of the ancient midrash suggest that, in fact, they did. According to their interpretation, Abraham cried not only because his wife had died, but also because she didn’t live to see her children marry. Neither Isaac nor this unknown daughter was married by this point in the text.

Female characters are often left out of the narrative of the Torah or they appear as supporting characters to the male heroes of the story. For example, Lot’s wife doesn’t have a name. Neither does Pharaoh’s daughter who was instrumental in rescuing and raising Moses. An ancient midrash says that there were female twin siblings corresponding to each of the twelve tribes, but we don’t know much about them either.

How does our understanding of the story of the first Jewish family change if we imagine that there was a daughter in the tent? We might wonder what her experience was like growing up alongside Isaac and Ishmael. The Torah does not record her thoughts or her statements, but surely she had influence on the life of their family.

Perhaps we can learn from her absence as well. Too often, women’s voices and insights are minimized (like the diminutive letter) in patriarchal societies. In a recent article in Lilith Magazine, Claire Landsbaum describes how female staff members’ contributions in the Obama White House were often overlooked by their male counterparts. So women worked together and “adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” It appears that we still have much work to do in honoring and recognizing the contributions of women as equal in the workplace, in religious life, as well as in popular culture. Famously, the Bechdel test measures whether or not TV or movies depict two women engaging in dialogue about a topic other than a man. Surprisingly (or not) many movies fail this test.

Those of us in the Jewish world who are committed to rectifying the historic and ongoing inequality between men and women can learn from the small kaf in Parshat Hayyei Sarah. Perhaps, hiding in that small letter is a hint at a Biblical character whom we didn’t get to know because the Torah didn’t tell us the details about her life and journeys. One way we can honor the memory of Abraham’s daughter is to uncover and recover these voices unrecorded by history and ensure that all voices are equally respected in our society,

Vayera 11/19/16

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz

Sometimes we might need to be a parent to God. Take God by the ears and exhort, “Look at us, listen to what we’re saying and focus on what we need.” We’re not exactly asking, yet we’re not commanding, but we are assertive! Perhaps we’re offering a parent’s guidance - us as parent, God as child. We all know, any family relationship can be fraught with challenge.

Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:

There's one sad truth in life I've found
While journeying east and west -
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.

In parashat va’yera, we are introduced to some uncomfortable stories of parents and children, including Lot with his daughters, the Akeidah, and the confusion that is Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael all defining “family.” Sarah feels threatened by the dynamic with Hagar and Ishmael, as part of the family, and pressures Abraham to remove them from the home, away from Isaac. Abraham recoils, but is told by God to heed Sarah, and that Ishmael “will be a nation because he is of your seed.” Hagar leaves with Ishmael, and while traveling through the desert, runs out of water. Ishmael looks as those he may die, and Hagar walks away from watching his suffering “and she raised her voice and wept.”

Interestingly, the next verse tells us, “And God heard the lad’s voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is.’” The mother cries out and the child’s voice is heard? This verse, Gen 21:17, is textually problematic and yet surprisingly comforting. God, in the role of parent, is moderating the reaction of God’s child, Hagar, verbalizing for her exactly what is happening and how it will be all right. Here is something so psychologically astute and emotionally satisfying – Hagar as a child of God while also the mother of Ishmael. A voice heard for the one that is silent.

We do not know what Hagar raises her voice to say, yell or exclaim, but it must have been through Ishmael’s voice, connected to his heart. God realizes Ishmael’s pain through his mother’s anguish. Our parents often carry our anxiety, excitements, future fears and hopes of accomplishments, but not often enough do we, the children, realize what is happening. God knows our innermost thoughts and connections. Therefore, Ishmael says nothing but God hears his voice through Hagar’s depression and concern. The angel then told Hagar to pick up Ishmael, and place him in her arms, as if only in this familial connection can they believe they have a future, and espy the well that will revive their lives.

This parasha reminds us of the significance and sanctity of relationship, the connectedness that should allow us to hear or speak for one another. We should be able to cry out for one another, and we should model a temperate and reasoned response to harm, especially when it will bring support or comfort. We should cry in one voice, desire to yell with one voice and rejoice in celebrating with one voice. Who do you listen to? Who do you wish to claim as influence to your voice? Let us all go in to the next week recognizing that which keeps our community feeling supported, cared for, and ultimately united. May we be one community of all human kind, one nation of quilted races and religions, one voice of harmonious song, and a people who take action knowing that love is love is love is love is love.

Taste of Torah - weekly Torah commentary from our Rabbis and Rabbinic Interns
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