Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Rabbis and Rabbinic Interns
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
Acquainted with the Light
“I have been one acquainted with the night,” writes Robert Frost. “I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. I have looked down the saddest city lane. I have passed by the watchman on his beat/And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/When far away an interrupted cry/Came over houses from another street, But not to call me back or say good-bye; And further still at an unearthly height, One luminary clock against the sky/Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night.”
Frost captures here the loneliness that can envelop a person in the throes of depression. The darkness is all-consuming, isolating, exhausting, and terrifying. We are particularly vulnerable to seasonal depression during these winter months, when night falls fast. The darkness outside can trigger a darkness inside of us, and intensify the cruel and lying voice in our head that puts us down and tells us we are not enough.
Adam harishon, the first person, knew this feeling well. The Talmud teaches that when he for the first time observed the days getting shorter he cried out. “Oy! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is becoming dark and returning to its state of chaos and disorder? This is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven!” Adam fell into despair, blaming himself for the darkness the fell around him, wondering what he had done to cause the chaos. Adam punished himself by fasting for eight days. He questioned whether he could survive this life. Would light ever return?
But as time passed, he noticed the days getting longer. Little by little, the light was returning. He declared, “This is the way of the world,” minhago shel olam, and he observed a festival for eight days to celebrate (Avodah Zarah 8a). This origin story of Hanukkah is unlike the others; there is no national glory or supernatural miracle of oil lasting longer than expected. But it is a story of the miracles within us. Adam learns that he can overcome darkness. He learns to live in a dark and scary place, knowing he is not to blame for it and that the darkness will pass. Neither winter nor his own sadness will last forever. “This is the way of the world,” the Sages teach. Every life includes periods of both darkness and light. Adam is the first person to be acquainted with the night, and he survives. Perhaps you, like me, know someone who suffered from mental illness and sadly succumbed to the overwhelming darkness in their life. Perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, if there was more you could have done.
It’s true that we cannot always save the lives of the ones we love, no matter how hard we try. But the message of Hanukkah is one of hope and empowerment: sooner or later, the light always comes back. By lighting one additional candle each night of Hanukkah, we demonstrate that a little bit of light can dispel the darkness around us. One smile, one phone call, one visit go a long way to alleviating one another’s isolation. Know the power of your presence to bring light into someone else’s life. We sing on this holiday: “Banu choshech l’garesh -- We have come to expel darkness; in our hands is light and fire. Everyone's a small light, and all of us together are a strong light.”
As we light our candles this Hanukkah, let us strengthen our own resilience – our power to survive the dark times -- and remember our miraculous ability to diminish the darkness around us. For there is a spark of God in each of us, and together we make a strong and beautifully radiant light.
For information on accessing mental health resources including counseling services, contact Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles at (877) 275–4537.
In Memory of Rabbi Neil Gillman זצ״ל
Rabbi Neil Gillman died this week in NY. He was a pillar of the Conservative Movement and a teacher to generations of rabbis, like me, who had the privilege of learning with him at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With his permission, I’m sharing excerpts from a eulogy written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins that capture a small portion of the legacy Rabbi Gillman leaves behind:
Dr. Gillman was a giant presence at JTS for well over a half century, beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s. His ordination was from JTS and his doctorate from Columbia. Rabbi Gillman served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School during a period of transition when women’s ordination was being debated. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model a more inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life. He was also a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a popular volume, and working with a committee to articulate the beliefs of our centrist movement in the volume Emet V’Emunah.
...Sitting in his office surrounded by towers of books, chomping on his pipe, he initiated [rabbinical students] into the ancient conversation of Jewish belief. In his book Sacred Fragments he introduced many of us to the thought of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, specifically the concept of “second naivete,” which described the possibility and even need for a post-enlightenment return to mythic structures in religious faith. In other words, one might absorb the truths of historical development—of the earth, of human life, of culture and even of Torah—and yet also live fully within the mythic structures of revelation, redemption and even resurrection. That last theme became increasingly important to him and was the basis of another outstanding book, The Death of Death. In it, he showed how rabbinic Judaism basically invented the concept of resurrection as a form of theodicy to justify God following the intolerable catastrophes of the destruction of the second temple, and then the Hadrianic persecutions.
Dr. Gillman was as non-fundamentalist as they come, and yet he still felt bound by Jewish traditions. I remember a story he told in class one year about cleaning his refrigerator for Pesah. Apparently there was a crouton that had fallen into a crack and was inaccessible. He knew that he could simply “annul” that hametz in the morning, but he couldn’t sleep. So in the middle of the night he took a screwdriver and attacked the fridge until he had purged the hametz!
One more thing that is important to share. Dr. Gillman maintained deep friendships with many people—colleagues and students—across lines of ideology… Many of us at JTS especially enjoyed observing the continuing friendship between Rabbi Gillman and Rabbi Joel Roth. They were as different from each other in intellectual interests and ideological convictions as you can imagine. Gillman favored Heschel’s “aggadah” over halakhah, whereas as Roth was a student of the great halakhists such as Saul Lieberman z”l. Gillman preferred the indeterminacy of mythic structures, whereas Roth taught about the systemic structures of halakhah. On gay rights, the two parted company, with Gillman as a fervent advocate, and Roth as a reluctant but nevertheless firm opponent of changes that he felt could not be justified within the law. And yet—their friendship remained, deep and true. They could be seen sitting together for lunch, sharing a half century and more of friendship and shared values.
This is how I wish to remember my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman—a person of sharp intellect, broad interests, and deep friendships. A model of critical and constructive faith, a sage and teacher and friend. May his memory be a blessing.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
My sister is coming to the end of a very difficult year. When she and my brother-in-law found out they were pregnant with their second child, we were thrilled. Roughly 20 weeks into her pregnancy though, their older child, my two-year-old niece, began experiencing random, terrible stomach pains. Soon after, she was admitted to the hospital and stayed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for two weeks. I rushed to be with family. My fiance Hilly and I spent the next few weeks doing whatever needed to be done; laundry, grocery shopping and cooking, minor errands. I learned the value of simply leaping into action, rather than offering, waiting to be told what to do, or asking how I could help. It was the scariest time in our lives. Seeing one of the people you love most in the world suffer is excruciating. I had many moments during those weeks when I felt helpless and terrified. At the end of those two weeks, my niece was diagnosed with a rare form of Lymphoma, for which she would need a year of treatment. I am grateful to God and doctors from the depths of my soul that the treatment has so far been effective.
After watching my own family suffer through illness, I have become acutely aware of the ways in which members of our Beth Am community care for each other, in particular when someone is mourning. Beth Am members show up for those in need; praying with mourners, and also by cleaning, cooking, and shopping for people who are suffering in our midst. I am always in awe of our ability to be present and give of ourselves in these times. This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the human instinct to be and do for each other. I believe this behavior is a reflection of the Divine spark in each of us. When God comforts Jacob when he is fleeing for his life this week, the Holy One says, וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ (Genesis 28:15)’’ and here I am with you. God promises to protect Jacob and make him a great nation, and most of all, to be by his side. Our desire to “show up” for others is a reflection of God’s enduring ability to be present for us.
Boris Fishman wrote in The New York Times recently about friends of his who received devastating news about one of their children. He happened to be visiting them at the time, and while at first he felt uncomfortable being in their home during their hour of need, something inside him told him to make lunch. It felt like a sacred duty to make his friend Susan a salad just then. “Where just minutes before I’d felt only awkwardness, now I felt something approaching elation. If I were a believer, I would have said God was there. When the salad was ready, Susan embraced me. And what was an opportunity for an unforeseen boundary turned into a moment of greater intimacy than before” (“God Is in the Salad Dressing,” 11/17/2017).
As my niece nears the end of her intensive treatment, I can only think: Modah ani. Grateful am I for her smile and strength. Being an aunt has been the greatest joy of my life. Grateful am I for God’s presence, our presence for each other, and our instinct to do when we don’t know what to do. Thank God for the cooking and other matters of daily life that their family and friends have lifted from my sister and brother-in-law’s shoulders, as they have been carrying so much. Grateful am I to God for giving us these sacred opportunities for intimacy. Grateful am I that God is in the salad dressing.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas, Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ
And they said to him - Where is Sarah, your wife?
Take a close look at the beginning of this week’s portion in a Torah scroll and you’ll notice something peculiar. There are 3 nequdot - dots over the letters aleph, yod, and vav. The word “eilav” means “to him.” The letter lamed is the only letter in the word that doesn’t get a dot. What are these markings doing? How did they get there? And what are we to make of them conspicuously placed in our Torah scrolls today?
In his doctoral dissertation, “The Meaning and Purpose of the Extraordinary Points of the Pentateuch,” published in 1906, Romain Butin offers several possible theories to explain the dots in this verse. The most plausible, in his opinion is that the text should have read vayomer lo - and he said to him (i.e. the angel to Abraham), instead of vayom’ru eilav (and they said to him). He points to the fact that in the following verse (v 10), only one of the ministering angels addresses Abraham. It is likely the same angel speaking in verse 9. Why would all three angels ask in unison “Where is Sarah, your wife?” His theory posits that the instructions to scribes was to mark the letters vav, yod, and aleph as questionable - only the scribes got the wrong vav. The “vav” should have referred to the last letter in “vayom’ru,” (see Fig 1) and was mistakenly placed on the last letter in “eilav.” (See Fig 2)
The rabbinic tradition derives a lesson from these dots (even if it is not likely the original reason for their existence). Rashi and Radak notice that the three dotted letters spell the word “ayo” meaning “where is he,” subtly indicating that just as the angels asked Abraham “Ayeh - where is Sarah, your wife” they similarly asked Sarah, “Ayo - where is Abraham, your husband.” From this, they conclude, it is customary to ask one’s host about his or her husband or wife. This clever teaching gives us a greater insight into the manner in which we can be good hosts and guests. After all, Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming attitude towards the angels is ground zero for Jewish teachings about hospitality.
But perhaps there is a deeper meaning to these dots and the question they’re “pointing” us to. The word “ayeh” recurs throughout the Genesis stories. First, God asks Adam in the garden, “ayekah - where are you?” Then, God asks Cain, “ayeh hevel ahikha - where is Abel, your brother?” And here, we see angels asking the first Jewish family, “Where is your husband? Where is your wife?” In each of these cases, we see God asking the characters of the Bible to take responsibility - for themselves and for the other people in their lives. “Ayeh” becomes a question that goes deeper than merely information about location. It’s an existential question - where are you in relationship to yourself, God, and others.
Genesis is a guidebook about taking responsibility for others. God is teaching humanity and the Jewish family how to care for one another and it begins by asking the question ayeh - where are you - where are your brothers and sisters, husbands, and wives. If we can answer that question honestly, then we’re on the right path to loving each other and loving God more fully.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
You Never Told Us
“You never told us.” I read the accusatory words on my computer screen and my heart started to race. They felt like a punch in the gut. The authors of these words were alumni of NFTY, the Reform movement’s high school youth group, and they felt betrayed by me and others who educated them.
Soon after college I took a job as the regional advisor with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, in San Francisco. I had grown up in NFTY and have many positive memories of spirited song sessions, tikkun olam work, and empowering learning experiences. After high school I spent a semester on a gap program in Israel and felt deeply attached to our homeland as a result. When I became a NFTY advisor I looked forward to giving back to an organization that had profoundly shaped me, and to inspiring young Jews. I wanted our programs to help teens love Israel and feel a strong connection to Jewish peoplehood. I told them that “Lech L’cha,” God’s charge to Avraham to go forth to the land God will show him, is directed to each of us as well. To be a Jew is to answer God’s call and feel a pull toward our homeland.
But I soon became frustrated with our educational programming about Israel. Programs were engaging, but they never felt like they accomplished enough. We set up a mock Knesset or planned “Israel Day,” complete with falafel and army training. We analyzed Hadag Nachash’s “Sticker Song,” a rap cataloguing Israeli bumper stickers. I had no idea then how to talk about the elephant in the room: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At 22 I lacked the knowledge and tools to engage them in a nuanced conversation.
Alumni of NFTY, USY, BBYO, Solomon Schechter day schools, and other groups are writing articles for the provocative anti-Occupation organization, If Not Now, as part of their #younevertoldus campaign. Davida Ginsberg, an alumna of USY on Wheels and USY Israel Pilgrimage, writes about her experience in gadna, basic training in the IDF, while on USY pilgrimage. She writes that while she was told there was a “conflict,” she heard nothing about an occupation. “You never told me what the soldiers were actually being trained to do with their guns, whose homes they were being trained to raid. You never told me why we - young, American Jews - should become militarized as a part of our summer camp experience… You never told me that the occupation doesn't actually keep any of us safe.”
One of my former NFTYites writes about how growing up she received skills and knowledge from her Jewish community about standing up and fighting for justice, “but when it came to justice in Israel/Palestine, our Reform community gave us only silence. The adults around us... steered us toward a ‘cultural’ connection to the state of Israel that we now realize was anything but apolitical. We were asked to imagine Israel as our homeland and to share affinity with a people and place we knew little about.” Many of them discovered the Palestinian narrative when they arrived at college, and became activists on their campuses.
According to midrash, Avraham spent his younger years exploring and pondering the existence of a Creator. Avraham is likened to a man who was traveling from place to place and came across a castle on fire. The man wondered whether the castle had a master to care for it. Then, the master of the castle popped his head out, looked at him, and said, “I am master of the castle.” In the same way, Avraham was constantly wondering, “Can you say that this world is without a Master?” God looked out at him and through the charge of “Lech L’cha, conveyed, “I am Master of the World” (Berishit Rabbah). Lech L’cha is God reaching out to humanity to say, “Hineni,” here I am, the master and caretaker of this world. You might have thought that the flames suggest that there is no one. But that is not so. You might not be able to see the master of the castle, but Someone is there.
God’s mission to Avraham is to trust in a God and a place he does not yet know. This is what I as a youth advisor hoped my teens would do: trust and believe in a country and people they do not know. I hoped naively that educational programming would foster enough connection to last them until they would actually go forth and spend time in Israel, where of course they would fall in love with their homeland and feel a part of this people. This worked for some kids, including me, but for many it did not.
This generation of Jews sees an Israel that is on fire. This Israel does not respect their brand of Judaism and does not welcome them as an equal member of the tribe. And more urgently, they see an Israel that does not love the stranger or treat non-Jews with the same dignity as Jewish residents. They wonder what happened to their Jewish values in the Jewish state. They are asking whether this castle is without caretakers. Where are their rabbis, teachers, and advisors? They are declaring that extinguishing this fire must be our priority. They inconveniently disrupt AIPAC policy conferences and Jewish community events to tell leaders this cannot wait. Use whatever economic and political pressure you have to push for an end to occupation and extinguish the flames of injustice.
I want us to teach our kids about Israel. I want them to know that a people that was homeless for nearly 2,000 years came home and built a miracle. I want us to be brave enough though to have honest conversations. We can talk about the refugees and the Occupation, and the deep challenges that Israel and Palestinians face in creating a shared society. I want alumni of our youth programs to know that we who struggle with the morality of the Occupation are also afraid of the alternative. I want them to know that Israel is not monolithic and there are many Jewish Israelis working for peace hand in hand with Palestinians. I need to ask their forgiveness for encouraging them to love and trust a place without more information. There are caretakers to Israel; it’s all of us. We need to work together to advocate for a more just society. I hope and pray that our alumni always find a home among Am Yisrael, and most of all that their message does not fall on deaf ears.