Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests
- Yitro 2/15/20
- Vaera 1/25/20
- Shemot 1/18/20
- Vayehi 1/11/19
- Vayigash 1/4/20
- Miketz 12/28/19
- Vayeshev 12/21/19
- Vayishlah 12/14/19
- Vayetze 12/7/19
- Toldot 11/30/19
- Hayei Sarah 11/23/19
- Vayera 11/16/19
- Lekh-Lekha 11/9/19
- Noah 11/2/19
- B'reisheet 10/26/19
- Vayelekh 10/5/19
Torah in a World on Fire
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
It turns out that even if you’re Moses, when the in-laws come to visit, it doesn’t matter - everything you’re doing is wrong. Jethro watches Moses arbitrate between God and the people all day long, interceding in their problems by expounding the law for them. The reality is, however, that Moses is pushing himself to the limit and still cannot possibly meet everyone’s individual needs. Jethro raises his concern that “You will certainly wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). As an alternative, Jethro ostensibly suggests a system that resembles a kind of precursor to democracy: “You shall seek out from among all the nation capable people who fear God, trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens…” (Exodus 18:21). And so we find Moses demonstrating his love for God and people by giving himself over wholeheartedly to their service, and we also see Jethro shrewdly recognizing that if Moses does not delegate some of the work, the people can’t possibly have the infrastructure to thrive without him once he’s gone.
My friend and fellow Ziegler student, Ben Sigal, compares Moses’ being overworked and depleted, and Jethro’s concern to leave things better off than he found them, to the environmental themes evoked by the recent holiday of Tu B’shevat, the birthday of the trees. Like Moses, our planet is overworked and depleted of resources. We are in need of Jethro’s ingenuity - of challenging the way things are in favor of new systems of sustainability and efficiency. This task is “too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone,” but thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens committed to Moses’ stewardship and Jethro’s creativity offers a compelling response to grim predictions of climate crisis.
Grim predictions, according to the Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael) are actually what brings Jethro over to the Israelite camp in the first place. We read, “And Jethro the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God did for Moses and for Israel, God’s people, how God took Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). The Midrash asks: What is it, exactly, that Jethro heard? What caused him to make the journey? One possibility the rabbis offer is the giving of the Torah. Although the giving of the Torah does not happen until after Jethro’s visit, the rabbis hold that chronology can be played with (בתורה מאחרוו מוקדם אין) allowing them to place Jethro among the other priests of the nations who fearfully tremble in their palaces upon hearing the voice of God, which “cleaves with flames of fire,” (Psalm 29) speaking to the Israelites from Sinai. According to the Midrash, Jethro and these other princes go find Balaam, the prophet who fails to curse the Israelites in parashat Balak, to inquire about the event. Hearing God’s voice from a distance and seeing how “…the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:18), the princes ask Balaam if God is now destroying the world by fire, as God had previously done through the waters of the flood. Balaam replies that God “…will bring neither a flood of fire nor a flood of water, but the Holy Blessed One is giving Torah to God’s people and loved ones.” The princes’ minds are set at ease and they take solace in the fact that God has promised never again to destroy the earth.
What stands out for me this week, between Tu B’shevat and parashat Yitro, is that while God has promised never to destroy the earth, human beings have made no such reciprocal promise. Our world is currently on fire, and unlike Sinai or the bush, it’s being consumed. But if Torah was originally given in the midst of fire – the kind of fire that made Yitro and his fellow princes fear the end of the world – maybe Torah was given precisely for that purpose: to respond to the needs of a world on fire. To turn trembling into relief – fear of destruction into the comfort in knowing that God has given the Jewish people a tree of life, and with it, a charge to be stewards of this world and caretakers of all of God’s creatures in it. In this way, we are summoned to attempt the moral leadership of Moses and the ingenuity of Yitro, who sees depletion and devises a new system that allows for sustainability and new growth.
Torah, then, which is often compared to water, can and should be the vehicle through which we attempt to quench the fires of this world.
First, Always Look Inside Yourself
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
I am grateful to my friend and teacher Peter Pitzele, the astoundingly talented and sensitive man who created Bibliodrama, extending the basic principle of Psychodrama to the biblical text. Some of you have participated in Bibliodramas with me. Essentially, a group creates midrash/interpretation in real time. By entering a Biblical character, and speaking in his/her name after a simple prompt by “the director,” participants awaken Avraham’s voice moments before binding Isaac, or Miriam’s voice as she hovers in the reeds overseeing baby Moshe’s floating crib, etc.
There are few rules to “directing” a Bibliodrama, but each of them is critical. one of them has become an integral part of my consciousness and communication, way beyond the Bibliodrama setting. It is called “echoing.” It is a very scripted version of what some informally refer to as empathic listening, where the listener in any exchange is focusing as deeply as possible on what the other is saying, rather than already scripting the retort/response in one’s head. In “echoing,” the director essentially says back to the room the words that the previous speaker/participant said, maintaining the first-person voice. While “echoing,” the director both addresses the room, but also focuses on the person being echoed. To check in, by reading body language and cues, to make sure that the director properly heard what the speaker was saying. The director takes full responsibility for echoing accurately. And if anything was missed, the director tries again until the person being echoed affirms the echo. This is best experienced in person, but you get the picture.
What I appreciate most about this method, both within a Bibliodrama and in other, less scripted exchanges, is the responsibility it places on the communicator. The method is counter-cultural, as in our society we so blithely and frequently hold “the other” accountable in our exchanges. If something was missed in the conversation, it was her fault, not mine. If I was misunderstood, it was because he wasn’t listening well, not because I spoke unclearly. Echoing transfers the burden to you. Listen well. Communicate clearly. If something is missed, take it upon yourself to lean in and do it better.
The method is modern and current, but the wisdom is age-old. Consider a commentary by the S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Altar, 1847-1905), one of the rebbes of the Gerer Hasidic dynasty. He is interpreting the phrase in Shemot/Exodus 6:12, which is part of Moshe’s exchange with God about how the interaction with Pharaoh and the Israelites will go once Moshe returns to Egypt. Moshe, humble and self-effacing, wonders if he will be effective. The Israelites will not listen to me! Nor will Pharaoh. Why?
If we paused the story here, we can imagine a leader or speaker throwing in blame and calumny to explain or even anticipate a failure of communication. “The Israelites will not listen to me because, God, as you know, they are stiff-necked.” And/or “Pharaoh has a heart of stone, so why should I expect such a hard-hearted man will soften it for me?” Instead of such accusations, Moshe turns internal. ואני ערל שפתים. Va’ani arel s’fatayim. Roughly translated as, “I am slow of speech.” (Literally, it means my lips are uncircumcised, clumsy, suffering from an excess of skin). The S’fat Emet praises Moshe here for passively and gently praising the Israelites. By turning the focus on himself, and restraining himself from criticizing them, Moshe resists the urge to name them as stubborn (as God is so wont to do.). “It is I, Moshe, who is lacking. Not them. If their hearts are not moved by what I say, then perhaps I didn’t say it well. If there is to be a failure of communication, it will be because I failed to communicate well.”
How wonderful our world, our community and our relationships would be if our first instinct echoed Moshe’s, as interpreted by the S’fat Emet. Of course, it would be safer and easier to take that stance in an exchange of words and ideas if we had faith that “the other” were doing so as well. But it must begin somewhere. The listening and the echoing has to be born, over and over again. Taking responsibility for what is said, and what is heard, is a relentless burden, and a holy one. Giving credit to the other, and reclaiming the obligation for oneself, makes relationship possible. Listen. Echo. Check in. If something was missed, try again. Resist the urge to blame “them.” Put the sacred burden on yourself.
Hutzpah is holy
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
If there is one unique behavioral trait to describe Jews across time and space, I would say, without a doubt, it is hutzpah.
For those not yet familiarized with the concept, originally a Hebrew word that made into Yiddish and English languages, Leo Rosten in his book “The Joys of Yiddish” defines hutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts', presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to".
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time a Jewish mother had another baby, but this time it was different. After having two beautiful and smart kids, she heard that the law had changed. If she gives birth to a baby boy, he must be killed, for the supreme ruler was afraid of a Jewish revolt. If hutzpah was not a thing in Jewish behavior from its inception, it could be the end of the story. But this strong woman could not give up to such a harsh decree. Her baby boy was born, and she had the hutzpah to keep him for as long as she could, for three months. She made a basket for the baby and asked her daughter to put him on the river. Maybe someone will find the basket and take care of him. None other than the Pharaoh’s daughter was the one who found him. If hutzpah was not a thing in Jewish behavior from its inception, it could be the end of the story. But since his sister followed the basket along the river, she came up to the Pharaoh’s daughter and had the hutzpah to say: “Hey, I know a Hebrew women who can nurse him for you, do you want me to bring him there?” Not only the mother was able to nurse her own baby, she was compensated by the Pharaoh’s daughter for doing so!
Yes, this is how the book of Shemot begins. Moshe’s birth is not about him, but about his mother’s and sister’s hutzpah. Maybe for being nursed and raised by his own mother, Moshe inherited such trait from her. Upon seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he turner both ways to see if no one was around and had the hutzpah strike down the Egyptian and bury him in the sand.
After that event, Moshe had to run away from Egypt and goes to Midian, where he gets married and has kids. While working as a shepherd, he meets God for the first time. What a great role model of hutzpah! God appears to Moshe with such a hutzpah that even Moshe questions the craziness of the divine request. God asks Moshe to be the one who will deliver the divine message that freedom is divine, and no human ruler can enslave and oppress like the Pharaoh did to the Hebrews.
Moshe is humble and afraid to take on the responsibility for this new divine calling. He questions himself. God’s hutzpah gives him strength, confidence. Hutzpah isn’t always easy; it takes some time and practice to get there. Thanks God, literally, Moshe could feel embraced and encourage move forward and fight for his people.
Hutzpah can sometimes be interpreted as a negative characteristic as well. Either as being too rude, disrespectful or for lack of faith and hope in God. At the end of the day, many of our praised ancestors did things against the law, putting themselves and the entire people at risk for their hutzpah. Rebbe Nachman teaches that hutzpah is exactly the opposite of that. According to the hasidic master, azut d’kedudshah, holy audacity, is the key to find hope and comfort while questioning God’s role as well as our responsibility. Many would say that a true tzaddik, a righteous person, cannot have any doubts. Rebbe Nachman rejected that widespread idea, teaching doubt as a spiritual virtue, as the impetus towards a blind faith. If one could rationalize God to its fulness, there would be no difference between that person’s mind and God’s will. Having doubt is essential for God’s existence.
The core message of this week’s Torah portion is exactly that: Hutzpah is holy. Each one of us is walking a different path, creating our own journeys. The amount of challenges that will present themselves on our way is countless. The blessing of walking together as a community, while walking individual tracks, following the weekly Torah portion cycle of is to see the Torah as a mirror. To find ourselves in their footsteps, learning from our people’s ancient wisdom and creating our own pathway to live a meaningful life. None of us will be Yocheved, Miriam, or Moshe. Still, we can walk beside them as we encounter our ancestors showing us a different way to see things through our own reflection.
Our world is on fire. When we see injustice, oppression, and hate we dare to have the hutzpah and stand up against it. We show love, we fight for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. We recall the divine calling towards justice and peace.
We live at a time when many feel lonely. We must dare to show up and have the hutzpah to tell someone that they are not alone, that we stand together and that we are there for them.
May we find the strength, courage and comfort in our tradition, looking at our ancestors’ challenges to find our own ways of transforming their legacy into action. Just as Yocheved, Miriam, and Moshe had hutzpah, so too we should have hutzpah. Just as God had hutzpah, so too we should have hutzpah.
May we all have the divine hutzpah we need this week.
Living and Dying with Enduring Hope
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
This week, we can’t even get past the first word of the parsha without needing to talk about it. Vayechi means “And he lived.” After reuniting with the favorite son whom he thought he’d lost tragically, and after having mourned Joseph’s supposed death for decades, Jacob lives an additional seventeen years in Egypt alongside him. What’s interesting is, Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into Egypt. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that Jacob happens to live (vayechi) seventeen years, only after which, “the time approached for Israel to die” (Bereshit 47:29). It’s almost as if God blesses Jacob with the exact amount of time necessary to achieve what might be called, in precise technical terms, a “do over.” This time, at the end of seventeen years, it would not be Joseph who is ripped away, but Jacob, who dies at a ripe old age in the company of his son. As God promises him in last week’s reading, “…and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Bereshit 46:4). Having dedicated much attention to Joseph’s dreams, the Torah concludes this saga with the realization of Jacob’s.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you that there’s a moment in The Odyssey that always makes me cry. Upon his triumphant return home after a similarly long period of separation, Odysseus receives a very emotional greeting. We expect it to come from Penelope, who has spent the years weaving and unweaving her web, faithfully warding off suitors until her husband’s return. But since Odysseus has disguised himself as a beggar in order to mount a bloody surprise attack - his way of warding off suitors - his family doesn’t recognize him. No one except for his dog, Argos, who recognizes him immediately. Argos lies on the floor, once a pup but now a tired old dog. Unable to get up, he musters his remaining strength to wag his tail. Odysseus sheds a tear, knowing that he cannot greet his dog without blowing his cover. He passes by Argos, who, having stayed alive just to see his master home safe again, can finally die in peace.
And so, Jacob summoned up his strength (ויתחזק) and “sat up in bed” (Bereshit 48:4), putting physical expression to his words from before, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive” (Bereshit 46:30). Joseph, who initially goes unrecognized by his brothers due to his “disguise” not as a beggar but as second in command to Pharaoh, is immediately recognized by his father as they fall on each others necks and weep. Now Israel, sensing the end, calls his sons around his bed to bless them. What might go unnoticed is how, buried within his blessing to Joseph is an assessment of his own good fortune: “The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills” (Bereshit 49:26). Tonally, this seems in sharp contrast to what he had previously described to Pharaoh: “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Bereshit 47:9). It appears that since then, Jacob’s pain has been lifted significantly, his heaviness abated, to the point where Radak, commenting on the word “ויגוע” - “and he expired” - writes, “[it is] an expression used with the righteous, describing a painless death.” Having his son home safe again, Jacob can finally die in peace.
We know what Israel lived for in his old age. Our angel-wrestling forefather also wrestles with the angel of death and prevails long enough to see the mending of his broken home. Whether family means blood relatives, friends, our shul community, or otherwise, Vayechi teaches us that family is what we live for. And the hope that what is broken can be repaired is what sustains us. Without that hope, we are left with a slave mentality, which mistakenly perceives that our present reality is our permanent one. After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers immediately revert back to their old deceptive ways, forging a message from their father that implores Joseph to forgive them. This seems to demonstrate that very slave mentality, stuck in what was and unable to concieve of what has become. So Joseph’s brothers “flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are for you as slaves’” (Bereshit 50:18). This is a sobering foreshadow, as we read next week in Shemot, “And a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), signaling the beginning of our bondage in Egypt.
And yet, Jospeh knows that God will bring them back to the Promised Land. The Book of Bereshit ends with Joseph’s adjuring the children of Israel carry his bones with them out of Egypt to be buried in Eretz Yisrael with his ancestors. The parsha begins, therefore, with Jacob’s portrayal of what it means to live with enduring hope. It concludes with Joseph’s demonstration of what it means to die with it.
Moving from I-It to I-You, in the Torah and Today
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro, Director of Youth Learning & Engagement
“All real life is meeting.” This statement is the crux of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, his most well-known work. Buber explains that “real life” involves an encounter with an “I-You” way of being. In distinction from an I-It way of being, I-You calls upon us to see the Godliness and unity in each and every aspect of the world around us, particularly other people. When I have a “I-You” moment, I’m seeing beyond the data points of who you are on the surface, and getting to something more resonant with the ultimate truth of who you are. Buber is often oversimplified as follows: there are two ways of interacting with the world, a transactional way and a truly relational way, and we should value and work towards the latter, rather than being stuck in the former. His claim, however, is more complex than that- it’s not merely a category of interaction, but a way of living life, of engaging with the world. I can’t have an I-You encounter unless I’m living my life is that way; unless I’ve had an internal shift, I won’t fully be in that “I-You” place, no matter how close I feel to the people around me or the world at large.
This might seem a bit abstract, even obtuse. Fortunately, the parsha this week offers us two examples through which we can see this concept illustrated, illuminating how the experience can emerge in two directions: one by finding a way to be “I-You” in the world and the ensuing transformation within a relationship, the other by having a “meeting” in a relationship that shifts a way of being as an individual. The first is present right at the beginning of the parsha, picking up in the middle of the scene where Benjamin stands accused of having stolen from Egypt’s second-in-command (the brothers not yet knowing that it’s Joseph). The parsha begins with “Judah approached him…” (44:18) The verse can be read as having a superfluous pronoun, (“Judah approached” would have been sufficient), and that “him” is in turn read as Judah approaching not his brother, but himself. R. Simcha Bunim articulates that “Judah came close to his own essence,” which in turn heightens the efficacy of his words; by finding the wherewithal to go deep within, his words move Joseph enough that he finally reveals himself to his brothers, and reunion and reconciliation ensue. Judah’s self-reflection is the starting point for all of these changes. From the Buberian perspective, because Judah is able to shift his way of being in that moment to a more reflective state and conducting himself accordingly, a transformative shift in a relationship follows.
The inverse seems to happen a chapter and a half later. Jacob gets word that his beloved son is alive in Egypt and comes down to see him. When, at last, they meet after years apart, Jacob’s first words to him are, “now that I’ve seen you alive, I can die.” (46:30) At first glimpse, these seem to be odd words to offer to a long-lost relative, let alone the apple of Jacob’s eye whom he has long thought deceased. Radak puts a finer point on these words, framing them as “now that I see you living, I could die with no regrets.” Even though Jacob’s words are explicitly talking about death, they can also be seen as an affirmation of this particular moment of real life. This one point in time is so full, so resonant, that anything beyond this is, essentially, a bonus. Jacob, it can be argued, needs nothing more than this, and he’s now at peace, at least for a split second. In contrast with Judah, who found the “I-You” way of being within himself and brought it out, Jacob is able to shift his way of being from one of goals- getting to this point- to one of being, in acceptance of and present with what currently is, an I-You state
The duality of these two moments is both contradictory and illuminating, There’s not necessarily a rhyme or reason to if and when “I-You” emerges; no matter how hard we might try to cultivate it or bring it out, it’s ephemeral and impermanent. Yet ultimately, in these examples and in Buber’s thought, this state is driven by relationship rather than solitude, a desire to connect rather than the pull of isolation.
When the world feel fraught and scary, a common impulse for many, including myself, is to retreat and step back, trying to stay out of harm’s way by withdrawing. This external response to the world in turn impacts how we relate to other people- if my default attitude towards the world is one of fear and suspicion, there’s little doubt that this will impact how I interact with people around me, whether with those I’m close to or in encounters with new faces. Buber, however, affirms that “people appear by entering into relation to other people.” When we’re present, fully connected with another, we become the clearest articulation of ourselves. The interactions between the dyads of Judah/Joseph and Jacob/Joseph layer additional, moving perspective- in becoming our fullest selves, we create change in the people around us. The response, then, to fear or anxiety is to enter into deep relationships and bring the fullness of who we are out into the world. The parsha, through the lens of Buber, calls us to seek out, within ourselves and through others, the holiness and Oneness that is always available to us, in each and every moment, if we’re paying attention and open to what’s both within us and right in front of our faces.
Dedicating Sacred Spaces to Create Godly Behavior
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst—declares God. (Zechariah 2:14) This is the opening line for the Haftarah of Hanukkah.
After about 50 years in Babylonian exile, the Persians conquered the Babylonians; Cyrus the Great, the new Persian ruler, allowed all peoples held captive by the Babylonians to return to their ancestral home.
We know of that part of the story from the book of Ezra, who is writing about events that happened a generation or two before him. Before Ezra, who led the rebuild of Jerusalem with Nehemiah, the prophet Zechariah had set the foundation for this enterprise. Even though they had the freedom to rebuild the Temple since Cyrus’ edict, only during the rulership of Darius, most prominent Persian ruler after Cyrus, the construction actually begun. Prophet Zechariah is speaking at that time, when the Second Temple constructions are starting.
Among other reasons, we read this Haftarah during Chanukah for we are celebrating the dedication of a sacred space. “Shout for joy, Fair Zion!” When the prophet Jeremiah preached for people to settled in Babylon, he also urged the people to support that land and keep moving on with their lives outside the land of Israel, for God’s presence was still among them. God’s presence is greater than one confined physical building. No physicality can contain God. Still, as humans, we create those places out of need. We feel the urge to dedicate time and space in our lives to focus, to meditate, and to experience the divine presence. Even knowing that the physicality of our sacred spaces is just a representation of God’s presence and holiness, we attach ourselves to it. We need the right kind of light, music, comfort and discomfort to engage in a meaningful experience with the divine through prayer and study. The power and the goal of ritual is to change our behavior, to align ourselves to God’s attributes.
The rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees was a symbolic reconnection to the divine presence, even though God had never left. As humans we need to find ways to express our deepest religious commitments in the public space, surrounded by our community, marking time and space as holy.
Another relationship between this Haftarah with Hanukkah is the imagery of the Menorah that appeared to the prophet in his dream (Zechariah 4:1-6). This vision of the Menorah is accompanied by two olive trees, one on each side of it. The interpretation of these olive branches given to Zechariah by the angel is that they represent “two anointed dignitaries who attend the Lord of all the earth.” (Zechariah 4:14), referring to Yehoshua, the High Priest of that time, and Zerubavel, the appointed governor for the land of Judah by the Persian king. Just like in the story of Hanukkah, one might think that the military fight to establish our presence in the Temple is the core message of these stories, and therefore, we should behave similarly. But after this prophecy, our Haftarah ends with the famous sentence to Zerubavel, the secular leader of that generation:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:7)
The spirit of God doesn’t mean necessarily that God will magically act on our behalf for we behaved well, but in looking up to God’s spirit for guidance, we can personify God’s attributes, behaving godly, according to the divine values we hold precious in our hearts.
The rabbinic retelling of the story of Hanukkah in the Talmud, changes the focus from the military achievement to the oil miracle. In focusing on the miracle of the lights it shifts the perspective from the battle to the miracle, from human conquest to divine devotion.
“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was sufficient oil there to light the Menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the Menorah from it eight days.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
It is up to us to find God in our midst, to take a step back from our human arrogance and make space for God’s attributes to come forth. When we as humans enact God’s attributes of love, kindness, justice and peace among ourselves, we are making space for God by acting godly, fulfilling the real meaning of being made in God’s image and likeliness.
In our Torah reading this week, when Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he said: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Bereshit 41:16). Instead of claiming the answers for himself, Yosef humbly recalls God’s power as the source of all his knowledge.
A core Jewish belief is that God is eternal. God’s presence is not absent from the world, but we have not achieved our potential to reach it in its fullness. Just like Yosef, Zechariah and the Talmudic Sages, it takes a perspective shift to bring God into the conversation, to amplify our capacity of amazement, to identify our godly behavior.
Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst—declares God. (Zechariah 2:14)
May we celebrate this Shabbat the beauty of God’s sacred home, represented in the physicality of our sanctuaries, as we meditate on the beauty of our sacred home, our bodies, our mundane behavior and our godly actions.
Thorns, Thistles, and Pits
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
The Talmud tells the story of a blind man walking around in the middle of the night by the light of a torch. Rabbi Yosi is intrigued by this. “My son,” Rabbi Yosi asks. “Of what benefit is this torch to you?” The blind man answers, “As long as the torch is in my hands, people will see me and save me from pits and from thorns and from thistles.” What strikes me every time I read this text (Megillah 24b) is the role reversal – the blind man is the one who helps Rabbi Yosi to see. Not just by clearing up his curiosity. This exchange actually goes on to provide Rabbi Yosi with the tools he needs to resolve a larger halakhic debate. In this way, it is the blind man who has saved Rabbi Yosi from an intellectual pitfall, helping him steer clear of thorns and thistles to instead arrive at the proper halakha, unscathed.
While the Talmud demonstrates how sometimes the visually impaired can actually be the ones who see most clearly, this week’s parsha, Vayeishev, demonstrates how even the most perceptive among us can’t escape our own blind spots. God blesses Joseph with prophetic dreams and the ability to accurately interpret them. And yet, when we first meet him, he is a young boy who lacks the foresight to predict how sharing such dreams with his brothers will provoke their jealousy and even hatred. A jealously first ignited by their father’s gift of a colorful coat, and later exacerbated by six Tony nominations.
Was Jacob unable to see the dangerous implications of his favoritism toward Joseph? Sure enough, while the blind man successfully avoids pits, Joseph, the prophet, is cast into one. His brothers conspire to kill him, ultimately deciding to sell him into slavery, instead. They then slaughter a goat, dip Joseph’s coat in the blood, and present it to their father. Jacob “…recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’”(Bereshit 37:33).
This exchange seems eerily familiar. Just a few chapters earlier, when Jacob was a boy, he also deceives his father by way of a slaughtered goat. Seeking Isaac’s blessing, which was intended for Esau, Jacob covers himself with goatskins to take on the physicality of his brother the hunter. He succeeds, as we read, “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see (…) Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn’”(Bereshit 27:1, 21:19). What if, like in the Talmudic story above, the emphasis is not on one person’s literal blindness, but on another’s metaphorical one. Though Jacob receives a blessing, he fails to see how the use of deception may one day come back to curse him. Indeed, his sons proceed to borrow a move from his own playbook.
One of my rabbis once connected this moment in Vayeishev to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite during the High Holidays. Acknowledging inescapable death, we ask, “who by fire, and who by water?” “Who by sword (חרב), and who by wild beast (חיה)?”
When Jacob is shown the bloodstained coat, he concludes that Joseph was torn by a wild beast (חיה). Though a horrific tragedy, fatal confrontation with wild animals was actually common at this time, especially for a nomadic people. They came to be viewed as an inevitable aspect of life. Joseph’s sale into slavery, however, was no inevitability. It was a deliberate act of human violence (חרב). In this moment, Jacob confuses one for the other. Like Jacob and Esau, חרב cloaks itself in the garments of חיה. How often do we make the same mistake, failing to differentiate the two?
I wholeheartedly believe that the synagogue is where we go to have our eyes opened. What are our blind spots? In times when human violence is so ubiquitous that it appears to be an inevitable aspect of life, we look to the wisdom of our tradition and to each other for insight and clarity to lift the darkness and help us better understand the world and our place in it. How do we learn from our stories, carrying Torah in our hands like a torch in the night to guide us on our way, clear of thorns and thistles and pits?
Staying Above the Weeds
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
How often have I found that the tone of my voice or content of my speech is in some way mirroring the very tone or content I am trying to convince another to avoid? How frequently does it happen that I wage a battle with my children’s relationship to the ubiquitous, invaluable and somewhat insidious screens, only immediately to return to one myself, for a quick endorphin rush or illusory escape, right after I finish speaking with them? How common it is to be touched by, infected by, the very thing we are fighting against?
Judaism has a powerful (but oft-forgotten, outside of the very traditional Jewish community) relationship with touch, proximity, infection and toxicity. The whole infrastructure of טומאה and טהרה (tum’ah and tahara), often inelegantly (and perhaps inaccurately) translated as “impurity” and “purity” (“life-ebbing” and “life-flowing” is probably a better rendering of what the original Biblical Hebrew had in mind) is related to being in contact with or near something that can transmit a spiritual infection. Tum’ah may be inevitable in life (when in contact with an unclean animal, or even a human corpse, in the scope of doing the mitzvah of providing a dignified burial), and yet we aim to pendulum-swing towards tahara as much as possible. Getting too close gets “it” on our clothes, within our homes, even on our bodies. Think of it is as Biblical cooties. The laws of kashrut, too, hinge on contact, proximity, cross-over and intrusion/infection of unwanted substances and tastes. Pesah/Passover just amplifies that more, as hametz/leaven takes on truly nefarious character during those 8 days. Stay away!
If we pull back from all of these wars against unwanted substances, vapors, humors, fluids, objects…perhaps we see the tradition reckoning with something inevitable. As much as you try to pull away from something, it frustratingly and sometimes inevitably follows you. There is no such thing as comprehensive disinfection. Engaging in the battle with “the stuff” puts you, inevitably, in contact with “the stuff.” The cycle is Sisyphean. And the applications go beyond material toxicity, to spiritual and relational.
In this regard, I am moved by a reading on a rather obscure verse in Vayishlah that emerges from the Musar tradition. In short, Musar was (and is) a proud attempt to pull moral valence and meaning out of every aspect of Jewish life and ritual, every verse of the Torah. If we are not living with moral and interpersonal alertness, then we are not living Jewishly, at least according to Musar. We are dealing with the verse (Breishit 35:2) immediately after the sordid ritual with Jacob’s daughter Dina, and Shekhem, son of Hamor. In brief, Jacob’s sons wield ferocious vengeance on Shekhem’s people and town, punishment for his/their mistreatment of Dinah, and/or just the audacity to think that they, idolaters, could truly intermingle and intermarry with this monotheistic tribe. In the narrative (which, yes, is a troubling one, and I am not entering into all of the troubling aspects in this mini-drash), it is clear that Jacob and sons are trying to prevent infection/intrusion/invasion of whatever ideas, practices and behaviors are normative among the Shekhemites. There needs to be a clean (and, yes, vicious) break between “us” and “them.” The battle is quick and merciless, and it seems that the spiritual invasion has been repelled. And then, in our verse, Jacob tells his household, “Remove the foreign gods that are in your mist, and purify yourselves, and change your clothing.” To what is he referring?
Consider this short and pithy takeaway from the world of Musar: “It is possible to wage war with Shekhem, and nevertheless to cling to it/him/them a little bit, as a result of the very war itself.” I hear this text explaining that however Jacob and sons fought to distance themselves from Shekhem the person, and Shekhem the culture, there was some unavoidable static cling. The contact bred a connection. Getting “in there” to try to eliminate the bonds at the same time made new bonds. And so, even after the war is ostensibly over, Jacob still needs to tell his tribe: step away from Shekhem!
A wise friend once told me, regarding all sorts of political and inter-personal engagements, that when you go down to fight the weeds, guess what? You are in the weeds. It is much better to stay above them. For engaging with them will also infect you with them.
How do we teach children about healthy relationship with screens without, ourselves, falling victim to their mesmerizing pull? How do we properly call out others for problematic behavior while simultaneously watching that we don’t ourselves slip into that ugly stew of character? We must notice the weeds in our midst, and yet stay above them, noticing even more the good material, the good tissue, and mostly fighting off infection by building up immunity. With what is good, and with what is right. All the time.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
February 2015, my grandparents came to visit me in Israel. We went around the country with a guide who was most famous for his archeological finds in what is now known as the City of David. He was the first to find a bell that is considered to be from the tunic that the High Priest wore. Based on his accolades, my grandparents had him take us around with a specific focus of archeology and ancient ruins. One day he took us down an unknown path, in fact there were signs to not go where we were headed. I was nervous for breaking the rules and that the ground could be unstable for my grandparents. We reached a cave, where again I was hesitant, but this time because there could be snakes or scorpions or spiders! As we walked in I saw a standing rock, another circular rock with a hole in it and a cot shaped indentation in the ground. Our guide asked me to read a few verses of Torah while standing in this spot and I read the following: “Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית אל – Jacob called the name of this place Beit El – the house of God.” I looked around me and was in awe. Was this really the place where Jacob had his famous dream of angels ascending and descending a sulam, a hapax legomenon which we have come to translate as ladder? It was hard in that moment for me to answer “no.” Everything was as it seemed from the Torah and in fact I exclaimed מה נורא המקום הזה – how awesome is this Place.
We know that מקום, place, is one of the names for the Divine, and yet we believe God is everywhere. How can God be Place and everywhere?
Makom is essential to experience. Where you are when you fall in love. Where you are when you experience wonder. Where you are when you smell something that takes you back to childhood memory. Creating a מקום is imperative to connecting to our spiritual selves. Jacob names the space of wonder Beit El, the house of God. If you had seen the cave I was in, you would know that was definitely not my definition of a house of God. And yet, shouldn’t every place of discovery be a Divine Place a moment with God.
This weekend, the clergy of Temple Beth Am are in Boston at the combined USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) and Rabbinical Assembly conference. We were asked to come and present Shabbat Sovev, a service that Temple Beth Am has embraced, grown and fashioned for many years. Shabbat Sovev was created as an answer to makom, to place and space, and similarly our beautiful new sanctuary followed. Sitting in the basement of a Reform Shul in Jerusalem, in concentric circles, singing new tunes with an innovative minyan called Nava Tehila, I knew I wanted to bring this kavannah, this intentional spirituality into Temple Beth Am. And first we needed to create the space. The literal look of the room, of the chairs, of the different people who would help make prayer rise in our own Beit El. Writing this, I do not know what our makom will look like in Boston. I do not know who will be singing with us to create a spiritual uplift for Shabbat. And I know with the partnership of Rabbis Kligfeld and Cantor Chorny that we were asked to bring this opportunity to the movement because there is Divine space created in the service.
Jacob had a dream and found himself naming a place holy and awesome. Temple Beth Am took a chance in innovating Kabbalat Shabbat and found a makom, a spiritual space. I hope we are able to enhance Shabbat in creating our space of Sovev in Boston, and that we will have many people exclaiming “how awesome is this space and I did not even know we could do it!”
Between the Boxes
Prepared by Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor
With the release of Disney+, my preschooler and I did a deep dive into ‘90s television. It was a nostalgia trip. I had forgotten a lot, including the two-dimensionality of the characters, pun unintended (but consequently terrific), which upon rewatching made me uneasy. I had forgotten how often writers relied on minimal character development, especially of the girls and women in these shows, to move their stories. There are whole studies in the character archetypes of women in television and movies, and I’ll speak for myself and say, my brain seeks to sort these female characters into these categories [credit to writing blogger Jennifer Ellis]: The Amazon/Crusader (think, Wonder Woman); `The Librarian/Spinster (think, Hermione Granger); The Nurturer/Martyr; The Queen Bee (Jean Grey from “X-Men”); The Girl Next Door (every Meg Ryan character in a Rom Com); The Seductress; The Quirky Misfit (Phoebe from “Friends”); and The Survivor (think, Scarlett O’Hara).
Plots are driven forward and made interesting by these girls and women wrestling with their identities and stepping briefly outside their boxes, but when they are lost and floating and cannot be pinned down, we strain to tell their stories. We are out of practice at writing the stories of women who live beyond and between these boxes. And most people live between the boxes.
The character of Rivka here in our parsha text is a righteous woman. The Nurturer. How do we know? The text itself and then rivers of commentary tell us that she was chosen, perhaps divinely ordained, to partner with Yitzhak as a kind of oedipally-questionable replacement for his deceased mother, Sarah. When Rivka is in the throes of a difficult twin pregnancy, she cries out in existential angst (Gen. 25:22),
לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי
Roughly translated, “Why me?” The Kedushat Levi (18th c. Poland) offers a commentary by R’ Isaac Luria, the 16th century founder of Kabbalah: Rivka has been taught that righteous women are not supposed to suffer during pregnancy. So you might read this moment as Rivka asking why she is suffering. After all, she is Righteous with a capital “R”; what is the purpose of a good woman like her enduring such terrible pain?
A tougher read, though, one that pulls at my gut, is the one that has Rivka wondering if this pain must mean that she is not a Righteous Woman. And therefore she is not who she thinks she is, is not who she has always been told she is. Her identity is gone, her box is gone, her story no longer makes sense, and she is lost and seeking and searching. Perhaps that is why her outcry is followed by the following phrase:
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה
And so she went directly to seek an oracle from Adonai in a moment when she finds herself standing outside the box.
Look at us, still sorting characters into boxes thousands of years later, and all we need to do is glance back at this textual moment as an example of a way to tell our stories by breaking through tropes and rules. Righteous people suffer. Nurturers fail to nurture. Amazonians go weak. Misfits find their matches. It’s hard work to write a story with character who live between the boxes, but it’s far more interesting.
I Will Go
By Josh Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
When I applied to Ziegler, I didn’t apply anywhere else. Because when I visited, I met the rabbis I’d be learning from and the students I’d be learning with, and I knew I had found where I needed to be. When I applied to Beth Am to be a rabbinic intern, I didn’t apply anywhere else. Because I had met the congregants and rabbis, and I knew that if I ever had the privilege of serving this community, I’d be in the best possible hands.
This week in Chayei Sarah, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, meets Rebecca. And when he does, he doesn’t apply anywhere else. He knows he’s completed his mission, having found a wife for his master’s son, Isaac. He immediately recognizes that, should she agree to go with him, Abraham’s legacy would be secure and in the best possible hands. Why? What is it about Rebecca? And don’t tell me it’s because she offered to water his camels. That’s true, but we both know I have to fill an entire page here.
We live in a world desperate for moral leadership. This week’s parsha, which gives us the death of one matriarch and the rise of another, offers insight into what makes someone fit to lead. Someone like Abraham, who, after Sarah’s death, becomes particularly concerned with legacy – with the order of his household after he, too, is gone. So the first thing he does is purchase the Cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife. What’s interesting is that the word used to describe the cave’s new ownership is ויקם – “he established it.” ויקם is from קום – “to rise.” Rashi comments that Abraham caused the place to rise. He elevated it through his contact with it. A legacy can reflect one’s attempt only to establish one’s self in the world, or, as in Abraham’s case, one’s sincere desire to elevate people and leave the world a little better off than it was before.
Abraham’s next concern is a wife for Isaac. The 12th century French commentator, Radak, writes that Abraham was advanced in years, having reached “the years when a man thinks about his departure from this earth and [so he] is concerned to make sure that Isaac is married while he is still alive.” He adjures Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac from among his own people, which brings Eliezer to Rebecca.
It’s at this point that we’re presented with very different approaches to leadership and legacy. Rebecca’s brother, Laban, sees the golden rings and bracelets, which Eliezer has brought for Rebecca, and senses an opportunity to get in with a wealthy family. He supports the marriage and tells Eliezer to take his sister and “לך.” “Go.” This resembles the famous words of just a couple chapters prior, when God tells Abraham, “לך לך.” Not merely “Go,” but “Go for yourself.” There, God is guiding Abraham to where he needs to be in order to become a great nation. Not only for Abraham’s good but because “האדמה משפחת כל בך נברכוו” - “…all the families of the land will bless themselves by you” (Bereshit 12:3). God empowers Abraham with a clear and salient summation of purpose: “ברכה היה” - “…be a blessing” (Bereshit 12:2). Elevate people. Leave the world better off than it was before.
Laban’s “לך,” however, is missing the second part: “לך.” He is not telling Rebecca to go for herself, or for the good of others, but is likely motivated by securing his own good. He seizes upon the opportunity for self-advancement. This is the major challenge of our world today. Those who take ויקם to mean “establish,” without concern for the “elevation” aspect.
And then there’s Rebecca. Her father and brother, Bethuel and Laban, turn to her and ask, “Will you go with this man?” Rebecca responds, “אלך” – “I will go” (Bereshit 24:58). Rebecca’s “לך” is unique from both God’s words to Abraham and Laban’s words to Eliezer. Because she isn’t receiving a direct promise from God that all will go well for her. And having just watered a stranger’s camels (NOW you can say it), I think it’s safe to say she isn’t looking to exploit him. אלך means doing what is right for its own sake. It’s why Rebecca is the exact right person to protect Abraham’s legacy and help pioneer this new religion.
Because unlike with Laban, for Rebecca, it’s not about gold bracelets. Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of Prophets, dissects the verse: “Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]” (Bereshit 24:22). It explains that the half shekel nose ring alludes to the half shekel tax, which served as a census for the children of Israel in the desert – a way to count every head. The two bracelets weighing ten gold shekels are symbolic of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Read this way, Rebecca literally takes the future of the Jewish people into her hands.
“Chayei Sarah” means the lives of Sarah. Why is it plural? Maybe that’s because we all get this one life, and then after we’re gone, we also get to leave behind a legacy. Today we read the lives of Sarah. Tomorrow we write our own.
Seeing the Divine Presence
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
In last week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we were able to experience Avraham’s divine call. Avraham heard a unique voice that gave him the guidance needed to pursue his on path with his family and his community. It is hard for me to imagine that God had not revealed Godself to anyone else other than Avraham until then, for God is always present in the world. Rather than God being the first one to reach out at this moment, I think this was the first time that someone reached out to hear the divine call. Avraham was a pioneer. Avraham was countercultural.
This week’s parasha begins with God appearing to Avraham right after his circumcision, the physical symbol of their covenant. What is the difference of last week’s revelation, when Avraham heard the divine call to this week’s revelation, when God appears to Avraham?
In the first verse, we only read that God appeared to Avraham, but there is no description of what it looks like. In the next verse, Avraham raises his eyes and sees three men standing near him. Avraham sees them and runs to greet them, welcoming them into his tent, offering water, rest and food.
Our sages read here a common feature of biblical poetry, after a generic statement, a more detailed description is followed. According to this perspective, the appearance of these three men is somehow the divine presence. Many will explain it saying that these three were angels of God. I want to offer another, maybe more literal, reading of this passage.
Three men were walking on their journey. They saw Avraham sitting outside his tent. They stopped by to check in. This is how God looks like. The divine presence is there when people show up for each other.
Avraham was in pain, recovering from his circumcision, and when he saw people showing up, he saw the divine presence acting there. He didn’t think twice we did the same. Avraham offered water, rest and food to these three men immediately, enhancing the divine in that moment.
When reading the book of Bereshit we are challenged to find the essence of these complex characters in the story and relate to them, aiming to learn moral lessons, being inspired by godly decisions they made.
After hearing the divine call, becoming part of the covenant with God, Avraham was ready to behave differently. Avraham was open to change and to be changed.
“Just as God visits the sick, so too, we should visit the sick.” This is how the Talmud interprets this event, reminding us that Avraham just had his circumcision. We need to learn from where we see God’s presence, when our ancestors made godly decisions and internalize these divine attributes. This is a key aspect of developing our Jewish identity, following the footsteps of those who came before us in order to create our own trail. Know who you are, know what you stand for, because God speaks to everyone and it is our responsibility to develop our capacity of listening.
Just like Avraham did after his call, we need to stand up and run to action, transforming identity, values, attributes, into action and behavior. Judaism is not centered around what Jews think, but it is all about what Jews do. Jewish religious practice is known as halacha – the Jewish way – for we are always walking our journeys, we are active, we change and we grow.
We learn from the three men that we have to go out of our comfort zone in order to be available for others, specially those who don’t feel seen or heard, who might be in need of our support.
We learn from Avraham to give without asking for reciprocity, doing what is right for it is the right thing to do. We learn from Avraham to welcome the people we don’t know and make them feel safe and have their needs taken care of.
We live in community. Some of us might have been here for longer they can count. Some of us might be here today for the first time. It is time for us to be more like Avraham and not wait, but run towards those approaching and see the divine in them.
I want to share with you today the blessing of Avraham in his open tent. May we all merit to be blessed with the potential of seeing the divine presence in each and every one. We are all made in God’s image.
Eulogies for my friends Dr. Baruch Link & Nate Milmeister
By Danielle Berrin
In memory and honor of our friends Dr. Baruch Link and Nathan Milmeister, Danielle Berrin has written some words to share with us all about their journeys through life, how they impacted an entire community and yet every individual felt unique and special.
Dr. Baruch Link:
Baruch was sweet and gentle and kind, a brilliant mind, the consummate conversationalist, a loving and devoted friend and family man. But he was more than adjectives. More than a description. Baruch was more like a novel.
We all know the cliche “you are what you eat,” but with Baruch it’d be more apt to say, “he was what he read.” His personality, character, relationships, illness and struggles, his gifts and passions; his entire experience was as worthy a narrative as any of the many books of literature he so loved. And just as in the great works of literature that have described and defined and lent meaning to human life since the Bible, his was the kind of character so rich and refined it took but a moment of being in his presence to feel on some visceral level who he was.
I met him through Teri, a soft-spoken but mighty angel of a woman, who wasted not a day before approaching me with her warmth and sensitivity and kindness in the Beth Am daily minyan back in 2013. I met Baruch only a little later, probably at a Shabbat dinner, and as soon as I did, he took me in as one of his own. Both Teri and Baruch made me feel like family - a surrogate daughter of sorts, especially when Tal and Shmuel were not in LA.
And then there was Baruch on the phone. I remember the first time he called, it was to wish me happy birthday, and I had missed the call and saw it was from Teri’s cell phone. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I received a voicemail from Baruch - ‘sha-lom’ calling to bless me and make me feel loved.
Over time Baruch and I bonded over many subjects -- as writers, as people who love words, and literature. We’d always discuss politics - the politics of LA Jewry, American Jewry and of course, his beloved Israel. I remember early on, he loaned me a book he was so excited to share with me. I remember I took it home, set it on my night table, building myself up for this magical world Baruch wanted me to enter. Only to discover that the book was written entirely in Hebrew. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t fluent. So, I kept the book long enough to pretend I’d actually read it, and later, when I returned it and he asked me how I liked it, I of course said, “It was wonderful, powerful, exquisitely crafted!” And his response about the characters and the images and the lessons and the prose was so detailed and descriptive, I felt as if I actually HAD read the book.
That was Baruch’s gift. The ability to inspire and impart meaning through language and literature, prose and poetry.
I don’t need to tell you that according to our tradition, the world was created with words. But I wonder how often we pause to consider the impact of what that means. He spent his life living in concert with God in the ultimate act of creation and was able to express his own divine essence by creating worlds with words.
We are, after all, the people of the book. When we weren’t strong, when we were stateless and powerless, our people wrote texts. It has sustained us long after the authors have passed and the events of history have sought to smite us. Baruch entered history to restore us to the language of the soul and the spirit.
I met Nate at the TBA daily minyan, but my friendship with him deepened because I couldn’t resist popping in next door to visit him, or run outside when I saw him walking around the neighborhood with his caretaker and his cane. He called me regularly, we went out to Italian dinners where I’d order wine and he’d always order dessert. He knew everything about everyone — he loved kibbitzing, gossip, telling stories.
Twice, I took him to the emergency room — which horrified me, but he was always so blasé about it, “I’m in my 90s, I’ll survive anything.”
When I think about what his essence was, I think about his innocence and his youthfulness. Maybe because he didn’t experience all the things we expect of adults at that point in their lives - he never married, he never had kids. Maybe that joie de vivre was one of his gifts. A blessing. His Torah to teach. You know the quote, “It takes a long time to become young?” He had this purity of heart. A simplicity about him. He wasn’t much for conflicts, or politics, he was the rare human being who no ‘bad blood.’
Now that he’s gone, I’ll miss his totally distinctive vernacular - his Nate language - in which he’d say things like: “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lambs tail.” Or “I’m not schmearin ya.”
For someone who never married, Nate had the innocence of a bride, in a way. Or I should say, a bridegroom.
I think of him when I recall the words of Mary Oliver, who wrote:
“When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Nate was no tourist. He lived simply but he lived well. He gave generously. He loved deeply. He had no wife but he was married to amazement, to gratitude, to friends and family, to his beloved community. He was married to life.
In death he will be greatly missed and lovingly remembered. But frankly, God is lucky to have him. God is in for some real entertainment.
Zichronam livracha, may their memory forever be a blessing and may they live on in the hearts and minds
of those who knew and loved them both.
Walking with God, and walking with peers
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
There is a principle in the field of Adaptive Leadership called “immunity to change.” I have participated in precise, highly-curated protocols in which people are walked through a series of questions that expose our normal, human stubbornness with respect to internal change. We think it may be easy. New Year’s Resolutions are common (and commonly violated, rather quickly). High Holiday davveners dutifully recite the confessional and beat their chests, and yet somehow are not surprised when the same transgressions are at play, and problematic, one year later. We humans are rather immune to change (and concomitantly aware of how much change we would like others to go through!).
Change is hard. Trying to be different, and better, is elusive. We hope and pray it is not illusory. And we have been struggling with this concept for millennia. Furthermore, we have been projecting this dynamic onto our biblical ancestors, those sacred characters in whom we see so much of ourselves, for generations.
This week I am particularly moved, and prodded, by a commentary on Noah by the Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th-19th Hasidic sage, Ukraine). The Berditchever piles on to some of the withering critique that previous rabbis aimed at Noah, seeing him as not being in the same league of righteousness as, say, Avraham. Why? Rashi says that God commanded Noah to build the ark, rather than just have it appear by miracle, so that Noah could use that time, and the reactions of his doomed neighbors to the oddity of building such a vessel, to try to bring others from his generation from evil to goodness. Yet, he didn’t convince one person. The Kabbalisitic sage the Arizal (16th C, Tzfat, Israel) went so far as to say that Noah was so tragically flawed (even as the most righteous one of his generation) and so resistant to change and growth, that his soul left the earth with unfinished business, and was reincarnated as Moshe, a man who had no qualms about pushing God to act more righteously, and a man who constantly rebuked the Israelites for their own shortcomings. According to the Berditchiever, being good to one’s peers is as important as, and is an integral part of, being good to God. And part of being good to one’s peers “involves more than being helpful and charitable. It includes admonishing one’s neighbor when one observes him violating God’s commandments.” Moshe succeeded in this. Avraham is understood to have brought proselytes closer to God. Noah is read uncharitably in this regard. Even the description, which seems praiseworthy, of Noah’s walking with God (את האלים התהלך נח / et ha’elohim hithalekh Noah) is understood in this commentary as being limiting. He walked with God, perhaps. But not with his peers. He could not change them. He didn’t even try. He let their evil persist. In his words, “He was in step with God. But out of step with his peers.”
This Hasidic interpretation rings loudly true these days, and also folds in on itself. On the one hand, there are too many in our midst who are self-satisfied with their devotion to the Holy One, but fail repeatedly in treating peers with dignity and respect. And there are others amongst us who make themselves vulnerable and take risks in order to bring others closer to goodness, to do the just and the right. Their active engagement with their fellow humans, citizens, Jews, neighbors, shul-goers is in the spirit of what commentators admire in Moshe and Avraham for doing, and castigate Noah for failing to do. I learn from their example as I reckon with my own obligation to be “prophet” (moving people from their stubborn, moored ways) while remaining committed and devoted to the task of “pastor” (meeting and comforting people where and as they truly are). So this teaching pushes and goads me. At the same time, I observe far too many examples where what is criticized in Noah’s temperament for his failure to do is, itself, overdone. And the pushing of others towards the just is done with insufficient care. It can, even when motivated by the good, slide into unbridled castigation of the other, such that folks might indeed be trying to be in step with their peers, and bring their peers more into step…and yet at times doing so in a way that may be seen as no longer walking with God.
Change is hard. People have evolutionary, societal and biologically-driven urges to remain as they are. We notice the changes that others “must” do quicker and more sharply than we see our own lacunae. We must, as the Berditchiver urges, engage with our fellow to bring God’s world closer to goodness. And we must aim to do it in a manner, that itself, exemplifies the divine attributes to which we all aspire.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
We are all made in God’s image.
If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.
Reading year after year the same texts might be alienating for some, and maybe, an eye-opening experience for others. I have been in both places, moving back and forth. This year I’m making a deliberate effort to make this ritual an eye-opening experience week after week. It’s hard, I know. But living a meaningful Jewish life requires intentional spiritual work, a new cycle is here to refresh our souls and give us a new boost of energy to get there!
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַֽעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Beresheet 1:26)
This verse has been among the most commented verse in the entire Torah. Since the time when the second Temple was still around, our people have been concerned with this statement. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) mentions that in the translation of the Septuagint (Greek translation, 3rd century BCE), the wise translators wrote: " אעשה אדם בצלם ובדמות " “I shall make humankind in image and
Why did they change the text? Isn’t it supposed to be an accurate translation? What is the problem with the original form?
Jews have been concerned with what other peoples would think about our truths and would avoid giving them material for creating arguments against their monotheistic tradition. In this text, the use of a possible plural form (Let us make) and the plural suffix attached to צלם (image) and דמות (likeness),
could indicate a plurality of Gods creating humankind together.
Among the most traditional views on that verse, and probably the one you learned in Hebrew School, is supported by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and many other commentators. God was talking to the angels. Humankind was created in the image and likeness of God and the angels. What a creative way of solving the textual problem that, in order to avoid giving other peoples an argument against a Jewish theology, our Sages created out of it a new Jewish theology, once this is clearly not the contextual meaning of the verse, where the angels aren’t mentioned at all. Note that God only took counsel from the angels, according to this view. Rashi teaches that by taking counsel from them, it teaches us a lesson about God’s humility. But the creation itself, happens in the next verse without any help from any other creature.
On a personal note, I have a hard time with this truth. Even understanding the ethical and moral teachings that we can learn from it, it always sounded too supernatural for me (even more than the rest of the story!).
This year, as we begin to read the same Torah once more, I challenged myself to go beyond and learn this passage with different eyes and tools, trying to find my truth within my people’s true revelation. The Torah might be the same, but we are definitely not the same anymore.
The good thing about learning Torah and looking for different interpretations, is that you are probably not alone. Many others in our history probably already struggled with the same issue and wrote their thoughts down to be carried out until our generation.
The first companion I found in this week’s journey was the Ramban, Spanish Rabbi from the 13th century. Ramban, although very mystical, reads our verse very differently. He goes back to state that the world was created from nothing (ex nihilo) on the first day. Since then, everything was created out of the foundational elements of the world. Following this idea, Ramban understands that God was talking to the Earth! Our souls come from God and our bodies come from the foundational elements of the Earth, or atoms, if you will. Later I discovered that the Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi) and his father, Rabbi Yosef Kimhi, have also supported similar readings.
Many Sages attempted to explain the meaning of צלם (image) and דמות (likeness). Maybe one has
to do with a physical form, and connects with the idea that the first human being was named Adam, drawing from the physical earth, called adama, in hebrew; and the other is linked to God’s attributes, with no physicality at all, but with a potential for creation and dominion over other beings. Even though each word might have had a specific meaning to the author, Radak offers many verses from different parts of the Tanach, that later on they are used kind of interchangeably.
We are all made in God’s image. Maybe not a physical resemblance, since God has no physicality, but we are definitely God-like. The eternal and supreme divine power gives us constantly the power of creativity and the freedom of choice to make godly decisions through a continuous creation that began in Beresheet and is an intrinsic part of our lives now.
Shabbat Beresheet is the time to roll back the Torah and restart our annual reading cycle. This is also a time to allow ourselves to open our hearts and our minds to the infinite wisdom that Torah contains. Torah is a mirror. As we look into the Torah, the Torah looks back at us to share abundant wisdom. This interaction is only possible if we roll it, open it, dive in it, and make ourselves vulnerable enough to see our reflection in the words of our tradition.
We are all made in God’s image. In looking into the Torah, we see God as we see ourselves. We find what is divine in our lives and we can let God in to be with us in this new cycle.
If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.
The Transfer of Power
By Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty
The whole of Sefer Devarim is the final communication of a departing leader to his people. And although Moshe is the "humblest of men" we see him struggling to make peace with it all - his successes and failures, his anxiety about the future, his inability to see things through to the end, and perhaps even his own mortality. We don't get to see everything he went through, but elsewhere in Devarim we get glimpses of various early stages of grief such as anger (Devarim 1:34-38) and bargaining (3:23-25). Although each time God tells Moshe, "You shall not go across the Jordan," he also says "Yehoshua is the one who shall cross before you" (31:5), through most of Devarim Moshe seems to focus solely on the first part. He assumes an even more prominent position, delivering long lectures to teach, scold, and encourage his flock.
But in our parashah this week, Parshat Vayelekh, Moshe seems to have arrived at the fifth stage of grief - acceptance - as he finally turns his attention to Yehoshua. With God's prompting Moshe passes the torch and offers some mild words of encouragement: "Then Moshe called Yehoshua and said to him in the sight of all of Israel: 'Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with the people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who will apportion it to them...'" (31:7)
But is this really enough for Yehoshua to be successful? Although Yeshohua had been close to Moshe for many years, it was as his attendant and assistant, not his disciple or understudy! They both must have felt the enormous gap there was - not only in their experience and wisdom but in their standing with the people. Imagine a personal assistant being appointed the new CEO! Sensing this, Sifre Devarim, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah, adds new details to the story:
The Holy One, blessed be He, replied to Moshe, saying, "Give Yehoshua a spokesman, and let him question, respond, and give instructions while you are still living, so that when you depart from this world, Israel might not say to him, ''During your master's lifetime you did not speak out, and now you do!?'" Some say that Moshe lifted Yehoshua up from the ground, and placed him between his knees (stood him on a stool), so that Moshe and Israel had to raise their heads in order to hear Yehoshua's words. What did Yehoshua say? "Blessed be the Lord who has given the Torah to Israel at the hands of our master Moshe"- those were Yehoshua's words. (Siman 305, Finkelstein ed. p. 324)
Knowing their capacity for disobedience, it is not enough for Moshe just to say that Yehoshua will succeed him. So God has Moshe set Yehoshua up for success in two ways: first, by showing that Yehoshua is his own person with his own thoughts and capabilities, and second, by showing that he ascends to leadership with Moshe's blessing and not as some kind of usurper. How often do we see leaders, unable or unwilling to cede power, do the opposite - belittling any potential successor or casting suspicion upon them?
Why is it so hard for leaders to transfer power gracefully? Surely Moshe knew he would not live forever and that for his life's work to outlive him, someone else would need to assume the mantle of responsibility. Perhaps the same "ego" that makes it hard for leaders to step aside is what made them step up in the first place. Leaders often are, and may need to be motivated by the idea that nobody else can or will do what must be done.
But even if a leader is essential at the beginning, the best leaders make themselves less and less necessary. In Egypt, Moshe was indeed alone. When he struck and killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Shemot 2:12), he "looked this way and that" before realizing he was the only one who could or would act. What keeps Moshe's death from being a tragedy is knowing that he is, finally, not alone. He has prepared Yehoshua and his people to honor his teaching and carry it forward.