Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests
- Vayigash 12/26/20
- Miketz 12/19/20
- Vayeshev 12/12/20
- Vayishlakh 12/5/20
- Toldot 11/21/20
- Vayera 11/7/20
- Lekh-Lekha 10/31/20
- Noah 10/24/20
- B'reisheet 10/17/20
When We Can’t Hold it Together Any Longer
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
My facebook feed has been flooded this week with my doctor friends proudly displaying photos of receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Most mentioned immense gratitude and a sense of a weight being lifted off their shoulders. Many also mentioned weeping. After months of extra hours, being strong for others, delivering hard news to patients’ families, removing their PPE at the end of the day with hopes they were not bringing the virus home to their families - they cried tears of relief that there might be a light at the end of a tunnel. Every emotion they have been holding onto throughout this pandemic, at least for a moment, had a chance to be released.
Joseph faces such a moment of release in parshat Vayigash. After assessing that his brothers are now honest people, Joseph reveals his true identity to them. We read:
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out.” (Genesis 45:1)
The cry that Joseph let out in revealing his identity was no ordinary cry. The text goes on to say, “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace” (45:2). According to Rashi, this means all of the house of Pharaoh, not literally only those in his palace! Despite Joseph’s best attempts to maintain composure, he was simply overwhelmed with the uprising of emotion in that moment.
This cry was not only liberating for Joseph - it liberated his brothers as well. Upon seeing the identity of their brother Joseph (whom they had previously sold into slavery) revealed, they initially felt ashamed and were unable to speak. Yet, Joseph’s cry broke the silence for them too: “[Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him” (45:15). While Joseph may have been trying to avoid being so vulnerable with them, it turned out that precisely this degree of vulnerability was what allowed their collective reconciliation to move forward.
Joseph’s position during the famine in Egypt may not have been so different from many frontline workers today. He was tasked with managing and doling out resources during a time of crisis. Even if he hadn’t faced a traumatic past with his brothers, it is entirely believable that such a cry of relief upon seeing his family would have been warranted. Like for my doctor friends, this cry itself became a testament to both the anguish of the past and hope for the future in one breath.
We likely have already - and surely will again - face such moments when we cannot help but let out cries of relief, joy, pain, or all of them at once. Joseph reminds us that our cries have holy power:
Our cries share news
Our cries reveal our true essence
Our cries reveal our humanity
Our cries bring catharsis and healing
May we all find such relief where it is needed most.
Parashat Miketz is a Crash Course on Leadership
By TBA Rabbinic Intern Joshua Jacobs
This week, we get a crash course on leadership. Parashat Miketz continues the Joseph story, as we watch him emerge from his prison cell and effectively lead Egypt through famine and into prosperity. Or, in Chanukah terms, from darkness to light. We’ve seen a lot of darkness this year. And we’re in need of true leadership to get us through. Instead of looking to others to fill this need, how can we cultivate our own leadership skills and be the light we want to see in the world? I think the answer can be found here, as Joseph shows us how.
We all know the story. Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, accurately predicting seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He’s a dreamer and a visionary, someone who looks down the road and prepares for what’s to come. I’m not sure how he could have survived his enslavement or wrongful imprisonment without this exceptional ability to sit in darkness and dream of light. Isn’t that exactly what we need right now, as we sit imprisoned in our own homes? Vision to dream of better days ahead, and the strength to lead the way. But we can’t do it alone.
This leadership lesson actually comes from Pharaoh (it’s okay - he’s the good one). Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s God-given talents and promotes him on the spot. Whereas his successor, who “knows not Joseph,” will stubbornly turn to his magicians to replicate the miracles Moses and Aaron perform before his eyes, this Pharaoh turns to his courtiers immediately and says, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38). For this reason, good Pharaoh gets prime real estate in this 900-word Taste of Torah. So does Tina Fey, who writes in her book, Bossypants, “In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” I think this year has reinforced just how important partnership is. It is not good for us to be alone. We may be socially distanced, but we can’t get through this by ourselves. We need each other, even if it’s virtual for the time being.
Talk is cheap. It’s great to have dreams but leaders also know how to get things done. Sometimes, just because you might be an “ideas person” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re also skilled at execution. In Joseph’s case, however, Rashbam argues that one actually does prove the other. Commenting on Pharaoh’s verse above - אשר רוח אלוקים בו - he writes, “if Joseph is able with God’s help to interpret intangibles such as dreams, he must certainly be smart enough to arrange administrative earthly affairs in a competent manner.” This is indeed the case, as Joseph manages to store up enough surplus to ride out the famine, and, in selling back the grain, he manages to extend Pharaoh’s proprietorship over all of Egypt and boost his royal coffers dramatically. Ostensibly, Joseph takes the whole Monopoly board.
4. Bringing out the best in others.
And yet, I think Joseph’s most important act of leadership has yet to be mentioned. It’s where you’d least expect it. When Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt in search of food and stand before the Egyptian official they don’t recognize to be their own brother, Joseph “...confined them in the guardhouse for three days” (Genesis 42:17) - ויאסף אתם אל משמר שלשת ימים. Initially, this may seem a petty, if deserved, form of justice. Joseph has every right to be angry with his brothers and give them a taste of what he endured. But he’s too good a leader for that. What if his eye is on a much greater prize than revenge?
When Joseph offers to release everyone but Benjamin, whom Joseph has accused of stealing his royal vessel, “Judah replied, ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found’” (Genesis 44:16). This is a powerful redemptive moment for Joseph’s brothers, who have gone from selling one brother into slavery to now offering to sell themselves into slavery on behalf of another brother. In this way, Joseph demonstrates that a true leader not only dreams, collaborates, and executes. A good leader brings out the best in others. Maybe this is even how Joseph earns his name. “ויאסף אתם” is the same root as יוסף – Joseph – and means “to gather.” A good leader does not divide, but rather unites.
This week, we get a crash course on leadership. We just spent eight nights lighting the Chanukiah by way of the shammash. It’s the leader of the candles, standing proudly among the rest. It leads by igniting the others, bringing out their best and brightest selves. In these dark times, how can we let Joseph and the lessons of Chanukah inspire us to embody the kind of leadership that reveals the best and brightest parts of others and ourselves?
Miracles at Eye Level
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Two years ago, in the week of Parashat VaYeshev, as I walked into Temple Beth Am, my heart was racing and I entered through the doors feeling that this was where I wanted to be, knowing this was the community I yearned to serve and this was the place where I felt at home. So this week, reflecting again on this same parasha, and celebrating Chanukah together, I look into the lights of our candles reflected in your faces on Zoom and I am full of gratitude and wonder and excitement for many more days of entering Beth Am with a racing heart! This piece if Torah is dedicated to you:
One of my favorite pieces of Gemara combines Chanukah and this week’s parasha, Vayeshev. The famous line of Joseph thrown into an empty pit:
וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם
“and they took him and sent him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.”
The question most often asked about that verse is, “of course if it was empty there was no water in it, so why add that piece of redundant information?” Some rabbis say, it is to show us that the brothers were not as mean as to cause his immediate death by drowning. However, others argue that in fact there was no water, but there were scorpions and snakes that they could not see. How deep was it that they could see with certainty the condition at the bottom of the well? Masechet Shabbat 22a relates that question to a discussion about where a Chanukah menorah is to be placed:
“The light of Chanukah placed above 20 cubits is invalid, just like a Sukkah’s height or the height of an alleyway for an eruv. [...] What is the meaning of the verse that is written with regard to Joseph: “And they took him, and cast him into the pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it” (Genesis 37:24)?
The reason being that people do not typically look up so high to see the schach of the sukkah or the string of an eruv, which are both elements that need to be seen to be valid. And so it is which a menorah: the lights must be in a location in which there is reasonable expectation it will be observed as pirsumei nisa, publicizing the Hanukkah miracles.
How noticeable is noticeable? How much of the world do we fail to see as we walk past with eyes wide open? Most importantly, is our blindness partly self-serving and intentional?
The brothers wanted to get rid of Joseph without really looking at the pit--as if their ignorance of the dangers made them less culpable for any consequences. It is important to say it was empty and there was no water because it betrays the carelessness with which they jumped to the conclusion that best suited them. But like the too-high menorah or too-tall sukkah, one could not carefully judge the perils of a too-deep well.
Chanukah occurs during the darkest time of year, of the shortest days and least natural light. And for many of us this year, the colder, darker days are exacerbated by loneliness, distance, fear, hopelessness, and stagnation. This year, more than ever, we must publicize the miracle at a soul level as well. Many who might have walked past our window in years past, won’t walk anywhere right now. We have to bring it to them. We must meet people where they are in darkness. They might not as easily notice our light this year. So, make it as easy as you can. Not too high! And not too low!
Put the Chanukiah as well as yourself at easy eye level. See yourself and others and make light.
Adapted from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z'l
I have often argued that the episode in which the Jewish people acquired its name – when Jacob wrestled with an unnamed adversary at night and received the name Israel – is essential to an understanding of what it is to be a Jew. I argue here that this episode is equally critical to understanding what it is to lead.
There are several theories as to the identity of “the man” who wrestled with the patriarch that night; my suggestion is that we can only understand the passage by reviewing the entirety of Jacob’s life. Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing. Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esau.
Why? Because Esau was the elder, strong, physically mature, a hunter. Above all, Esau was his father’s favourite. Jacob is the paradigm of what the French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard called mimetic desire, meaning, we want what someone else wants, because we want to be that someone else. The result is tension between Jacob and Esau. This tension rises to an unbearable intensity when Esau discovers that the blessing his father had reserved for him has been acquired by Jacob, and so Esau vows to kill his brother once Isaac is no longer alive.
Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s home, where he encounters more conflict; he is on his way home when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men. In an unusually strong description of emotion the Torah tells us that Jacob was “very frightened and distressed” (Gen. 32:7) – frightened, no doubt, that Esau was coming to kill him, and perhaps distressed that his brother’s animosity was not without cause.
Jacob had indeed wronged his brother, as we saw earlier. Isaac says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” (Gen. 27:35) As long as Jacob sought to be Esau there was tension, conflict, rivalry. Esau felt cheated; Jacob felt fear. That night, about to meet Esau again after an absence of twenty-two years, Jacob wrestles with himself; finally he throws off the image of Esau, the person he wants to be, which he has carried with him all these years. This is the critical moment in Jacob’s life. From now on, he is content to be himself. And it is only when we stop wanting to be someone else that we can be at peace with ourselves and with the world.
This is one of the great challenges of leadership. It is all too easy for a leader to pursue popularity by being what people want him or her to be. Leaders sometimes try to ‘hold the team together’ by saying different things to different people, but eventually these contradictions become clear and the result is that the leader appears to lack integrity. Few things make a leader more unpopular than the pursuit of popularity.
Great leaders have the courage to live with unpopularity. Abraham Lincoln was reviled and ridiculed during his lifetime. Winston Churchill, until he became Prime Minister during the Second World War, had been written off as a failure. And soon after the war ended, he was defeated in the 1945 General Election. He himself said that “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” When Margaret Thatcher died, some people celebrated in the streets. John F. Kennedy, Yitzchak Rabin and Martin Luther King were assassinated.
Jacob was not a leader; there was as yet no nation for him to lead. Yet the Torah goes to great lengths to give us an insight into his struggle for identity, because it was not his alone. Most of us have experienced this struggle. It is not easy to overcome the desire to be someone else, to want what they have, to be what they are. Most of us have such feelings from time to time. Girard argues that this has been the main source of conflict throughout history. It can take a lifetime of wrestling before we know who we are and relinquish the desire to be who we are not.
More than anyone else in Genesis, Jacob is surrounded by conflict: not just between himself and Esau, but between himself and Laban, between Rachel and Leah, and between his sons, Joseph and his brothers. It is as if the Torah were telling us that so long as there is a conflict within us, there will be a conflict around us. We have to resolve the tension in ourselves before we can do so for others. We have to be at peace with ourself before we can be at peace with the world.
That is what happens in this week’s parsha. After his wrestling match with the stranger, Jacob undergoes a change of personality, a transformation. He gives back to Esau the blessing he took from him, saying “please take my blessing that has been brought to you.” (33:11) The result is that the two brothers meet and part in peace.
People conflict. They have different interests, passions, desires, temperaments. Even if they did not, they would still conflict, as every parent knows. Children – and not just children – seek attention, and one cannot attend to everyone equally all the time. Managing the conflicts that affect every human group is the work of the leader – and if the leader is not sure of and confident in their identity, the conflicts will persist. Even if the leader sees themself as a peacemaker, the conflicts will still endure.
The only answer is to “know thyself”. We must wrestle with ourselves, as Jacob did on that fateful night, throwing off the person we persistently compare ourselves to, accepting that some people will like us and what we stand for while others will not, understanding that it is better to seek the respect of some than the popularity of all. This may involve a lifetime of struggle, but the outcome is an immense strength. No one is stronger than one who knows who and what they are.
What are you Holding?
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
During my rabbinical school year in Israel, we studied together with students from four other rabbinical schools. We were exposed to learning practices and modalities that were new to us, including “Processing Groups”. This was not something I was used to from the prior two years at Ziegler, and quite honestly was not something I was excited to explore. However, because it was part of their learning and rabbinic journey, we shared in the opportunity to process as current students and future rabbis. Often the opening question was, “what are you holding right now?” Beyond the mundane idea of holding, we were being asked what was occupying us right now. What had the center of our focus and attention? With what were we possessed? I’m sure I rolled my eyes and wanted to evade this group processing and get back to studying Halakha, but not too surprisingly the question sunk deep and set me reeling into thinking deeply about my state in life. What was inside of my heart and soul and mind that was making me happy, nervous, tired, enthusiastic, curious, hurting, loving, etc.? I didn’t answer aloud, it just was not my “thing,” but I took it to heart and now often ask myself, “What am I holding right now?”
Rebekah is a strong character. She is a vessel of love, of family, and a guardian and source of wholeness to those close around her. Without Rebekah our story would not be. Rebekah was the first person to really see Isaac, the first to show him love and the first woman to speak and be asked to speak. After sensing the wrestling of unborn twins within her, Rebekah asks a profound and pained question:
וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת־יְהוָה
And the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why is this [experience for] me?” And she walked to demand of Adonai
Rebekah does not understand why after putting up with so much by fixing and healing a family that she just became part of, that this is her rewarded experience. Chizkuni, the 13th century French commentator, teaches us that the first word, va’yitrotzetzu, means “and they quarreled.” But he adds that it is a word meaning something is about to be broken. Now, we could understand that as Jacob and Esav breaking ties with one another and dividing their family. Or, we could read this as Rebekah feels as if she is breaking and that the birth of rivaling siblings will destroy her.
What was Rebekah “holding”? Rebekah did not just feel babies kicking and wonder why her pregnancy was so uncomfortable. Rebekah, this strong vessel, was holding a world together and the additional burden of rivaling siblings could loosen her grasp. Maybe this is the reason she tried to fix relationships and circumstances: She made sure Jacob got the birthright blessing; and she made sure the warring sons went in different directions so as to separate and survive one another. Rebekah was loving and tough, zealously guarding her unwitting husband’s legacy and juggling life alone.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l focused on communication when writing about this parasha. He posits that Isaac and Rebekah needed to have better communication in their relationship for it to be successful. Rebekah was never asked, and never offered to tell, what she was holding—what was occupying her—or even, perhaps, what was her occupation. She continued fixing, repairing, anticipating, and solving, while pleading with God, “Why me? Why do I need to be this strong? Why must I hold everything together?”
We are living in a time where we are each holding on to too much. Our physical health, mental health, workload, and relationships are stretching thin and might need support. I’d like to think that Rebekah’s plea for strength was answered, and that she knew deeply of her significance in the on-weaving story of her family.
And I like to think your pleas and mine are answered by one another, not just spiritually, but in material and mundane ways, as needed. As we almost certainly step back into days of strict isolation, longer, darker days, I ask us each to explore with those around us, “ How can we support one another? What are you holding right now? Can I help you hold it? Can I hold you up? Will you hold me up?” We all deserve to answer that question and find our path to support and blessing in the answer. Shabbat Shalom
“Captive on the Carousel of Time”
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Listening to “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell always makes me cry. Please don’t tell anyone - I’m trusting you with this. Like a carousel, time moves forward, even if it’s cyclical. The seasons go round and round, we go up and down - experiencing the highs and lows of life - without the ability to go backwards. No matter how desperately, at times, we may want to. It’s why I always feel so badly for Lot’s wife, who, while fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, turns back for a moment to witness the destruction of her home. As a result, she is turned into a pillar of salt.
We’ve all experienced things in our lives that have required “moving on.” That, by the way, has always been extremely difficult for me. One time in third grade, my best friend Julian forgot to get me a birthday present. I told him I forgave him but between you and me, I think about this every day. How much more so with real tragedies, trauma, and disappointments that plague us? Certainly, it seems unwise to avoid confronting our demons. I don’t think our parasha this week teaches us that. And as Jews, we know firsthand the utmost importance of never forgetting our history. But I do think Vayera warns us of the danger of dwelling in the past; of the understandable yet futile act of screaming at the operator to stop the carousel.
Here’s another moment that always makes me cry. At the end of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden takes his little sister Phoebe to the merry-go-round outside the zoo. He feels truly happy watching her ride on the wooden horse as the music plays and time seems to stand still. Holden has already told us that he wishes he could be “the catcher in the rye,” someone who saves kids from falling off the cliff, out of innocence and into a world of phonies. It makes sense, then, that this moment brings him peace. For the short duration of this ride, Phoebe remains frozen in time, a pillar of salt, this kid he loves protected from a world where expletives are graffitied and scratched into every wall. And yet, he also comes to a startling new realization. Holden tells us, “Then the carousel started, and I watched her go round and round...All the kids tried to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the (...) horse, but I didn't say or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Departing from his vow to be the catcher, Holden knows that Phoebe will fall. He can only hope she never stops reaching for the gold ring of hope, or however you interpret it. But what’s certain is that seasons go round and round. There’s no stopping time.
So what was so wrong about Lot’s wife’s looking back? Ranban doesn’t buy that this was punishment for disobeying the angel’s order against it. Neither does Sforno, who argues that the problem is this: “the evil would catch up with you as soon as you interrupt your march away from it.” If Joni Mitchell is right, then there’s nothing wrong with looking behind from where we came. We should bask in sweet memories. We
should cherish our tradition. We should allow our history to inform our present and confront our past in a healthy manner. But Sforno seems to suggest that the evils of the past seek to overtake us on our march toward progress. Certainly the slave mentality of the Israelites impeded us on our journey forward to the Promised Land. We’re living in a COVID era of extreme loss and grief. We’ve witnessed in an instant the destruction of the lives we knew. It would be all too easy, and understandable, to allow this devastation to paralyze us, like pillars of salt. But as long as the sun rises on a new day and the circle game continues, Vayera seems to implore us to continue on our march toward progress. A march uninterrupted by the evils of the past.
Can the Dodgers Help us in this Moment?
By Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, TBA Ritual Innovator
As the Dodgers won the World Series on Tuesday night, I turned to my 10 year old with a huge smile and exclaimed, “The last time this happened, I was your age!” For the second time in the last 2 ½ weeks, Los Angeles sports fans had a reason to come together, as one community, to celebrate. Let’s be honest, we didn’t really do much. We mostly sat on the couch, watching and delighting in each run, each basket, and shouting at the TV at each error, each bad call. But as the clock ran down on game 6 of the Laker’s championship game and as Julio Urias pitched that last pitch in Game 6 of the World Series this week, Los Angeles let out a collective cheer, sharing in triumph together. Most of us staying safer at home, we could still feel our fellow Angelenos jumping up and down, each in their own homes, but still together. And my Facebook feed proved it to be true (I must not have many friends in Florida). This feeling of joy and togetherness felt unique and refreshing at this time when we as a country are so divided.
After the game, I was reading through the parsha in preparation for this d’var Torah, and one verse in the story felt right on the nose for this moment. Abram receives the call from God to leave his home and travel to the land that God will show him. He travels with his wife and his nephew, Lot. After some time, Abram and Lot both became wealthy shepherds with cattle and herdsmen. The text tells us that the land where they had settled was not big enough to support them all, and Abram and Lot’s herdsmen were fighting with each other. Abram says to Lot, “Please, let there not be strife between you and me, or between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, because we are brothers.” (Gen. 13:8). Reading this verse right after a fleeting moment of collective triumph jolted me back into the reality of the state of the world.
We are entering what could be the most divisive days in our lifetimes. My Facebook feed may have been speaking in unison during the Lakers & Dodgers championships, but it sure hasn’t been over the past few years. We don’t know the outcome of the election, but we do know that the whatever happens, the discord in our country is not likely to improve. The Pew Research Center has studied how significant the partisan divide has become. In a 2014 report, Pew wrote that, “Partisan animosity has increased substantially…In each party, the share with a high negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well being’…Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around, and even whom they would welcome into their lives.” Pew did a similar study in 2017 and found that partisan ideological differences and antipathy had increased. And we know anecdotally, in 2020, that they have only gotten worse.
In the Torah, Abram’s suggestion to avoiding fighting is to separate. That made sense where there wasn’t enough grazing land for all of the cattle. And it seems, from the Pew study, separation is how many Americans are responding to the partisan divide today, not wanting to even associate with those with whom they disagree. While separation, back into our tribal camps, may seem like an easy way to deal with the strife, it isn’t a long term solution. We have to be able to communicate and live peacefully with people who see things differently than we do. The rancor is unsustainable and will make it impossible to reclaim any sense that we belong to one community, one country. I know I’m not the first person to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last, but I want to be another voice calling for an end to the antagonistic discourse prevalent today. In a week when our parsha admonishes us not to fight because we are family, just a few days after Los Angeles was able to celebrate together as one community, as we enter the final days of this election, I hope we can strive towards a commitment to civility and bridge building. If we were in the stands at one of these games, we would be high fiving those around us, and it wouldn’t matter who voted for whom. We all shared in these championships, and we should remember that, as Americans, more unites us than divides us. Shabbat Shalom.
Make Yourself a Window - Parshat Noah
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
It must have been so cramped and dreary aboard Noah’s ark. Imagine being the only surviving humans of the world, adrift on a hand-made boat together, caring for a whole world’s worth of creatures through 40 days and 40 nights of miserable, rainy weather. This year, more than ever, perhaps we can relate to the combination of claustrophobia and isolation that Noah and his family might have experienced.
Luckily, God gave Noah a tiny bit of relief, built into the ark itself. God tells Noah, “Make a tzohar in the ark, and finish it within a cubit of the top” (Genesis 6:16). The meaning of this Hebrew word “tzohar” is uncertain, as the word only appears once in all of Tanakh. We are left to understand its essence from small linguistic clues and the world of Torah commentary.
Most agree that the “tzohar” was some kind of opening that let in light. Its root, צהר , is also found in the word “tzoharayim” or mid-day/afternoon, when the sun is at its peak. Rashi brings two midrashic interpretations, saying it is either a window that could let in light or a precious stone that gave light for them. Chizkuni suggests that both of those interpretations are correct. He explains that the window was closed during the flood, seeing as the sun and moon did not shine during the great storm, so Noah had to get creative with interior lighting. Noah used a precious stone to shine and amplify the existing light while the storm raged, and once the sun was shining again, this tzohar opening let in the surrounding light from outside as well.
Why might God have commanded Noah to add this opening? It served a brief functional purpose at the end of the flood as the window through which the raven and the dove were sent out. It’s deeper purpose, however, was surely the hope it gave to the ark’s inhabitants while the flood still raged on. To be stuck inside while the rest of the world spun in chaos around them could surely have been a recipe for despair. Yet, these same people needed to become the stewards of the world that would be reborn after the flood. It was compassionate (and wise, I believe), for God to embed this chamber of light and hope into the vessel that would carry them into the future.
What can we learn from this mysterious, radiant, luminous tzohar today?
Even when we know the weather, inside or out, is going to be bad, we have to carve out a space for light to come in. We don’t know how many days and nights the storm might be raging for, but we already need to hold space for the possibility of a turn for the better. Even when there is no light coming in from the outside, we can still find the light that is already shining within and amplify it like a precious stone. Whatever storms you are facing - please, remember to build yourself a tzohar.
With gratitude to Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer for inspiring this teaching
Something (Nerve-wracking, but Amazing) From Nothing
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Writers and artists speak of the terror of the blank page. It eventually must be filled with words, images, concepts. But the blankness of that unwritten document can taunt. The blankness isn’t even a thing. It is the absence of a thing. But it is still sufficiently material that it can torment.
I feel a similar terror every time we start planning Hama’alot, our occasional in-the-round, harmony-rich, inventive/creative/spiritual Shabbat morning service (though, in this extended COVID era, I miss that service so much!). Why? Because the notion of Hama’alot is that we begin curating it as a blank slate. Sure, we have the basic structure of a Shabbat AM service as a skeleton. But all the muscle, fiber, sinew and flesh of that service’s body must be created, by us, ex nihilo, something-from-nothing, from scratch. And even if the stakes are relatively low, I feel terror in the first 10 minutes of that first planning meeting. What will we create? And how will we do it?
The terror, and also the potential, of that blankness inform much of traditional commentary on the two somewhat inscrutable Hebrew words the Torah uses to describe the universe before, well, before it was the universe. It is hard to conceptualize pre-reality. Physicists and Torah-commentators grapple with this same conundrum, albeit in different ways. What was, before there was something? And how do you describe it? The Torah describes the pre-creation state of the Universe as תהו ובהו (tohu vavohu). Any attempt to translate directly veers into commentary, however unintended. “Formless and void” (or something similar) is how it is often rendered into English. That framing may be linguistically and etymologically accurate. But it lacks the emotion and drama with which that verse and phrase seems to be pregnant.
Rashi adds part of what is missing. Reading tohu from the root ת-ה-ה meaning wonder/shock, he says that the abject emptiness that existed (even the word “exist” in that phrasing doesn’t seem right. How can nothingness exist?) was so empty, so void, that it would have astonished any observer of it. Put aside the impossibility of the image, of a person with consciousness actually beholding this pre-Universe moment. Focus on the emotion. Utter emptiness is shocking and astonishing, and can fill a person with dread. Rashi’s comments remind me of the feeling, to which it is hard to assign words, that wells up inside me as I try to imagine the edges of the universe, and the endless expanse of time into the future. I can’t really apprehend it, and it is terrifying.
Rabbi Ovadiah S’forno, an Italian commentator from the 16th Century focuses less on the terror of that emptiness, and more on the awesome potential it augured. He says tohu references the raw, inchoate materials that would eventually turn into the universe. Even the tohu was newly created, itself ex nihilo (meaning, he doesn’t believe the Torah is trying to explain pre-Creation, but rather the earliest, primordial materials of Creation itself.) And why, then, is it called tohu? Because of the wonder of what could be. In his words, “It is described as tohu to indicate that at that point it was merely something which had potential, the potential not yet having materialized, been converted to something actual.” He likens it to a verse in Samuel 1 (12:21) where tohu seems to refer to phenomena that exist only in someone’s imagination, but are not (yet) real. So the tohu of creation existed in God’s imagination, as it were. God had to stare at that blank canvas, both terrified at the task ahead, and awed by what might be coaxed out of that nothingness.
If we piece Rashi’s and Sforno’s commentary together, we have an emotional and spiritual paradigm through which to confront all the blank pages of our lives—all our new days, our un-lived moments, our fresh starts and our looming tasks. It is normative to be astonished by the seemingly endless lack of something, especially when the pressure to turn it into something is upon one’s shoulders. And it is equally normative to be astonished, in the positive sense of the word, of the human ability, itself an extension of the same quality of the Holy One, to create from new, to fill that blankness with something worthy and beautiful, and to convert tohu and vohu, formless emptiness, into astonishingly wonderful universes. That has been our task since God formed us, from the same primordial juice with which the Universe was created, and it remains our task today.
As we confront a scary world, with more and more landscapes presenting themselves as overwhelming in their newness and with their prodigious challenges, let us take a deep breath, confront the enormity of the nothingness staring us in the face, and go create the world.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld