Torah Commentary

Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests


Beshallah 1/19/19

Joy, Freedom and Holiness
By Natan Freller, Rabbinic Intern

“Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hesitation. Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent. At times Joy is elusive - she seems to disappear as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.”

-The Book of Qualities, by Janet Ruth Gendler

What I found beautiful in this piece of art is how the writer transformed a feeling into words, stories, and relationships. Sometimes we struggle with many feelings, desires and emotions that we can't express as we would like to.

Judaism is a way to walk in this world. Judaism is a lens to live life. Judaism can help to transform reality into the world that we want to live in. Different from philosophies of life that work just in the realm of ideas and religions focused on just the technicism of the rituals, I see Judaism as a full embodied experience in itself. There is no value in Judaism that exists by itself without practicing it - and so there should be no meaningless ritual. Every ritual is full of different, old and new, meanings and values that can enrich our lives.

This week we read Beshalach, the Exodus story, the moment when the Jewish People was finally free from slavery. What is now understood has a central value in our tradition, freedom was not a given value for their time, but an achievement of an entire generation. Its celebration was real. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song, poetry, and music. This Shabbat received this name because of the celebration of freedom that is found in it. Shirat hayam, the “Song of the Sea”, is the real celebration of the divine redemption. The Israelites were pouring out their hearts, trying to find words to describe their emotions, and they found them while singing to God. Joy was welcomed in and never left that party. Joy become the special guest of the Jewish People, as we celebrate the achievement of the divine values.

The hebrew verb to make something holy is lehakdish. It means to set aside. To make it different, special. The Jewish People eternal goal is to be holy, to live our lives in a different way. This is an invitation for challenging ourselves to find deeper values and create meaningful experiences. Being Jewish is an invitation to transform the ideal into the real. Shabbat is the ultimate experience for that. It is the day when we enjoy a small piece of olam haba - the world to come - the world that we are creating together.

Shabbat is known in our tradition as a special day for joy. It is a day when we rest and enjoy our lives in a different (holy) way. Let us welcome joy with open arms. Run towards her as Shabbat starts, and hold it tight, enjoying its presence while she is here, so we can spread her energy during the next week.

May this Shabbat be full of joy. Let us make our lives holy, meaningful and taste together the world we all want to live in, so that we can recharge our energies to share more joy, freedom, and holiness during the next week.

Shabbat Shalom!

Vaera 1/5/19

Stages of Redemption
By: Ariel Wolpe, TBA Rabbinic Intern

The Israelites moved through four stages from slavery to freedom, teaches Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica, a 19th century chasidic teacher. Walking out of the gates of Egypt is only the beginning of the journey to mental, physical and emotional freedom. God hints at each stage through these promises in parshat Va’era:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will remove you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I am YHVH your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

When God says, וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will remove you,” Rabbi Yaakov teaches that God is promising to make the Israelites aware of their suffering. We know that the Israelites called out to God when they were in slavery, and God heard their cry. But while they knew their circumstances were inhumane and their souls cried out in protest, they did not grasp the extent of their suffering. Generations of slavery had numbed the Israelites to their inner experience, subduing hope of freedom, encouraging acceptance of their enslavement. Not only were their bodies bound to labor; their minds were weighted with mortar, disabled under bricks. But in order to become a free person, each Israelite had to fully understand the suffering he or she was going through. A person can only change their circumstances when they are conscious of what needs to change.

The promise וְהִצַּלְתִּי, I will deliver you, refers to the physical release from slavery. This is when the Israelites cease their work and flee, right before Pharaoh’s change of heart. In that moment, they are delivered out of making and lifting bricks, out of the reach of the taskmasters. Their bodies are their own, their work their own. This could only occur after the Israelites became fully aware of their suffering because otherwise they wouldn’t have left. To a people who had dwelled in the cities of Egypt their entires lives, the desert was unknown, uninhabited and full of dangers. As they journeyed towards the promised land, the Israelites fondly recalled the delicacies they ate Egypt, lamenting the loss of such luxuries. They had soothed their suffering with food, grown dependent on Egyptian lifestyles, and they had to tear their bodies away from such comforts on the road to freedom. Gaining autonomy over their bodies and their work was the second step towards freedom.

This step rings true for many of us. We live in a society with abundant luxuries, and we grow dependent on them even when they are not good for us. Pleasures of the body numb the complaints of the heart. We may soothe loneliness or purposelessness with food, TV, drugs or the internet. We begin to pursue a momentary release of serotonin instead of a holistic happiness. Escaping this state of slavery requires experiencing on our suffering without distraction, so that we are motivated to put forth the effort to leave Egypt.

Then God says וְגָֽאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. The Israelites are already released from slavery in body and mind—what is God referring to? Rabbi Yaakov explains this promises a release “from the depths of the imprint that slavery left on you.” Imagine God’s metaphorical arm reaching deep into the inner psyche of each Israelite, pulling out the thorns that cling there, one by one. While they appear free on the outside, God knows that they are still enslaved within. This is not something that happens spontaneously, is not a moment of revelation or rebellion. This is a process that takes years, 40 years for all of the Israelites to complete. It is the process of clearing out all of the beliefs, the doubts, the apathy and the hatred that has accumulated from enslavement. Only after this process is there room to develop a new sense of identity and worth. Only then can the Israelites see the promise of the future.

Without reaching inwards, each one of us will inevitably return to our state of slavery. It is the skipping of this step which causes cycles of suffering in our lives, when we make the same mistakes again and again despite desiring a change. As we age, our own thoughts leave imprints in our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. Like our ancestors, we must root out our harmful beliefs in order to transform ourselves and live freely.

The final step, וְלָֽקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, I will take you to me as a people, is God’s promise to free every Jew from the bondage of slavery, and instead bind them to Torah. God reminds us that we are part of a people with a rich tradition which guides us in living our lives. Unless all of us are free, none of us are free. We are responsible for our families, our communities, and every being in this world. Freedom, ultimately, is not just a state of mind or a state of body. It is a universal transformation that we have yet to achieve.

Through learning Torah, good works, and acts of lovingkindness we move closer to freedom. It is our purpose as a people who have journeyed out of the bonds of slavery to instill freedom in the world around us. But first, we must begin with our own enslavement. First, we free ourselves.

Shemot 12/29/18

Torah as Wisdom
Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

I don’t think that I grew up believing in every single story or detail written in the Torah as an absolute factual truth. At the same time, I did not have the tools to question it or even the authority to question how accurate the Torah is describing the origins of our people. For how long were the Jews slaves in Egypt? How many were there? Did the plagues actually happen? And the sea splitting, is that true?

I remember a few classes I took in my twenties, where for the first time I was allowed to disagree or challenge the texts of our tradition, whether that was the Torah, a siddur, or any other book. That changed the way I see Jewish texts and made me love our tradition even more.

My question for us this Shabbat is: How should we read Torah today? What kind of content can I find in it?

One of my favorite verses in the whole Torah is in the last book, Devarim 4:6. The verse says: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say: Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

One might think that this verse is theologically very complicated, questioning our relationships with other peoples that might sound like arrogance. I read this verse as the mission of the Jewish People. Many characteristics can be perceived from afar, like being tall or short, for example. Being wise is a characteristic that can be only identified through someone’s behavior. Our goal is not to show off to other people how wise the Jewish tradition is, but rather this language teaches us that if we do not transform the wisdom contained in the Torah into behavior, we are missing the point. We need to be so meticulous about our behavior that others will see it as a unique feature of the tribe.

I want to give you an example from this week’s parasha. The Talmud, the book that best understands the benefits of challenging our texts to find its wisdom, has an interesting debate about the verse: “And there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8).

Rav and Shmuel (Sotah 11a) disagree about the interpretation of this verse. One says that this means he was actually a new king, and one says that this means that his decrees were transformed as if he were a new king. The one who says that he was actually a new king holds that it is because it is written “new.” And the one who says that his decrees were transformed holds that it is because it is not written: “And the previous king of Egypt died, and a new king reigned.” This indicates that the same king remained. According to this interpretation, the words: “Who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), mean that he was like someone who did not know him at all. Although he certainly knew Joseph and his accomplishments, he acted as if he didn’t.

Notice that the discussion regarding reality has been present in our tradition since its early beginnings. The sages of the Talmud felt comfortable asking questions about what actually happened in the stories because they knew that the goal was to learn something from it, and not just repeat it to the next generation.

What does it mean to have a new king? What does it teach about relationships between peoples and how to take care of other groups who live in your midst? The wisdom in this phrase can be found throughout the book of Shemot to the end of the Torah. The answer given to the way the Israelites were treated in Egypt is: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Empathy, lovingkindness, and respect. Those are the key values we are responsible to make them a part of our behavior as individuals and as a people.

I want to invite you to start preparing for Pesach a little bit earlier this year, and I don’t mean cleaning the house or cooking the soup. I mean start asking yourself the real questions about our story, and don’t wait until the Seder to ask a simple technical question. Take the opportunity to carefully read the text of our tradition week after week, looking for the real questions you have and the wisdom that you can learn from it. Think about your life in the 21st century and what values you need to practice in order to be the best person you can be. Don’t let the Torah stay obsolete in the closet; take it out, read it, let’s share its light and wisdom by being morally righteous until other people look to us and say: what a wise people!

Vayehi 12/22/18

Inheriting a Transcending Torah
Rabbi Matt Shapiro

“At each stage of development, the world looks different, because it is different.”

These words, from the contemporary writer Ken Wilber, offer a window into one of his core concepts: “transcend and include.” He takes a broadly developmental perspective on humanity, seeing how, over time, we collectively have moved (and continue to move) through stages that are progressively more expansive. As we move from one stage to another, we transcend the earlier stage, and it also remains included in our new stage. This process of growth is true of us both collectively and as individuals. Wilber further holds that religion can be uniquely instructive in spiritual development, as the world’s religions still contain early myths and teachings which are absent from more recently developed spiritual systems. Connecting to a religion shouldn't necessarily stay in the “mythic” stage, but it offers an opportunity to start at, and grow from, that originating time, eventually transcending and including its origins.

There's a quirky little phrase that’s easy to gloss over as Jacob is transmitting his final blessings. In the JPS translation, the start of Genesis 48:22 is written as “I assign to you one more portion than your brothers…” but the original Hebrew indicates something different, and potentially more interesting. It can also be translated as “I give you Shechem as a portion over your brothers...” In the narrative, Shechem is primarily known as the focal point of the narrative where Dinah was taken captive and then avenged by her brothers Shimon and Levi. The verse itself, however, seems to be referring to a military victory won by Jacob, as it concludes “...which I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow.” There is, in fact, a midrashic tradition that indicates that Jacob joined with Shimon and Levi to defeat the people of Shechem after the incident with Dinah. Though this isn’t in the Torah itself, it seems to be embedded within the larger corpus of ancient Israelite lore.

As time went on, however, this understanding of events seems to have faded, with a different normative interpretation taking hold. In most rabbinic interpretations, the second clause of the verse is understood not as referring to an actual sword and bow, but rather as elements in one’s Jewish observance, like types of prayer or ways of studying Torah. Presumably due at least partly to our people’s evolution from a wandering tribe who needed to fight physical battles to a textually based religion, we find interpretations like Sforno’s, who understands the verse as describing “chochma and bina,” wisdom and insight, a metaphorical reinterpretation of Jacob’s sword and bow

Our tradition also has a counterpoint to applying layers of metaphors on top of the seemingly clear original meaning of a text. In the Talmud, on Shabbat 63a, during a related discussion where Psalm 45 is being similarly re-read. Mar, son of Rav Huna, responds to this technique: ein mikre yotzei miyad pshuto, a verse doesn’t depart from its literal meaning. There seems to be an internal conflict regarding rabbinic re-reading, between the apparent original intent of the verse- describing an actual military victory won by Jacob- and how it's later understood by the rabbis.

One way of understanding how Torah is transmitted is as continuous revelation- that Torah was initially revealed at some point in time, and continues to be revealed- which is helpful in framing how different understandings of the same verse can each hold truth. A Wilberian perspective offers an additional layer to this frame. The ancient Israelite myths, the text of the Torah, the metaphorical understandings of the rabbis, the internal insistence of the tradition on its own original context, our own contemporary navigations through these elements- all of this is the grand narrative of Judaism itself unfolding, and we collectively transcend and include. We have moved from a tribe that needed to defend itself militarily to the people of the book, encompassing a wide-ranging panoply of understandings. Our collective understanding, therefore, evolves from a literal understanding of the text to a more metaphorical reading, and onwards, which is mirrored in our paths as individuals. Most literate, intellectually sophisticated Jews don’t believe in God as the bearded, jealous “guy in the sky” caricatured by fundamentalist atheists, yet having stories and teachings that are comprehensible and meaningful to us at earlier stages of development provide us with the grounding to evolve as individuals. Of course a verse doesn’t depart from its simple meaning- and it doesn’t stop there. As we grow and Judaism grows, we continue to weave the tapestry of our tradition. We don’t leave our stories, myths, traditions, rituals, practices behind; they continue to inform and help us develop into the people and communities we can and want to be.

So, what did Jacob give Joseph and how? He gave him Shechem, which he conquered; and he gave him an extra portion from his brothers; and he taught Joseph how to pray and learn; and more, and more. The different layers and seeming contradictions, the multivocal multiverse of our tradition, is one of its greatest and deepest strengths, always carrying us forward into the next iteration of meaning, as we both transcend and include, passing this, our dearest inheritance, on.

Vayigash 12/15/18

Wield Thine Power Justly
By: Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Vayiggash on my mind. In fact, it has been on my mind, constantly, for nearly a year. As many of you know, I teach a weekly class on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. (We meet every Wed AM at 8:30, for an hour. No experience or Hebrew fluency required. Come join us!). We read each verse, carefully and slowly. We try to anticipate the questions Rashi might have asked on the verse, and then both aim to understand the plain meaning of his commentary as well as the sometimes-obvious and sometimes-subtle sermonettes within his words. Just last week we celebrated a “siyyum” (completion) of Parshat Vayiggash, which we had been studying methodically since about January.

The text recited at a siyyum includes the phrase הדרן עלך והדרך עלן (Hadran alakh v’hadrakh alan). It can be translated in (at least) two ways. Addressing the text itself, it can mean “we honor you, and you honor us.” Or, “we will return to you and you will return to us.” In this personification of text itself, we both praise the words of our tradition and claim that those very words will linger in our consciousness, awaiting our eventual return to them.

Overly nearly 20 years of teaching a similar class, I have found that though I have more than a rudimentary familiarity with every verse of the Torah, this painstakingly slow study opens my eyes to insights and awareness that had never occurred to me before. When I offered my own closing thoughts and homage to Vayiggash before we jumped into Vayehi (the last parsha of the book of Genesis/Breishit. When we finish that one, it will be one doozy of a siyyum. All are invited!), I named that for me that the most novel insight I had had over the previous months was related to the last set of verses in the parsha, ones often jumped right over when rabbis and teachers are looking for fodder for divrei torah. After lingering, poignantly, on Joseph’s reunion first with his brothers, and then with his father Jacob, and spending several verses on Jacob’s own fascinating encounter with Pharaoh, the text seems to go back in time a bit explaining the nitty-gritty aspects of Joseph’s leadership through the years of plenty and famine, with details one would think only an economist would love (we have an economist in our class, and he loved this section!).

But when you slow down rather than race through, the text’s profundity and prescience—particularly through Rashi’s careful and, yes, biased lens—screams out. Consider this: As Joseph seems, both prophetically and magnanimously, to be taking great economic care of the Egyptians, his adopted home, he also seems, eerily, to be imitating the ways of the very Pharaoh who will ultimately enslave the Israelites…because “he knew not Joseph”! The means of protecting the famished people is, essentially, acquiring them. First by distributing excess food (47:12). Then by collecting their money in exchange for food (v. 14). Then by appropriating their livestock as payment for provisions (v. 16). Then by actually acquiring their land and their very bodies (!!) in return for bread (v. 19). Then, by dispossessing them of even a place to call home, choosing rather to move them around from city to city (v. 21). Rashi explains that this was to protect Joseph’s brothers, the newcomers to Egypt: if no one has a home, then no one is a stranger. A more cynical—and perhaps accurate—read is that this is an important step in imposing total control over a person, a people. The last step in this coup (a coup which both sustained the people and divested the people of their very selves) was to engineer a system by which the people received seed with which to regrow produce, both to provide for themselves and to create an economic base for ongoing taxation (v. 23-24). The upshot of this precise (proto-tyrannical?) system is chilling, particularly if you look at the Hebrew words. Remember what we sing every Seder night? עבדים היינו לפרעה. Avadim hayinu l’Pharo. We were slaves to Pharaoh. Well, that turn of phrase does not originate in the book of Exodus. Rather, the third-to-last verse of Vayiggash has the Egyptian people (perhaps including, perhaps excluding, Joseph’s family. It is hard to tell) exclaiming, “You have given us life!...And now we will be עבדים/avadim/slaves/servants to Pharaoh. Rashi, alert to the obvious allusions, is quick to explain that they weren’t slaves, God-forbid. Only the later Pharaoh would do that to the Israelites. No, in this case they are “just” servants of Pharaoh in that they remit to him annual taxes. I love Rashi more than I love some of my family members…but this answer of his just begs and amplifies the question: Why is it that under Joseph’s stewardship, the Torah tells us that the people (for their own well-being!) end up in some servitude to him, and to Pharaoh, in a situation that was at least far more beneficial to ones in power than those subject to it.

I have no succinct answer. I am still marinating at a “wow” lurking in these verses that I had never noticed before. Two brief takeaways, other than that I encourage you either to come to our class, or at least just to read the parsha slowly and carefully when you do read it. 1) How easy and pernicious it is that sometimes when we think we are doing what is best for those under our authority, or thumb, the ones benefiting most is our very selves. 2) Sometimes what keeps people from becoming a Pharaoh, or acting Pharaonically, is just the opportunity. And a convenient rationalization. A few short verses, and narrative years, before Joseph’s descendants will become truly enslaved to his boss’s successor, he seems to be effectively and perhaps cruelly imposing at least an echo of that power-wielding over the contemporaneous Egyptians.

Wield thine power, and authority, justly and humanely. As you would want it wielded if you were its subject.

Shabbat Shalom