Taste of Torah
Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests
- Comforting Love - Chayei Sarah 11/11/23
- Seeing or Watching? Vayera 11/4/23
- Returning to Balance - Lech Lecha 10/28/23
- Empty Chairs and Open Doors - Noah 10/20/23
- "The Power of Choice" - Beresheet 10/14/23
- Vulnerable Structure, Sturdy System - Sukkot 9/30/23
by TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Siegel
When I was a young boy, I’d play outside fairly regularly. My childhood home had a beautiful yard, a basketball hoop, and a sidewalk for biking. Inevitably, I’d fall down off my bike, and every so often, I’d bruise myself in the fall. I was a sensitive child, which meant that a bruise was frequently accompanied with tears. I’d fall and run crying to my parents, who would kiss the boo-boo and make it all better. In doing so, they didn’t do anything special. They didn’t apply a medication that removed the pain or even cast a spell to remove the pain, magical as it felt. They just managed to effectively convey their love. Their love was what ultimately removed my pain.
In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Isaac is similarly going through a painful time in his life. His mother dies and he enters into a deep mourning. According to one midrash, Isaac mourns his mother for three long years. I can only imagine Isaac feeling as though the intense feelings of loss will never cease. But then, he meets Rebekah. Of her, this week’s parsha says, “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” Ramban, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, explains that it is through Isaac’s love of Rebekah, and through her love of him, that Isaac is able to be comforted. Love is what removes his pain.
We live in a very painful period for world Jewry. With all the vitriol in the world, it’s very easy to get swept up in hateful rhetoric, hoping that it will be the answer to our hurt. But Ramban is reminding us that no matter how much we hate, our pain will not be sated. It is only through love, through connection with others, that we can hope to feel some semblance of consolation.
The path ahead is still murky. We do not know when something resembling peace can return to Israel. But what I do know is that the only way we can hope to get there is through leaning into our loving tendencies. Hold the door for a stranger. Put someone else’s shopping cart away for them. Make the world a kinder place. It won’t fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Seeing or Watching?
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Testimony: Listening. Watching. Witnessing. Seeing. Right now, we are each of us doing this obsessively. We are listening to stories, watching videos, and witnessing a world in turmoil. However, what are we really seeing? Are we just allowing the algorithms of our social media and news profiles to show us the world? Are we only doom-scrolling through mediums and personalities that we agree with? Do we really see or know multiple perspectives? If we are not aware of the echo chamber of narratives are we really seeing or are we just watching?
וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק׃
“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.”
Sarah sees Ishmael, but she does not just notice him, she judges his behavior and makes assumptions of her own:
וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃
“She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’”
Based on what Sarah encounters with Ishmael, she decides that he is a threat to her son, Isaac, and their family. Was that fair? No. Was it based on asking questions, experiencing multiple encounters, hearing different perspectives? No. It was a quick decision based on one moment of seeing Ishmael. Seeing Ishmael, in this moment, forges a future for him, and Hagar, that is complicated and dismissive. It is of course possible that Sarah truly saw something in this young boy that made her nervous for her child or family’s safety, but we do not know just based on her “seeing.”
I am sure many of us are listening to stories and watching videos that make us feel that we have a full idea of anything going on. However, it is hard to know, without being inside a situation as to what we are not seeing, what we are not hearing, what we are not feeling. Sarah sees Ishmael, but the result is that Abraham is hurt by her judgment of him and his position in their family. Abraham ends up putting his attention on Hagar and Ishmael to protect them and create a prosperous and blessed life for them. And what comes next in Abraham’s parenting journey? The akeidah! Potentially the most epic story of being focused on the wrong goal, or not seeing the whole kaleidoscopic picture.
The beginning of the parsha begins with seeing people approach Abraham and Sarah’s home and even in the toughest of moments welcoming them in. That moment brings Abraham closer to God, closer to the sanctity of being a leader. That is the type of seeing that we all strive to do. We hope to see people, whether they are strangers or angels, and invite them into our lives. We hope to treat them the same, and based on seeing them, hope to also listen to them, witness their stories and share our own with them. That is relationship. That is creating connection.
This week, while you are listening to stories, watching videos, and witnessing a world in turmoil, think about what you are really seeing. Are you seeing the whole picture? Are you seeing multiple perspectives of a news story? Are you seeing the person who is speaking and in need? Are you seeing the world around you or are you just watching?
Returning to Balance
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro
I know this parsha very, very well, except for one chapter. During rabbinical school, Dr. Ziony Zevit brought us through chapters 12-22 of the Abraham narrative as a way of learning and parsing Biblical Hebrew. He was meticulous, to put it likely, in ensuring we understood the nouns, the verbs, the conjugation…it was one of the more rigorous academic experiences of my life. But we skipped one chapter, chapter 14, because the language and the words were particularly complicated and obscure.
And yet, in looking at Lech Lecha this week, it seems that this part of the narrative is what calls out most clearly, to me and to the fraught, painful moment in which we collectively find ourselves. The chapter is unusual for the stories we know of Abra(ha)m- rather than focusing on his personal journey or his family life, this focuses on his military exploits. In short, his nephew, Lot, is taken captive as part of an attack by a group of Canaanite kings, and Abram takes it upon himself to go into battle and rescue him, which he does successfully.
On first glance, this seems at odds with how we think of our patriarch. Many of the commentators go out of their way to explain the apparent gap between a figure who becomes the rabbinic avatar for chesed, lovingkindness, and someone who is a military leader. For example, though the Torah specifies that Abram brings 318 people into battle, multiple rabbis note that by using gematria, the process through which Hebrew letters are assigned numbers and meaning is then drawn through various numerical connections, 318 is the gematria for Eliezer, Abram’s primary servant; per this understanding, Abram didn’t have a real military force, just one person supporting him.
But that’s not the pshat, the simple and straightforward reading of the text. Abram decides that this is a moment in which armed conflict is necessary, and he takes it upon himself to follow through on that decision. It’s more compelling to take the narrative at face value and see what we might learn from it. Rabbeinu Bachya notices something about the choice that Abram makes in reestablishing the geographic boundaries. When it says in verse 14 that “he pursued as far as Dan,” Bachya engages in a bit of wordplay. He says that this is a reference to the attribute of justice, din, playing with the similarity between the tribal name and the Hebrew of the attribute. Why? Because, he teaches, they were pursued “until the attribute of Justice caught up with these kings,” that at that point, there was no need for Avram to pursue any further. Abram does what he needs to do, no more and no less, a meaningful construct to reflect on when considering what our tradition teaches regarding armed conflict.
More broadly, there’s the concept of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming of captives, running through this narrative, something that’s all too relevant and resonant in our minds and our hearts this Shabbat. As with so many topics in our tradition,there are a variety of sources and opinions about this concept, ranging from placing essential importance on ensuring that every single captive is returned to a sense of reluctance towards this obligation. The reluctance stems from the concern that this may encourage additional hostages being taken or too high of a price being extracted from the community, leading to an exploration of what, if any, parameters should be placed on this mitzvah. And, at the same time, there’s also an ultimate importance placed on this mitzvah; there’s no doubt some of the most powerful collective endeavors of Jewish peoplehood in modern times have been driven by this commandment. There are multiple values in play, and it’s exceedingly difficult to balance all of them just academically, let alone in a moment when lives are at stake, and the stories are painful, and the conflict rages.
There’s a noteworthy moment at the end of the narrative when Abram receives an offer from one of his allies in the battle. In verse 21, the king of Sodom says to Abram “give me the persons and take the possessions for yourself,” that Abram can keep the property he has amassed in his victory, as long as the people are returned. Abram refuses, saying ‘I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours’ (v. 23). Abram didn’t enter this battle for personal gain, so what does he want? Balance. All he’s seeking is to reestablish what came before- he won’t settle for less, and he also doesn’t need more. He won’t forfeit his nephew’s life, and he doesn’t need to come out ahead in the process.
It’s essential to do everything we can to reestablish balance where it’s needed, in the world at large and within ourselves. We can also work to appreciate balance when it is present, internally and relationally, in our lives, as that can anchor us and guide us in restoring that which is off kilter and teetering. So, yes, this is a difficult chapter in the Torah, but not only because of its language. It also speaks to something that’s a real spiritual struggle for all of us, which actually makes it all the more fitting for us to read this overlooked narrative closely, certainly this week.
May it be a peaceful, rejuvenating, and freeing Shabbat for all of us.
Empty Chairs and Open Doors
By Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor
There is a feeling that cannot be described by the word “hope” alone. It is hope with the added ingredients of patience, and some impatience, and yearning and the grief that accompanies the yearning and feeling of not-yet that goes along with all of the above. This restless waiting for something we simply know in our hearts must be coming – perhaps it is best captured by the words Maimonides used in the preamble to his principles of faith: Ani ma’amin be’emunah sh’leimah – I believe with complete trust in the Divine.
This is the kind of hope represented by a door left ajar, not simply an invitation but an indication of confidence and trust. A door that cannot be closed because someone is coming, or perhaps coming back. We witness a moment like this in Parshat Noah, when the ark is nearly full and the rains threaten the fullness of the flood.
וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶל־נֹ֖חַ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה שְׁנַ֤יִם שְׁנַ֙יִם֙ מִכׇּל־הַבָּשָׂ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ ר֥וּחַ חַיִּֽים׃
They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life.
וְהַבָּאִ֗ים זָכָ֨ר וּנְקֵבָ֤ה מִכׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֔אוּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּסְגֹּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲדֽוֹ׃
Thus they that entered comprised male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him. And יהוה shut him in. (Gen. 7:15-16)
How could Noah have known that he had properly collected every pair of creatures on the earth? On and on the animals paraded into the ark; the rescue must have seemed endless, infinite. I imagine Noah waiting just inside the door of the ark as more and more creatures slid into the vessel. We learned back in verse 10 and thereafter that the flood waters had already burst open and the sea wilded. It must have been a wickedly scary sight out the door of the ark and yet. And yet. Noah could not bring himself to close the door. וַיִּסְגֹּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲדֽוֹ – God shut the door on Noah’s behalf. The Chizkuni, a 13th c. biblical commentary, wrote that Noah was terrified that he might miss even one species should he close the door prematurely. So he waited, and waited, and a holy wind blew the door shut as if to say, You’ve done all you could.
This year we read Parshat Noah as a brutal war rages in Israel, one that began with attacks of terror that led to hundreds captured and more than a thousand deaths. The captives include some active duty military but also many civilians, from young children to the elderly. 203 individuals remain in captivity as we move into Shabbat and we are praying with doors wide open. Expectantly. Praying with the kind of fervent emunah shleimah that mixes hope with certitude. At the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a Shabbat table stretches wide across their plaza, 203 empty chairs set and waiting for the whole and safe return of each person being held.
In our own Cafe TBA space, I have been working on an adaptation of The Empty Table - השולחן העזוב: a ritual that is used in the military to acknowledge those who are missing in action and otherwise captive and not yet released. Here is our chance, your chance, to turn art into a ritual salve. We will flip the wine glasses upside down in the true absence of a l’Chayim. We’ll add a pinch of salt to the plate, knowing that wherever they are, their food is salted by the same tears that fall on your plate. And we’ll sing Eliyahu Hanavi, blending the images of an empty chair and an open door, both associated with the prophet Elijah and the holy promise of return and redemption.
You are invited to join us as we emplace the table with great honor and solemnity next Tuesday, Oct. 24 at Temple Beth Am following evening minyan (5:45 pm minyan; program at approx. 6:15 M). Join us as we set the table and pray with full hearts and brimming eyes for the return of each life, unharmed.
Read more about the ritual here.
The Power of Choice
TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal
Like many of you, my heart has been aching this week. Every story I hear from Israel of the horrors that were unleashed there breaks my heart into even more pieces in a way I didn’t know possible. The idea of a pogrom happening in the homeland of our people is unthinkable, and yet today it is reality. One of the many things that’s so incomprehensible is that humans can treat other humans in such vicious ways. Coincidentally enough, our parsha this week, Bereshit, has some insight into how this came to be.
This week we read the story of Cain and Abel, a story about the potential humanity has for destruction. But even before that, we read of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rabbeinu Bahya, a 14th Spanish rabbi, explains that when Eve eventually eats from this tree, it is not knowledge that she gains but willpower and freedom of choice. Prior to eating from the tree, humankind was set up to do only as they were programmed. It’s not that we as a species were unable to sin, Rabbeinu Bahya explains, but that we were unable to act illogically. We could only act in such ways as were logical for us, and so we were unable to sin. But once humans ate from the tree, we gained the ability to act in ways that may be illogical. We gained the will to do good and bad instead of just automatically doing the right thing without thinking about it.
What this means, unfortunately, is that humans are capable of unleashing destruction upon one another. It means, sadly, that the horrible scenes coming out of Israel can happen because humanity is capable of destroying one another. But it also means that when humanity acts for good, it does so despite the ability to be able to engage in such horrors.
Coming out of chag I saw so many terrible scenes, but there was one Instagram reel that helped to piece my shattered heart together. It showed lines snaking through malls of Israelis waiting to give blood. By now, whole arenas are filled with Israelis giving blood to help support the medical infrastructure. The video clip also showed Israeli children, for whom school is currently closed, taking their free time to write letters and make pictures to send to soldiers on the front. This video portrayed the beauty of Israeli society as Israelis from all backgrounds banded together to collect food, clothing, toys, and more for those who lived in towns evacuated by the IDF.
Since watching that Instagram reel, I’ve heard more and more related stories. Stories of people being turned away from giving blood because the blood drives were at max capacity. Stories of El Al flights full of soldiers returning from abroad to report for reserve duty. Soldiers leaving their lives in peaceful countries to defend those in need. Stories of regular citizens collecting resources and handing out food to soldiers going to war.
This is the flip side of the free will that we were given. Free will means that when we choose to do good, it’s that much more powerful than if we did that good without a choice. Yes, we are capable of pure destruction, but when we use our free will for good, that good feels so much better.
Later in the parsha, we do eventually read the story of Cain and Abel. After killing Abel, Cain cries out to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We know the answer. But we’re also seeing the answer today in real time. Israelis are absolutely each other’s keeper. And what makes it possible to truly be each other’s keeper is the free will we were granted.
My blessing for us all (and it’s important to remember in the middle of this destruction that there are still blessings to be found in this world) is that we use the power of our free will for good. May we all find the power to rise to goodness in opposition to evil and to remain steadfast in being each other’s keeper
Vulnerable Structure, Sturdy System
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Sukkot 2023 5784
In the practice of law, and religion (ie, religious law), it makes sense to generally have an accepted way of doing something. While some variation in observance is both natural/inevitable, and even positive in reinforcing our lack of certainty regarding THE one way God and the tradition expects us to behave, I think we can all agree that if everyone set up and lit their hanukiot exactly as they wanted to, without nodding to inherited tradition, we’d lose some of the wonderful sameness that binds Jews together across time and space.
Recently, a TBA member asked about a very precise aspect of waving the lulav/etrog, about which there are, indeed, different opinions and customs. We waive the four species on their own, and then also during parts of reciting Hallel. Most seem to agree that they should be waived in 6 directions (forward, right, back, left, up and down–though the order seems to be fluid among different Jewish communities and customs). And most seem to agree that we should refrain from waiving while we are uttering God’s name in prayer, lest we are seen to be waiving them at God, or suggesting an apotropaic power to the ritual. But there are at least two dominant customs about when, specifically, to waive them when reciting this phrase in Hallel: אנה ה׳ הושיעה נא/ana adonai hoshia na (Please, God, save us!). Since one of those words is God’s name, some observe the custom of waiving in two directions on each of three other words in the phrase. And some observe the custom of waiving in one direction on each of the the six non-God syllables in the phrase. Picayune, I know. I share it as an example of an embedded but minor variance in Jewish practice. Jews following the two different customs can stand, and waive, next to another in services and still feel they are both observing the same mitzvah, and participating in the same ritual. But if one person observed the custom by waiving them in 6 directions on that line, and another person’s custom was, say, to throw them up in the air and then catch them with one hand (admittedly, a silly example), the two adjacent Jews would feel very ritually disconnected to one another.
Therefore, it makes sense that how the law about basic elements of building a sukkah evolved and concretized resulted in near unanimity about “major” components of that structure. In particular, all religious authorities that I am aware of agree that for it to be a kosher sukkah, it must satisfy the category of דירת עראי/dirat arai, or “temporary dwelling.” A sukkah is intentionally flimsy. It should not withstand hurricane-strength winds. It is supposed to denote vulnerability, a nod to our ancestors’ sojourn through the desert.
However, a quick look at the Talmudic discussion on the topic reveals that, 2000 years ago, as Jewish law was in its birthing mode, there was robust disagreement on this point of practice. In masekhet/tractate Sukkah (page 7b) we have a list of at least 7 rabbis, including Rabban Gamliel (with the “Rabban”title denoting his status as that generation’s lead rabbinic authority), who believe the exact opposite regarding the structure of the Sukkah! To them, it must be דירת קבע/dirat keva–a permanent structure. Or, at least, a temporary structure that is as sturdy and strong as a permanent building.
Clearly, that opinion “lost” the battle of commonly accepted practice. But it is preserved, lovingly and carefully, in our sacred texts–one of literally thousands of examples of how rabbinic culture found a way both to create basic homogeneity of ritual observance and deep respect for and embrace of differing opinions.
May we all, generally, observe Sukkot similarly this year. Sitting in relatively flimsy booths, and reciting the same words for the appropriate blessing. Waiving our lulav rather than throwing it. Using an etrog, and not a lemon. Etc…And may we also be curious about, and seek out, the opinions of those with whom we disagree, eager to understand their rationales, and, perhaps, even eager to ensure that their ideas about all sorts of things–whether or not they are canonized in practice–are respected. And preserved. There to be learned about, for generations to come.