Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they’re a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.
Parashat Hayyei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and her burial. Abraham, confronting mortality, then sends his servant (known in the Midrash as Eliezer) to venture to Mesopotamia to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Eliezer’s caravan includes many camels. He knows he’s found “the one” for Isaac when Rebecca appears at the well and graciously draws water not just for the people in the caravan but for the camels as well. After Eliezer seals the deal with Rebecca’s family, she returns with Abraham’s servant to Canaan. She’s riding a camel when she first lays eyes on Isaac praying in the field. She’s so smitten she falls off the camel. #TieBlog pays homage to the camels who helped perpetuate the legacy of Abraham.
October 19, 2013
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of joining Cantor Mondrow and Wilma Turk at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference in Baltimore. The Conference marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this synagogue arm of the Conservative Movement. While there’s much to be proud of in our Movement’s history over the last 100 years, the focus at the conference was on the future. In the background of practically every session was the recently released study of the American Jewish community by the Pew Research Center. No doubt, many of the findings by Pew are cause for alarm and concern and will no doubt influence decisions of Jewish organizations across the country for years to come. One piece of data that has received much attention is that among millennials, American Jews who have only known a world with the Internet, some 22% consider themselves as having no religion. This datum parallels of finding from Pew’s recent larger survey of all religions in America that found that the fastest growing religion in America is none. Of particular concern at the USCJ conference was Pew’s finding that that only 18% of American Jews consider themselves Conservative. This is down from 39% in 1990. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring these numbers and pretending they don’t exist. At the same time, the message of the survey should not be a prophecy of gloom and doom. It should rather be seen as a call to action. Indeed, I was impressed at the conference by the tremendous positive energy. While there was concern about the present, there was a great sense of hope and opportunity for the future.
I’d like to highlight two pieces of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, that seem relevant in light of the Pew report. The first comes from the very beginning of the portion; the second from the end. The portion opens in chapter 18 with God appearing to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent. In today’s Jewish community, we have many of our fellow Jews who are outside the tent of the synagogue and the organized Jewish community. Some find the rituals and prayers to be complicated and unfamiliar. Some find the synagogue buildings large and imposing. Some find they do not know anyone and therefore to cross the threshold is a major obstacle. The conference of this past week reminded us that many of our fellow Jews are eager for a sense of community and deeper meaning in their lives. Those of us within the tent need to make greater efforts to bring our fellow Jews into our synagogue and our community. This is an ongoing challenge in a time when there are many competing demands on people’s time, energy, and resources. I do believe that a sense of sacred community and the unique blend of tradition and modernity which we call Conservative Judaism has a compelling message. We need to work creatively and passionately to bring more of our neighbors and friends into the tent of Jewish life, and specifically Temple Torah. We are in the midst of a strategic planning process that I hope, once completed, will strengthen our role a warm, welcoming, open tent for Jews in our area across generations.
Parashat Vayera closes with the story of the Binding of Isaac, or “Akeidah.” As Abraham and Isaac, along with the two unnamed lads who accompany them, near the end of their journey, the text reads: “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar” (Gen. 22:4).
Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 23) offers the following comment:
As they approached the place and saw it from afar Abraham asked Isaac, “Do you see what I see?” And Isaac answered, “I see a beautiful, majestic mountain, and the cloud of glory hovers over it.”
He then asked his two young servants, “Do you see anything?”
They answered, “We see nothing but a wasteland.” Abraham said to them, “Remain behind here with the donkeys.”
The two lads are supporting cast members who typically get lost in the psycho-drama of the narrative. Yet, the rabbis in their careful reading of the text take note that they were left behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain. The rabbis ask why that is, and their answer is that they were not filled with a sense of awe. They did not sense the presence of the divine in creation. Abraham saw the makom, the Place (which, in rabbinic Hebrew becomes another name for God); the lads saw a wasteland. Therefore, Abraham excluded them from further participation in this momentous occasion.
Of course, we can ask numerous questions about the lads and presume our own course of action if we were in their shoes. We might gather from the text that of course Abraham excluded them. Why would he want them snooping around, given what unfolds? If we were there, would we surreptitiously follow our masters up the mountain? Would we call the police when we saw Abraham raise his knife? Would we run and tell Sarah (Oh, yes, she does die suddenly in the next chapter, doesn’t she?)? This particular midrash overlooks all of these questions and directs our attention to the broader atmosphere.
Abraham and Isaac are not without their faults. Abraham follows God’s instructions in an unquestioning way that is incongruent with the Abraham who argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac, for his part, is passive. He may well be an adult already but is willing to go along with his father’s plan. His willful passivity (assuming that to be the case) demonstrates his own lapse in concern of the sanctity of life in the name of serving his God. In reading the text one is left with little doubt that the main characters were deeply scarred by this episode. God never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Sarah dies.
All of this is true, and still the rabbis writing the midrash above were bothered by those two anonymous youths at the bottom of the mountain whom we never hear from again. Abraham and Isaac, for all their faults, are looking for the spark of the divine in their lives. They are imperfect in their comprehension of it, and they are hurt in the process; however, they still care. The rabbis interpret the two lads as indifferent to the divine presence, and indifference is taboo in the Torah and in the annals of Jewish interpretation.
One astounding statistic in the Pew Report that has not received enough attention is that when people were asked if they had a positive or negative sense of Jewish identity, 94% responded positive. That is really incredible. 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. It’s just that the majority of them don’t presently feel engaged by Jewish institutions, for whatever reason. We should not be like Abraham’s assistants who lost hope. We should rather be like Abraham and Isaac who, according to the midrash, sense an opportunity to encounter the divine. We should seek out opportunities for deeper engagement with fellow Jews who may be seeking meaningful involvement. Let’s not write anyone off. In every challenge lies opportunity. As the rabbis interpret, at a momentous time in the Bible, two youths were pessimistic and indifferent and were excluded from further participation. A message we can take from Parashat Vayera is that it’s in our power to open our tent, bring people inside and encounter the divine through our shared community. May we be so blessed.
Heroes and Their Tragic Flaws
Parashat Lekh Lekha
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
October 12, 2013
This week, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef died at the age of 93. He was a true giant among the Jewish people for his leadership and mastery of the art of p’sak halakhah, Jewish legal decision making. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was the preeminent voice and authority for Sephardic Jewry, Jews primarily from the Meditteranean rim and the Middle East. He served in the formal role as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in the 1970s but remained the dominant Sephardic rabbinic authority in Israel and around the world throughout his life.
As noted in various tributes, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was a bold, creative, and confident jurist, and often remarkably in touch with the sensibilities of a broad constituency, especially the oft-ignored working-class. He brought honor to Torah, to God, and to human beings, including many types of people whose voices were systematically silenced in Rabbinic discourse. For much of his career he was a voice of reason and compassion when much of the Orthodox world, particularly Ashkenazi Rabbinic leaders in Israel representing traditions from Eastern and Central Europe were promoting far more stringent paths of observance. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s ruling that the Beta Yisrael community of Ethiopia were part of the Jewish people and did not require formal conversion to Judaism paved the way for Israel to bring tens of thousands of them to Israel. His voluminous responsa also show sensitivity to the economic plight of many of his constituents. While more prosperous Ashkenazic households were more prone to spend lots of money to keep a kosher kitchen, going so far as to purchase two dishwashers, he was more lenient.
Religiously observant Sephardic women in Israel commonly wear pants, thanks to Rav Ovadiah, while Ashkenazi authorities long ago decreed women could only wear skirts. An even more noteworthy ruling favorable towards women was one he wrote after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He allowed hundreds of women whose husbands were missing in the war to remarry, although, traditionally, remarriage is allowed only after a woman has received a “get,” a religious bill of divorce from her former husband or there is incontrovertible proof that her former husband has died. The plight of the Agunah, a woman chained to a defunct marriage, continues to be a vexing problem in much of the Jewish world today, largely because of the lack of courage and vision among rabbinic authorities. Rav Ovadiah stood up boldly to free women from this state.
In the euphoric years after 1967 War, many Ashkenazi religious Zionists were filled with messianic zeal for the prospect of settling the newly occupied territories. R. Ovadiah Yosef, however, ruled that it was permissible to exchange land for peace. He was a bold, creative rabbinic thinker and leader, and he should be praised as such.
The story of R. Ovadiah Yosef doesn’t end there, though. He was a complex personality.
Over the last two decades, he became increasingly known as a political figure. He was the inspiration and spiritual head of the Shas Party in Israel. Shas, an acronym for Shomrei Sefarad, the guardians of Sephardic Jewry, started as a response to the plight of Sephardic Jews in Israel who were consistently poorer, less educated and less upwardly mobile than Ashkenazi Israelis. While its original intentions as a social movement were noble, over the years Shas became a significant political party and has been tainted by corruption on numerous occasions. This tarnished the reputation of R. Ovadiah Yosef. Furthermore, as various obituaries noted, Rav Ovadia, particularly in his later years, often made caustic, hateful comments about various groups of people. His intemperate remarks in many of his weekly sermons often lashed out against those he despised — rival politicians, gay people and perceived enemies of Israel. He likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews. In 2010, he called President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority “evil” and asked God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague, these evil haters of Israel.” Comments like these contributed immeasurably to a growing culture of violent and hateful speech in Israel and the Jewish world. Through comments such as these, he brought disgrace to Torah, to God, and to human beings. He placed many vulnerable people in greater danger through his aggressive and toxic speech,
Who was the real Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef? The answer is they were both one and the same person. He was a complex individual. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that he had such a multi-faceted personality. We need only turn to today’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha, to meet another complex hero of the Jewish people, our patriarch Abraham. Immediately upon settling in Canaan as God had instructed, Abraham uproots himself and brings his household to Egypt. The text says vayered Avram Mitzraymah, Abram went down to Egypt, suggesting that he lowered himself to the moral level of that society. What happens next is particularly disturbing. Abraham is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife Sarai and ravage her. What does he do? He says that Sarah is his sister. She would be vulnerable to being kidnapped and assaulted, but at least he would live. This is not a shining moment of chivalry in the life of our patriarch. Clearly, in this environment of danger and depravity, we can understand Abraham’s fear that led him to deceive others to save himself. While we can understand his fear, we cannot justify his actions, and that is the Torah’s point. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, the Torah continually portrays its leading figures with all of their flaws, perhaps to teach us that we too can be good people without being perfect people. Look throughout the Bible and we find one hero after another, each of whom we meet as flawed human beings. These include Jacob, Moses, and King David.
Looking at American history, we find that many of America’s most outstanding leaders and statesmen often displayed deep contradictions. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self- evident that all men are created equal.” Yet, for several more decades he continued to own slaves. President Roosevelt was hailed for guiding the nation out of the Depression and for his moral clarity in leading the nation in war against fascism in Europe and Japan. Yet, history has shown that when he had the knowledge of the plight of European Jewry and the power to save them from slaughter, he failed to exercise that power. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights movement, while at the same time he consistently cheated on his wife.
The Torah was not given to angels. It was given to human beings with the intention that we would be inspired by its teachings to improve ourselves and our world. The major characters of the Torah are flawed human beings who, despite their limitations, or perhaps because of them, are able to succeed despite their natural human fears and desires. We can and should condemn individual acts of behavior that get in the way of bringing godliness into the world. At the same time, let us pause to appreciate great contributions to society. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was a complex human being who was a once-in-a-generation scholar. Israel and the Jewish world, on balance, were enriched by his immense contributions. May his memory be for a blessing.
In Parashat Lekh Lekha, Abram (later re-named Abraham) hears the call from God to uproot himself from everything that is familiar to him and go to Land that God will show him so that he will become a great nation. One problem: he and his wife Sarai (later re-named Sarah) are elderly and childless. Abram goes along with God’s instructions but later expresses angst that he has no offspring and no heirs. The text in Genesis 15 reads: “3 Abram said further, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” 4 The word of the Lord came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.” With God calling upon Abram to look to the stars for hope and inspiration, this week’s tie reminds me of this moment of renewal for our patriarch.
In Parashat Noach, we read about the breakdown of society, not once, but twice. From this perspective, it seems timely to read Noach this week. It is hard not to be mindful of the nearly one million public servants in our Federal government who are not receiving paychecks as a result of the government shut down. There is a ripple effect throughout the country as the country’s business isn’t getting done. Cancer trials aren’t happening, small business loans aren’t being made, tax refunds aren’t going out. Real people’s lives are affected. The situation is grim and painful to witness as our elected officials are unable to come to agreement on the budget. The political atmosphere in Washington is tense and surreal. Amidst all of the political standoff, a crazed woman led police on a high speed car chase around the capital before she was shot dead on Capitol Hill. She was the only casualty, but one can certainly wonder if we are witnessing the breakdown of society. So, it’s with this backdrop that we turn to Parashat Noach for a spiritual lesson.
In Parashat Noach, we meet two doomed societies: the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion in the Tower of Babel story.
In response to sin, the text tells us that God destroys the first of these generations through a flood which encompasses the entire world. The only survivors are Noach, his family and the animals that Noach, upon God’s command, brings into the ark.
We’re told later in the Torah reading about the next generation that is punished through God’s decree of linguistic confusion. In response to the building of the Tower of Bavel, God creates a myriad of languages. The builders of the tower, unable to communicate with each other, disperse across the face of the earth.
The structure of our Torah portion raises one basic question: Why are these two stories juxtaposed to one another? Why are they in the same parashah? How are these stories in relationship with each other, and what can we learn from it?
The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash offer interpretations on the nature of the crimes of the societies that in turn lend credence to their inclusion together in the parashah.
According to the text itself, the generation of the flood was guilty of hamas. What is hamas? It is a coincidence that this word is a homophone of the Islamic terrorist organization, but they are not related etymologically. The Hebrew word hamas, is understood by our tradition as violent theft. The rabbis of the Talmud describe more in full their understanding of the culture of theft and corruption that existed in the time of Noah.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Acha asks, “What did they steal? A merchant would walk through the marketplace with a container filled with grapes and each passerby would reach forth and steal a small amount, less than he could be called to judgment for (TJ Bava Metzia, 4:2).
From the Rabbinic perspective, the sin of the generation of the flood boils down to their mocking of societal norms and laws. Driven by personal greed, each individual steals from his neighbor. He does so in such a way, however, as to escape the reach of the law. By the time the merchant reaches the end of the marketplace he has no grapes left. No one, however, can be taken to court. Societal rules have been rendered ineffective in the face of personal greed.
In contrast, the sin of the generation of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, is more difficult to determine. The Torah does not clearly state the sin for which they were guilty. As a result, the rabbis of the midrash imagine the nature and extent of their sin so that we can learn appropriate moral behavior from the story. The Midrashic work Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (24) offers the following story: If a man fell down and died during the process of construction of the tower, no attention was paid to him at all. If one brick fell, however, all would sit down and weep: “Woe to us! When will we find another to take its place?” In other words, those working on the Tower of Bavel cared not at all about the lives of their neighbors. All that mattered was the creation of the tower and the society that it represented.
In the eyes of the rabbis, the two civilizations described in Parashat Noach reflected polar extremes. The society of Noach’s time was characterized by individual greed at the expense of communal structure. The generation of the dispersion, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice individual life to the creation of society. In the age of Noah, when everyone but Noah and his family was guilty of theft, all individuals were punished. When it came to the builders of the Tower of Bavel, however, the problem was with the society, not the individuals. In this case, therefore, only the society is destroyed.
In each era, mankind struggles to strike a balance between two opposing forces: the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Each of these forces, by definition, impinges upon the other. In the totalitarian Soviet Union, individual rights were suppressed for the sake of the larger state. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s suggested by many that the Tea Party is ensconced in its extreme libertarian ideology where the individual is paramount, vital national institutions that support the health, safety and welfare of our country are allowed to crumble. In my opinion, neither extreme is sustainable. We have to find a middle ground.
In order to create and maintain the rules necessary for communal governance, a society must, of necessity, place limits upon personal freedoms. To cite a well-known example, you cannot allow someone to yell fire in a crowded theater. On the other hand, a society must limit the restrictions it places upon its citizens in order to allow for individual freedom of expression and action.
The particular balance that a society creates between these two forces determines the very nature of the society itself.
Parashat Noach is not a collection of quaint fairy tales. The two major narratives teach us about how, at the dawn of civilization, two generations fail in their attempts to create an equilibrium between individual and community, with the failures occurring at opposite ends of the spectrum.
In the aftermath of the failures of both generations of the flood and dispersion, the parsha closes by introducing us to Avram, who is to become Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Patriarch. He will lead the way towards creating a new society, one that strives to create a delicate balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. God will promise Abraham that the society he will create, the Jewish people guided by the Torah, will be destined to endure throughout the ages.
To this day, we still strive to find the delicate balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. We need this balance, and our society desperately needs Judaism’s moderating voice. May the lessons we derive from Parashat Noach provide us with valuable guidance in this quest in promoting the dignity of all human beings.
Here’s my first Talmud podcast for the year. If you can’t learn with us in person, you may do so online! Join us as we study the Amidah as a pillar of Jewish prayer through our study of the 4th chapter of Tractate Brakhot.