Tag Archives: Vayera

Remembering Rabin 20 years later

30 Oct

 

 

 

On Yom Kippur, I reflected on my experience in Israel 20 years ago when the country went through the trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. While Rabin’s yahrzeit already passed several days ago, this week marks the secular anniversary on November 4. Furthermore, President Bill Clinton in his eulogy of Rabin cited the very Torah portion that we read today, Parashat Vayera. President Clinton said:

This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak.

Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.

The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope.

“Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru, amen.”

Shalom, haver.

On this twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, official memorials are taking place, including one tomorrow in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at which Bill Clinton will be present. Yet, it seems that reflections on the Rabin assassination is rather subdued in the Jewish public square. Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute  suggests in an op-ed three reasons for the muted commemorations:

  1. If Rabin’s assassination was a cautionary tale on the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism, its message has not been sufficiently heeded, particularly in the last year in which Jews have carried out horrific acts of violence.
  2. Rabin’s political legacy is complex. We will never know what would have happened if he had lived. Given where we are now, it seems Pollyannaish that he would have completed a peace deal and brought about the elusive two-state solution.
  3. The biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, that message is hard for us to hear today. Rabin’s legacy, in other words, is hijacked both by the complicated political reality he left behind, and by the dominant lesson of his death as a warning about Jew-on-Jew violence. Rabin’s memory may be lost because it arises at an inconvenient time, or because it is thought to be a failure.

 

Just as Bill Clinton framed Rabin’s legacy 20 years ago through the lenses of  Parashat Vayera, we can do the same. The portion continues the story of Abraham and the dramatic accounts of how the father of our nation welcomed angels into his tent, argued with God over the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac in his and Sarah’s old age, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. We see Abraham as a great hero, yet one with human flaws. He and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are at once larger than life and very approachable. For centuries, people have attempted to get inside the minds of our ancestors and speculate on the details of their experiences and what they must have thought at the time. The art of Midrash is the attempt to have a conversation with the Biblical narrative and to imagine ourselves in the situations described.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000, completed his last collection of poetry shortly before he died in a book titled “Open Closed Open.” Though he identified as a secular Israeli, much of his poetry, particularly in this volume, discusses Biblical figures and religious issues. Abraham and the story of the Binding of Isaac appear multiple times. The following poem is an example of the poet’s attempt to enter the minds of our ancestors and imagine them reflecting with nostalgia on the traumatic events of the Akeidah.

Taken from “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai

Page 119

Every year our father Abraham takes his sons to Mount Moriah, the same way that I take my children to the Negev hills where my war took place.

Abraham walks with his sons: this is where I left the servants, that’s where I tied the ass to the tree at the foot of the hill, and here, right at this spot, you asked me, Isaac my son: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice? A little further up you asked me again.

When they reached the top of the mountain they rested awhile and ate

And drank, and he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.

And when Abraham died, Isaac took his sons to the same spot.

“Here I lifted up the wood and that’s where I stopped for breath, this is where I asked my father and he replied, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, and that’s where I knew that it was me.”

And when Isaac became blind his sons brought him to that same Mount Moriah and described to him in words

All those things that he may already have forgotten.

 

In this poem, Abraham behaves like we might behave visiting a historic site while on vacation, particularly while visiting places of battle. The poet likens Abraham to generations of Israelis who would often visit battle sites with a sense of nostalgia. We also see the contrast between generations. Abraham has his set of memories when he revisits the site with Isaac. But when Isaac takes his sons there, he remembers things differently. He acknowledges that while Abraham did not fully answer his question about where was the sacrifice, he understood that he was the intended sacrifice. Then, Isaac revisits the site years later when he is blind, perhaps a symbol of blocking out a memory that was too painful for him.

Amichai’s interpretation of the Akeidah is told from different perspectives. Similarly, this week we approach the memory of Yitzhak Rabin from different perspectives: what was, what is and what might have been. I believe many of us hold all three of these thoughts and memories of Rabin simultaneously. Abraham and Isaac were not perfect, and neither was Rabin.

On this 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I yearn for religious and political leaders who, like Rabin, are willing to take risks for positive change and who continue to envision a better future with both sincerity and pragmatism. This is how I choose to remember Rabin twenty years later.

To conclude, the Psalmist says (122:6):

 

ו   שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ: ז   … ח   לְמַעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ: ט   לְמַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they who love the Lord shall prosper…For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will now say Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your goodness.

Amen.

 

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#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.

Pew’s call to action

18 Oct

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah's new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah’s new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Pew’s Call to Action: Vayera
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.