Parashat Chayei Sarah

Parashat Chayei Sarah marks the death of Sarah:

“And Sarah died in Kiriath arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her. And Abraham arose from before his dead, and he spoke to the sons of Heth” (Genesis 23:2-3). 

I think this passage offers us a good lesson regarding mourning. Loss is an inherent part of life, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, of a relationship, of our health, or of whatever other precarious gift that we are given that can be taken from us in the blink of an eye. This week’s parasha finds Abraham who, according to the Midrash, has just completed his tenth and final test of faith, and who instead of relaxing must now confront the loss of his wife, who has been more or less the one constant in his life (aside maybe from Eliezer) since Avraham left his homeland and family and set out on the long that started in Parashat Lech Lecha.

Now, keep in mind that this was all taking place many years ago in the middle east. To put it more bluntly, Avraham must bury Sarah ASAP because there are no cool storage facilities around to keep Sarah’s body while he figures out the burial situation. Avraham could have sorted out the burial plot first, since that was urgent business, and waited to “eulogize Sarah and to bewail her” only after. But what does Avraham do? First he eulogizes; then he “bewails” Sarah; and only then can he conduct business.

When we suffer loss, we are often tempted to “power through”; to “think positively”; to “move on”. (Maybe this doesn’t apply to the loss of a partner or of a family member, but it does apply to more minor losses that we go through regularly.) I think, therefore, that we can all take a lesson from Avraham and his mourning process.

First, Avraham eulogizes Sarah. He honors her memory and the imprint that her existence left on this world. When we lose something, we should also try and honor that which was lost, and remind ourselves of all the good things that are still around that came from that which was lost, even if the source of all those good things is no more.

Then, Avraham bewails her. He cries about her. He lets himself be sad; while remembering the good that was and still is, he lets himself feel his loss. I think that this is very important — just to internalize that there is indeed an emptiness now. And only after this can Avraham can start being in the world again.

Parashat Vayeira

Parashat Vayeira recounts akeidat Itschak, the binding of Isaac. I will share my father’s interpretation of that story:

All parents bind their kids. All parents impose on their kids their values, their worldview, their complications, their habits, their anxieties, their fears… And this is a heavy weight for the child to bear. The child goes along with the parent, because he or she doesn’t know that life can be different, that their mind can work differently, that they can want different things, because the only experience of the world the child has is mediated by the parent.

In fact, the binds that the parent imposes on the child are so tight and suffocating that they nearly kill the child. But, thankfully, at the last minute, the parent realizes that he or she must let go, and the parent does let go, just in time.

Parashat Lech Lecha

This week we are introduced to Abraham. Abraham is the forefather of the three “Abrahamic religions” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in historical order). And reading the stories about Abraham, it indeed seems pretty clear that he’s more than just the forefather of the Jewish people. I’ll expand on this next week, since Vayera has some great passages that help tell a compelling story of Abraham has a pre-Jewish community/religious leader.

This parasha is full of juicy episodes which bring up many questions, but I want to focus on a relatively easy story from the opening of the parasha: “And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.” And Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him, and Abram was seventy five years old when he left Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:1-5).

Growing up in an orthodox environment, I was always taught that these verses show us Abraham’s dedication to God — God tells Abraham to leave everything familiar to him behind – his land, his birthplace, his father’s house – and go into the unknown; Abraham, God’s loyal servant, acquiesces without protest.

As I was reading these familiar verses again this week, I was struck by the discrepancy between the actual text and this traditional interpretation of it. First, Abraham doesn’t leave everything behind; rather he takes “his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran.” Second, God promises Abraham some pretty desirable rewards: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”

I think that we are sometimes given impossible standards of faith by our teachers and spiritual leaders, and that this is very harmful. We grow up thinking of Abraham’s faithful and selfless cleaving to God, and when we examine our own spiritual state we come up short. It is important to remember that Abraham also made a somewhat rational decision based on the options he had before him. He had faith in God’s promises, but he also left accompanied by whatever people and with whatever possessions he could to ease the transition. We shouldn’t learn from Abraham blind irrational faith, because that is not what he practiced, and that is not what we should strive for. As we are told in Parashat Nitzavim:

“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)

\

Parashat Noach

I realized two weeks ago that I waste a lot of time summarizing the Parasha, so that I don’t have so much energy left by the time I actually get to my point. So I am not going to summarize the parasha anymore, but the original is better anyways so I recommend to whoever reads this blog to read the original text of the parasha as well because it’s pretty great.

So, I’m diving right in. Why does God decide to destroy the world by flood? In Bereishit we’re told: “And it came to pass when man commenced to multiply upon the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them. That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose (…) And the Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart. And the Lord said,  I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.” (Bereishit 6:1-2, 6-7).

And in Noach we are told: “Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of robbery. And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery (hammas — חמס) because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth.” (Bereishit 6:11-13).

One of the best-known traditional explanations, based on textual interpretation of several verses, is that the cardinal sin of Noah’s generation was sexual impropriety. Bestiality was rampant, and there were not social rules proscribing certain sexual relations. But why was this such an issue?

When Adam gives a name to all the animals in parashat Bereishit without finding a helpmate for himself, Rashi posits that Adam had sexual relations with every kind of animal in order to “check” whether they were intended for him. So why does bestiality in Noach all of a sudden lead to the destruction of the world?

I think it’s telling that the other problem with Noach’s generation was “hammas.” Chabad.org translate this as robbery, but if you look at other examples of the use of “hammas” in the Bible it appears that it means something more like “destructive chaos”, or “chaos that disrupts the natural order of things.” (look for חמס on this site and compare all the results that come up: http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/olam_hatanah/index.asp)

I think the problem with Noach’s generation is that they weren’t moving forward. Man is in God’s image; just as God created the natural order, man needed to create the social order. But instead of ordering, man was consciously staying in a state of social chaos. So when Adam committed the exact same acts of bestiality as Noah’s generation, he was not only not punished, but was actually rewarded with the creation of woman, because Adam was involved in creating a social order. By the time of Noah’s generation, however, woman is already in the picture, and conclusions of the experiment with animals is over — they are in a different category than man. When Noah’s generation is involved in bestiality, it is not with the purpose of moving anything forward; rather on the contrary it is keeping society in a state of unordered chaos.

Same goes with robbery, Chabad.org’s choice to translate hammas. Widespread robbery stems from an absence of recognized property rights, which leads to social chaos as well. God created the world, and created man in it. Man has a job to do, to create the social order, the same way God must created the natural order. Man was not doing his part in the creation, so God tried again.

Parashat Bereishit

This week, we begin again to read the Torah. The first Parasha is packed with action. In Chapter 1, God creates the natural world in an awesome, unnatural way. In Chapter 2, God ceases creating; then we are told a creation story from a totally different, man- (and woman-?) centered angle, which sets the stage for Chapter 3, which recounts man’s expulsion from Eden. The expulsion from Eden in turn sets the stage for Chapter 4, in which Adam and Eve’s son’s Cain kills his brother Able in a fit of rage. Cain is sentenced to wander the land; he eventually has a child and builds the first city. At the end of Chapter 4, Adam and Eve also have another child, Seth, to replace Abel. Chapter 5 contains the genealogy from Adam to Noah, and the beginning of chapter 6 sets the stage for the flood that will come in next week’s parasha.

The parasha has somewhat of an eerie feel to it. The initial chaos – “Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water” (Genesis 1:2; translation from chabad.org) is felt throughout. The parasha is filled with uncertainty, unexpected violence, and false starts. In line with the general disorder, we are told three different accounts of man and woman’s creation:

First, in chapter 1, God creates the world through speech, breaking the creating up over six days. On the sixth day, God creates the majority of the land animals, and then creates man last: “And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth. And God created man in His image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. (…) And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-28, 31; translation from chabad.org)

Then, in Chapter 2, man is created much earlier on in the creation process, after the heavens and the earth but before the animals and the vegetation: “Now no tree of the field was yet on earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil. And a mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden from the east, and He placed there the man whom He had formed. (…) And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.” And the Lord God formed from the earth every beast of the field and every fowl of the heavens, and He brought [it] to man to see what he would call it, and whatever the man called each living thing, that was its name. And the man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and he slept, and He took on of his sides, and He closed the flesh in its place. And the Lord God built the side that He had taken from man into a woman, and He brought her to man. And man said, “This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man). Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, but they were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:5-8, 18-25; translation from chabad.org)

And in Chapter 5, we have a third rendition: “This is the narrative of the generations of man; on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them man (Adam) on the day they were created. And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begot in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth” (Genesis 5:1-3; translation from Chabad.org)

By the end of the parasha, God is already regretting his creation: “And the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination in his heart was only evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart. And the Lord said, “I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them. but Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:5-8; translation from chabad.org).

What happened from the first chapter, when God surveyed his creation and declared it was very good, to the last chapter, when God is ready to destroy all the living things that he created? In the first chapter, God creates in a somewhat sterile environment – we are told that his speech manifests into creation, but the created things in the world are objects, rather than subjects. They are created, then they are told the ground rules by God, then they are surveyed and declared to be “very good.” In the subsequent creation stories, man is a subject: He names the animals; he recognizes woman as his partner; the woman interacts with the other animals, with nature, and with man; they have children; they build stuff.

Before the creation, God was alone, and God was everything. According to the kabbalistic tradition, God was so all-encompassing that in order to be able to create the world, God needed to compress Himself so that there would be empty space which the world could then fill. Before creation, God was everything and everywhere; There was no separation between God’s will and “reality”. The first creation story, then, could be seen as a bridge between the pre- and post- creation reality. God’s will still molds reality, but this is no longer automatic and instantaneous: There is a moment in time, before God’s will has been formulated by Him into speech, where reality and God’s will are at odds. But God’s will is realized quickly enough, and his creations have yet to demonstrate a will of their own, so that the power dynamics are still pretty identical to the pre-creation period.

Beginning in Chapter 2, however, something shifts. All of a sudden, we find a conscious man. He names the animals, he feels lonely, he recognizes woman as his partner… he starts living his life, thinking thoughts and expressing emotions that are apart from God. For the first time, God realizes that there is a creature in this world which is truly apart from Him, and God will need to learn to share the space which He left when He contracted with another sentient being.

I think one can see the entire Tanach as a learning experience for God (and for man) as they learn to share this world with each other. God is used to his will becoming reality automatically and instantaneously. He’s willing to condense himself in order to make space for the world, and to let go of his power to automatically shape every element of the world, but only insofar that God will have to formulate his will in order to have it shape reality rather than God’s will and reality being constantly connected. But God also wants to create man — and being in his image — and to do that, God must accept that this new being also has a will, and this being’s will can also affect reality, and sometimes the being’s will and God’s will will be at odds.

Parashat Devarim (Haftara to Shabbat Chazon)

In the following post, I am primarily going to discuss the Haftara to this week’s parasha. This Shabbat is the last shabbat before Tisha b’Av, and we read Isaiah’s entreaty, prophesied in the name of God, begging the people of Judah to reform their ways so that they may avoid the calamity that is about to befall them:

“Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise (…) Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land – in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers.

(…)

Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.

(…)

Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:4-17. Translation from chabad.org)

What strikes me in this passage is the recognition that man can go either way – man can be kind or wicked, can produce good or evil, and most importantly, man can change. Just because men have been acting badly does not mean that they need to continue to act badly; they can choose to reform their ways, “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthened the robbed,” etc. But becoming good is a process – notice the verbs “learn”, “seek”, “strengthen” – they all point to a process that takes place over time, in the same way that the Jews’ descent into corruption was a process: “They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards.” Rome was neither built, nor destroyed, in a day, and neither was Jerusalem.

I would like to compare this to another vision of man – I’ll call it a Christian vision of man, but I am aware that Christianity is complex and multifaceted, and I am using “Christianity” more as a foil for Judaism than to say something about Christianity itself.

From what I understand, a Christian understanding of man is much more black and white. Man is born in sin, and remains steeped in sin, unless he accepts the salvation that Jesus offers, at which point man is transformed into a sinless person. Man is either saved or damned; and the process of salvation, of transformation from bad to good, is instantaneous and involves appealing to forces outside of the self (Jesus).

Isaiah, on the other hand, offers us a different path towards “salvation.” The salvation in question is not a state into which man passes once he’s saved. According to Isaiah, if the Jews reform their ways, they will have a chance “to redeem Zion.” The salvation will come to Zion, but not necessarily to man. For the process of man is never over. The struggle between our baser and higher instincts will continue. Isaiah doesn’t offer man a remedy that will free him from his evil inclinations, but he does remind man that there is more to him than just evil, and encourages him to try to be good instead.

And the reward for being good, rather than evil, is a redeemed Zion. We might not be able to change our essence, or eradicate the mean and petty that is within us, but if we try and be good, just, and kind, we can change the world around us, and mold our environment to be more good, just and kind – redeemed.

Parashat Pinchas

Already in parashat Chukat, God announced to Moses and Aharon that they will not be leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan, as a punishment for striking the rock to get its water rather than talking to it like God had commanded. Aharon dies shortly thereafter, but Moses continues to lead the people. In chapter 27 of this week’s parasha, after Moses and Elazar, Aharon’s son who took over as high priest, count the Israelites and ascertain that the entire previous generation had been replaced, God reminds Moses of the punishment.

The Torah is full of the phrase: “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Here, for the first time, following God’s reminder that Moses is not going to lead the Israelites to their final destination, we have the phrase “And Moses spoke to God saying.” (Numbers 27:15).

And what does Moses have to say that is so important? “God, the lord of the spirits for every flesh, should appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, and the congregation of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17).

From the unusual phrasing “and Moses spoke to God saying”, it seems as though asking God to appoint a successor for Moses was wholly Moses’ initiative. How can that be though? The past couple of parashas describe the nation challenging Moses’ (and Aharon’s) leadership time and time again. The nation is not an easy nation to lead, and when the nation does not feel safe and cared for, they make trouble. What was God going to do had Moses not asked for a replacement upon his death?

I think that God actually wanted to lead the people directly, without mediation. I was reminded of the scene right after God tells the people the ten commandments. It’s supposed to be a moment of deep spiritual communion between the nation and God, but the nation can’t handle such intensity: “And the entire nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking and nation was scared, and they trembled and stood far. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we’ll listen, and God won’t speak to to us, so that we don’t die.”

The deeper the nation settles in the physical world, the less of a place for God there is. He is too majestic, too unstable, too powerful, too disrespectful of the natural, rational order of the world, and it is impossible to really build a life for oneself so long as God can come at any minute and turn everything upside down. But God, who created the world and the laws of nature and mankind, is unable to recognize that for his world and his creation to function, he needs to take a step back. Moses, the human, needs to remind him.

This episode reminds me also of the story that takes place towards the end of Samuel the Prophet’s reign. Samuel has gotten old, his children are corrupt, and the people, no longer satisfied with having only a prophet in the highest seat of authority, demand a king to lead them. The tell Samuel: “Here you have gotten old, and your sons have not followed in your path. Now place upon us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” (Samuel 1, 8:5). Samuel is upset and goes to talk to God, who comforts him, saying: “Listen to what the people are saying to you, for it is not you that they have grown tired of; it is me.” A king derives his authority from his position; a prophet derives his authority from his connection to God. Thus, having a king lead the nation is one more distance between the people and God. But by now, God understood the creature that he created, and He (very reluctantly, especially if you take into consideration the rest of that story) agrees to do what is right for man, even if it hurts God a little.