Thursday, October 29, 2020

Following in Our Father's Footsteps

Although the reading of the Torah in public dates back to Ezra and the fifth century BCE (and traditional authorities say, Moses), the weekly division of the Torah into fifty-four portions hearkens to Babylonian times, approximately 1500 years ago. And so, we conclude last week’s portion with the words, “The days of Terah (Abraham’s father) came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:32)

We begin this week with the verse: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) For thousands of years, we have read these sentences a week apart, and have therefore seen them as disconnected.

The rabbis plant the question in our hearts by this division. Why was Abraham called? And they have an answer ready-made. They offer countless stories about Abraham’s character explaining why God called him. I would imagine in synagogues throughout the world rabbis will begin their weekly discourses describing the story about young Abraham working in his father’s idol shop.

This all too familiar rabbinic midrash in which Abraham destroys all but one idol and then blames the destruction on the remaining idol seeks to offer a reason why God called Abraham seemingly out of nowhere. The rabbis see in Abraham the first monotheist who on his own recognized that there must be one God who created the world and moves history rather than a multitude of idols for each and every occasion.

But this out of nowhere understanding of the call is dependent on the division of the Torah into our portions and the dividing line between Parashat Noach and Lech Lecha being drawn between the end of chapter of eleven and the beginning of twelve. By drawing the line in this way, the rabbis add an exclamation point to their understanding of Abraham. They draw an arrow to the theology they wish to teach. They imply that the story moves because of Abraham’s vision. God is one, they exclaim.

Such is the power of the editor’s hand. If we read these verses as connected, however, we gain an additional understanding of Abraham’s actions. The Torah relates: “Terah took his son Abraham and his daughter-in-law Sarah and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31)

Why did Terah take his family on this journey? Why did he set out to what would soon be called the Promised Land?

Perhaps the answer is discovered in the prior verse: “Now Sarah was barren; she had no child.” Could it be as simple as a father saying to his son, “You and your wife are despondent. We need a change of scenery.” Does the story move from one chapter to another because of a father’s love rather than God’s command?

Then again perhaps the answer is even more plain. Abraham’s family were wanderers. They travel from place to place. Their home was wherever they camped for the night. The land of Canaan was not a promise (yet) but another destination in a long list of waypoints.

This week we open our Torah and think that Abraham was not heading toward the Promised Land until God called to him. This is in fact not the case. He was already heading towards the land of Canaan. He was stopped in his tracks by father’s death in Haran. And then, like most dutiful sons, he picks up the journey where his father left it and sets out to where his father intended.

And now I am left with even more questions. By setting out for the land of Canaan is Abraham honoring his father or God? Was Abraham honoring his father and continuing the journey already mapped out or fulfilling God’s command and living up to an even greater ideal? Does the distinction matter?

The competing voices of God and parents is a tension throughout Abraham’s life. Later God commands Abraham to sacrifice his promised son. Which is the more important: honoring parents or living up to an ideal? Isaac, the promised son, goes willingly, honoring his father. Abraham goes willingly as well, honoring the ideal. Can we synthesize the two? Can this tension ever be resolved?

I am left to wonder.

God’s call to Abraham is not so much about spurring our forefather Abraham to leave his father’s house and his native land but instead about sanctifying a journey already mapped out. It is also about elevating one place over another. It is there, in the land of Canaan, where we best discover God’s call.

And how does Abraham respond?

He stays there—in the Promised Land—for a while and will of course later return (as will we) but for now keeps on walking. “And Abraham journeyed by stages to the Negev.” (Genesis 12:9)

Perhaps he is first and foremost his father’s son. He will always be a wanderer.

The imprint of parents remains as an everlasting inheritance.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Walking and Sauntering

Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods. The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature. He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long. We should saunter through nature.

Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land. He writes:

This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land.

And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting. Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival.

God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding. God appears to stop him in his tracks. There is movement in these calls. The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth." This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking?

The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out." This is the typical Jewish answer.

Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors. In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking. It would be better to translate halachah as "walkway" for that is what the word implies.

The path is laid out before you. Follow it. Stay on the walkway. And this is how Jewish interpreters have long understood the phrase "walked with God."

The Hebrew verb is written in the reflexive. It therefore implies, walk with God and find yourself. This is exactly what our ancestors set out to do but our commentators failed to understand. Our biblical heroes forged a path for themselves while walking.

Back to Thoreau. The truth emerges on the walk. The revelation is discovered when you go for a walk. It does not have to be four hours, but you need to set out with no destination in mind and no route laid out. The meandering path through the woods, or the wilderness, can be an act of self-discovery, and perhaps it can even be an elucidation of inherited traditions. Then again nature offers revelation in what the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose smells-all while on the walk.

Henry David Thoreau concludes: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Saunter towards truth.

Meander forward.



Friday, October 16, 2020

This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights. Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle. A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis. She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes. She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.

To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.

“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)

Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth. These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles. These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink. This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes.

That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon. I relish in the beauty of nature.

The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks. We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky. We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe. “And God saw that this was good.”

On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”

And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.” In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations. Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood. Why? Because people are flouting rules and the earth becomes filled with lawlessness. Soon after that is Sodom and Gomorrah. Then, Abraham nearly sacrifices his son. Very good? You decide. Moses gets angry—a lot. The Israelites complain—again a lot. They create a Golden Calf. That’s very bad and nowhere near very good.

The Torah is one example after another of people, heroes and villains alike, falling short. We could be very good, but time and again we are not. The concluding note of creation, that God found it very good, seems to be a set up. God saw that we can be very good. And the Torah then describes all the ways in which we are not—and perhaps points in the direction of how we can live up to the promise of very good.

But sometimes I don’t want to wade through all of the struggles and failures. And so, I look up to the heavens and behold the stars. Nature can serve as an antidote to human ills. Can the Northern Lights inspire us to do better?

Do they prompt us?  Even though we are often not very good, there is still plenty of time to do good. 

And God waits to say once again, “very good.”

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)

Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.

The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Dancing in the Torah's Words

Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus. As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays. And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. 

That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration. I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world. To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday. Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. 

Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah. I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes. I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences. I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking. I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. 

What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? 

This is Judaism’s central question. It reflects our principal faith statement. Read the Torah year in and year out. Examine its verses. Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters. The Torah may appear not to change, but you have. And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. 

That’s what makes the Torah new all over again. We are renewed, and even restored, by reading the same book with new eyes. The Torah becomes new each and every year because of our new eyes. 

I look forward to what new revelations might appear in the coming year.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Holiday Set List

The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list! Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot. This holiday begins tomorrow evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters.

This month provides us with a record setting concert. Year after year it is the same. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Simhat Torah. There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah. Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs. We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot. The two holidays are bound to each other. The joy of Sukkot takes over.

The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot. We let go of our sins and wrongdoings. We turn to the world. Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world. Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings.

What is its most important mitzvah? Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah. We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah. For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters. The sukkah must be temporary in its character. If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah. If it provides too much shelter, then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.

Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof. One must be able to see the stars through its lattice. So what does one do if it rains? What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable? The rabbis are clear in their answer. Go inside! A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains. A temporary shelter should not protect us. Its fragility is part of its message.

Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday. It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain. It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot. One’s joy would be diminished. First and foremost, this day is about rejoicing. We rejoice in the gifts of this world. We celebrate the bounty of creation.

Living in these temporary shelters helps to remind us of these blessings. After a long day of fasting and praying, Sukkot comes to remind us of the blessings that surround us each and every day. Sitting outside in our sukkot, we look at the blessings of our homes. We relish the blessings of nature. We rejoice in fall breezes, the changing of the leaves and the full moon that will peer through the lattice tomorrow evening.

We breathe a sigh of relief after the exhaustion of beating our chest and examining our ways. The moon brightens the evening. We sing and laugh as we gather around the table in our sukkah. We rejoice!

The set list continues next week with Simhat Torah…