Thursday, January 21, 2016

Debate Teams - Reflections on Parashat BeShalach 5776

(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Dennis Miller, the famed SNL comedian, once said about the Jews: "Left to themselves in a world of peace, the worst Jews would ever do to people is debate them to death."

But for the Jews that we encounter in this week's parashah, the world was anything but peaceful, nor was that angry world going to leave them in peace. Only seven days after the tenth and most horrible plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the ensuing Exodus from Egypt, crisis returns with a fury:

"....And the Children of Israel looked up and Behold! Egypt was bearing down on them..."

Gcd had commanded Moses to shepherd the Children of Israel onto a peninsula jutting out into the Reed Sea; on the face of it, not the most clever of military strategies. Pharaoh quickly capitalized on this military blunder. The mighty Egyptian army, composed of thousands of foot soldiers, archers and lancers, plus hundreds of armored chariots pulled by massive war horses; indeed, the mightiest and most feared fighting force of its time, now choked off the neck of the peninsula. Check, and it certainly looked like checkmate.

The Children of Israel faced an immediate and existential crisis. How did we react to the blockade? True to form, we held a debate.

According to the Midrash there was a four way dispute: one group felt it was better to commit a Masada-style group suicide by drowning in the sea than to ever be taken back to Egypt in shackles; the second group argued that life as slaves was preferable to death as freemen and advocated surrender; the third group wanted to fight the Egyptians head-on; and the fourth group felt that prayer was the only option.

All four groups were yelling at Moses, each out-shouting the next one, each trying to convince him of the logic of their position. Finally Moses says:  "Do not be afraid. Stand your ground and see the salvation that the Lcrd will do for you on this very day; for that which you see the Egyptians today, you will never set eyes upon them again. Gcd Himself will fight your battle for you and you will remain silent."

The Midrash interprets these verses as a rebuke to all four camps: Stand your ground [meaning: don't jump in the sea and drown yourselves]...for that which you see the Egyptians today, you will never set eyes upon them again [meaning: no going back to Egypt under any circumstances.] Gcd Himself will fight your battle for you [meaning: you will not have to fight them] and you will remain silent [meaning: now is the time for action, not prayer.]

But...there was a fifth group, very small in number, perhaps just one person. (There is a dispute in the Talmud about who it was exactly, either Benjaminites or Nachshon the son of Aminadav from the Tribe of Judah.) They had the moral clarity to realize that Gcd had not led them this far only to abandon them at the eleventh hour. Pushed aside by the debaters who hogged center stage, these intrepid few bypassed the debate altogether and simply did what had to be done. 

There was no going back, to the right, or to the left, so they just moved forward, into the sea, trusting that Gcd would open the path at the moment that He chose as appropriate.

And the sea parted before them.

Today as well, diaspora Judaism faces an existential crisis. If establishment communal leaders acknowledge the problem at all, it is by engaging in vociferous yet inconclusive debate. I hear the echoes from the banks of the Sea of Reeds. 

Some tell me that the communal hari-kari to which we are witness is inevitable, and that the most we can hope for is to keep dancing until the music stops. Others say that embracing intermarriage and assimilation is the way solve the problem of intermarriage and assimilation. Yet others want to fight, and others argue the best course of action is to retreat and pray.

When, as a community rabbi, I propose solutions to the pressing problems of our community, I am lectured by well-meaning Jewish leaders about what is achievable, what is fundable, what will get through the communal debate process. 

That process is designed first and foremost to never offend the donor class; second, to mitigate liability; and third, to protect the bureaucratic mandarins and their petty fiefdoms who control the purse-strings and pick the winners and losers in Jewish communal life. 

All this results in stasis, in leadership by lowest common denominator, which usually shakes out to mean 'do nothing' or 'keep doing what we did before.'

Dennis Miller was yucking it up, but we are literally debating ourselves to death. 

Crisis requires true Jewish leadership, not technocrats; men and women who have the moral clarity of a Nachshon to step forward and take bold action when the situation demands. 

Torah-based leaders are not content to allow their fellow Jews to assimilate into oblivion. The commandment "Do not stand on the blood of thy neighbor" rings in their ears, and it motivates them to act. True leaders also understand that their initiatives will never be funded by the ossified Jewish establishment, because the establishment is part of the problem, not part of the solution. So they bypass it and move forward anyway.

Be the Nachshon in your family, in your community. Be that person. Ignore the naysayers, because they will always find fifty reasons not to do a good thing. Act. Take the first step, and Gcd will smooth the path before you.

Goethe expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote: "...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no (human) could have dreamed would come his way."

As surely as the sea parted for the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds, the sea will part for the modern day Nachshons as well, and untold lives will be saved by their selflessness and heroism.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Salvation Cycle - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5776

(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

What would you say is the defining event of the Book of Shemot/Exodus? The Ten Plagues? The Parting of the Red Sea? The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? The building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan?

The Sforno (16th Century, Italy) says "None of the Above." He has a radically different perspective on this Book, which he sees as a cautionary tale on the future of the Jewish People. From his introduction to the Book of Shemot:
And it is related in Gcd's Second Book, that the Seed of Israel then began to violate the covenant of their forefathers in Egypt, as the prophet Ezekiel attests when he says, "...and they rebelled against me, and no longer desired to listen to Me, no one throwing away the abominations of his eyes, no one abandoning the Egyptian idolatries...[and I/Gcd resolved] pour out My wrath upon them, and to vent My anger on them in the Land of Egypt to work them with rigor." Until a small portion of them did teshuvah and prayed, and a messenger [Moses] came before them and saved them. 
The Sforno sees all the events we mentioned above in this context. Divine salvation from the ruinous famine led to relief for the clan of Jacob and relocation to Goshen; the Israelites became numerous and comfortable in Egypt, and once the generation of the twelve sons died, the old ways were quickly forgotten; punishment came in the form of enslavement to the Egyptians, until a core group did teshuvah and triggered Divine mercy and salvation, aka the Exodus from Egypt.

We can call it the Salvation Cycle:
Divine Salvation Leads to
Relief Leads to
Affluence/Complacency Leads to
Backsliding Leads to
Punishment/Enslavement/Exile Leads to
Teshuvah Leads to
Divine Salvation.
This is the grand leitmotif of all of Jewish History. Ma'aseh Avot Siman L'Banim: The events in the lives of our ancestors create precedents which we see played out in our own lives.

Fast forward to America, 2015: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish families left Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, thus being spared the fate of European Jewry in the flames of the crematoria. After relocating to America, the Jews became numerous and comfortable in their new land, and once the generation of religious Bubbies and Zaydes died out, the old Jewish ways were quickly forgotten. 

In this, the final spin of the Salvation Cycle, punishment now comes in the form of suicide-by-happy-pills. Judaism in America is dying out, but not because of murder or enslavement by Roman Legionnaires or Czars or Hitlers or any other external oppressor. This go 'round we are more like opium addicts, buzzed out and in a really good place, too high to realize that the opium is really poison: shutting down our organs, destroying our minds, and deadening our spirits. 

But those who are wise enough to learn the lessons of Jewish history recognize the pattern. It is said that a problem identified is a problem half solved, and we certainly know how to solve this one - we've done it over and over again for well on 4,000 years.

Indeed, there is hope for American Jewry:  Teshuvah - a return to what the Sforno calls the Brit Avot, the Covenant of Our Ancestors: Deepening our connection to Gcd through Torah study and performing mitzvot. Keeping the Shabbat. Keeping Kosher. Keeping the Laws of Family Purity. Educating our children in Torah.

But how to get there from here?

I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, for bringing to my attention an recent newspaper article by Dr. Steven Cohen entitled, Lessons Learned from Orthodoxy's Dramatic Growth (New York Jewish Week, November 29, 2015). In it, he examines the root causes for the imperviousness of the Orthodox to what I have described above as the "Happy Pills":
The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE. That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews. [emphasis mine]
The Salvation Cycle doesn't care if you call yourself Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Teshuvah applies to everybody, because despite these divisive labels, despite what the High Priests of Pluralism would have you believe, there is but One Gcd, One Torah, and One Jewish People.

As far back as 1933 Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook wrote:
The Jewish people have become divided into two camps, through the categorization of Jews as Charedi (religious) and Chofshi (secular). These are new terms, which were not used in the past. Of course, not everyone is identical, especially in spiritual matters; but there was never a specific term to describe each faction. In this respect, we can certainly say that previous generations were superior to ours.

By emphasizing this categorization, we obstruct the path toward improvement and growth in both camps. Those who feel that they belong to the religious camp look down upon the secular camp. If they think about teshuvah and improvement, they immediately cast their eyes in the direction of the secularists, devoid of Torah and mitzvot. They are confident that full repentance is required by the irreligious, not by them.

The secular Jews, on the other hand, are convinced that any notion of penitence is a religious concept, completely irrelevant to their lives.

It would be better if we would all concentrate on examining our own defects, and judge others generously. It could very well be that others have treasure-troves of merits, hidden from sight. We should recognize that there exists in each camp a latent force leading toward goodness. Each camp has much to improve upon, and could learn much from the positive traits of the other camp.

Let us be known to each other by one name — Klal Yisrael. 
I call upon every single congregational rabbi of every "denomination"; I call upon every local Jewish Federation, in this community and in every American community, to take a principled stand for Teshuvah.

To survive we must shake off our spiritual torpor, we must push harder, reach for a new goal. It's OK to sweat a little; to raise the bar in performing mitzvot, to stretch and struggle to reach the next milestone in Torah study. 

It is a matter of simple self-preservation that we must return to the standards of normative halachah in a way that is compatible with modernity, and in a way that preserves intellectual integrity and joie de vivre. It can be done and it must be done.

Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and pay the "PRICE" necessary to ensure the perpetuation of Judaism as an organic and living faith system in your family? Or do we just continue passing around the opium bowl?

Shabbat Shalom.

[For an earlier blog post on this Parasha, click HERE.]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Airplane Nuts - Reflections on Parashat Miketz 5776

[Genesis 41:1-45:17]

In this week's Torah portion, we read of a small gift Father Jacob sends to the Viceroy of Egypt:
If that's the way it has to be, then take clippings from the Land of Israel down to Egypt in your pack, a gift for the great man: some balm, some honey, spices and lotus flower, peanuts and almonds. [Genesis 43:11]
OK, so let's get this straight: Ancient Israel is in the middle of a record-breaking, devastating famine. The only place with food is Egypt, and Jacob is sending the Viceroy of Egypt, the guy who controls the food supply for the entire planet, a gift

And why specifically those foods?

With those gifts, Jacob is sending a message to the Viceroy of Egypt. If the clippings of the Land of Israel could talk, this is what they might say:
It is true that at this moment in time you appear to hold all the cards. You have food where others have none; you are prosperous, you are powerful, you are influential. But your power is like the food you control, once it is consumed, it is gone forever.
Not so the Land of Israel and her gifts. Balm, honey, spices, perfumes, nuts - all are used in small amounts, yet endure for long periods of time. Israel is a land of enduring gifts, minute in quantity, but priceless in quality. 
So Mr. High-and-Mighty Viceroy: don't be so sure that you hold all the cards, we in Israel have a few of our own.
All over the United States, Jews are gathering to say extra chapters of Psalms and to pray for peace, troubled by the latest rampaging paroxysm of Islamo-fascist murder in Israel and other locales around the world. And that is laudatory as far as it goes. 

But as we focus on the latest terror attacks in Israel, as our rabbis sermonize about the crisis-of-the-week in the Israeli headlines, the impression begins to solidify in the American Jewish psyche that Israel is a dangerous place for Jews to live; certainly much more dangerous than the affluent American suburbs that most American Jews call home.

Jacob's clippings gently remind us that nothing could be farther from the truth: Jews and Judaism in Israel are actually thriving, while Jews and Judaism in America are rapidly disappearing. 

Don't believe me? Read the Guttman/Israel Democracy Institute Study of Israeli Jewry, then contrast those results with the Pew Research Center's 2013 Study of American Judaism. 

It's a little like two jet planes passing in the sky: jet "A" is ascending, but is passing through some turbulence to attain altitude, while jet "B" is enjoying a glass smooth descent - straight into the ocean. And...the passengers of jet "B" are fervently praying for jet "A" to have less turbulence.

Which plane would you rather be on? And who should be praying for whom? 

Maybe the nuts on the plane aren't only the in-flight snack.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

True Dat - Reflections on Parashat VaYeishev 5776

(Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)

We read this week of the confrontation between Tamar and Judah. You will recall that Tamar entraps an unsuspecting Judah into impregnating her, unwittingly fulfilling his obligation of levirate marriage (which he had been procrastinating about.)

In a scene reminiscent of the Montel Williams show, it comes down to the paternity test, aka, who da baby daddy? 

Tamar alone knows. She states that the father of her unborn child left her with three personal items.  She says to Judah, in front of the live TV audience: "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring, this strand, and this staff belong."

When confronted with the evidence, Judah says simply, "She is right, the baby is mine." [Collective audience gasp.]

On this verse, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that buried in the Hebrew words for "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring belongs..." is encoded the Hebrew word Tireh, revere Gcd. In other words, Tamar is implying that Judah should show reverence for Gcd and admit to the truth.

Because reverence for Gcd equates to an unwavering commitment to uphold the Truth.

Many moons ago, back when I was an undergrad at Georgetown University, I had the privilege and good fortune of being counseled by Dr. Hubert J. Cloke, an English professor and Dean in the Georgetown College. More than anyone else in my academic career, he impressed upon me the value and meaning of a liberal arts education.

He understood scholarship to be a passionate quest to reveal Objective Truth, of working to build the collective body of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. 

The academic disciplines - mathematics, the sciences, literature, history, languages, music, art, theology, philosophy - although perhaps speaking different languages, all are different approaches towards understanding the same Grand Truth. Like the many facets of a large diamond, each discipline contributes a piece to the broader understanding of that Truth.

The purpose of a liberal arts education, then, is to cultivate and sharpen the critical thinking skills indispensable in making reasoned assessments of that which fits in to the Greater Truth and that which does not. 

Like pieces of an infinitely complex puzzle, new nuggets of data are constantly analyzed and placed into the context of that which we already know to be True. When a conflict arises, the nuggets must be either reconciled or rejected, because the classic holistic epistemological approach allows for no internal inconsistencies in Truth.

Dr. Cloke would say repeatedly, "It's all one big ball of wax." And as we constantly see in the Talmud when conflicting views arise: "Lo kashya,"  it's not a difficulty, the opinions can be reconciled as follows...

We are told that religious faith is the refuge of the ignorant; that religion is the opiate of masses who require the anaesthetic to escape their empty lives, to imagine meaning where there is nothingness, to flee from the terrifying reality that there is no existence beyond what we experience in the moment.

But is that true?

I contend that the authentic religious personality is motivated, not to hide from the truth, but to aggressively seek it out, because reverence for Gcd is defined as an unwavering commitment to Truth.

Belief in Gcd and His Torah is not at the periphery of the quest for truth, it is at its very heart: "The Seal of Gcd is Truth." (Yoma 69b) Or, stated, differently: Gcd is the Greater Truth to which we all seek, and the sciences and the humanities attempt to apprehend Gcd through His created universe.

Revealed Truth is no less valid than empirical truth, and we see great symbioses between the two. Our knowledge of the sciences and the humanities constantly informs our understanding of Torah, and conversely, our understanding of Torah helps provide context for understanding the world around us.

It's all one big ball of wax, internally consistent; unrelated disciplines coming together to create to a greater, unified whole. 

Over the years, Modern Orthodoxy has struggled to distinguish itself from Chareidut (oy! do I hate those labels). About 25 years ago, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote an important book called Torah U'Madda, Torah & Science, in which he justifies the pursuit of worldly knowledge through sources in the Torah.

I would go one step farther and suggest that Modern Orthodoxy can be very succinctly defined as follows: the Torah-based philosophical approach that is open to Truth no matter what discipline it derives from, because the Seal of Gcd is Truth. By contrast, the Chareidi view is generally closed to any approach to Truth outside of Torah; it rejects and views antagonistically any notion of Chochma BaGoyim Ta'amin, that there is any wisdom outside of Torah.  

Four thousand years ago, our ancestor Judah compromised his personal prestige, his social standing, his narrow personal interest to admit to a Truth greater than himself. It was his unwavering commitment to the Grand Truth that made him and his descendants fit for the mantle of Jewish leadership throughout the generations.

May we all rise to his noble example.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Color of Evil - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5776

(Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

If you had to pick a color to represent evil, what would you pick?

Let's see, something really menacing; maybe black, like the SS uniform, or black and red, like the Nazi Swastika, or just blood red, like the flag of the USSR.

In this week's Torah portion, we discover that the color of evil - is white. 

That's curious, because white is generally associated with purity, goodness and holiness:
Come, let us struggle together; though your sins are red as scarlet, I will purify you to become as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18)
In our parashah, though, the archenemy of Jacob the Patriarch is his Uncle Laban, and in Hebrew, Laban means white. What gives?

First of all, let's be clear that Laban was one bad dude. He was an idol worshipper; he was a cheat, a thief, and a sexual predator; he was a tyrannical and domineering force in his household and was a master manipulator, akin to Mrs. Boynton in Christie's Appointment with Death. For example, Laban coerced Rachel to allow Leah to sneak into her marital bed on her wedding night, thus forfeiting her own happiness to acquiesce to her father's twisted subterfuges.

He is known as Laban the Aramean; but the Midrash points out that the Hebrew letters of "Aramean" also spell out "treachery" or "deceiver"; the kind of guy who changes the rules mid-game in his favor when he is starting to lose. In other words, he was a deceiver, head of a clan of liars, comfortable in a society of treachery. 

So distrustful of each other were they, that the shepherds had to lock the wells to prevent people stealing water. They only drew water once a day when everyone was present to unlock the well together. Distrust and verify.

According to the Midrash, Laban was the grandfather of Bilaam the Wicked Sorcerer, who was cut from the same malevolent cloth.

So why is his name "White as the Driven Snow?"

The Torah is coming to teach us a very important lesson.

Except in comic books, evil rarely self-identifies. It doesn't run it's banner up a flagpole like Darth Vader or Lex Luthor or Loki or even Doofenschmirtz Evil, Incorporated.

Image result for doofenshmirtz evil incorporated

Unlike the bad guys in the movies, real evil prefers to lurk in the shadows; concealed and free to destroy without attracting attention or drawing much scrutiny. Real-life villains smile to your face while furtively sabotaging your work. In the real world, evil almost always cloaks itself in white; like Laban, it wraps itself in the white tallit, looking to all appearances like goodness itself. 

The thief is only taking what he is entitled to because he is under-appreciated and underpaid.

Violent men beat women because "they had it coming."

Drug dealers need money for baby's new shoes.

Sexual predators think only of their own need, and are utterly unconcerned with their victims.

Laban is the face of modern evil; he is the archetypal narcissist; of people who navigate their way through life according to the dictum of "what is good for me is ethical." 

Towards the end of the parashah, Jacob makes a deal with Laban, in which Jacob gets the garbage animals of the flock as his wages, while continuing to manage Laban's flocks. Laban agrees because it's a deal strongly stacked in his favor. But Jacob deftly turns the seconds, the irregulars, the throw-away animals of the flock into a small fortune. Laban becomes angry and jealous; not because he lost money on the deal, but because Jacob also prospered in a deal where only Laban was supposed to come out on top. 

Jacob skedaddles, and Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his slow-moving caravan, laden down as it was with a dozen children and thousands of animals. There is a confrontation, and in a white-hot rage, Laban sputters: "The women belong to me, your children belong to me, your flocks belong to me; everything you have built for yourself is mine!" (Genesis 31:23)

For a moment, Laban lets the white veil slip, revealing the real Laban underneath, the ugliness and perversity of his thoughts and actions. As the verse states: "He who says: what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine, that person is an evildoer." (Avot 5:13) 

Had the A-lmighty not stayed his hand, Laban would have massacred Jacob and his clan right then and there. In his all-consuming jealousy and hate, he would have gleefully murdered his own daughters and grandchildren; a regrettable expedient, but necessary to grab the wealth that Laban rationalized belonged to him. 

Does this sound at all familiar? Hitler justified his monstrous behavior convinced that 'Providence' favored him. Stalin had excellent justifications in his own mind to murder 40 million people during the Red Purges of the 1930's. 

Modern Jew-hatred, manifest in the BDS movement and Code Pink, cloaks itself in the sanctimonious and hypocritical shroud of "Justice for Palestine."

Islamic crazy people who behead infidels, blow up discotheques and soccer stadiums and turn children into sex slaves are convinced that they are justified in doing the will of their diety.

Evil always tries to claim the moral high ground.

That is why Judaism rarely addresses evil as a thing, as some external, independent force in the world which we must enjoin in combat. Because guess what? When we objectify evil, we give ourselves a pass for the evil we do in our own lives. Freddy Kruger? Jeffrey Dahmer? That's bad. But my water cooler gossip? Nah...

Instead, Judaism almost always speaks of chet, of sin; of the individual decision to choose good or evil, right or wrong, mitzvah or chet. We speak not of evil, but of the evildoer.

The decision-making algorithm we employ on a day-to-day basis cannot be based on human intellect and twisted rationalizations, but on an absolute moral code that remains unchanged over time. 

We live in a world that has discarded the notions of absolute truth, of good and of evil. We are now taught everyone that has their own truth; that we all have a 'narrative', each one equally valid as the next. The task of the modern ethicist is narrative management, i.e., in the absence of absolute right or wrong, of developing rules to keep the contradictory and competitive narratives out of conflict. 

Take a look at progressive Western societies today and the world at large and let me know how that's working out.

To the contrary, the true nature of evil is manifest (or absent) in the hundreds of micro-choices we make each and every day. Evil is not some far-off disembodied force; it is all too close at hand, if we choose to give it power.

Because that's the dirty little secret about Uncle Laban: evil is not incorporated - it's a member of the family.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Transcendent Hum - Reflections on Parashat Toldot 5776

(Genesis 25:19-28:9)

This week's parasha opens with a famous riddle.

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Skreech, skid to stop. Back up a little. What?

When the verse opens with, "And these are the generation of Isaac" we expect to hear all about the descendants of Isaac, not his forbears. It's like saying, "let me show you some pictures of my kids" and then pulling out faded pictures of your grandpappy. What gives?

Rashi comes to our rescue, as usual. He fills in the blanks and explains the correct way to read the verse:

"And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham [whom we'll get to in a minute in great detail, but for all you naysayers out there who doubt that Abraham and Sarah had a miracle baby in their dotage, I'm here to tell ya that] Abraham fathered Isaac."

But let's torque down on the unique structure of this verse, because it's not at all random:

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Isaac son of Abraham Abraham fathered Isaac.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac 

The architecture of the verse creates a sine wave:

And a sine wave that repeats continuously creates the infinity symbol:

This makes perfect sense: as my distinguished mentor, daily study partner and dear friend Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz points out, the birth of Isaac reinvigorated Abraham, giving him a new sense of purpose, clarity, and direction in his life. Finally, at the ripe old age of 100, he could begin to see the glimmer of hope in the fulfillment of Gcd's promises to him. Taken in this way, it is fair to say that Isaac fathered Abraham just as much as Abraham fathered Isaac. 

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac.

A sine wave is a signal; a hum, a sound that reverberates through the cosmos. The Torah is transmitting a message through the Abraham/Isaac sine wave, one that transcends time, one that goes on forever. What is the nature of this message?

To decode it, we must understand Abraham and Isaac: who they were, what they stood for, what values they embodied.

Abraham was the paragon of Gemilut Hasadim, of kindness to others. We are taught that his tent had openings north, south, east and west, ever open to welcome friends, guests, strangers, sojourners. He delighted in making people feel welcome, wanted, and important. He embodied the character trait of the highest service to his fellowman. Through his living example of a kindly, dignified, devoted life, his guests came to discard their narcissistic paganisms and adopt Abraham's compassionate, ethical monotheism.

Isaac embodied the character trait of Avodah, of service to the A-lmighty. Having willingly exposed his own neck to be offered on the altar (Genesis 22), he was forever sanctified, a living symbol of the need to subordinate our capricious human will to the benevolent, enduring will of Gcd.

All the mitzvot of the Torah can be categorized as being either mitzvot between people, and those between Man and his Maker.

Examples of the former: caring for the poor; refraining from gossip; always giving the next guy the benefit of the doubt; never embarrassing anyone; hospitality; greeting everyone with a smile; visiting the sick. These are mitzvot of Gemilut Hasadim, the mitzvot symbolized by Abraham.

Examples of the latter: keeping kosher; keeping the Shabbat and festivals; wearing tefillin and tzitzit; prayer. These are mitzvot of Avodah, the mitzvot symbolized by Isaac.

The message of the sine wave is: Gemilut Hasadim combined with Avodah is the infinity secret of Jewish survival.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac - Avodah Gemilut Hasadim Gemilut Hasadim Avodah.

The verse states:
On three things does the world stand: on Torah study, on Avodah, and on Gemilut Hasadim. [Avot 1:2]
These are the "ABC"s of Judaism: Torah study, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim. They cannot be teased apart; they are an integrated whole. 

As long as the Jewish People are committed to the "ABC"s: studying the Torah; acting compassionately towards our fellow humans; and deepening our dveykut Hashem, our "Gcd consciousness"; then passionate, transformative Judaism will survive forever. The transcendental sine wave will successfully transmit from Abraham to Isaac to the next Abraham to the next Isaac.

Sad to say, 9 out of 10 of American Jews no longer have much use for the fundamentals of the Jewish faith. We have discarded the "ABC"s in favor of the "EFG"s: Environmentalism, Feminism and Gay Rights.

Behold the pillars of the New Judaism, the gods we have fashioned in our own image.

Parents and grandparents burst with pride as their little Einsteins boldly tell us in their Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches how they doubt the existence of Gcd, and how the Torah is pretty much irrelevant to their lives. What a tour de force of intellectual integrity and scientific skepticism!

We can give ourselves a grand pat on the back: these [very expensive] Bar Mitzvah mills have produced, not another committed Jew, but a dedicated trash recycler and future Prius owner. 

Gcd is out, Gaia is in. Toyota will be so pleased.

Dissociated as we are from the ABCs, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly disappearing? How did we so lose our way? 

And while we're pushing our brains together to make one good one, wonder you this: what might suggest itself to you as a solution to our collective hari kiri? 


Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

Friday, November 6, 2015

Eliezer's Excellent Adventure - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

(Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)

A big chunk of this week's Torah portion describes Eliezer's quest to find the perfect bride for Isaac, his master Abraham's son. 

Eliezer reluctantly accepts Abraham's commission to travel to far-away Chaldea, the region of Abraham's kinsmen, to select the lucky girl. It's a high stakes adventure; a tricky business, with grave consequences for the Abrahamitic mission if he should fail.

But Abraham trusted him, having already appointed him major domo of his household and manager of all his worldy affairs. In turn, Eliezer repaid that trust with a fierce loyalty to Abraham, a sort of ancient Gurka. He is so loyal that when he prays, he prays not to his own god, but to the Gcd of his master Abraham.

There are two things that stand out about Eliezer's quest.

First, the Torah spends an extravagant number of verses on Eliezer's excellent adventure. The first block of verses (24:1-24:33) describe the events as they unfold. The second block of verses (24:34-24:60) describe Eliezer's (almost verbatim) retelling of these events to Rebeccah's family. Sixty verses in all. 

And yet, upon returning home, it takes but one verse to bring Isaac up to speed. "And the servant recounted to Isaac everything that had transpired." (24:66) So why is Eliezer so loquacious before Rebeccah's family, yet is the essence of brevity with Isaac? (If anything, we might expect the opposite to be true, i.e., that he would reserve the detailed report for his boss.)

Second, although Eliezer is identified earlier (15:2), he is described throughout this narrative not by his proper name, but as "the servant" or "the man." Why not just call the guy by his real name?

Eliezer is initially very reluctant to undertake this mission. There are so many variables: Chaldea is a big place; where to start looking? How do you even begin to find a wife for some other person? What if he can't find a suitable girl for Isaac? What if he finds someone, but she refuses to return to Canaan with him? And define suitable please? And how is he to gauge the girl's character, her inner beauty? And what if, after bringing the girl back to Canaan, she and Isaac are incompatible? 

I hear stories from people who are seriously looking these days, and trust me, it's hard enough to find your own soul mate, let alone someone else's.

From Eliezer's perspective, the entire undertaking is a lose-lose proposition: if he succeeds, his private aspirations to wed his own daughter to Isaac are dashed; and if he strikes out, he fails his master and jeopardizes Abraham's entire life's work.

In overcoming these objections, Abraham basically says, "I trust you to do the right thing." Moreover, he tells Eliezer that he will not be going it alone; indeed, he will have extraordinary help for this extraordinary mission: 
The Lcrd, Gcd of the Heavens; He who took me out of my father's house and my ancestral homeland; He who has spoken to me; He who swore to give this land to my offspring; He will send his angel before you and you will indeed find a wife for my son there. (24:7)
So despite his severe reservations, the reluctant servant heads out reluctantly.

And then the events unfold. Luckily, he finds himself approaching the city of Nahor, Abraham's brother. Luckily, Nachor's grand-daughter is the first one out of the gate to draw water. Luckily, she is beautiful, gracious and kind-hearted. Luckily she passes the little test he devises to test her character.

The verse states that Eliezer is dumbstruck when he begins to realize that the very first young maiden he encounters could be the potential wife for Isaac. 

It would be a little like you or me picking up a bat and going up against a Major League pitcher like Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax, and with the very first swing, hitting the ball out of the park. The odds are laughably, ridiculously small.

By verbalizing the story in front of Rebeccah's family, Eliezer has the opportunity to sort it all out, put the events in their proper context, and make sense of it in his own mind. 

He comes to realize that what happened back there was no coincidence or kismet or blind luck. Events unfolded exactly as they were supposed to...just as Master Abraham had promised him they would. Abraham's words echoed in Eliezer's head: "...The Lcrd will send his angel before you and you will indeed find there a wife for my son."

In other words, as much as Eliezer was retelling the story to convince Rebeccah's family to allow her to accompany him home, he was talking just as much to himself; developing the emerging awareness that there was a Divine plan at work here, and that he had a key role to play in it.

What role? Roles, actually: both as "the servant" and as "the man."

A servant is one who faithfully does his master's bidding with unswerving loyalty. In the execution of the master's wishes, the servant subordinates his own will to that of his master. The servant is utterly dependent upon the master, and could not survive without his beneficence. 

By contrast, Man is a moral agent, independent, and able to apply judgement and common sense in the application of his free will.

In relation to Abraham, Eliezer is referred to as the servant. In the house of Bethuel, far away from his master's direct guidance, he must exercise his best judgement. That is why Abraham trusted him to do the right thing in the first place; that is why in Chaldea he is referred to as the Man.

We are all Eliezer. We are all both servants of Gcd and moral agents, struggling to find the perfect balance between subservience to Gcd and initiative in the crafting of our own lives. Like Eliezer, we are all on a quest, a long, hazardous journey, the consequences of which are enormous and the outcome of which is unknown. 

But if we serve our Master well, fulfilling our obligations to Him and our to our fellow man; if we faithfully apply our talents and our intellect to the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot, Gcd will no doubt send an angel before us as well, that we may find success on the unique trail that each one of us must blaze on our own. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Note: Please join us for Torah Study each Tuesday evening at 8:00pm the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]