Thursday, December 27, 2007

Shemot 5768: What Manner of Man is the Prophet?

This week we start the book of Exodus and are introduced to the setup for the rest of the Torah. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph arises and appealing to national security, has the Israelites enslaved. Things get worse. Pharaoh has the midwives try to kill all the newborn boys but they do not heed him. In response Pharaoh then decides to kill all male newborns by drowning, though one baby escapes this by being sent down the river, ending up living in the palace, until he murders an Egyptian task master. The slave who this guy saves rewards him by ratting him out. To escape Pharaoh’s anger, this man flees to Midian where he finds a bride, becomes a shepherd and has a rather interesting conversation with a burning bush. This man is of course Moses. And this week is really his story.

This week has been a challenge to write this. I had an idea and yet I have not been able to figure out what to do with it. So let me start with the idea.

The synagogue I attend is in a northern suburb of Chicago, but I live in downtown Chicago. On the many occasions I go from one to the other, I travel along Lake Shore Drive and turn off at Bryn Mawr Avenue. As I get to the first traffic light, there is a big pink stone building on the corner. My first recollections of this building were of my dad’s former boss and mentor living there. I learned less than a year ago about the time a boss and mentor of one of my teachers gave an address there and made a friend which arguably would change all of American history.

In January 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel began a speech at the Edgewater Beach Hotel at the opening of the first conference of race and relations, quoting this week’s Parsha.

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord the God of Israel, let My people go that they my celebrate a feast to Me” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed their voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, And moreover I will not let Israel go.”

The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from being completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. [The Insecurity of Freedom p.85]

Closing the conference was a speech by Martin Luther King. Heschel and King left the conference as friends.

Passing Bryn Mawr and Sheridan so often, I don’t always pay attention to the building. Yet this week as I passed the building early Friday morning to attend a class I had the strangest feeling, and a question would not leave me: “What manner of Man is the prophet?” This was the first sentence in Heschel’s Doctoral dissertation which eventually would be translated from German into English by Heschel as The Prophets.

I didn’t understand why this was going around in my head. It seemed like I found what my Shlomo’s Drash would be for the week. Yet this has been very difficult to write without writing another graduate level paper. So most of this week I’ve spent at Spertus’ Asher Library trying to figure out what I wanted to write. I’ve been failing badly at it.

On a fluke I checked the Encyclopedia Judaica on Heschel, and found a rather startling surprise. I was on my way to class on the 12th of Tevet. Heschel’s 35th yartzeit was the 11th.

My original idea was to figure out is Moses was a prophet. However, it pretty definitive since we read in Deuteronomy:

Deut. 34:10. And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

Moses standing in front of Pharaoh makes him the first prophet of the biblical text to approach a king. As I wrote last year, his story parallels Jeremiah, including his reluctance to take on the role of prophet.

A few days before his death, in an NBC television interview with Carl Stern, Heschel summarized his view of the prophet:

The idea of a prophet is complex and consists above all of two things.

Of the message or the substance of what the prophet has to say from some extraordinary claim to an experience which is not given to other men.

In other words there are two parts to the prophet: the message the Prophet gives and the unique way the prophet receives that message, what some might call divine revelation. Heschel continued (bold mine):

Let us ignore the second, let us take the first.

What's so great about the message of the prophet, about the prophet as a character? I would say the prophet is a man who is able to hold God and man in one thought, at one time, at all times. This is so great and this is so marvelous. Which means that whatever I do to man, I do to God. When I hurt a human being, I injure God.

Moses was not one of the prophets that Heschel described in his book. Yet I wonder: how does Moses fit the Heschel’s model of the prophet? How, in this week’s portion, does Moses act the prophet? Does he act the prophet more now than he does in later encounters with Pharaoh? How given Heschel’s model do we become better people?

Those are a lot of questions for which I have no answers. Finding such answers, I could write a dissertation. But I’m not going to.

Instead, I’m going to make an invitation. You give me your answers.

For those of you in the Chicago Area who can get there, I will be leading the Torah Study portion of the service during the Kahal Shabbat Morning services this Saturday at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston. Services start at 9:30. Come with your thoughts and your answers. Let’s discuss these questions together.

If you are not able to attend, then go over to my blog at and write down your thoughts as a comment on this weeks entry.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice 5768: Why We Eat Chinese Food for Christmas

After spending most of Friday wishing people “happy solstice holiday of your choice” The idea for this came about twenty minutes before sunset Friday. Since I was taking my weekly trip to Shabbosville, so I had to wait till today to write this.

My thoughts on one of the beloved Jewish American traditions related to this time of year, Chinese food on Christmas Eve, started actually at work. As a restaurant consultant, I once did a site meeting a few days after Christmas at an upscale Chinese restaurant, one of several restaurants in a chain of restaurants with a variety of cuisines. The chef had just been transferred from an Italian restaurant a few months earlier, and so this was his first Christmas Eve.

“So were you open Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

He looked at me. “Yes, we were the only restaurant in the chain open which I thought odd, until I was shocked at how busy we were” he replied.

Smirking, I asked “A lot of takeout business I suspect, and I bet they were all named Cohen, Levy or Schwartz”

He looked at me like I was a magician. “How did you know that?”

So I explained to him the great Jewish American tradition of Chinese and a Movie on Christmas Eve.

While jokes about Chinese food mandated in the Talmud abound, this curious tradition however does have its roots in the Talmud, In the tractate that describes how a Jew is supposed to live in a idolatrous world Avodah Zarah, there is a Mishnah that deals with the issue of Saturnalia and Kalenda, the Hellenistic winter solstice festivals, forbidding business transactions with idolaters on those days. But in explaining these two festivals, the rabbis provide us with a fascinating passage about the origins of these two festivals:

Our Rabbis taught: When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world's course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. [Avodah Zarah 8a]

The rabbis claim the holidays not just for themselves but all humanity, dating back to the time of Adam. And there may be something to this. Primitive man may have seen the days growing shorter and thought the end of the word was coming, and then rejoiced when the daylight began to increase. Besides Kalenda, there was another Roman related festival at this time of year, the birth of Mithras, a sun god prevalent in both the Middle East and the Roman military. Mithras was born (or resurrected depending on your point of view) three days after the solstice, on the 25th of December. The sun was literally born on the 25th, which was a time for some serious partying and feasting, and possibly a few human sacrifices. Most scholars point out that the “tax rolls” of the New Testament that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem for had to be one of the harvest festivals, of which are spring and fall festivals. For the early Christians, however, all this festive activity around them made it difficult to get converts or keep converts from celebrating the idolatrous holidays. So they made a simple change: It was not the birth of the sun god Mithras, but the birth of the Son of God -- Jesus.

The Church fathers were not the first to pull this stunt. Several hundred years earlier, someone else did too. Judah Maccabee re-dedicated the temple on the same day of its desecration two years earlier: the 25th of Kislev (I Maccabees 4:52-54). From the texts in I and II Maccabees, it’s likely that the desecration of the Temple which started the revolt may very well have been a Saturnalia or Kalenda festival. The Maccabees celebrated for eight days, claiming that since they were so busy fighting they could not observe Sukkot, and this was a replacement for Sukkot. Coincidentally, Kalenda and Saturnalia were eight days long, and this might have been a ruse to once again get people to celebrate within their religion at a time when the world was very busy partying.

Yet the book of Maccabees is not included in the biblical text, and Hanukkah is an extra-biblical holiday. The Maccabees, later called the Hasmonean dynasty, were extremely violent fundamentalist rulers. What’s worse, they asked for help in their activities from Rome, who would eventually destroy the temple. Neither of these facts enamored them to the Rabbis of the Talmud, who has very little problem banning the books of Maccabees from the Biblical canon. But Judah Maccabee’s assessment that there needed to be a religious cover for the solstice holidays was right on the mark. The rabbis just couldn’t have the military victory be the reason for the holiday. So they told this story:

What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.[Shabbat 21b]
The military victory was replaced with a miracle, using the rest of the story to maintain the tradition. Like the Church fathers, The Rabbis maintained the tradition by keeping the dates and changing the story slightly. Yet the 25th of Kislev provided a problem in this observance. Jewish calendars are of course lunar. The date of Hanukkah tends to wander when compared to the solar calendar. Hanukkah might be celebrated before Christmas, and sometimes even after.

Yet halfway around the world, Chinese civilization influenced the calendar of most of the Asian nations around them. Using both a lunar and solar calendar the post-solstice festival occurs not days after the winter solstice but two new moons after the winter solstice. Chinese New Year usually occurs in late January or early February. The December holidays to most traditional Chinese was meaningless.

All this came together with the immigrant populations of the United States. Because their calendars used lunar dates, The Chinese and the Jewish immigrants had nothing to do on a day where everyone else, who was Christian, had closed their shops. The Chinese had found selling food was a profitable business, and Jews like to eat, particularly a food which was relatively easy to maintain the dietary requirements of kashrut. Thus a tradition was started.

In short, one could say the tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas was started by a bunch of American lunatics.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 5768: The Plan

Seventeen years after Jacob moved to Egypt, he becomes ill and close to death. He first blesses Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, though oddly changing the birth order around. Later, he blesses, if not prophesizes about all of his sons. Jacob dies, is carried back to Canaan, and then the brothers fret Joseph will finally exact revenge. But Joseph tells them once again it was God who did all this and there is nothing to worry about. Fifty four years later, Joseph makes his brothers promise that when they or their descendants leave Egypt they will take his bones with them. Joseph lives to see three generations and then dies at 110, ending the book of Genesis.

Since last week, I’ve been thinking about something a friend asked as discussion questions in a study session I was at about last weeks portion. I was a little out of it at the time and didn’t answer then, but I thought about my answers, since mine are some of Joseph’s final comments in the book of Genesis:

19. And Joseph said to them, Fear not; do I replace God?

20. But as for you, you meant bad things against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is today, keeping alive many people.

These words are Joseph’s response to his brother’s agitation after the death of Jacob that Joseph will now take retribution on his brothers. They are the words of a wise seasoned sage, not the words of the haughty seventeen year old tattletale. They made me think this week about those discussion questions. While there were several, there was a question that stood out:

Does God have a personal plan for each of us, and if so what does that say about free will?

My answer is yes, I do have a personal plan given to me by God. Indeed we all do. Yet I think it’s important to remember something that seemed to be missing in that conversation last week. A plan is not a script. A script indicates all the actions and statements made. A plan gives the general idea, but not how it will really be implemented. Plans may not end up the way they started. There is room for variation in implementation. For example imagine the plans for a house. You can make a hundred houses from the same blueprints but the furniture, choices of paint, siding, roofing materials etc. could make for a hundred unique homes. Plans and free will are not mutually exclusive.

One problem with plans I mentioned last week. Some want to spite God through sin because an omnipotent God did not interfere with bad events. Most moderns think of the holocaust of course, but in the time of the Rabbis the brutality of Rome and the destruction of the Temple was just as horrific to the people of the time. How could God plan to have something like the holocaust?

Joseph is familiar with such bad things in his life. Joseph was a man who at seventeen was assaulted and almost murdered by his own brothers, sold as a slave, accused and jailed for Sexual assault. He spent thirteen years in the lowest worst conditions anyone could imagine. At many a turn his death looked imminent. Yet he survived and we are told at each of those points that God was with him. God was with Joseph because Joseph was with God. Although told to the People of Israel many years after Joseph’s death, there are words which summarize this plan best of all:

4. Hear, O Israel; The Lord is our God is the Lord is One;

5. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; 7. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9]

Joseph may not have known the Shema, but he lived it. By living it he kept God close. Bad things still happened to him, but each was a challenge to his character. The obnoxious brat of seventeen would have lost his head in front of Pharaoh. The thirty year old convict knew how to play the game and not only survive the encounter, but end up second in command. The hardship in his life made him a better person. He was given a challenge and accepted it by moving with each experience to a more righteous character. There are plenty of prophets and patriarchs in Torah, but Joseph is the only Tzaddik. All the others heard the voice of God, Joseph never did. Like us, he only got dreams.

Plans change. People perceive the parts of the plan differently, and thus execute them differently. Our perceptions are unique as we are unique. Joseph realized by the end of his life he cannot know the whole plan, nor the plan for anyone else. A good thing for one is a bad thing for others. A bad thing in one’s life may be the entry point for something wonderful. We cannot know. Sometimes a dream, as in both my case and Joseph’s changes everything, but only if you know how to react to the dream. What we can do is change and improve our character and strive towards becoming a tzaddik, a righteous person, loving God and living in the way of God as we go down the path of our life.

One of the reasons I never answered this question last week was that the time of darkness outside reflects the darkness that I and many feel inside at this time of year. I really cannot complain about my life but there are places where it is painfully empty, and December always rubs it in my face a thousand different ways. I therefore was not in the mood to answer. Yet that pain and emptiness I have taken as a challenge. I have grown as a person, and continue to do so, much like the Bill Murray character from Groundhog Day did. A dream helped me realize that last week as well, a dream where much of my life in the last seventeen years never happened. I’ve faced many crises in that time, chiseling and forging me. Today, I’d rather be the Shlomo of 2008 with two masters’ degrees and a lot of charisma, than the agnostic shy computer geek Steve of 1991.

Joseph was very clear he should be grateful for his brother’s evil. Without it not only would they have died but Joseph would never have achieved the success he did. Moreover, everyone in the entire region might have died from starvation. God planned a famine. Joseph’s response to the warnings countered the plan and saved lives.

There is a plan. The plan for each of us is found in the Shema, though we each read it differently. Hardships do exist, some slight some horrible. Yet even those may lead to even greater things for us depending on our actions. We as limited beings cannot know. As Joseph Ha Tzaddik said, we cannot replace God with ourselves. We can only love God, and improve ourselves day in and day out.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Parshat Vayigash 5768: The Five Men

This week Judah pleads for the freedom of Benjamin, and is so moving Joseph reveals that he is their brother in a fearful and tearful reunion. Eventually Jacob and the whole Mishpocha comes down to Egypt. They all live happily off the fat of the land of Egypt at the request of Pharaoh.

When Joseph presents his family to Pharaoh, he does something odd:

1. Then Joseph came and told Pharaoh, and said, My father and my brothers, and their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have, have come from the land of Canaan; and, behold, they are in the land of Goshen. 2. And he took some of his brothers, five men, and presented them to Pharaoh. [Genesis 47:1-2]

The Hebrew text, Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo Jonathan and the Socino translation all note five men went with Joseph. Of course this creates two questions: Which five? And why these five?

To understand the rabbinic answer we have to understand their source for this answer: the blessings for the Tribes by Moses in Deuteronomy 33. For some of the tribes, Moses repeats their name as follows:

33:7. And this is the blessing of Judah; and he said, Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him to his people; let his hands be sufficient for him; and be you a help to him from his enemies.

33:18. And of Zebulon he said, Rejoice, Zebulon, in your going out; and, Issachar, in your tents.

33:20. And of Gad he said, Blessed be he who enlarges Gad; he lives as a lion, and tears the arm with the crown of the head.

33:22. And of Dan he said, Dan is a lion’s cub; he shall leap from Bashan.

33:23. And of Naphtali he said, O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full with the blessing of the Lord; possess you the west and the south.

33:24. And of Asher he said, Let Asher be blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.

Why repeat these six names? The rabbis differ on that question. Midrash Rabbah to Genesis states:

And why did the righteous Joseph take these five of his brethren? Because he knew who were the strong men among his brethren, and he reasoned wisely: If I present the strongest to Pharaoh, he will on seeing them make them his warriors. Therefore he presented these five, who were not mighty men. How do we know that they were not? You find them in the blessing of our teacher Moses. Every one whose name he repeated in his blessing was mighty, while he whose name he did not repeat was not mighty. [Genesis Rabbah - XCV:4]

Using this argument, The Midrash states the brothers who were presented to Pharaoh were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin, and Issachar, whose names were not repeated. Yet the Talmud and Targum Pseudo Jonathan have a reversed list:

Thus said R. Johanan that ‘they were those whose names were repeated [in the Farewell of Moses]. But was not the name Judah repeated too? He replied: The repetition in the case of Judah was for a different purpose, [Baba Kama 92a]

So If Judah was for a different purpose, we have the five brothers as Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. We can see rabbinic commentary isn’t helping much.

Looking at this conundrum, I thought of two possible answers. One is a commentary on the commentators, the other on the text. Recently I was in a Talmud study session at my Synagogue, and we were studying a rather bizarre text about the biblical kings not allowed into the world to come. Among their atrocities:

Ahaz permitted incest; Manasseh violated his sister; Amon, his mother, as it is written, For he Amon sinned very much. R. Johanan and R. Eleazar [dispute therein]: One maintained, He burnt the Torah; the other, he dishonored his mother. His mother remonstrated with him: ‘Hast thou then any pleasure in the place whence thou didst issue?’ He replied: ‘Do I do this for any other purpose than to provoke my Creator!’ [Sanhedrin 103b]

The facilitator had one interpretation. This was part of a power struggle with the prophets. The law of Kings was struggling with the law of God. By violating the sacrosanct law of incest Amon tried to destroy the Torah. Our facilitator saw many problems and issues with modernity in his interpretation. Our group discussed, or was lectured to, on that point for quite a while. I never got to give my explanation, but my idea has a lot to do with the problem of which brothers were before Pharaoh.

I am of the opinion one cannot look at a piece of Talmud without understanding the people who were making these statements. In both the Baba Kama piece about the brothers and the Sanhedrin part about the incestuous kings one of the rabbis involved was the Amora R. Johanan. He lived at a time where most of Israel was overrun with Romans, many of them converts to Christianity. Given Roman oppression and increasing pressure to convert, most Jews were either converting or running away to the lands of the East, to the diaspora in present day Iraq. Torah knowledge was waning in Israel, and about 150 years after R. Johanan, scholarly work disappeared completely for close to a thousand years in the land. R. Johanan, seeing the warning signs, was instrumental in preserving that knowledge in the first Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi.

Alternatively, The Tanna R. Eleazar ben Azaria lived at a very different time. The time of the Tannaim were the times in the shadow of the destruction of the temple and the time of the massacres in the shadow of the Bar Kokba rebellion. The Jewish world was undergoing radical change, as sacrifice was no longer possible and Jews were severely punished and executed for the slightest offence.

For me, given this historical context, I saw something different in the Sanhedrin piece. This was not a fight between God’s law and Man’s law, but answering a question of why do people sin. For R. Johanan it was forsaking the tradition as a minority people for the majority. For R. Eleazar it was to spite the God who would allow such horrible things to happen to His people. My interpretation of the text was R. Eleazar was talking of the reaction to the Shoah of his day, R. Johanan to the assimilation of his time. After the session I told this to a friend of mine who had an interesting response: “I guess every generation has its answer”

It is these same two generations the Tannaim and the first Amoraim which flip the answers to which of Jacob’s sons appeared before Pharaoh. Both use the same proof text, but come up with different answers. These texts don’t give us enough information to make good assumptions, but there is one possibility I thought of based on the biblical text. With the exception of Zebulon, the brothers who appear in front of Pharaoh are the sons of the hand maids, of slaves. This was a prophetic message: Just as these were from slaves and are now free men, so too will we be free men again. How? Going back to the blessing we read of Zebulon

18. And of Zebulon he said, Rejoice, Zebulon, in your going out; and, Issachar, in your tents. 19. They shall call the people to the mountain; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hidden in the sand. [Deuteronomy 33:18-19]

It will be by sea split into two so the people can walk on sand the people will go out, and then go to the mountain to offer sacrifices. Zebulon is there as another statement in front of Pharaoh.: We will go out and it will be by sea. For the world of R. Johanan, who saw the Jewish world once again beginning an exile, the five repeated names show a prophecy of exile and redemption as in Torah’s story of enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt we will begin reading in a few weeks. For the Tannaim of the Mishnah, showing your mightiest heroes meant they would get conscripted – or killed.

That at least is my idea. Midrash is more a reflection of the person giving it than necessarily an accurate description of events. Not only in my own mind games with the text, but even in Talmudic times was this true. The redactors of the Talmud, centuries after Johanan, added their own editorializing. Each generation does interpret things differently. In my interpretation, it’s important to remember that every generation has its interpretation.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Parshat Mikkeitz 5768: The Land of My Affliction

This week Joseph gets his “get out of jail free” card, when Pharaoh has two nightmares that no one understands. When interpreting them to mean there will be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, Joseph goes on to suggest collecting the surplus in the seven good years as rations for the famine to come. Pharaoh thinks this plan so good he makes Joseph the second in command of Egypt. He also gives him a wife Asnat, and the couple has two children Manasseh and Ephraim. The years of plenty come and Joseph collects grain for the royal storehouses. When the years of famine begin it appears that Joseph has done such a good job, that not only the people of Egypt come to Joseph for grain but also the people of foreign lands come for grain, and Egypt actually makes a hefty profit on the whole disaster. Among the foreigners are Joseph’s brothers. Joseph decides to jerk their chain by imprisoning one brother, Simeon, and finally threatening to imprison Benjamin after framing him for stealing Joseph’s goblet.

A few weeks ago I talked about Isaac. A friend of mine noted that my description of Isaacs was parallel to the thought of Elie Wiesel, who though Isaac the first Holocaust survivor. This week every year in the Jewish calendar, and very appropriately the week every year where identity is challenged the most, we read Parshat Mikketz, the story of Joseph, the first Diaspora Jew.

42. And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; 43. And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, Bow the knee; and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. 44. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without you shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. 45. And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.[Gen 41:]

A few verses later, the good life continues:

50. And to Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bore to him. 51. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. 52. And the name of the second called he Ephraim; For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.[Gen 41:]

If anyone is living the dream, it’s Joseph. He’s #2 in Egypt, got Pharaoh’s chariot in his garage, dresses for success, and has the wife and two kids. It can’t get better than this. His old life in Canaan seems to be a thing of the past, a dream itself.

But there is tension in Joseph, and in many of his actions, the old world is still there. The tension shows in the names of Joseph’s two sons:

51. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, he said, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. 52. And the name of the second he called Ephraim; For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.

Manasseh is named because Joseph forgets his past. Ephraim is named for Joseph’s being successfully the land of my affliction. What has Joseph to be afflicted about? Interestingly is the verse from Exodus:

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows [Exodus 3:7]

The affliction which we refer to in Exodus is of course slavery. Joseph was still a slave. Maybe he was in a very gilded cage, but he still could not leave Egypt. As we find in the case of burying Jacob, Joseph was accompanied by a large Egyptian military procession, not just for his protection or honoring Jacob, but also to make sure Joseph came back to Egypt. Joseph either dead or alive was bound to Egypt until the time of the Exodus. While there were things Joseph would rather forget, Joseph still had his identity in Canaan, as evidenced by his Hebrew naming of his sons, and the idea that this was about what God did, not what man did. Joseph kept his identity and God even in Egypt.

It is hard as a minority to keep an identity, the majority pulls at you. The Targum Pseudo Jonathan tells us he was not completely alone however. Asnat his wife was really his niece, the daughter of Dina and Shechem. But as a minority of two, it would be hard to cope with a world which does one thing, and the other one Joseph wanted to teach his two boys. There is the tension, one we feel between tradition and the secular world every day, but more acutely at this time of year.

There are parts of memory and of identity which are deep core beliefs, ones that don’t change at the whims of the majority. It’s surprisingly easy to slip into the person you were decades ago, as Joseph did with his skill at dream interpretation. That was something that was part of his early family life. He really didn’t think and ponder; he just came out and said something. There are parts of Joseph which was as natural as breath. No matter how much you forget in your conscious memory those stay with you.

I find that appropriate given Mikketz always falls around the 25th of Kislev. For some, Hanukkah might be about your kids keeping up with the Jones’ kids getting toys, or you keeping up with the Jones’ toys. Yet I think it’s more than a commercial holiday issue. Too many candles are lit for that to be the only thing. According to the National Jewish population survey 2000-01, roughly Three quarters of the American Jewish population light Hanukkah candles compared to roughly a quarter lighting Shabbat candles. Hanukkah is about American Jewish identity even when we forget the practices of that identity. At a time where the world shows itself as non-Jewish, with every loudspeaker in every public place chanting the virtue of another religion, that core identity has to express itself. Lighting one candle for the Maccabee children, for religious freedom, seems as right as breathing.

Joseph did not light candles, but he did do something even more permanent: He gave his sons not only Hebrew instead of Egyptian names, but named them in way that everyone would remember that were still slaves. While the problems of the past are forgotten here, the ways of their family were not accepted in this new, foreign land.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Vayeshev 5768: What Colors was Joseph’s Coat?

This week we start the story of Joseph. Joseph, a spoiled brat and tattletale at seventeen, gets the ire of his brothers, who sell him down the Nile into slavery after one too many dreams of superiority over them. But in Egypt, Joseph goes from being a mere slave to running the household of Potiphar the chief executioner. Unfortunately, a case of sexual harassment gets Joseph in trouble. The chief executioner’s wife wants to sleep with Joseph, who refuses. In a turnabout move, Potiphar’s wife frames him for attempted rape, and Joseph is jailed. But even here he ends up running the prison.

Most people know the story of Joseph and his garment that became a flash point for his brothers’ anger and jealousy. Most think they know how to translate the garment, indeed it is the title of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The verse this week reads:

3. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat with long sleeves. 4. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

If you read carefully you might have noticed what I did when reading the Socino translation. It does not say coat of many colors but instead coat with long sleeves. What is going on here?

The term in Hebrew is ketonet passim and there is a lot of debate about what it means. The term shows up in one other place, in II Samuel, after the incestuous rape of Tamar by King David’s son Amnon.

17. Then he called his servant who ministered to him, and said, Take now this woman away from me, and bolt the door after her. 18. And she had a long sleeved robe upon her; for with such robes were the king’s daughters who were virgins dressed. Then his servant took her out, and bolted the door after her. 19. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her long sleeved robe, that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, crying aloud as she went. [II Samuel 13:17-19]

One possibility then is Joseph was wearing girl’s clothes. The Midrash also notes some of these tendencies, including eye makeup, curling his hair and lifting his heels. [Gen R. LXXXIV: 7] But lifting the heels is not putting on high heel shoes, but instead a sense of excessive false pride. The rabbis seem to portray Joseph not as a cross dresser but, for lack of a better term as a pretty boy, an immature male who is outwardly vain to the exclusion of all else. The Rabbis give a parable explaining the episode with Potiphar’s wife:

And Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon [Gen. 39:6]. And this is immediately followed by, His master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph. It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, penciling his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heel, while he exclaimed, ' I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!" [Gen R. LXXXVII: 3]

The bystanders in this story according to the rabbis are none other than God testing Joseph’s vanity. The bear, Potiphar’s wife, is a difficult opponent to beat even for a strong man. Joseph, until he made his choices at the foot of her bed, was all style and no substance.

Yet this is not the only meaning of the term. A ketonet is mentioned in several places as the white robes of Aaron and his sons. They are described as fine coats of fine white linen of woven work for Aaron [Ex 39:27] and embroidered [Ex 28:39]. The coat itself was an important robe of some kind. As we learn in Leviticus 16, it may have had a protective property to it, as it is required when entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Yet even the wearing of the ketoret had a basis in the Joseph story according to the rabbis, this time as atonement of sin:

The tunic used to make atonement for bloodshed, as we read, And they dipped the coat in the blood [Gen. 37, 31]. Some say it was for those who wore garments of diverse kinds, as we read, And he made him a coat of many colors [37:3] [Song of Songs Rabbah IV: 8]

Some of the rabbis believe that it is diverse kinds of passim, that the atonement is about. So the other key word here is passim. The Midrash goes into a brain storming session over this word. Some used an allegorical approach, stating that passim was foreshadowing of Joseph’s suffering in a variety of ways. Literal approaches to passim in the Midrash break the word into a plural of the word pas which mean stripes. Pas is also the point on the hand where stripes on the hand meet: the wrist. Thus the coat had sleeves which reached to the wrist, our long sleeved coat. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translated the whole term as a royal robe which is either painted or embroidered.

The thing that bugs me it that we assume the coat was colored. There is no evidence that it ever was from the rabbinic point of view. We assume if there were stripes, they were different colors. We assume that if it was embroidered, the embroidery thread was a different color than the material it was made of. Yet, white on white is a possibility. Looking at my palm the stripes on my hand are the same color as my hand. We know Aaron’s robe was white, and we can wonder if Tamar as a virgin would wear a white robe or a multicolored one. The sin atoned in the Midrash to Song of Songs is not about mixing colors, but mixing the two basically white fabrics wool and linen.

When I sat down to write this commentary, I wanted to write a commentary over what colors were used in the coat of many colors. As an artist, I wanted to link the metaphor of a painter’s palette to the colors in the coat. Instead, I end up with the amazing Technicolor dream coat may very well have been linen white. Coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t colored at all is enough of a Drash in itself. Maybe the question is why do we need the multihued coat to be part of the story that it got translated that way by a lot of people?

With a little more research, it was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the bible that added the word many colors. Where they got it from is not clear, but the Septuagint was written in the Egypt of the Ptolemies, and it is from this I can make an educated guess. White was a common fabric color in Egypt. Indeed much of the white of the Middle East region was imported from Egypt, including the white linen for the fabrics mentioned in the Tanach. As late at the Persian Empire white linen still came from Egypt as we know from the first chapter of the book of Esther. As a production center unrivaled for centuries, Egypt may have suffered from the same problem moderns suffer from, thinking that pure white is a boring color. Yet for most of the ancient world it may have been the most impossible color to achieve – and thus the most precious. There were many off-whites. Indeed the most common word for white, lavan, is the same as Joseph’s deceitful grandpa Laban. White tones, lavan, were easy as is a white lie or white spots on those sticks Jacob swindled his father in law with. The pure white of Egyptian linen, however, was near impossible or as fleeting as snow in a desert – and that made it valuable.

In modernity, white has become cheap. The $5.00 white Bristol board pads I use up monthly Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo would have killed for. I’m staring at a white screen as I type. Even the top to my coffee is cheap, brilliantly white plastic. To think of Joseph in a white robe is to minimize his brother’s jealousy. Yet, to think of him in an exquisitely dyed garment increases the garment’s value, and makes the story work better. Yet in each of our minds, the colors of that garment are different, with differing patterns and stripes. In our minds, we design Joseph’s garment differently and no two are the same. Our expression of that garment is an expression of ourselves.

White is the color of the paper I start a painting on. White is the color of the screen on a new Microsoft Word file. Looking at the counter of 46 million works of art posted or a bookstore full of what was once white paper reminds me that both paper and computer screens have the potential to be an infinite number of things. I started with the wrong question. It is not the palette that is of interest, but the canvas. Joseph’s coat is the canvas of our personal painting – it is blank, and we as the reader add the Midrash of color.

So, what is on your canvas?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vayishlah 5768: The Handmaids’ Tale

This week Jacob gets ready for this inevitable meeting with Esau, and then has an interesting divine wrestling experience. When Jacob finally meets his brother, he finds out that he and Esau actually can be civil to each other. Dinah is raped and then her rapist asks for her hand in marriage. To avenge the rape, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the rapist’s town as they recover from circumcision. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Ruben sleeps with his step mother, Bilhah. Isaac dies, and is buried by both his sons.

Every once in a while, my ideas for the Drash don’t start with me but are thrust upon me. This week for example, I got one of those signs I couldn’t ignore, and then some. A friend of mine asked a question, and then that question was repeated during a discussion of the new Reform prayerbook Mishkan Tefilah. It was too coincidental to ignore.

The Mishkan Tefilah question was based on the addition of a few decades ago which has spread to many other movements. In the beginning of the traditional Amidah, there is the invocation of the patriarchs with the phrase “the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.” The Reform movement added the matriarchs “The God of Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” But there is still something missing here. We read in this week’s portion:

23. The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun; 24. The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin; 25. And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant; Dan, and Naphtali; 26. And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant; Gad, and Asher; these are the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Padan-Aram.

Two of Jacob’s son’s come from Bilhah and two from Zilpah. Should they not be included as Matriarchs? My friend asked the question more succinctly: What is the status and role of these two women? How did they fit into the picture?

There is lot of evidence they are of lower status. Probably one of the most graphic is the one found at the beginning of the portion.

1. And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two maidservants. 2. And he put the maidservants and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. [Genesis 33:1-2]

If Esau attacks with his 400 horsemen, as Jacob believes, the first to die will be the maidservants and their children. Jacob’s beloved Rachel and Joseph would be the last Esau would reach. People are ordered according to their importance, and Bilhah and Zilpah don’t have enough importance to even be named here. The Midrash points at another example of a lower status for Bilhah.

22. And it came to pass, when Israel lived in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve;

The text appears to indicate Ruben, Leah’s oldest sleeps with Bilhah. Yet, the rabbis weren’t happy with that possibility, since it presents a bit of hypocrisy later in Deuteronomy, so they come up with a different story:

The truth, however, is that he vindicated his mother's humiliation. For as long as Rachel lived her bed stood near that of the Patriarch Jacob; when Rachel died, Jacob took Bilhah's bed and placed it at the side of his. ‘Is it not enough for my mother to be jealous during her sister's lifetime,’ he exclaimed, ‘but must she also be so after her death!’ Thereupon he went up and disarranged the beds. [Genesis R. XCVIII:4]

Essentially, Jacob promoted Bilhah, the handmaid to the position of wife that Rachel had held until her death. Reuben believed the legitimate wife of Jacob, his mother Leah should have that position. Reuben responds to this by moving the beds around, changing Bilhah’s bed with his mother Leah’s, and such moving of beds is the equivalent of sleeping with Bilhah.

We do have one other text that gives us some identity of who these two women were.

13. And Laban answered and said unto Jacob: the daughters are my daughters, etc. [Gen 31:43]. R. Reuben said: They were all his daughters, for the daughters are my daughters indicates two, while and what can I do for these my daughter's makes four. The Rabbis adduced it from this verse: If thou shall afflict my daughters [Gen 31:50] indicates two; while and if thou shall take wives beside my daughters makes four. [Gen R. LXXIV: 13]

In Hebrew the word “my daughters” is repeated in the two verses discussed. The rabbis conclude this is two sets of daughters. Thus this text implies that all four of the wives of Jacob were daughters of Laban. Rashi explicitly states that Bilhah and Zilpah themselves were the daughters of Laban’s concubines. In that light, there is the comment in Midrash about 17-year old Joseph, gossiping about his brothers:

R. Judah said: They [i.e. Leah’s sons] insult the sons of the bondmaids [Bilhah and Zilpah] and call them slaves.

Joseph as a young man was an annoying tattletale. This report to his father does have some justification, based on this Midrash about Joseph’s dream that the sun and the moon, representing his father and mother, would bow down to him [cf. 37:9-10]

“Rachel is dead, yet you say I and you mother will come to bow down to you”. But our ancestor [i.e. Jacob] did not know that it applied to Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, who had brought him Joseph up like a mother. [Gen R. LXXXIV: 11]

As Joseph spent more time with the sons of the hand maids than the sons of Leah, it makes sense for him to defend them, though they were silent when he got into trouble. Thus what we know about Bilhah and Zilpah is clear, they were second class citizens and even in the time of the rabbis such people did not have the rights and status of others. Being born from a second class status one inherited the second class status. Some did seek to change that, as did Jacob, promoting Bilhah to Rachel’s position. Yet society demanded things in a correct order, one corrected by Reuben. According to one Midrash by R. Berkiah, He didn’t just move Bilhah’s bed but also Zilpah’s as well away from Jacob’s. They were to be the inferior position to the legitimate wife of Leah.

Yet, interestingly, there is an opposing though minority opinion. One instance is here:

R. Joshua of Siknin said in the name of R. Levi: Why are not the names of the tribes in the same order in all places, but sometimes one takes the precedence and sometimes another? So that you should not think that the children of the wives come first, and those of the hand-maidens last, but to teach you that these were not greater than the others. [Exodus R. I: 6]

Most telling this comment from Midrash Rabbah to Numbers, repeated in the Midrash to Esther, and Midrash to Song of Songs

17. AND THEY BROUGHT THEIR OFFERING BEFORE THE LORD, SIX COVERED WAGONS, etc. [VII, 3). Six corresponding to the six days of creation. Six corresponding to the six Orders of the Mishnah. Six corresponding to the Matriarchs, namely Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. [Numbers R XII:17]

Bilhah and Zilpah, in the view of some rabbis are matriarchs as much as Rachel and Leah. Yet, in the biblical world where women are not equal to men and slaves not equal to free people, Bilhah and Zilpah were in some sense the lowest of the low, even though they were family. We tend to believe we don’t pull this lower status stuff any more, but even in the smallest of ways, it still happens all the time.

As things would have it, I had the chance to face such prejudice this week. After a long day at work all I wanted was a quiet good meal. I went to seafood restaurant I usually go to when I am in that particular suburb and asked for a table for one. The hostess asked me if I wanted to sit at the bar, and I answered no, I really wanted a quiet table. So she sat me at one of the bar tables even though they had an incredibly large dining room. When I explained I wanted one of the dining room seats I was told there were none available, yet I saw couple after couple enter the dining room from the seat which overlooked the hostess station. I got so angry at my treatment; I left the restaurant and ate somewhere else.

Braxton Seafood Grill pegged me for second class status, and I got the second rate tables in the restaurant. This was not the first but the second time this had occurred. Six weeks earlier when I went there to conduct the same business, I got that same bar seat. For some reason, I was not to be allowed in the dining room. Did I not fit the profile of a guest who belongs in the dining room?

Braxton loses a loyal customer this week, who had been eating there eight times a year. I’m sure their competitors will not be upset, as I’ve been known to run up my food tab and tip generously. But the thing that I can do is make a choice. I can go to another restaurant that is very happy to treat me as a good customer. Bilhah and Zilpah did not have that choice, nor do many people today. It was only decades ago I would have been sure that the reason for my treatment in Braxton was anti-Semitism. I don’t believe that is the case this time. There are many people today who still given 2nd class status in some major, but even more minor ways that we are not even aware of. Yet it happens. Why? I’m not sure. I suspect it is about making us feel better about ourselves. It’s an affirmation in the key of lashon hara we are not the most inferior creature in the universe.

Thanksgiving sets off a season of personal interaction between now and New Years Day. Repeatedly, we will be tested to think of people as equals. This particularly is true of salespeople, counter help, and restaurant servers. Most people don’t treat them as equals but as slaves, barking orders at them. Let’s avoid that this year, and treat the people behind the counter as people in a very stressful position.

I did think of one reason I became 2nd class and it’s an ironic one. I treated the host staff like people, smiling, saying hello to not just the one who greeted me but the whole staff at the host desk. I treated them as real people as not as slaves and that got me the 2nd class table in the restaurant – they didn’t know what to do with that (thought they killed that real fast). So I have a prayer and a vision for this Holiday season, my ultimate revenge for this incident is for this to be true:

God of our forefathers and our foremothers, God of Joseph, Aaron, Bilhah, Zilpah and Miriam. Let us remember in this season that we were once slaves in Egypt. In this season we celebrate with light our liberation from the second class status the Greeks imposed on us. Let us remember that all of humanity is B’tzelem Elohim, in Your image. May it be Your will that we see our transgressions between ourselves and others before we do them, and thus choose to not treat our fellow human being like a slave, but as a fellow human being.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Parshat Vayetze 5768: Why I’m not a Rachel Fan

This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. After a bit of deception on his father in law’s part, and with a good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home, he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.

Unlike the story of his father's dating experience, Jacob goes through a very different wedding experience. After traveling a while, he meets Rachel near a well. Jacob falls in love with this vision of beauty. He meets her father who happens to be his uncle Laban. After settling in, Jacob exchanges seven years of labor for the hand of Rachel. After the seven years, there is a great wedding feast. Laban switches brides at the last minute and Jacob unwittingly marries Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Jacob, although upset at this deception, simply negotiates another seven years to marry Rachel as soon as possible. The day after the mandatory seven days with Leah, he marries and jumps into bed with the prized Rachel.

But who are these two women? The text says Now Laban had two daughters, the name of the older one was Leah, the name of the younger one was Rachel, Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. [Gen.29:16-17] This description has set up most of the folklore and Midrash about these two: an ugly sister and a beautiful one. More literally, a good looking one and one who can’t see.

It is clear Rachel is a good-looking woman. Once again, lovers are destined to meet at a well. But unlike Rebecca offering to water the camels, it is not the host who does the watering, but the guest. We are told by the text watering in this place is a communal event, an event all the shepherds get together and water their flocks together at the well. The well had a capstone, and it is only rolled off when everyone is there. For some commentators it was a matter of being too heavy, as the text says it is big. Yet I think there is something else going on here. Water rights as we have seen in other parts of Genesis is a big deal. A shared well could be a large cause for contention. With the amount of deception going on throughout this story, this might be a way to make sure no one takes more than their fair share of water. Jacob immediately breaks the rules and waters Rachel’s flock, and not the three flocks waiting for everyone. Here’s a case where everyone has been waiting in line for something and someone cuts in and takes for him or her self. No wonder when Jacob tells his story to Laban he says Surely you are my bone and my flesh [Gen 29:14]. Between the well and Esau, Jacob’s proven he’s just as much of a swindler as Laban.

After Leah and Rachel are married to Jacob, Leah pretty much pops out four children in a row, Rueben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel throws a hissy fit. Instead of praying to God like her in-law’s did when infertile, she whines to her husband, Give me children, or if not, I die.[Gen 30:1] Later, she steals her father’s idols to take with her to Canaan without telling her husband. She even hides them by sitting on them when Laban searches her tent. So besides everything else, she’s a thief who still believes in idolatry.

In case you can’t tell I’m not the biggest fan of Rachel, yet we often venerate Rachel over Leah. I find Rachel to be one of the more reprehensible women in Torah. Yet this beautiful woman is what Jacob wants. Jacob, like many people in modern society, are only interested in Rachel: the eye candy, the supermodel or centerfold. This person is high maintenance and entirely self absorbed. She’s still a pagan, not believing in the god of her husband and his ancestors, but some small idols which can comfortably fit under her backside. But her physical beauty outshines everything else for Jacob. So he goes for it, and spends his time loving Rachel, who probably in today’s society would have left him or cheated on him the first time something better (i.e. richer) came along. In doing so, he ignores Leah, the one who can truly love him, and understand him.

All we are told of Leah is she feels unloved, and that she had weak eyes. In terms of Jacob’s devouring passion for Rachel, it easy to see why Leah would feel unloved. But it is this “The eyes of Leah were weak” that interests me more. As I mentioned, one easy interpretation of this is that Leah was blind. It wasn’t that she was ugly or had a bad personality, but that she was disabled. Of all disabilities, she has the same as Jacob’s father, Isaac, who had acquired dim eyes, very possibly at the Akedah. The Midrash comments on that weakness as an acquired disability:

That they had grown weak through weeping, for [people used to say]: This was the arrangement; the elder daughter [Leah] is for the elder son [Esau], and the younger daughter [Rachel] for the younger son [Jacob],’ while she used to weep and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man.’ R. Huna said: Great is prayer, that it annulled the decree and she even took precedence of her sister. [Gen. R LXX:16]

The weakness came from the prayer of petition and lamentation. But unlike her sister, Leah prayed according to the rabbis. But weak is only one meaning for racot. It may also mean soft. While I was translating the Song of Songs, there is a line, repeated in several places

How beautiful you are my beloved
How beautiful you are, your eyes are doves [SS 1:15, 4:1]

While I was trying to figure out the imagery of this phrase, I learned a lot about doves. Doves are very strongly monogamous. So much so, they always are found as a pair. They hang out together and they often do not mate, or even find another one after the loss of their partner. Once I even saw an interesting, though sad sight. A dove had been hit by a car, and its mate just walked around it over and over, not matter what came near. It could not leave its partner. Maybe when we say that Leah had weak eyes, she did not see beyond the scope of her partner- she believed deeply in monogamy. Monogamy isn’t just an obligation to one's mate. It is a deep belief in knowing one partner, and investing the time and effort into knowing them well intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. In doing so something deep and connecting happens.

Unfortunately for Leah, she had to get connected with a joke like Jacob, and was, as the Torah tells us, hated compared to her sister. [Gen 29:31] That’s when God takes action.

I’ve mentioned before not to take pregnancy just as having kids when it shows up in the text. Instead look at it as an expression of growth and creative energy in the people involved. It is telling that it is Leah who has the most kids. Rachel has to go the Hagar route and use a surrogate at first, spurring Leah to do the same. But in the end, if one keeps score, it’s Leah with six boys and one girl (Rueben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Dinah). Rachel with two: (Joseph and Benjamin), Bilhah with two (Dan and Naphtali), and Zilpah with two (Gad, Asher). In short, if counting Dinah, Leah is more productive than the three others combined. It will be Leah’s children who will lead the people out of Egypt, It will be Leah’s children who are the first into the Red Sea, and the Kings of a united Israel, unhindered by the Philistines, and who build and work in the Temple. What’s more, with the assimilation of the tiny tribe of Benjamin into the whole, it is only the tribes of Leah, Levi and Judah, who survive the entire adventure of the Tanach and who we are named for: Jews.

We are the children of Leah, not the children of Rachel. Thus the text supports the concept of commitment, not the concept of playing the field. In the books of the prophets, or the Song of Songs this applies to God as well. We are intimately connected to God like the song, not harlots who sleep with any old idol as the prophets admonish. While appearance is important to make a connection, ultimately it is our strength of commitment that defines us.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Parshat Toledot 5768: Why I Can’t Write This Title.

This week Isaac and Rebecca are childless. After some praying, Rebecca gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb, and so God tells Rebecca about her two sons. After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. The family then has to move into Philistine territory for a while, though they are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebecca. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries someone who his parents don’t particularly like. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, and that he should prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebecca then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

I started this week having absolutely no clue what I was going to write about here. In many ways, I felt a lot like our hapless couple at the beginning of our portion, totally childless, and a bit frustrated about that. So I did something with the text I do when so stumped, and walked into quite the story. One interesting thing to do with Biblical text is to note inconsistencies or riddles in the text. The Talmudic Rabbis, who believed all the inconsistencies in Tanach were there for a reason, often used these as the springboard for commentary. For example, we have the verse in the week’s portion:

20. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. 21. And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived. [Genesis 25:20-21]

But we read a few verses below that:

26. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

There is a gap of twenty years between Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, and the birth of Esau and Jacob. Did it take nearly 20 decades of prayer to get the result, or was something else going on? Was this a 20 year pregnancy? Where does this lead us?

One source of commentary is the Aramaic translation to the Torah, the Targums. The Targums often add information to the biblical text to enlighten the reader about what is going on. When I checked Targum Pseudo Jonathan, I not only had a shock, but more of a mystery on my hands:

And Isaac went to the mountain of worship the place that his father bound him. Isaac changed with his prayer the intention of the Holy One Blessed be He from what he decreed concerning his wife. Because she, along with him, was barren twenty two years. It was changed on his account By the Holy One Blessed be He from what he decreed against him that he also was barren then he was able to beget children then Rebecca his wife became pregnant. [T. PsJ Gen 25:21]

Rebecca’s barrenness isn’t the only issue, but Isaac also is barren. To add to the mystery, the Targum says twenty two years, not twenty. What is going on? The Talmud confirms Isaac’s problem:

R. Isaac stated: Our father Isaac was barren; for it is said, ‘And Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife.’[Gen 25:21] It does not say ‘for his wife’ but opposite. This teaches that both were barren. [Yebamot 64a]

In this Text, R. Isaac confirms the Targum by noting a linguistic oddity. When someone prays they usually pray for someone. But Isaac prays ‘opposite’ his wife. There word for opposite also means in front of, or facing. R. Isaac relates that they prayed together because both were affected the same way.

But what is the point of Isaac being sterile? One possibility comes up in the Talmud, where there is a discussion of reproductive rights, in this case the right for a woman to bear a child. The Talmud reads:

Our Rabbis taught: If a man took a wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her and give her her kethubah, since it is possible that it was he who was unworthy to have children from her.[Yeb 64a]

Essentially it is grounds for divorce if a man does not give his wife a baby within ten years of marriage. However, there is no mitzvah that directly states this or that this could be derived from, so the rabbis try to find a story for justification. One they try is Isaac, and it doesn’t work too well. Yet the rabbis in this discussion do relate Isaac’s problem. Key to the issue of why Isaac doesn’t work as an example is that it was twenty, not ten years that Isaac and Rebecca are infertile – they should have been divorced for decade!

The Targum’s assertion of twenty two years of infertility hint at a possible reason. And there is one more hint in our text:

8. And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebecca his wife. [Gen 26:8]

Given context of that episode, “sporting” is better translated in this text as fondling. Why is Isaac, in all of Tanach, caught red-handed in foreplay?

It is by calculating ages that the mystery begins to clear. First there are the ages of Sarah and Abraham one year before Isaac’s Birth:

1. And when Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram…(17:1)

17. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him who is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, who would be ninety years old, bear?(17:17)

Of course a year later this comes true with the birth of Isaac when Sarah was 90. Genesis 23:1 tell us that Sara dies at 127. Therefore Isaac was 37 when she died. As we already discussed, the kids are born when Isaac is 60, giving us the twenty years of marriage between their marriage and the birth of the twins, and twenty three years between the time Of Sarah’s death and the birth of the Jacob and Esau. People do not have kids instantly. Subtracting one year for Rebecca’s pregnancy equals the 22 years the Targum mentions.

The death of Sarah, therefore is an important issue in this calculation, and thus must have more meaning. That meaning is related in the Targum passage. Isaac goes to Mt. Moriah of all places to make his prayer, the place of his biggest trauma. There is also a midrash relating to the immediacy after the Akedah that we read of Sarah’s death from grief over the what her husband was doing with her precious son [Gen R. LVIII:8]. Isaac therefore was 37 when Abraham bound him, and he has been infertile since the Akedah on Mt. Moriah.

Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew however do not differentiate between true infertility and impotence. Even though the incident with Abimelech catching Isaac red-handed happens after Jacob and Esau are born, it indicates something else – Isaac, more than any other biblical male knew how to satisfy his wife without intercourse. He had a lot of practice in nineteen years of sexual dysfunction. Isaac must have been impotent, not sterile.

Isaac’s impotency in my mind was a matter of post traumatic stress syndrome. On one single day, his father ties him up and tries to kill him and his mother dies from worrying about that. It had to have had some effect on Isaac. Impotency appears to be one of those things that happened. If we follow the Targum’s story then, we find a very interesting solution to his problem, and it had nothing to do with the v-word which would get this post banned by every spam filter out there. He went back and prayed at the very spot the trauma occurred. Not only him, but Rebecca too went up there with him, to face him -- to be opposite him, to remind each other that this is something they both have to do. As a couple they are strong, and can overcome this problem, as a couple praying for the child they can’t have, and thus succeed.

I started this Drash like Isaac and Rebecca, barren but with a little work I came around to a very rich and interesting commentary on a text. As I discussed a few weeks ago when talking about Lilith, the bible is a place where everyone looks for archetype to validate their own situation. Isaac provides us with an archetype of a man who dealt with a great trauma, was severely affected by it, but healed. Isaac as a PTS archetype still leaves a lot to be explored, but here at least is a beginning. I started barren this week, but now I am pregnant with ideas for dashes to come.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hayyei Sarah 5768: Is Dating Good for the Jews?

Last week, I mentioned there were a few things at my current synagogue that didn’t fit my model of a synagogue that reverses the trends of a declining Judaism. This week I’m going to let you in on a secret, one of those things that I think could revitalize an important and missing part of synagogue and Jewish life.

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebecca, and eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which both of his sons bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week.

Last week we talked about lifting the eyes, and this is one way to see the miracles around us. In this weeks portion we read about eye lifting again:

63. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening time; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming. 64. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she got off the camel. [Gen 24:63-64]

In terms of eye lifting, once again it is the miracles involved seeing that is forefront. Yet this miracle is far more powerful. I think it’s a tradition for me to quote the following Midrash every time I comment on this portion, for obvious reasons:

A [Roman] matron asked R. Yose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ‘In six days,’ he answered. ‘Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ Straightway she summoned R. Yose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ [Genesis Rabbah 58:4]

Last week, I talked about my graduation, and the graduation of Abraham, and in some sense Hagar. I had a graduation party this weekend at Shabbat services, and I thank everyone who gave me their well wishes who were there or not. But Sunday it hit me big time: What now!?! The answer of course is changing my single status to married. And as R. Yosi points out this is not an easy prospect. Splitting the Red Sea or finishing a Masters Degree is easy in comparison.

One of those papers I wrote for grad school asked the question – Why am I not married? According to the research paper I did, intermarriage is really a symptom of a bigger problem. It is very difficult for Jewish singles to get together. There were several trends in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1(NJPS) which I found interesting, and very likely related. One was fertility rates. By age 40, 36% of Jewish American women have not had their first child, compared to 20% for the U.S. as a whole. That led me to the age of marriage. By age 34, 64% of Jewish women are married compared to 70% of The U.S. Population as a whole. Men are worse off with only 48% of Jewish men by age 34 compared to 59% of the U.S. population married. We do catch up a bit by age 44, with Jewish Men at 74% and Jewish women at 85% married at least once. Yet even here there is a gap compared to the U.S.

What I found in my sample population is the trend for Jewish singles to finish college, then start graduate school in their late twenties or early thirties then finish grad school somewhere around their mid thirties. Up until the mid thirties Jewish singles describe the relationship they are looking for as non committal. In the mid thirties they suddenly reverse their objective and look for a mate to have children with. I concluded the two were related, people do not want to start families under the dual pressures of work and graduate school. When that is completed, the number of child-bearing years is limited, and a new emphasis is placed on having a family. Yet with those limited number of years, there may not be time for a large family, and thus less children born. While in their late thirties and forties, women begin to indicate a desire for life partners instead of a parental partner, and the desire for children stabilizes. Such is not true of men. Instead their rate for wanting children continues to soar, This, I inferred, may be one source of intermarriage, as these men now look outside Judaism and into the local population for potential mothers of their children.

This brings us back to Isaac and Rebecca. Abraham was clear in his instructions to Eliezer that was exactly what he didn’t want to happen with Isaac.

3. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live;4. But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac. [Gen 24:3-4]

Eliezer faces the problem of American Jewish singles: Where to find this adequate person in a place that is so big, it becomes impossible to navigate. Such is the Jewish American dating scene. It is very different from the medieval Kehilla of our ancestors, where the matchmaker was critical. Parents rather early in adolescence would use a matchmaker to find a partner for their children. There reason for this was rather pragmatic and not what you would expect. Besides the reproductive reasons, a teen with the raging hormones of that age would have a committed intimate partner to sexually express themselves instead of falling into promiscuity. Such young marriages would also be at a time where the child did not have a lot of worldly experience, and thus were more flexible in compatibility with a mate. Modern dating’s search for a committed partner means as much as two decades of experience. This has shaped a personality which has more requirements for compatibility than the pliable medieval teen. That medieval teen also lived in a small intimate community which had a lot of common ground among itself – the limitations of potential partners assured better compatibility. Yet in modernity, our choices of potential people, including dating among other religions, are vast. With less than 2 in 1000 Americans being Jewish adults, and only a minority of those single, this becomes quite the task to find a potential partner. The options are often beyond our ability to choose. The success of Internet sites such as or are in response to this, which gives singles some community with at least a few common attributes.

The success of one particular Jewish author and journalist shows one other problem, also noted in our text by an interesting absence. Moses and Jacob both charmed their potential mates into marriage. According to Midrash, Joshua was so charismatic he hooked the hottest woman in the region: Rahab. But Isaac never says or does anything to attract a mate. He may have had no social skills. The success of Neil Strauss and his book “The Game” points out another deficiency we may have unintentionally created. Strauss writes early in the book that society does not prepare us to meet the opposite sex. Often we are given false images in the media of what it is to date. These idealized or trivialized methods leave us unprepared for the real thing, and may even intimidate enough to keep people single. Strauss took an extreme course of action, becoming a member of the world of the pickup artist in order to learn those skills, and the book is his chronicle of two years in that community. Strauss’ book set off an avalanche of people, both men and women, clamoring for his secrets, of just getting enough knowledge to get a date. The response to this book and indeed the number of books on similar topics sitting on the local bookstore’s Self-help shelf point to how poor many a good Jewish boy’s and girl’s skill at meeting and connecting with potential mates may be.

Given all the obstacles for singles to date, it is a miracle on the order of splitting the Red sea to get two people together. In my mind, dating has not been good to the Jews, yet it is the mating system of the western world. Yet, Isaac and Rebecca did it, as have generations since. Like Isaac and Rebecca, I still believe such the miracle of finding a mate is possible as I begin to tool up my life to the task of finding my beloved. I know the problems. I’m still not sure of the solutions, though I believe one component of that is communities who help Jewish singles get together in a comfortable environment. Getting to the point where I break the glass under the Huppa with my beloved will be quite the journey, harder than the Masters degree by far. But this too will be a journey which is a Matter of Torah, and not only I but the Jewish world needs to learn.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Parshat Vayera 5768: Graduation and Seeing Things

This week we continue the story of Abraham. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day in his tent. While being visited by God, he sees some strangers, and runs out to them to show hospitality. After a big meal, they tell him that he and Sarah will have a son within a year, which makes Sarah laugh. When these strangers start back on their way towards Sodom, they tell Abraham that they are to destroy Sodom and the other cities of the plain. Abraham has a debate with God if this is a good idea and even bargains down what it will take to save the city. We then cut to Sodom and the experiences of two angels in the Big City, who decide the only one worth saving is Abraham's nephew Lot and his family. They escape, but not without casualties and misunderstandings. Abraham then moves into the land of the Philistines, and once again uses the "sister" excuse describing his relationship with Sara. After this adventure, Sara conceives and has a son, Isaac, which causes more sibling and maternal rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael. The last major story in this section is, of course, God telling Abraham to go to a mountain and to sacrifice Isaac.

The British potter Bernard Leach once watched the Japanese pottery master Shoji Hamada take a lump of clay, pinch it into a smooth pot and fire it in a raku Kiln within half an hour. When Leach remarked on this feat, Hamada objected: “Thirty minutes? No, it took forty years to make that pot!” Similarly it’s taken thirteen years to write this D’var.

The portion starts on a word which becomes a theme through the piece: Vayera. The root of this word means to see. Seeing things becomes critical in understanding the stories here. In this first occurrence, God appears, he causes himself to be seen. In the second, a verse later we read:

2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Gen 18:2]

Later, Hagar has a moment when she sees something.

19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:19]

And at the Akedah, Abraham sees something:

13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[22:13]

Key to these three places when someone sees is what they see with – their eyes. This should be obvious. Yet, something is done with the eyes in these three cases, lifting up and opening. Is there is difference?

Let’s start with Hagar opening her eyes. We know from the text she is not a happy lady.

16. And she went, and sat down opposite him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation. 19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:16-19]

It is not Hagar’s crying but heard the voice of the lad that God reacts to. Similarly in Psalm 28 we read of King David: Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry to you… Blessed be the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplications. What is the difference between Hagar and Ishmael? Hagar is self absorbed, while Ishmael prays. In order for Hagar to see the solution which is right in front of her God has to open her eyes. Sometimes we so self limit ourselves, we are so much on our own issue, we cannot see the things in front of us.

It’s a rare event within Torah to have someone actually have their eyes open. Generally its related to someone we might say is an outsider. Besides Hagar, Baalam for example, also has such an experience within Torah. In these cases to open the eyes is when God directly intercedes. My return to Judaism was such an event, as one on the outside. For a decade, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism, even refusing to go to High Holiday services. While on a study abroad program to Rome in early July of 1995 I had a dream. In the dream, A Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a tornado.

All I knew at that time was I needed to look into my heritage more. When I returned to the states, I did begin to look into it. That dream opened my eyes, and brought me back to Judaism. Opening of the eyes is for those who do not believe, but need to.

Unlike Hagar, Abraham has his eyes lifted. This expression is a lot more common. People lift their eyes and all of a sudden see things they didn’t before. In this portion, there are two expressions. In this first, we read he lifted up his eyes(18:2). In the last, Abraham lifted up (et)his eyes(22:13). Grammatically, the first is weaker than the second. The first is all pronouns. We could easily assume God lifted up Abraham’s eyes. The second case is a lot stronger, with Abraham as the subject, and the direct object marker et. Why is one weaker and the other stronger?

The dream above was not my only experience in Rome. A year later, I was back and with nothing to do on the Saturday between classes, I went with some people to the former seaport of Rome, Ostia Antica. Unlike Rome itself, where construction for the last two millennia has destroyed much of the ancient city, the ancient streets of 1900 years ago still exist in the ruins of Ostia including many rather intact remains of restaurants and offices and apartment buildings which went out of business in the 2nd century CE. Walking down these streets, I looked up to see an odd looking capitol in the ruins of a building. It had a menorah, etrog and lulav. I was standing in a synagogue. When I think of it now I still wonder if I stood where many a Rabbis stood after disembarking a ship from Israel en route to an audience with the Emperor, or saying tefilat haderech here on their way home. Three days later, I finally had walked into the central synagogue of Rome and visited the small Holocaust museum. I met a few people who were holocaust survivors, some visiting from elsewhere some now living in Rome. I heard their stories. I heard most of these grand synagogues in Italy cannot even get minyans. I wondered, is this our fate, museums in empty synagogues and ruins?

1. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Genesis 18:1-2]

At the beginning of Vayera, Abraham is recovering from his circumcision. God appears to him, and only after that does he see the three strangers. The weakness in the grammar may indicate Abraham was not acting alone here. God gave a little help in this case, one that the Midrash notes. Abraham was sulking that now that he was circumcised he would have no guests. God replies that before he was circumcised he was only fit to receive the uncircumcised, now he is fit to receive angels, and then he lifted up his eyes to see the three wayfarers. [Gen R. XLVIII:9]

My experience at Ostia and Abraham’s seeing the approaching men are experiences still missing complete commitment. Unlike Hagar, where things are impossible, there is faith, yet still some doubt. By that time I was privately exploring Judaism and Buber’s stories of the Hasidic masters. To actively join a community still seemed difficult for me. Yet the answer seemed much clearer after Italy: I needed to be involved. By Purim, I was attending a synagogue. A year after Ostia I signed up for a beginning Biblical Hebrew class at Spertus College. Abraham and I were alike: we were still working the path out. We needed a little help, and God was there to give that little extra push.

My Hebrew classes led me to take the plunge and enter the Spertus College’s Masters in Jewish Studies Program. It’s been a difficult program, not just in terms of the work load but in my personal, spiritual and professional life. The worst was during the doctoral level class on Jewish continuity. The numbers from the AJIS and NJPS are not very encouraging. Demographic trends put us nearer to museums and ruins, than a thriving culture. The scholarly literature claims the ones to blame the most are our own self destructive tendencies. I wrote the papers and got the A’s always wondering as I wrote if there really was any hope out there. One of these papers I wrote was a model for a new vision of a synagogue to combat the problems and reverse the trends. As I finished the final edits, I attended Shavuot services at a different synagogue, one I had been to only once before for a friend’s farewell party. The first time it did not make an impression. As I spent the evening through the night and then sunrise on a nearby beach at this Tikkun L’eil I lifted my eyes: With a few exceptions, this place was that model.

There are a lot of interpretations of the Akedah. Mine is that Abraham knew the outcome, and that Isaac would not be sacrificed, but he had to do the motions until he saw another solution – he was after the good grade here. That is why he says My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering; in Genesis 21:8. Yet he got to the mountain and didn’t see anything. He’s too busy making sure it all follows the correct procedure, to do what his teacher wanted, and at the same time wondering if there any way he doesn’t have to sacrifice his son. Things are not looking too good as he reaches for the knife…

10. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son 11. And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. 12. And he said, Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me. 13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[Genesis 22:10-13]

Abraham looked everywhere but behind himself. Only when the angel speaks for the first time, when all the procedures are done, and there is a bit of relief from this tension does he think to look behind himself and there waiting for him is the solution. We learn from the Perkei Avot that the Ram was put there at the twilight of the sixth day of creation.[5:6] The world which God gave us to steward has everything in it already, all we need to know is how and where to look.

When someone opens our eyes, like Hagar we are passive. When one lifts up the eyes it is a personal act, not completely an act of God. Sometimes we have help, sometime we do not. We need to do things to get to that point of opening the eyes, of revelation, of seeing miracle. Miracles are around all the time. The siddur I used at the first synagogue I returned to said it best to be is a miracle. Everything is miracles. If we know what to look for, we will see them appear.

Only after Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac, we read that the covenant, in the name of God will be fulfilled. It is only then that the trials of Abraham are over. Abraham and Sarah’s want of a child is only fulfilled after Abraham runs out to the strangers. Ishmael is spared dehydration only when Hagar fills a bottle and brings him a drink. It was taking the opportunity that the eyes found that was the key. In each of the three cases we can be given miracles, but what we do with them determines our outcome for the better. When they took action, then they graduated to the next level.

When we understand that, then we graduate. I graduated with a Jewish identity in July of 2005, I graduated into practicing Judaism in July of 2006. I learned a lot in the last few years. As I now graduate with my Master’s Degree, and look forward to July 2008 when I receive my Diploma officially, I now turn my eyes towards action. My learning can help me lift my eye to the opportunities and possibilities out there, but it is up to me to do something with it.

Shlomo Drash’s slogan from Brachot 62a was originally intended as a bit of ironic humor. It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn was the first passage of Talmud I ever learned, a joke talking about students barging into bathrooms to watch a teacher’s toilet habits. Yet as I learned in my last class at Spertus, it means something more*. It means that our actions are far more important than our words. As an educator, in everything I do from now on, my actions are critically important to the lesson. And so, with all seriousness I now can say:

It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn

*for the full unpacking of the text see the Unpacking Gemara page on