Archive for October, 2012

October 31, 2012 11:27 pm CDT

Vayeira (Genesis 21)–The Abandonment of Ishmael

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and gave her the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.     (Genesis 21:14)

Twice in this parsha, Abraham, under instruction from God, puts his son in mortal danger. The second, better known instance occurs in the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).  But it also occurs here, in the preceding chapter, which we could call the abandonment of Ishmael.  In both cases, Abraham rises early in the morning, and arranges provisions for a journey. In both cases, the boy is saved when the Angel of YHWH calls out to the his parent (in this case, Hagar,  Ishmael’s mother), and offers a way out of what had seemed to be an inevitable doom.

These and other parallels are obvious, although I hadn’t noticed them before.   That said, I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of them. What do you think?

October 31, 2012 11:22 pm CDT

Vayeira (Genesis 22)–The Story of Isaac

Rosh HaShanah, 5772 (2011)

It had been a beautiful service, highlighted by the opportunity to make musical prayers with Rabbi Jim. Now it was time for the Torah reading, so I made my way to the back of the sanctuary. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this part of the service. The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the binding of Isaac. And with that reading comes the inevitable painful questions: how could a father be willing to kill the son he loves? How could God ask this of anybody?

Jim chanted the Torah as he often does, punctuating the Hebrew with translated English phrases that are also chanted. He read the entire story with an energy that took up the sweep of the tale, that forestalled questions of meaning and motivation in favor of the simple question, “what happens next?” I had never been so aware of this story as a story.

Afterwards, I told Jim how much I appreciated the narrative quality of his reading.  He told me that he was mindful of having read it as a story, something that, as he put it, “has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Does the end satisfy?  Does it justify what has come before?  One can imagine this experience as a trauma from which the family never recovers, and this has been done from the midrash to Kierkegaard.  But that morning, I was, unaccountably, content with the simple happy ending of the narrative’s surface.  There was nothing profound about it.  But sometimes the fact that things have worked out is the only explanation you have.

October 25, 2012 1:44 am CDT

Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17): Walk in My Presence

YHWH appeared to Avram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai; walk in my presence and have integrity.”  (Gen. 17:1)

God’s covenant with Abraham has, up to this point, simply been a matter of divine promise. Now, for the first time, we are introduced to Abraham’s side of the covenant. In two very short phrases, we are given the categories of holiness and morality that will be adumbrated in detail at Sinai.

“Walk in my presence.”  Are we not always in God’s presence, now and at every moment?  But we forget.

Our awareness of God is often obscured by routine.  Perhaps this routine is necessary to get things done, to prevent us from being continually stupefied by the fact that we are capable of thought, of appreciating beauty . . . , in short, that we ARE.   But we must not let such practical considerations cut us off essentially from wonder, which is the root of awareness of God.

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted.  Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of all sin.”  So writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, an unsurpassed exponent of wonder.  For Rabbi Heschel wonder, or “radical amazement,” is essential for “an authentic awareness of that which is; it refers not only to what we see but also to the very act of seeing, as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.”

Perhaps for this reason, the Rabbis took a slightly different view of the Ten Commandments than their predecessors. Rather than understanding its first words, “I am YHWH your God,” as a prologue, they counted them as the first commandment, according to which we are responsible for awareness of God.


October 25, 2012 1:32 am CDT

Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17): A Sensitive Subject

“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, so that it may serve as a sign of the covenant between me and you.”  (Gen 17:11)

There are some wonderfully primitive things about Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the rams horn, one of the oldest and least sophisticated instruments around. On Sukkoth, we shake a bundle of branches East, South, West, North, up, and down.

Then there are other things that are undeniably primitive, yet perhaps not so wonderful. To me, circumcision is one such custom. Actually, it’s more than a custom, it’s a mitzvah, a command.  I agree with Reb Zalman Schacter Shalomi, for whom circumcision is a prime example of a choq (pl. chuqim), a Hebrew word often translated as “statute,” but which later Jewish tradition construed as a particular category of divine command, unalterable and inexplicable.

For Reb Zalman, chuqim ask for “a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own. Though chuqim can be so hard to accept, they are also the level of mitzvah that I would be most afraid to tamper with, for I have found that they touch much deeper preverbal levels . . . . As sorely tempted as we may be too sometimes rewrite or simply jettison these mitzvot altogether, I don’t think any practice we would make up today – having vetted it for respectability and confirmation to our modern views – could touch us in so deep a way.”

Regarding circumcision, Reb Zalman continues, “All the explanations and all the meanings shatter at the rock of “how can I do this to my son?” This practice cannot be logically defended. I have such trouble with it, have wrestled with it, and yet I feel more commanded with this than I feel with any other mitzvah. I couldn’t do it unless I felt so commanded. It counters so many things that I believe – yet I’m convinced that the transmission would be lost for uncircumcised Jews, that we would lose them. This is raw soul to raw body, without the mind intercepting.”  (Jewish with Feeling, 138).

October 17, 2012 5:48 pm CDT

Noah (Gen. 11): Scattered

The story of the Tower of Babel Bears witness to the unfulfilled promise of humanity. We can’t get together, so we can’t get it together. Separated by distance, separated by language, we can’t get it together.

The book of Genesis attributes this to God by means of a myth. The book of Ecclesiastes attributes this to God by means of an aphorism. God, says Koheleth has “extended human consciousness over the course of time, but in such a way that they cannot figure out the work of God from the beginning to the end.” (3:11) We can’t pool our collective wisdom. It too is scattered, like the builders of the tower. And even if we could somehow summon all of it up, what mind would be capacious enough to hold it?

Rejoice and do good, Koheleth concludes. That’s all you can do.


October 17, 2012 5:46 pm CDT

Noah (Gen. 11): On Making a Name

“Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4)

Many interpreters have pointed out that this failed attempt of the tower builders to make a name for themselves in Chapter 11 is followed immediately by God’s promise to Abraham to make his name great in chapter 12. The easy homiletic ploy would be to talk about the failure of doing things without God and the success of doing things with God. But If you believe, as I do, that “it’s all God,” that God is the stuff of which all things are made, then one never really does anything without God.  I’ll try another tack.

Perhaps what is misguided about the attempt of the builders to make a name for themselves is the belief that they can create an identity simply out of one project, and not out of the total fabric of their lives. On this reading, the tower is a big tall skyscraping mask.

As it happens, the Babylonians did create a name for themselves. They achieved fame with something called the “hanging Gardens.”   Archaeologists have recovered many of their stories and their laws.   The even left us towers, complete, intact, known as ziggurats.  This civilization is still known.  But because of the Bible, what is most known about them is the way that they subjugated and humiliated other peoples, especially the Jews, exiling their population, burning their temple to the ground.  The name of that they made for themselves will always be associated with phrases like “the Babylonian exile ” “the Babylonian destruction,” and, in Christian Scriptures, “the whore of Babylon.”

The error is not trying to make a name for oneself with one’s deeds. The error lies in thinking that we can pick and choose which deeds we want to be remembered for and conveniently forget the others.   As Emerson writes, “the lesson that these observations convey is, Be, and not seem. . . . If you would not be known to do anything, never do it.”

And what about Abraham? What does it mean that God makes Abraham’s name great?  I remember my undergraduate philosophy professor, Louis White Beck, lecturing about Spinoza, and saying that the problem with Spinoza was that his philosophy was in a way too perfect, too self-contained. He said that Kant, by contrast, left much more in his work for others to finish, and that that was an important reason why Kant was better-known.

So it is with Abraham. God makes Abraham’s name great by deferring the fulfillment of the promise to countless generations. What we see of Abraham’s mortal life, the span of his days, is only a seed, a bare beginning.  The names of Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs are fleshed out and augmented by succeeding generations.  This is what Rabbi Abraham Heschel meant when he wrote that “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not principles to be comprehended, but lives to be continued.”


October 11, 2012 10:58 am CDT

Bereshit (Gen. 5:1-6:8): A Great Principle

This is the book of the generations of Adam (Gen. 5:1)

 “‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva says: This is the greatest principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says; ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5:1) is a greater principle.”  Sifra

It’s good to be back with you in 5773; this year we’ll focus on the final third of each parsha.  I’m using a three year lectionary that divides each parsha into thirds; for more on that click the “about” tab on this blog.

In singling out Lev 19:18 as the greatest principle of the Torah Akiva is following centuries of Jewish tradition, going back before the Rabbis, before Jesus.* Ben Azzai counters with Gen 5:1, the heading for a genealogy, a verse that couldn’t be more prosaic.   Why?

Well, for one thing, “neighbor” in the context of Lev 19:18 probably referred to a countryman, a fellow-Jew.  Ben Azzai wanted something more inclusive, something that encompassed all humanity.  Another rabbi drew a correct inference from Ben Azzai’s statement: If another person has put you to shame, you must not say, let that one be put to shame.

When Gen. 5:1 is elevated to the status of “a great principle of the Torah,”  the phrase “The Book of the Generations of Adam” becomes a name for the entire Torah itself.    Thus, Ben Azzai directs us to read Torah as not simply Israel’s story, but the story of humanity, a story where the losses and the lessons are common to humankind.

*It’s singled out, for example, in the Book of Tobit (4th cent. BC) and the Book of Jubilees (3rd-2nd cent. BC)

October 11, 2012 10:42 am CDT

Bereshit (Gen. 5:1-6:8): A Red Herring

The Lord saw that great was the evildoing of man on the earth, and that every scheme of his heart’s devising [yetzer] was only evil, all the time.   

yetzer can refer to a physical form; the root is often used for the process and product of making pots.  Here, what we are forming are plans, designs—and there is something invariably crooked about them.

This verse is a locus classicus for the rabbinic concept of the yetzer ha-ra, often translated the “evil inclination.”  Our bent is – bent.

This indictment of human nature is given in Genesis as the reason for the flood.  And since this is a perpetual fact of human nature, any calamity, big or small, can be explained as a punishment for sin.

But at the end of the story, when God smells the aroma of Noah’s sacrifice, this same fact of human nature is presented, not as a motive for punishment, but as a mitigating circumstance, as God reflects, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth.”

So it appears that the appropriateness of reward or punishment is in the eye of the beholder–the beholder being God (if we’re speaking of the story), the anonymous authors of Genesis (if we’re speaking of the storytellers), or . . . us.  We seek to avoid calamity and find meaning.  This isn’t wrong; it’s a glory of the human condition, though sometimes a bittersweet one.  But it can at times lead us to paint an angry face on reality, an image that’s simply a projection of our frustrations and fears.

So as I re-approach Torah this year I find two signposts.  One points out a path to travel– the principle that Torah is a human story, one that applies on its deepest levels to all.  The other warns of a path to avoid–the simplistic lens of reward and punishment.