Posted by: Yael | July 18, 2010

Blessing for Torah Study

Posted by: Yael | September 2, 2011

Shoftim Revisited

Links to previous posts on Shoftim

Posted by: Yael | November 6, 2010

New Wells Out of Old

This weeks parashah contains the story of Isaac digging the wells his father had once dug.

Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.  (Genesis 26:18)

The daughter of friends had her Bat Mitzvah today and spoke on this verse, about how these wells would not have been exactly the same as Isaac’s father’s wells because the recreation is never exactly the same as the original.  She then spoke about how her own way of being Jewish ( something she will have to find out for herself), her own unique wells, that will not be exactly like those of her parents or siblings.

So…of course I have my own thoughts on this as well.  An interesting note, that the wells are not exactly the same but still carry the same names.  It made me think more about the idea of what is next in Judaism.  The sacrificial system would perhaps be the original wells, at least for us since this is where Torah begins, but when the first Temple was destroyed, these wells were filled in and we see the synagogue coming into being, we see prayer becoming more prominent within Judaism.

When the Temple was rebuilt, it wasn’t the same as the first.  There was a place for prayer included and when the priests finished offering their sacrifices they went to this place in the Temple and offered their prayers as well.  When this 2nd Temple was also destroyed, sacrifices were no more, the wells were once more filled in.  The sages re-dug them in a new way, with prayers and Torah readings totally taking the place of the sacrifices, yet they kept the names people were familiar with from the Temple.  Shaharit – morning sacrifices, Minchah – afternoon sacrifices, Musaf – the additional sacrifice on Shabbat, these names became the names of our prayers.  The images of the sacrifices, the words of the sacrifices, found their way into the siddur (order of services, prayer book).  The names were the same, but what they now referred to was not exactly the same any more.

Which brings me back to that question of what will come next, what might already be emerging from within the services with which we are so familiar?  What will Shaharit look like in 200 years?  What will the name refer to?  I wonder.  But, at the same time that I wonder, I also know it will relate in some way to what we already know.

There is a story in Talmud about Moses visiting the Beit Midrah of Rabbi Akiva:

Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [of R. Akiva’s disciples and listened to their discourses on law].  Not being able to follow what they were saying, he was so distressed he grew faint.  But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples asked R. Akiva, “Master, where di you learn this?” and R. Akiva replied, “It is the law given to Moses at Sinai,” Moses was reassured  (B. Menahot 29b).

The Beit Midrash was a well that had been re-opened a few times from the days of Moses; Moses didn’t recognize it anymore, but in the end he understood that it all led back to the same place.  He was reassured and went on his way.

And that’s how I view my life and the lives of my sons.  I continue to dig within the familiar to produce what is both familiar and different.  They , too, find their own ways, dig in ways that might resemble mine, in ways that I might not immediately recognize as resembling mine, and that this is how it should be.

Posted by: Yael | November 5, 2010

My D’var – The Akedah

Linked here.

Posted by: Yael | August 1, 2010

Overnight Journey Through Isaiah

I decided to read through the book of Isaiah last night, making note of various verses that caught my attention.  It was a quick trip, no in depth study; something I like to do on occasion just to get a feel for a book, just to see if there is anything that makes me want to do further reading or research.  What follows are notes from Isaiah 1-39. [Scholars contend Isaiah 40-66 was written by an unknown Deutero-Isaiah (2nd Isaiah)]

I found much on the topic of social justice:

Learn to do good.  Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.  Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.  (1:17)

Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.  (1:23)

Their partiality in judgment accuses them…Hail the just man, for he shall fare well (3:9,10)

Adonai stands up to plead a cause, Adonai rises to champion peoples. (3:13)

It is you [elders and officers] who have ravaged the vineyard; that which was robbed from the poor is in your houses.  How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?  says Adonai God of Hosts. (3:14-15)

And Adonai hoped for justice, but behold, injustice; for equity, but behold, iniquity!  (5:7)

Who vindicate him who is in the wrong in return for a bribe, and withhold vindication from him who is in the right. (5:23)

That it [David’s throne] may be firmly established in justice and equity now and evermore. (9:6)

Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land. (11:4)

I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant and humble the haughtiness of tyrants.  (13:11)

For You have been a refuge for the poor man, a shelter for the needy man in his distress. (25:4)

And the earth shall disclose its bloodshed and shall no longer conceal its slain. (26:21)

They [priest and prophet] stumble in judgment. (28:7)

Who cause men to lose their lawsuits, laying a snare for the arbiter at the gate, and wronging by falsehood him who was in the right. (29:23)

For Adonai is a God of justice (30:18)

Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and ministers shall govern with justice (32:1)

He [the knave] forges plots to destroy the poor with falsehoods and the needy when they plead their cause. (32:7)

Then justice shall abide in the wilderness and righteousness shall dwell on the farm land. (32:16)

Adonai filled Zion with justice and righteousness. (33:5)

One who spurns profit from fraudulent dealings, waves away a bribe instead of grasping it (33:15)

I can get behind this message:  the emphasis of our religion is to be on justice! What we are required to believe is that oppression must not be allowed to go on unchecked.  Talk is cheap, however.  How to get involved?  How to stay the course?  This requires something of me.  What do I have to give?  When do I have time to give it?  Working for a just society is not optional, yet how many are truly actively involved in this pursuit?

On the wealthy:

Stored wealth shall become as tow, and he who amassed it a spark; and the two shall burn together, with none to quench. (1:31)

Their land is full of silver and gold, there is no limit to their treasures…but man shall be humbled, and mortal brought low – Oh do not forgive them!  (2:7,8)

Ah, those who add house to house and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land! (5:8)

I wonder when  having wealth become a bad thing?  Abraham and Isaac are both spoken of as wealthy.  Torah claims God will reward the faithful with wealth. Perhaps the problem is ‘stored wealth’?  What good is this wealth doing anyone stored away like that?  Is it because the land was filled with silver and gold, but also poor widows and orphans?  Torah teaches we must take care of the poor, but also states that the poor will be with us always.  Must we give all our wealth to the poor who will ever be there in need?  Is it about taking more than our fair share?  What is considered ‘wealth’?

On idols, which seem to be related to wealth, usually described as being made of silver and gold:

The idols of silver and the idols of gold which they made for worshiping, (2:20)

You will treat as unclean the silver overlay of your images and the golden plating of your idols. (30:22)

For in that day everyone will reject his idols of silver and idols of gold (31:7)

I find interesting to contrast of these idols of gold and silver with the simple strings we are told to tie on the corners of our garments in order to remember the mitzvot given us by Adonai; the later so ordinary, the former so elaborate.   And why the repetition of the fact that these idols were made of silver and gold? Was part of the problem with idolatry this  waste of resources that needed to be put to better use in taking care of those in need, of providing resources for the betterment of communities?

On peace:

They shall never again know war. (2:4)

Wouldn’t that be something?  To never know war?  My kids barely remember us not being at war!  I grew up with Vietnam and the stories of WWII.

On lack of understanding, the passages quoted by some to explain why we Jews will not accept their beliefs:

Hear, indeed but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp.  Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears, and seal its eyes – lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself. (6:10)

Adonai said, Because that people has approached with its mouth and honored Me with its lips, but has kept its heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote – Truly I shall baffle that people with bafflement upon bafflement; and the wisdom of its wise shall fail, and the prudence of its prudent shall vanish. (29:13-14)

I find these passages quite tiresome, having heard them used against us way too many times.  I could turn the same words on others since they can’t seem to see what it is I see that makes me not believe I need to join their particular religion; all of us learn by rote at sometimes in our lives and what religion doesn’t contain some, if not all, traditions put in place by people, not found in any sacred text? Anyway, it sounds to me like an excuse for a failed prophet.  He went around telling people his message, they didn’t listen, so he claimed that’s how it was supposed to be!  Very convenient while at the same time being oh so pious sounding!

On God’s lack of justice:

That people’s leaders have been misleaders, so they that are lead have been confused.  That is why Adonai will not spare their youths, nor show compassion to their orphans and widows; for all are ungodly and wicked… (9:16)

Because the leaders didn’t do right, God is going after their kids and spouses? How is that justice?  From a human point of view I could say the leaders got what they deserved, they didn’t care about my family, why should I care about theirs?  But, shouldn’t part of religion be to try to refrain ourselves from that initial gut reaction?  To show compassion even to those who we don’t always want to feel compassionate towards?  When I watched the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” I did not care that the son of the Nazi head of a camp ended up in a gas chamber.  My reaction bothered me on a certain level, but I still did not care.  So many Jewish children murdered, throw the Nazi’s kid into the chamber and let his parent’s experience some of our pain!

The oppressed become oppressors:

And strangers shall join them and shall cleave to the House of Jacob.  For peoples shall take them and bring them to their homeland; and the House of Israel shall possess them as slaves and handmaids on the soil of Adonai. They shall be captors of their captors and masters to their taskmasters.  (14:1-2)

People join themselves to us and we make them our slaves and servants?  No restraint on revenge in these verses.

Chosen People:

Adonai will first afflict and then heal the Egyptians; when they turn back to Adonai, Adonai will respond to their entreaties and heal them.  In that day…the Egyptians together with the Assyrians will serve Adonai.  In that day, Israel will be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for Adonai Tzavot will bless them, saying, “Blessed by My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyrian, and My very own Israel.” (19:22-24)

For the earth was defiled under its inhabitants; because they transgressed teachings, violated laws, broke the ancient covenant. (24:5)

There is always this thread in Tanakh, of God not being our exclusive property.  I wonder what ancient covenant was broken?  Could it be the one with Noach?  Because what would our covenant at Sinai have to do with ‘the earth’?

Death as atonement:

“This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die,” says Adonai God of Hosts. (22:14)

These people didn’t need any sacrifice made for them, none would suffice anyway.  Their own deaths took care of their own sins.  Does this bother me that the most wicked people are forgiven just because they die?  No.  In Isaiah there was no concept of heaven or hell.  Dead people went to the grave and that was that.  What difference did it make to them if they were forgiven or not?  They were no more. Does it bother me from a more modern perspective that there is a heaven somewhere?  Maybe, but my perspective on what happens after we die is that it is totally unknown; my vague idea is that  evil people will be no more, the rest of us will be fine.

On Halakhah:

This is the road; follow it! (30:21)

The road we were taught to follow it one of mitzvot; this is repeated over and over throughout Tanakh. Some have tried to convince me that this repetition was only to teach us that it was impossible for us to walk that road so that we would be willing to walk another.  I would counter that only a sick person tells someone to follow a road that will lead to the destruction of that person, how much more so with God.

Just some random thoughts as I read.

Posted by: Yael | July 18, 2010

Central Worship and Idolatry

Prior to D’varim there was no requirement to bring sacrifices to a central location.  Instructions were given for offering sacrifices but not about location.  Now that changed.

Do not worship Adonai you God in like manner [at local shrines], but look only to the site that Adonai your God will choose amidst all your tribes as God’s habitation…There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices…(Devarim 12:4-6)

The Etz Hayim commentary points out that already here we see a moving away from the sacrificial system.

“It’s [Devarim’s] aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood.  It urges studying God’s law and performing rituals that teach reverent love for God.  These teachings probably laid the groundwork for nonsacrificial, synagogue-based worship.”
(Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 980)

Travel was not a simple thing in those days so the requirement to go to a central location meant sacrifices would not be offered that often, likely only during the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Those who lived far from the central location, which ended up being Jerusalem, would need some other way of making their connection to God so the author encourages Torah study.  (Prayer does not play much of a role in the five books.)

So, I was thinking about this…

How able was the average person to indulge in Torah study?  I doubt every household had a scroll at their disposal since this was long before the printing press came into existence.  Instead we see the requirement that the Torah be read aloud to all the people every 7th year.

Every 7th year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before Adonai your God in the place that God will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Devarim 31:10-11)

If a person only hears Torah read once every 7 years how much of it will they actually remember?  How many times would they hear it in their lifetime?  How were they supposed to study and thus stay connected to their God?

Is it any wonder so many instead worshiped at the local shrines used by the Canaanites?  Wouldn’t this requirement of a central location, which at first glance may have seemed like a good idea to reduce idolatry, actually cause it to increase?  I live far away from Jerusalem, I have only a vague memory of whatever that was read to me six years ago while I was busy running around taking care of my kids, yet I feel there is something beyond the mundane of my everyday life.  One of my neighbors invites me to worship with her at a nearby place.  She tells me I can even set up a similar space by my own house!  I’m not some evil person deliberately defying the God of my people, I’m not some whore, I’m just an ordinary mother reaching out to the divine in the only way I am able.

After the 1st Temple was destroyed, according to Tanakh as punishment for our idolatry, we never again strayed down that path.  Some would say it is because we learned our lesson while in exile, to be faithful to Adonai alone, but I would point to a different reason, in line with what I have already pointed out.  While we were in exile the synagogue came into existence; synagogues that could be found anywhere and everywhere; while in exile prayer rather than sacrifice became the accepted means of connecting to God.  Synagogues became places for praying, socializing, studying.  Synagogues were merely the acceptable  ‘local shrine’ where people could experience the divine.

People’s desires never changed, they just wanted some place nearby where they could gather with others to express their sense of the divine in their lives.  When their religious leaders insisted on controlling everything themselves, when they insisted everyone had to come to them to meet God, people found their own ways.  When the stranglehold on God was loosened, at least somewhat, idolatry went away.

Just my thoughts as I go beyond the surface to ‘what must it have been like’.

Posted by: Yael | July 6, 2010

What is the story of Ruth?

Is Ruth a nice story of an outside becoming and insider, a story of the first convert, a simple children’s story?  Or is there much more to it than that?

I wonder when was the book of Ruth was actually written?  The book itself claims the story took place during the time of the Judges, but the style of the story is quite different from Judges.  Judges is filled with violent scenes, Ruth is quite pleasant, no wars to be found.  Dr Tikva Fymer-Kensky notes in her book, Women of the Bible,  that the themes in Ruth actually are more in line with the time of the return from exile rather than the time of the Judges.  She notes the following:

Naomi talks about her bitterness, God afflicting her and God continuing to show lovingkindness to her.  This is a familiar theme of the prophets.

The story of Ruth centers around leaving family property and later getting it back; Ruth has such property rightfully belonging to those who left and returned.

Dr. Tikva Frymer Kensky points out two main questions form Ruth:

  1. What would be the relationship between those who returned from exile and those they brought back with them from Babylon who had not originally come from Judah?
  2. What would be the relationship between those who returned from exile and those who had remained in Judah for those past two generations?

Ezra and Nehemiah answer these questions by saying that foreign wives must be divorced and sent away and that those who stayed in the land are not ‘real’ Jews and therefore not part of the community.

Isaiah has a different response (Isaiah 56:6-7) when he says that foreigners who attach themselves to God and Israel are not to be separated out.

Malachi gets after the men for marrying foreign wives but even more so for divorcing them.  ”Do not abandon the wive of your youth.” (Malachi 2:14-16).

And then there is Ruth’s response, as explained by Dr. Frymer-Kensky:

The telling of the Ruth and Naomi story in the paradigmatic, even allegorical fashion of the book of Ruth should best be seen in the context of these issues.  On all of them, the book’s views could not be more radically different from those of Ezra and Nehemiah.  In the book of Ruth, after all, all three communities – the kinsman in the land (Boaz), the returning Israelite (Naomi), and the returning Moabite wife of an Israelite (Ruth) – are all faithful to the name and memory of the old king [In Hebrew Elimelech means My God is King], and it is the cooperation among all three that leads to the continuation of the line of those who stayed in the land and those who had gone into exile.  In the way, the ancestry story and the genealogy of the great king of Israel’s past point the way toward the nation’s glorious future.  (pp. 255-256)

When looked at from another angle this simple story becomes quite profound and reminds me why I continue to study.  I’ve known the surface stories for decades, but I’m only beginning to see what has been hidden from me by translation and assumptions.

Posted by: Yael | May 20, 2010

Ruth and Naomi

When Naomi returns home after spending 1o years in Moab, she speaks with great bitterness about what has happened to her.  She claims she went out full and came back empty.  What does this mean when we know she, her husband and sons left because of a famine in the land?  How is this leaving full?

Perhaps they did leave full.  They still had wealth that would have been  greatly diminished if they had stayed and been pressured to take care of those around them in need.

Perhaps this indicates a change of perspective on the part of Naomi, a change that came about as the result of losing her husband and sons.  When they were gone she realized that even though they had arrived in Moab as refugees, they had arrived as a family and thus they had what really mattered most in life.

Naomi made the decision to leave Moab and began the journey with both daughters-in-law but then somewhere along the way she encouraged them to return to their families.  What happened to bring about this change?

Perhaps the girls had never been away from home before and quickly became homesick?

Perhaps Naomi realized it wasn’t going to be so easy returning home accompanied by foreign women her sons had married?

Perhaps as they began the journey Naomi was reminded of how hard it had been for her to make a new life in a strange land and wanted to spare the girls having to go through this?

Naomi seemed to have no vision of life in Israel for these girls unless she, Naomi, could herself bear future husbands for them.  (Why?  When she returned home she didn’t have any trouble finding a rich kinsman and there was also that other guy who declined to marry Ruth.)

The book of Ruth begins with the death of Naomi’s husband and son, yet makes no mention of mourning.  Perhaps this explains why that although Naomi is depicted as a decisive woman who leaves Moab with two daughters-in-law, but who then decides they’d be better off without her, seems to collapse when she arrives home so that we see Ruth taking over doing what needed to be done to survive.   Naomi could not mourn in a strange place but could only mourn when she returned home.  So, her arrival is marked by this seeming collapse because finally Naomi is free to mourn.  Ruth loves her mother-in-law and takes care of things for the two of them while Naomi goes through mourning rituals.  Yes, Naomi speaks bitterly of her losses, that is part of the mourning process.  She wasn’t a bitter woman, she was mourning.

(And one added comment by Rabbi that gave me a good laugh:  Ruth labored so diligently in the fields because she had that good protestant work ethic!)

Wish there had been more time to dig into this story, but each teacher is given just an hour.  We do enjoy bringing these stories and people to life!

Posted by: Yael | May 9, 2010

Did Sarah and Abraham Sin?

Rabbi Shai Held is teaching at shul this weekend as our Scholar-in-Residence; Scholar-In-Residence weekend being an annual tradition at our shul.

Friday night we had services, then dinner and ended up with a short talk from Rabbi Held about his work with Mechon Hadar.  I enjoyed hearing him talk, he was straight forward, not pulling any punches; he had a good sense of humor and a real passion for liberal Judaism.

On Saturday he spoke as part of morning services and then taught a class in the afternoon on Sarah, Abraham and Hagar.  I’m including a few thoughts he presented that stuck with me.

Abraham’s sin:  When Abraham prayed for Avimelekh all the women in Avimelekh’s household conceived (Genesis 20:17).  By doing this Abraham showed he had the ability to pray for infertile women so that they conceived, yet he did not do so for his own wife!  Later on Isaac prayed for Rebekah in Rebekah’s presence, thus treating his own wife much better than his mother had been treated.

There is this sense in Torah that perhaps Sarah was fearful that she was being left out of the covenant.  When God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son, Abraham asked why the covenant couldn’t be with Ishmael (Genesis 17:18).  It seems Abraham didn’t even tell Sarah what God said because when she heard this news from inside her tent she laughed.  If she already knew the promise, why would she have laughed?  The angel asked Abraham where is Sarah, this ‘where’ (אַיֵּה) in Hebrew is used to mean the person isn’t where they are supposed to be (Genesis 18:9).  Sarah should have been there with Abraham, she should have known what was going to happen so that the angel could talk to both of them, yet only Abraham was there.  Later Abraham doesn’t tell Sarah about the Akedah (Genesis 22), maybe isn’t even all that bothered about the Akedah, because perhaps even now his desire is for the covenant to be given to Ishmael.

The word used for Sarah oppressing Hagar (Ha-ger – the stranger) is the same used in Exodus for our oppression in Egypt.

The first word the angel says to Hagar is her name, Hagar (Genesis 16:8).  Abraham and Sarah never call her by name.  (An African-American scholar theorizes that the reason African-Americans often strive to come up with unique names for their children is a legacy of slavery.  I do have a name and it is mine alone.)

Sarah’s sin: She overestimated what she could handle and thus set herself up for a great fall.  If she had known herself better she would have realized there was no way she could graciously handle her husband having a son with someone else.  Thinking too highly of herself, she set in motion events that would cause her to abuse another human being.  There is nothing wrong with setting the bar high in order to spur ourselves on to achievement, but we have to be realistic about our limits.  Better to realize I’m not strong enough to handle this so we won’t go that way.  This realization brings me down a few pegs in my mind perhaps, but also keeps me from overreaching and ending up hitting rock bottom.

Torah is filled with real people; people with good sides and bad sides just like us.  Torah lives and teaches; Torah allows us to relate.

When I participate in classes such as these I am reminded of why I am Jewish; I truly love the total honesty with which we study at our shul; I love the way  we become engaged with the stories, how we pull out truths for our own day, for our own people, for our own lives.  It is an amazing thing.

Posted by: Yael | May 9, 2010

Hagar – One Amazing Woman

I have already mentioned before that Hagar is the only woman other than Eve who is spoken of as having seed, otherwise seed is a uniquely male thing.  I have also already mention about Hagar being the first woman in Torah to address God, but what I had not noticed is that she is the only person in Torah to name God!  Can you imagine?  A slave girl, not Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Moses named God!   The verse where she names God, El Ro’i, God who sees, is a strange verse since Hagar then goes on to say she meant by this that she had been seen by God (Genesis 17:13).  This confusion makes sense to me because it is a complex thing for one who has been abused to be seen and allow herself to be seen.  Perhaps when she realized God actually saw <em>her</em> she was comfortable enough to allow herself to be totally seen, making no attempt to hide. 

This had to have had a profound effect on her because when she was told to return to an abusive situation, she returned.  I think what made her realize God had seen her was when God told her to return to Sarah and submit to her ill-treatment (Genesis 17:9).  This is a troubling statement of course, but it must have been affirming to Hagar to hear God say she had indeed been abused; God did not defend Sarah, nor whitewash Hagar’s plight. 

The text does not say, but I hope even as God visited Hagar, God also visited Sarah and set her straight about her treatment of Hagar!  There is a hint that perhaps this was so.  The next place we hear of Isaac after he came down from the mountain after the Akedah, is at the place of Hagar, Be’er-lachai-ro-i (Genesis 24:62).  It seems Isaac had some affection for ‘the other woman’, the mother of his brother.  He didn’t go to the place where his own mother was, Hebron (Genesis 23:1), nor the place where his father was, Beersheva (Genesis 22:19), he instead went to Hagar.  Then again, perhaps she was the one he went to for comfort because he knew of her abuse and she would understand his?

Life as depicted in Torah is complicated.  Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad; if a person reads through Torah trying to separate these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, they totally miss the wonder of Torah.  I was reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Heavenly Torah” where he quotes, ‘Torah was not given for fools’ (p. 713) No it wasn’t, but unfortunately many fools have taken hold of it and claimed it as their own text; fools who push Hagar into a category marked ‘bad’ and who thus miss that she is actually one truly amazing woman.

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