Sunday, October 26, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 1, 2014 Lech-Lecha

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lech-Lecha (Get thee out)
12:2 - 17:27 Bereshit (Genesis)

Lech-Lecha is the third sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the fifth and sixth Hebrew words in the first sentence of the sedrah.  “And the Lord said unto Abram:  Get thee out (Lech-Lecha) of thy country.…”  It is the first in a series of three weekly readings that deal with the life of Abraham.  The sedrah covers a lot of ground.  At the same time, the text is spare and almost cries out for interpretation.  So let’s look at some of the major items covered in the narrative and then touch on at least a few of the many messages (see Themes below) contained in this portion.

12:1-9 The initial travel to and through Canaan.
The trip appears to come without warning.  However, if we look back to the penultimate verse of No’ach (“And Terach took Abram his son…and they went forth from Ur of the Chaldees to go unto the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.” 29:31), we might have caught at least a hint of the trip.  The sedrah gives us no reason why God selected Abraham to make the trip.  The only thing we know about Abraham is that he was 75 years old.  At least with Noah, we knew that he was chosen because he was a righteous man in his generation.  All that we know of the character of Abraham we must deduce from events that unfold over the next several chapters of Bereshit.

12:2 "And I will make of you a great nation…."
This is the first in a series of promises that God repeats to Abraham throughout this sedrah.  In 12:7, "To your offspring I will give this land.…"  In 13:14-17, God adds the promise of numerous offspring to the promise of the land.  This series of promises reaches a climax in 15:1-12 with the “Covenant between the Parts,” 15:17-20 and 17:1-8 when God changes the first patriarch’s name from Abram to Abraham.  Almost from the start, the Torah shows us that Judaism rests on the three elements:  Revelation, Covenant and Land.

12:10-17 Abraham and Sarah journey to Egypt because of a famine.
This journey reinforces the concept that the travels of Abraham presage the travels that will be taken by the Jewish people in future generations.  It is here that Abraham instructs Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his "sister."  The Plaut Chumash provides an explanation of what that term meant in ancient times.  Most commentators are perplexed by what appears to be Abraham’s dissembling if not outright lying.  The episode raises the question if it is ever acceptable to tell a lie.

13:1-4 Abraham returns from Egypt.
Abraham returns to Canaan laden with gifts from a grateful Egyptian king.  This presages the experience of the Israelites who will depart from the land of bondage laden with wealth offered up to them by their former Egyptian masters.

13:5-9 Lot and Abraham go their separate ways.
This brief passage offers us a lesson on the importance that Abraham and therefore all Jews place on the need for peace in the household.  He deferred to his younger kinsman, letting him make the choice.  This passage also offers a lesson on the relationship between materialism and immorality.  Lot chose a place of ease even though he knew it to be place of questionable moral standards.

14:1-24 The War of the Kings or the Rescue of Lot.
To some, this story seems out of place; almost an interruption in the narrative.  Furthermore, Abraham seems to be on the side of leaders of Sodom which Abraham has previously been told is an evil place.   Maybe it is here to show another facet of Abraham’s personality.  He is not some wimpy, marginal figure.  Here he is an imposing man of substance, a man of action.  He answers Cain’s question about am I my brother’s keeper in the affirmative by going to war to rescue his kinsman.  The first Jew teaches all Jews a sense of responsibility for our co-religionists.  Throughout the ages, Jews have sought to rescue their brethren from captivity and harm.  This has included special funds to ransom travelers taken by brigands during the Middle Ages to Operation Joseph in our own time.  (No, the text does not state this and the ancients may not have meant it this way but that does not make the lesson any the less valid.)

15:13-16 A glimpse into the future.
This is a most disquieting interlude.  God tells Abraham not to worry.  He will die in peace at a ripe old age.  But his offspring are going to be slaves for more than four hundred years.  Personally I find Abraham’s silence a lot more puzzling than I do his behavior when it comes time for the binding of Isaac in the next sedrah.  Why did he not plead for his descendants?  Why did he accept this enslavement with silence?

16:1-16 The whole chapter is devoted to Hagar and Ishmael.
The relationship with Hagar is a study in contradictions.  God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Yet he still has no children.  Is his mating with Hagar an example of Abraham’s lack of faith in God?  Does he have to respond to his wife’s apparent barrenness like any mortal and co-habit with somebody who can give him an heir?  Considering the events that follow Hagar’s pregnancy, this interpretation provides an excellent lesson in what happens when we become impatient waiting for the divine plan to reach fruition.

17:9-14 and 17:23-27 The Brit or Circumcision.
Both Plaut and Telushkin provide brief, yet complete discussions on the origins of the ritual.  Its true origins are lost to antiquity.  Suffice it to say this ritual has been a critical aspect of Judaism since ancient times.  When the Syrians and Romans banned the practice, Jews risked death to follow the commandment of the Brit.  Attempts by some early Reform leaders to abolish the commandment were no more successful.  The Brit is not just a sign of our covenant with God.  The Brit is a symbol of a four-thousand-year-old heritage reaching back to the first patriarch.  It is a symbol of our antiquity and our uniqueness.

17:15-21 God changes the first matriarch’s name from Sari to Sarah.
He promises this 90-year-old woman with the 100-year-old husband that she will have a son.


2. The commandment of circumcision (17:10).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Customs and Ceremonies
The Brit Milah or Covenant of Circumcision is performed on the eighth day because Bereshit 17:18 states “…every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”   Why wait eight days?  The text does not say.  Some commentators contend that the hiatus between birth and brit is tied to the story of Creation, which took seven days.  The child is named at the time of the brit because Abram became Abraham at the time of his circumcision.  In the first part of the Amidah we say, “Blessed are You, Lord Our God, shield of Abraham.”  This concept of God as shield (as in protector) comes from this sedrah when God says, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you…” (15:1).  Those who have re-written the Amidah and invoked Sarah at this point must have chosen to overlook the Biblical text.  The Hebrew word for shield is “Magen,” which most of you connect with Magen David, the six-pointed star.  In An Ancestral Fragrance, Stuart Schoffman reminds us that “nothing…is unchangeable - nothing except the covenant, the brit, carved as it is into the flesh of Abraham’s descendants, blood relative and convert alike.”  Rabbi Akiva was asked by a Roman why males are born with foreskins if foreskins are made to be removed.  The rabbi replied, “Because man is required to improve upon nature.”

Name changes often indicate a change in character or responsibility.  Among the Patriarchs we go from Abram to Abraham and from Jacob to Israel.  But Isaac gets his name from God and his name never changes.  Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, also gets his name directly from God.  Ishmael means “God hears.”  In 14:13, the text identifies the first patriarch as “ha-ivri” or the Hebrew.  This is the first use of this term and should put to rest the claims that others would like to make that Abraham was something other than the first Jew.  In 15:8, Abraham becomes the first person to address God as “Adonai” or in English, my Lord.  “And he said, ‘O Lord God (Adonai), how shall I know.…’”

The name of the sedrah has several translations.  Each translation provides a different insight into the sedrah.  There is the common "Get thee out", which is seen as God commanding an obedient Abraham to leave his native land and go to Canaan.  There is "Go for yourself", which implies that Abraham should make this journey for his own benefit i.e., if you go to Canaan you will be the father of a great nation that will inherit that land.  One more is "Go to yourself", which speaks to the inner or spiritual nature of the journey.  In other words, life is made up of two aspects - the outward physical aspect and the inward spiritual aspect.  Part of the purpose of man’s journey through life is to bring harmony between the spiritual (higher level) and physical (mundane) aspects of life.

Abraham was the first of the three Patriarchs.  They are critical figures in the lives of the Jews.  After all, we invoke their names every day when we recite the Shemoneh Esray or Amidah.  What was the nature of Abraham?  He was brave enough to leave his home and all that he knew to go to a strange and possibly less civilized place.  He was human enough to dissemble to the Egyptians when he thought his life was in danger.  He was courageous enough to go to Lot’s rescue.  He was a man of peace as we can see by his giving Lot first choice as to who would live where.  Was he the first monotheist, as we are taught in Sunday School?  No less an authority than Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says Abraham was not.  According to Steinsaltz, monotheism was the natural order of man’s belief.  Idolatry was a descent from man’s original monotheism.  Abraham was in effect practicing Teshuvah (the act of returning).  When he left his native land to go to Canaan he was returning to the belief in one God that had previously existed.  Whether he was the first man to believe in ethical monotheism or whether he was returning to a long lost belief the question still is what made Abraham tick?  Why did he do it?  Did God find Abraham or did Abraham find God?  As to the nature of Abraham's God, that begins a whole new set of questions that we will ponder as we continue our future years of Torah study.

Hagar and Ishmael
Who was Hagar?  The text says she was an Egyptian maidservant.  Midrash claims that she was the daughter of Pharaoh, who gave her to Sarah because he thought she would be better off living with the virtuous Sarah than with Egyptian noblewomen.  Regardless, she was never Abraham’s wife.  Ishmael was Abraham’s first son.  But when Abraham asks God to protect Ishmael so that he might inherent from him, (17:18) God tells Abraham that Ishmael will not inherit the covenant.  Ishmael will have his own inheritance (17:20).  “But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac” (17:21).  Revisionist can spin to their heart’s content.  For once the text is quite clear as to who is to inherit what.

According to the commentators even the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, were capable of sin.  In commenting on the statement concerning their treatment of Hagar, “Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your maid is in your hands.’  Then Sarai treated her harshly.…” (16:6).  Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, says that Sarah “sinned by such maltreatment, and Abraham too by permitting it.”  Not only are we not supposed to abuse people, we cannot remain silent while others engage in such behavior.

Age and Change
“Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.”  Considering all that we do not know about Abraham, why are we told his age and what is the significance of his beginning his trip at such an advanced age?  Some people, like some characters in the Bible, know what they are to do with their lives from the outset.  Consider King David.  Samuel anointed him when he was a youth.  His whole adult life was devoted to fulfilling the role of becoming King of Israel.  Other people move smoothly from one role to the next.  For example Joshua successfully fulfilled his role as Moshe’s assistant and then took on the mantle of leader in his own right.  Then are those for whom life is a series of ups and downs and ups again.  Consider Moshe.  First he was an Egyptian Prince.  Then he was a fugitive in Midian.  Finally, at the age of eighty, he rebounded as the man who saw “God in the face.”  Finally there are people like Abraham; people who think that life is done with them only to find out that they are about to embark on the greatest journey of their lives.  Abraham leaving Haran at seventy-five should be a reminder to us all that we are never too old to learn, to change and to grow.  No matter how old we are, we must listen for the call of Lech-Lecha, “go to yourself.”  We are never too old to seek our own authenticity, to be true to ourselves which for the Jew means being true to our heritage.  Only when we do this will we find our ultimate reward as Abraham did when he responded to the command of Lech-Lecha.

What Happened to the Converts?
“Abram took…the souls that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (12:5).  According to the commentators “the souls that they had acquired” refers to those who had converted.  The men converted under the tutelage of Abraham.  The women converted under the tutelage of Sarah.  We see an echo of this in the naming convention for those who convert.  They are always referred to as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah.  These newly minted followers of Hashem followed the first Patriarch and Matriarch to Canaan.  But what happened to them once they got there?  They do not seem to be around when we meet the next Patriarch, Isaac.

Rabbi Chanoch Henich HaKohen of Alexander, a 19th century sage, says they fell away from Hashem because of the difference in the nature of the first two Patriarchs.  Abraham epitomized the attribute of Loving Kindness.  Isaac epitomized the attribute of Strict Justice and Awe.  The converts were attracted by the former and put off by the latter.  They convinced themselves that Isaac was not as worthy a leader as his father so they returned to the ways they had follow before their encounter with Sarah and Abraham.  There is more than one lesson to be learned from this.  First, when there is a change in leadership, stick around.  If these ancient converts had, they might have come to see that even though Isaac differed from Abraham he was a Tzaddik in his own right.  Second, belief should not be tied to one leader.  Leaders come and go.  The teachings of the Lord are eternal.  Just because a Jew does not see eye to eye with a particular leader is no reason to walk away from the House of Israel.  Rabbi Chanoch lived for over seven decades and taught many lessons.  Here is one more example.  In Psalms, we read "The Heavens belong to God, and the earth He gave to humans." (Psalms 115:16)  Rabbi Chanoch takes this to mean, “The Heavens are heavenly in any event.  God gave the earth to humans so that they could make that which is worldly, heavenly.”  This is another twist on the basic concept of “elevating the mundane” that, among other things, gives rise to the multiplicity of blessings for the events of our daily existence.

Profiting at the Expense of Others
In the sedrah we find the line “And there was famine in the land” (12:10).  This line is echoed in the Shabbat prayers “In famine You have sustained us and in plenty You have nourished us.”  In a land beyond the Carpathian Mountains, there was a draught which led to a shortage of grain.  The local merchants jacked up their prices figuring to profit on the shortage.  Since it looked like the draught was going to last for more than one year, the merchants sold only some of their grain, thus making the famine even worse.  They figured that in a second year of shortage their stock of grain would be worth even more and they would become even richer.  Lo and behold, the rains came.  The drought was broken.  Instead of a famine, there was a bumper crop.  The merchants were left holding the bag.  They lost so much money on the grain that they had hoarded that all of the profit made during the draught was wiped out.  To make a profit is one thing, the Sages said.  To make a profit off of misery is another thing all together.

The Oleh and the Yorad
Zionists contend that Zionism is as old as Judaism.  As soon as Abraham heard the voice of God, he made Aliyah - he moved from his home to Eretz Israel.  He was the first Oleh, the Hebrew word for an immigrant to Israel.  But if Abraham was the first Oleh, he was also the first Yorad, the Hebrew word for a Jew who emigrates from Israel.  As soon as there was trouble in the land (in this case a famine) Abraham hit the road and headed for the wealth and comfort of Egypt.  Abraham, the man of character who followed the voice of God, immediately began betraying his values when he moved into Galut, in this case Egypt.  Like Jews who will be living in the Diaspora centuries later, Abraham had to lie and connive just to stay alive.  And, the Zionists would say, Abraham returned to Eretz Israel because it is only in his own land that he fulfilled his destiny.

Harbingers of Things to Come
Note the names of the places connected to the travels of Abraham described in this portion including Beth-El, Ai (12:8) and Hebron (13:18) to cite but three.  Some commentators cite these references as a link to the future of the Jewish people since each of them will play a prominent role in Biblical history.  Some of the critics who dispute the antiquity of the Biblical narrative contend that these names were inserted by later authors to create the semblance of connection between the Jewish people and the mythic figure of Abraham.

Historicity of the Abraham Narrative
Modern (19th century) Bible critics seized on the lack of non-Biblical evidence to support the stories in the Bible.  Twentieth century archaeologists, typified by W.F. (William Foxwell) Albright, the son of American Methodist missionaries, discovered whole hosts of evidence in their digs that indeed provided just such evidence, including the mention of places which Abraham had visited and written evidence of a legal and cultural civilization that had many similarities to what is described in Bereshit (Genesis).  Nobody has found a clay tablet that says “Abraham, the first Jew slept here” but they have found evidence that buttresses the antiquity of the narrative of the Patriarch.

The Tests of Abraham
This week’s portion is but the first of three weekly readings devoted to the life of Abraham.  We will wait until the last of three before analyzing the life and impact of Abraham.  However, you should note that this week’s reading begins a motif that will follow through all three readings - the difficult life of Abraham which some view as the tests of Abraham.  See how many things you can identify in this week’s reading that you would describe as Tzoritz (troubles) and the sages would have called Tests.  Abraham is the first of the Chosen People.  And then there is the old joke about the suffering Jew barely surviving in the Pale of Settlement who calls out to God, “Next time when you have to “choose” a people, could you choose somebody else?”

Circumcision: The Law v Reality/Food for Thought
In this portion we read “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.  And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.  …And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his king; he has broken My covenant.” (17:11-14)  But was this always the case?  Apparently not for in the Book of Joshua (5:2-9) we read about a mass circumcision ceremony that took place as the Israelites entered the Promised Land.  Apparently, none of the men who had been born during the forty years in the Wilderness had had a Brit.  And while you are pondering that one, consider that the sign of the covenant was made on the body of the male.  At the risk of offending anybody’s sensibilities or pre-conceived notions, this would seem to be grounds for the argument that among the ancients the rule was patrilineal rather than matrilineal decent since there is no similar ceremony for girls and women.  Maybe the Reform Movement was not so far off the mark in 1983 when it recognized patrilineal as well as matrilineal decent as a determining factor in establishing the Jewish identity of the children born in a “mixed marriage.”  Now that should give you something to talk about at your next Shabbat Kiddush!

Everybody has their favorite Jewish comedian or Jewish humorist.  Whether it is Shalom Aleichem, the man who gave us Tevye, or Jack Benny or Seinfeld or Adam Sandler - there is always some Jew who is making us laugh.  But where did all of this laughter come from?  Who laughed first?  According to Meir Shalev, the first laugh or laughs are found in Lech Lecha.  Laughter is the response of both the first Patriarch and the first Matriarch when each of them hears that Sarah will have a child.

In chapter 17, we read of Abraham’s response “And God said unto Abraham:  'As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.'  Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart:  'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'”

Then in chapter 18 we read Sarah’s response to the news.  “And they said unto him: 'Where is Sarah thy wife?'  And he said:  'Behold, in the tent.'  And He said:  'I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.'  And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. - Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. - And Sarah laughed within herself, saying:  'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?  'And HaShem said unto Abraham:  'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying:  Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is anything too hard for HaShem.  At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.'  Then Sarah denied, saying: 'I laughed not'; for she was afraid.  And He said:  'Nay; but thou didst laugh.'”

Note God’s reaction to each episode of laughter.  He really does not seem to be bothered by Abraham’s laugh.  But He sure does seem to be upset about Sarah’s laughter.  Strangely enough, God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed.  He does not ask Sarah.  God only speaks to Sarah about her laugh when the first Matriarch denies the sound of her mirth.  According to Shalev, this is not only the first laugh in the Bible; it is also the last laugh.  The only reminder of laughter is found in the name of their offspring, Isaac.  In Hebrew his name is Yitzchak translates as “he will laugh.”  Why does laughter disappear so quickly from the Biblical lexicon?  Was God so offended by the cause of the first mirth that He banned it from His book?  Now we have another topic to explore and to discuss over a Shabbat Kiddush.

One of the favorite aphorism in the world of Realpolitik is the “Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.”  It is a statement used to rationalize all kinds of alliances that often defy moral and ethical norms.  For example, in World War II, when England was fighting the Nazis without any allies and the Germans invaded Russia, Churchill was asked if he would make common cause with the Stalin and his Communists.  In explaining why he, a devout anti-Communist would ally himself with Stalin, Churchill said he would make a pact with the Devil if the Devil were fighting Hitler.  This week’s Torah portion offers a slightly different view of things.  When Abraham hears that Lot has been captured, he goes to rescue him which means fighting the enemies of Sodom.  But when the King of Sodom wants to strike up an alliance with Abraham, the Patriarch backs off.  The implication is that he knows that Sodom does evil in the sight of the Lord.  Attacking a common foe to free his kinsman does not mean that he wants to have anything to do with Sodomites or their King who appears to have been absent from the rescue mission.  It is a hard needle to thread, but Abraham is providing us with a warning that we should be wary of whom we join as allies; that their habits can become our habits.  Abraham would seem to have learned another lesson - he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas.

40:27-41:16 Isaiah

The Man/The Book:  The reading comes from the Second Isaiah or the Isaiah of the exile.  We have no biographical information on this remarkable author.  Based on statements in the texts and analysis of style and language all that we can say for sure is that he (or she for that matter), lived in Babylon among the Jews during the end of the Sixth Century B.C.E.  This corresponds to the rise of the Persians and the Medes who, under Cyrus would conquer Babylonia and end the First Exile.

The Message:  The prophet is reassuring the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity that God has not forgotten them and that He will redeem them.  He offers a message of optimism.  If the Jews grow weary, they only have to renew their faith in God and they will find rest and strength.  When faced with the challenges of life, the pagan fashions new and better idols.  The prophet calls upon the Jews to ignore these inanimate statutes and be faithful to the teachings of God.

Theme-Link:  In the sedrah, we see Abraham being chosen by God.  In the haftarah, the prophet says that God will remember the exiles because they are the “chosen, seed of Abraham My friend” (41:8).  Additionally, the prophet mocks those who make idols, a reminder of the Midrash about the occupation of Abraham’s father and what Abraham does to his creations.  Finally, the sedrah has God assuring Abraham of His protection, “I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you…” (12:3).  Isaiah invokes this same reassurance, “They who strive with you shall become as naught and shall perish…Less than nothing shall be the men who battle against you.” (41:11-12).

History and the Haftarah:  This year marks the 65th anniversary of Operation Magic Carpet, which began on November 8, 1949.  Operation Magic Carpet was the name given to the Israeli Airlift that flew 60,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel.  Golda Meir, who would eventually become Prime Minister of Israel, would go out to the airport and greet Israel’s newest citizens.  She said she marveled at their courage and endurance.  She asked one elderly chap if he had ever seen an airplane before.  He told her had not.  She asked him if was afraid.  He said he was not afraid.  After all, this had all been foretold in the Book of Isaiah.  “They shall mount up on wings of eagles.”  And then he stood there and recited the entire passage from Chapter Forty of the Book of Isaiah.  Part of this is found in this week’s haftarah, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles…”  If you can ever read this haftarah again without getting a lump in your throat, you are a better person than I am.

On a more poignant note, next month marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  Some would say that the difference between the fate of the Jews of Germany and the Jews of Yemen was the miraculous creation of the state of Israel.

Hollywood and the Haftarah:  You may remember the film classic Chariots of Fire about two English runners, one Jewish and one Christian, and the challenges they face because of their respective religious beliefs.  At one point, a competing American runner offers Biblical words of encouragement the origins of which are found in this week’s prophetic portion, “they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (40:31).

Hannah Senesh Shabbat:  Friday, November 7, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the murder of Hannah Senesh at the hands of her fascist captors.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if temples and synagogues all across the globe could dedicate their Shabbat Eve services to memorializing this marvelous young woman?  She not only embodied bravery, patriotism and loyalty to both her comrades in arms and the Jewish people, she left behind a corpus of poetry and song lyrics that have enriched us for decades.  Imagine the joy the heavenly hosts would feel if the whole House of Israel were to join in singing אלי, אלי.  It might serve as reminder that there is more that binds us together as the Jewish People than separates us as individual Jews.  “Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.”  For more see

Jewish Book Month is an annual event on the American Jewish calendar dedicated to the celebration of Jewish books.  It is observed during the month proceeding Hanukkah, thus the exact date changes each year.  In 2014, Jewish Book Month begins on November 16 and ends on December 16.  The Jewish Book Council is the driving force behind Jewish Book Month.  According to the Jewish Book Council “It is the only organization in the American Jewish community exclusively committed to promoting and advocating for Jewish literature.  The Council serves as a catalyst for the writing, publication, distribution, reading and public awareness of books reflecting the rich variety of Jewish experience.”

What is a Jewish Book?  Obviously our traditional texts such the Bible, the Talmud, Prayerbooks, Rabbinic commentaries (ancient as well as modern) are Jewish Books.  Then there are books by Jewish authors about Jewish topics such as Jewish history, Jewish customs, Jewish cooking and Jewish people (fiction as well as non-fiction).  They too would obviously qualify as Jewish books.  But what about books by Jewish authors about topics that are not Jewish.  For example, Leon Uris was a Jewish author who wrote Exodus, a novel about the creation of the modern state of Israel.  Obviously this would be a Jewish Book.  But what about Battle Cry a novel Uris wrote about Marines fighting in the South Pacific?  Is this a Jewish Book?  What about books by non-Jewish authors about Jewish topics?  John Hersey is not Jewish.  He wrote The Wall, one of the first and finest novels about the plight of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?  Is The Wall a Jewish Book?  While the answers to these questions are open to discussion, for our purposes any book by a Jewish author or on a “Jewish topic” will be considered a Jewish Book.  After all, why limit your choices, when there is so much out there waiting to fill your intellectual appetites?

Nobel Prize 2014:  This year there is additional excitement surrounding Jewish Book month because Patrick Modiano, a French Jew whose “novels are often set during the Nazi occupation of France, won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.”  For more see

Copyright; November, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Torah Readings for Friday October 24, Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan and Saturday, October 25, 2014 No’ach

Torah Readings for Friday October 24, 2014

Please note:  Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is a two-day Rosh Chodesh.  The first day actually falls on the 30th Tishrei.  The second day falls on the first day of Cheshvan.  The readings for Saturday, October 25, 2014, are adjusted for Rosh Chodesh i.e., a second scroll is read and a special haftarah is chanted.

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan
28:1-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

This is the standard reading for each Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future preservation.  Because of the Rosh Chodesh a shortened form of Hallel is recited.  Tefillin are worn until Mussaf or Additional Service.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have special meaning for women and should be used as a way of honoring Jewish wives.  There are those who use this as a gift-giving event for their spouses.  (Alternatively, they give Tzedakah in honor of the women (wives, sisters, daughters, etc.) in their lives).

Cheshvan is the second month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah and the eight month of the year from Pesach.  In one of those calendar related “tricks” designed to protect tradition, Cheshvan will have an extra day added to it to “prevent” the next Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday.  Cheshvan may be viewed as quiet month since it comes between Tishrei with its welter of celebrations and Kislev, the month containing Chanukah.  According to tradition, the Great Flood took place on the 17th of Cheshvan which corresponds to November 2, 1917, the date on which the Balfour Declaration was made public.

12th of Cheshvan (10/16/13):  Yarhrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin.
15th of Cheshvan (10/19/13):  Yarhrzeit of Matityahu; better known at Matthias, the man who started the revolt against the Syrians and was the father of Judah Maccabee.
16th of Cheshvan (10/20/13):  Yarhrzeit for those who perished during Kristallnacht.
20th of Cheshvan (10/24/13):  Yarhrzeit of Shalom Dov Ber, 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe.
For more see

Torah Readings for Saturday, October 25, 2014

First Scroll
No’ach (Noah)
6:9-11:32 Bereshit (Genesis)

No’ach is the second sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the third and fourth Hebrew words in the first sentence of the sedrah, “These are the generations of Noah (No’ach) - Noah (No’ach) was a righteous man.…”  No’ach can be translated as peaceful or resting.  Yaniach is a Hebrew derivative of No’ach and means to leave or let go.  What does the meaning of the name say about the character or role of the man?  No’ach is the last sedrah dealing with mankind in general.  The rest of Bereshit focuses on the Jewish people.  Major events in No’ach include the Flood, the Intoxication of Noah and Ham’s Sin, the descendants of Noah and the Tower of Babel.  It may be viewed as a second creation story.  Having failed with Adam and Eve, mankind gets a second chance.  This second chance also ends in failure as is witnessed by the building of the Tower of Babel.  The sedrah ends with a foretaste of the ultimate solution - the creation of a special relationship with a group of people who will take the divine message to the world.

The Flood (6:9-8:10)
Ample evidence exists to prove that there was some kind of flood.  Other civilizations have their flood stories.  The Biblical story is unique in that it ties this natural catastrophe to questions of good and evil.  The text says that Noah was a righteous man perfect in his generation.  The qualifying statement “in his generation” has led to two views.  One view is that he was not really all that righteous.  That he was righteous only in comparison to the evil people who lived at that time and that had Noah lived in another generation he might not have been regarded as righteous at all.  The other view was that Noah was really very righteous because he was able to be righteous while living among evil people.  The thought is that if he could be righteous while living in a truly evil generation, just think how much more righteous he could have been had he lived in a generation of decent human beings.  In deciding which view of Noah is more correct consider Noah’s silence when God tells him that He is going to destroy the earth versus Abraham’s noisy defense when God tells him that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  Here are a couple of other questions for your consideration.  First, if God had decided that the world was corrupt and needed destroying, why not just blow the whole world away and begin the process anew?  Why save the sphere and one family of its imperfect inhabitants?  Second why did God have Noah build an ark?  Certainly there were other ways that an all-powerful deity capable of flooding the entire world could have saved Noah’s family.  One answer to this might be that building the ark is consistent with the concept that man must be an active participant in what is called the on-going process of creation.  Man cannot rely on God to save him.  Rather man must do his share of the work to ensure the triumph of good over evil.

The Intoxication of Noah and the Sin of Ham (8:20-9:28)
No sooner does Noah get saved and offer up sacrifices to God for saving him than he plants a vineyard and gets drunk.  In other words, instead of enjoying the fruit of the vine, he abuses it.  This creates the environment (think back to our comments about Adam and Eve and the effect of parental behavior on the lives of children) that leads to Ham’s sin.  The puzzling thing is that the punishment is stated not in terms of Ham, but in terms of his son Canaan.  The positive note is that the other two sons found a way to honor their father despite his behavior.  Rabbi Schneerson (of blessed memory) uses this story as tool to teach about the proper way to correct mistakes.  His teaching includes the concept that sometimes what we see as most distressing in the behavior of others really mirrors a shortcoming of our own.

The Descendants of Noah (10:1-32)
The genealogy is split in two parts.  The first portion includes all of chapter ten and lists the descendants of all three sons.  The second portion starts 11:10 with Shem and one of his offspring Arpachshad and continues through to Abraham.  Just as Bereshit ends with a “teaser” by mentioning Noah, so No’ach with a teasing reference to Abraham who appears in the next sedrah.

The Tower of Babel (11:1-11-32)
This is a further attempt on the part of the ancients to explain how different nations came to exist.  This tale offers an explanation of why we have different languages.  At a deeper level, some see the story as raising questions about the use of technology.  Technology, in this case the ability that ancient man had gained to build sophisticated structures, is neutral.  It is how we choose to use the technology that makes it good or evil.  Others have also used this story to raise the question of “just because you can do something, does this mean you should do it?”


None of the 613 commandments appear in this sedrah.  However, the sedrah does supply a series of strictures and rules:
·        9:1: Noah and his sons are told to be fruitful and multiply.
·        9:3: Mankind is given permission to eat meat for the first time.
·        7:2 and 9:4: Together they provide a precursor to the Dietary Laws.  7:2 refers to “every clean animal…and of the animal that is not clean…” while 9:4 prohibits consuming blood when eating meat.
·        9:5: Prohibits murder.
The Seven Noahide Laws, which are the criteria for the “righteous non-Jew:”
1.      Denying God;
2.      Blaspheming the name of God;
3.      Murder;
4.      Sexual misconduct;
5.      Theft;
6.      Eating the limb torn from a live animal;
7.      Establishing a court system to ensure obedience to the other six laws.
(These are based on interpretation and not stated in the Torah).

Names of God
God is referred to both as Elohim and YHVH (the name we do not know how to pronounce).  Some contend that these differences exist because of different authorship.  Another explanation is that the different names are used when different attributes of God are being invoked.  Elohim invokes the image of God as Judge of the Universe.  YHVH invokes the image of God’s mercy and is used when referring to sacrifices as in 8:20 and 8:21.

Universality of God
God is the God of all mankind and not just of the Jews.  In Bereshit and No’ach, God deals with all men and women.  He addresses His first rules to the entire world.  As can be seen from the Noahide laws, Judaism differs from some other religions in that it believes that all righteous people will have their share in what we call “the world to come.”

God makes the first Covenant or Brit with Noah in 6:18.  “But I shall establish my covenant” is interpreted to mean that God will supply Noah with a year’s supply of food in the ark.  God makes the second Covenant (9:8-11) with Noah and all of the animals on the ark to never destroy the world by flood again.  The difference between these two covenants and the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (all of us) is that these are what are called unilateral contracts.  In other words, only God is promising to do something.  The “contract” with the Jews is bilateral or mutual.  In other words God promises to do something but we also promise to do something for the covenant to be binding or take effect.  (I apologize to any lawyers, if I have made a technical mistake in the terminology.)  The significance in the difference between these two types of covenants will be more apparent when we get to Lech-Lecha, next week’s sedrah.

The Teaser
Speaking of next week’s Sedrah, let’s take a look at the penultimate verse in No’ach 11:32.  “Terah took his son Abram…and…departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and they settled there.”  Why was Terah going to Canaan?  In the next Sedrah we find out why Abraham was going to Canaan.  (Abraham is the same person as Abram.  God changes his name later on.)  What made Terah stop his journey?  The impact of parental behavior on the lives of their children is a recurring theme in literature and modern psychology.  Was Abraham carrying out a journey that his father lacked the faith to continue?  Are all children carrying on journeys begun by their parents?

Second Chances
Is the story of No’ach an admission that somehow there were “mistakes” made at the time of creation?  According to Immanuel Jakobovits it would certainly seem so since God says “I will destroy them (mankind) with the earth.”  In case there is any doubt as to who is responsible for this imperfection, Jackobovits cites the verse from last week’s reading, “’And the Lord repented (yahinnahem) that He had made man on the earth and it grieved Him in His heart’ (Bereshit 6:6).  There is no hint here that man frustrated the Divine design.”  This is not the only indication of error and the need for the Creator to correct it.  In their interpretation of the sacrifice to be made each New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), the Rabbis note that it is called a “sin-offering unto the Lord.”  There are many sin offerings but this is the only one that adds the tag line, “unto the Lord.”  Why? According to Rashi and other sages, it is an apology for the original creation of a Sun and a Moon that were equal; in effect the creation of two suns.  When the moon protested this celestial equality, God responded by creating the diminished Moon we know today.  In other words every Rosh Chodesh, we are reminded that there was a mistake at the moment of creation.  This is not meant to spark a debate about how a perfect Being could create an imperfect world.  Rather, as Jakobovits points out, it is a reminder that making human error is the norm.  The challenge is to rectify the error, to learn from the mistake.  Whether we are repairing our own personal universe or the Divine Universe, there are numerous second chances if we are willing to take advantage of them.

Table Talk Questions
1. What can we learn from the statement, “and Noah found grace in the eyes of God?”
The commentators say that although Noah was righteous, that in and of itself was not enough to save him.  It was necessary for God to bestow His grace on Noah and his family.  Regardless of how righteous a person may be that is not enough.  The grace of God is always necessary.  Think of this as a variation on the theme of justice versus mercy discussed during the high holidays or prayer versus supplication discussed during the study of the Sukkoth Haftarot.
2. What is the meaning of the rainbow that came after the flood?
There are several interpretations.  It is a sign of God’s forgiveness.  It is a sign of God’s promise never to destroy mankind with a flood.  It is a sign of God’s control over the universe.  Finally, according to the Zohar, the colors of the rainbow remind us of God’s attributes of compassion and judgment.
Moshe Pinchas Weisblum as edited by this author.

Fate of the Animals
You would think that Noah would have used the Flood as an excuse to rid the world of a whole lot of pests.  Certainly, many of us would have gotten rid of everything from chiggers to rats to those pesky fleas that caused the Black Plague.  But not Noah; he followed God’s command to the letter of bringing a pair of each unclean animals and seven clean animals on to the ark.  As Meir Shalev points out, this might not have been such a humanitarian or ecologically responsible move.  As soon as the flood was over, Noah built an altar and must have sacrificed five of the clean animals so that the Lord could “smell the pleasing odor.”  The acceptability of animal sacrifices stands in stark contrast to other Biblical commandments requiring us to treat animals with care and decency.

Torah Trivia
Why was the tune “Over the Rainbow” part of services at a Temple in Syracuse, New York?  (a) The Cantor was from Kansas; (b) the Cantor’s son had written the tune; (c) Because the sedrah of the week was No’ach, which contains the first description of a rainbow.  The answer is (b). Cantor Samuel Arluck was the Chazan for the congregation and his son was Harold Arlen, the composer of several popular musical scores including this one.

Gilgamesh and Noah
In 1872, the English Orientalist George Smith presented a paper entitled “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge” which presented the flood story based on the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Modern critics of the Bible considered this another chink in the armor of the traditionalists’ claims about the uniqueness of the Bible.  While the re-examination of the tale of Noah certainly has proven to be a lively one, James Kugel points to one unavoidable fact.  The story of Gilgamesh is only important when compared to the story of Noah.  We look to the story of Noah for lessons about morality and the nature of God because it is in the Bible.  In other words, by being in the Bible, the stories of the Bible take on a unique importance.

The Tower in the Tower of Babel
Professor Kugel calls attention to the Tower in the story of the Tower of Babel.  He connects the Tower in the Tower of Babel to the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia.  He sees the story as an almost satiric commentary on the settled life of Mesopotamia written by later day Semitic nomads.  This view of the story gains some additional credibility when we remember that Abraham, the Semitic nomad, left Mesopotamia, rejected its culture, for the land of Canaan, a simpler more rural place to which God sent him.

Crimes of the Times
In the opening of the portion two reasons are given for the destruction of the world.  First, “the earth had become corrupt before God.”  According to some, this meant that people had become so depraved or so accepting of wrong-doing that only God realized the sinful nature of their behavior.  Second, the earth had become filled with lawlessness (or robbery depending upon the translation).  This refers to what today we would call corrupt business practices, which have the effect of undermining people’s faith in the whole social system, including government.  Unfortunately, the conditions described here could be said to look an awful lot like our world in the 21st century.  But the crime that is not mentioned specifically is idolatry.  The only Deity that we meet in the first two portions of Bereshit is Adonai.  But by the time of Abraham, humankind has become idolators.  How did this happen?  How did the descendants of Noah come up with what seems to be a new “crime.”  And we call idol worship a crime because it is one of the biggies that makes the list at Mt. Sinai.  In fact, much of Jewish history, as well as custom and practice, can be seen as an on-going battle between Adonai and the concept of ethical monotheism and idolatry.  In the Haggadah we are reminded that our ancestors were idol worshippers; a level below being slaves since they were enslaved by others but they chose to worship stone and wood fashioned by man.  What the Haggadah and the Torah do not tell us is how we got there.  But at least it provides us with a way to get out.

Water, Water Everywhere
On Shemini Atzertz, which usually comes a week or two before the Shabbat when we read Noah, we add an extra line to the Amidah that describes God as the one who makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.  This daily invocation is a way of asking for God to send the rains during the rainy season.  But if you think of the Flood, it too was a case of making the wind to blow and the rain to fall.  Since nothing exists in our text without reason, could there be a lesson in the juxtaposition of the start of the rainy season and the cyclical reading about the Flood?  Could one lesson be that nature is neutral and that it is how we use it or misuse it that makes nature good or bad?

Noah and the Calendar
The Torah provides a very definite chronology of the Flood.  Is there a message in this specificity?  Is there a connection between these dates and the future of the Jewish people?  In considering this, let’s remember that when the Torah talks about “the first month” it is talking about Nisan, the month when we celebrate Pesach and not Tishrei which is the seventh month.

The flood began “in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month,” (7:11).  Ironically the second month which here is tied to destruction, is referred to as “the month Chodesh Ziv," or the Month of Splendor.  This is because of the splendor of the sun during this month, when it has reached the height of its brilliance, but does not yet burn with the (sometimes harmful) intensity that it does in the late summer months.  It is also the month when Israel is filled with a multiplicity of splendors.

“And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.” (8:4).  In other words the ark came to rest during Sukkoth.  Is there a connection between the Ark, the temporary shelter used by Noah and the Sukkah, the temporary shelter we use during Sukkoth?

The first glimmer of hope that the flood was ending came “in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.” (8:5).  In the Book of Esther, this is the same date on which the young Jewess went to the King who found her favorable.  Unbeknownst to the Jews at that time, this event would provide the glimmer of hope that they would be saved from Haman’s evil decree.

Noah recognized that the flood was over and that a new beginning was in the offing “in the first month, the first day of the month” when “the waters were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dried.”(8:13).  Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we find the Israelites in the Wilderness with God saying to Moses in the Book of Exodus “On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of Meeting.” (40:2).  On the anniversary of the day when Noah was removing the covering from his ark, Moses was to bring his ark into the Tabernacle or Mishkan.  Coincidence or pre-destination; this is something you can discuss during your next Kiddush.

Apparently Noah wasn’t sure about how dry the land really was because almost two months elapsed between when “the waters were dried up from off the earth” and he actually left the ark for good.  Specifically it was “in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month” when “the earth was dry and God told Noah 'Go forth from the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee.’” (8:14:16).  Fast forward five thousand years (give or take) and in the second month on the 27th day of 5727, Israeli troops left western Jerusalem, entered east Jerusalem and fought the Battle of Ammunition Hill which led to the unification of Jerusalem on the following day.

If all of these dates have not made you dizzy, here is the really big question.  What is the connection between the fact that both the Flood and the enslavement in Egypt came to an end in “the first month?”  Is there a connection between the new beginning offered to mankind in the first month and the new beginning offered to the Israelites when they went out of slavery in the first month?

Second Scroll
Special Reading for Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan
28:9-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

The Rosh Chodesh reading on Shabbat covers the sacrifices offered on the holiday but is eight verses shorter than the daily reading which begins with verse 1 of Chapter 28.

Haftarah - Special for Rosh Chodesh
66: 1-24; 66: 23 Isaiah

The Man:  The reading is the entire last chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  This is one of the chapters attributed to the Second Isaiah or the Isaiah of the Exile.  We know nothing about the biography of this anonymous author.  He (or she for the matter) lived during the last days of the Babylonian Exile.  There are only two things we know with any surety.  First, this person was a skillful author who could really turn a phrase.  Second, this person was humble, allowing his writings to be attached to those of the historic prophet Isaiah.  This kind of humility is a highly valued trait in Judaism.  For example, at the Seder, the Haggadah includes the words of Joshua reminding us that originally our ancestors were pagans.  In Rabbinic writings, such as Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), sages will attribute their words to those of their teachers, giving them credit for any learning they might have acquired.  “Imagine a world where people were more concerned doing the work than getting credit for doing the work.”  (Author unknown)

The Message:  Isaiah offers words of comfort as he describes the ultimate destruction of the nations who have made war against Israel.  Yes, God will gather in the exiles and the Temple will be rebuilt.  But in the opening verses, Isaiah reminds the people that holding Jerusalem is not enough.  God demands that we follow His laws.  “But it is to this that I look:  to the poor and broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.”

Theme-Link:  Usually the prophetic portion has a connection with the Torah portion.  This is one of the exceptions when the prophetic portion is tied to an event on the calendar - in this case Rosh Chodesh.  Verse 23 which is read and then re-read connects the observance of Rosh Chodesh to the final redemption.

41st Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War:  This week we read about second and third chances.  Things don’t work out with Adam, so God gives us another chance through Noah.  Noah’s offspring don’t work out so God gives us a third chance with Abraham.  Four Saturday’s ago, on Yom Kippur, we had a chance to remember the Yom Kippur War.  This Saturday, October 25, we have a second chance to observe the 41st anniversary of the Yom Kippur War which, on the secular calendar ended on October 25.  This 19 day war which left 2,687 dead and 7,251 injured was the longest and costliest in Israel’s history since its War for Independence in 1948 - 1949.  For the story of how the Israelis pulled victory from the jaws of defeat you can read the Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovitch.  For a sense of the chaos as seen by the soldiers on the ground, you should read Adjusting Sites by Haim Sabato.  While there is much to discuss about the grand strategy and political ramifications of the war, when gathered in the synagogue we should take time to remember the brave men who gave their lives, especially in the early days when the enemy had the edge, to avoid what would have been a Holocaust in the truest sense of the word.  For those who need names and faces of the fallen think of Yosef Sarig and Moshe Shaunari and their nine comrades from Kibbutz Beit Hashita who made the ultimate sacrifice.  For the names and pictures of these eleven see

For commentary by Yossi Halevi, on the significance of the war see: (this is not an endorsement of the views expressed).

For those who missed the opportunity to remember the valiant on Yom Kippur, this gives you a second chance to fulfill the command “Zachor.”  For those of you who “remembered” at Yom Kippur, this give you another chance to remember those halcyon days filled with personal bravery made necessary by the hubris and folly of others.

Copyright; October, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin