Sunday, November 10, 2019

Readings for November 16, 2019 Va-yayra

Readings for Saturday, November 16, 2019

Va-yayra (“Appeared” i.e., “And God appeared to him…”)

18:1-22:24 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yayra is the fourth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “And God appeared (Va-yayra) to him by the terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting in the door of the tent in the heat of the day.”  Va-yayra is also the second of three weekly portions featuring the life of Abraham.  Two of the chapters in this sedrah provide the readings for Rosh Hashanah.  Chapter 21, featuring the birth of Isaac is read on the first day of the New Year.  Chapter 22, featuring the Binding of Isaac, is read on the second day of the New Year.  Reform Jews read Chapter 22 on Rosh Hashanah.

18:1-8 Visit from the Strangers:  Abraham is visited by three strangers whom he does not know are angels.  Since he is recuperating from his circumcision, this visit is interpreted as teaching us the importance of visiting the sick.  Abraham rushing out to meet the strangers instead of waiting for them to come to his tent is considered the standard for hospitality.  Do not wait for guests to ask; anticipate their needs and make them feel welcome.  Abraham also shows the importance of sharing in domestic chores.  Instead of acting like the stereotypical husband who brings home three surprise guests for his wife to feed, Abraham takes an active part in the preparation.  (Yes, this is interpretation.  But interpretation is what helps to make the Torah relevant to each generation.)

18:9-16 Promise of Isaac’s birth:  The angels repeat God’s previous promise about the birth of Isaac.  Sarah laughs and then denies that she was laughing.  Why was Sarah laughing?  Did she lie?  And if she did lie, what does this say about the character of the first matriarch?

18:16-33 Impending destruction of Sodom:  The opening verses of this section provide us with a glimpse of God’s view of Abraham and Abraham’s mission.  This is followed by Abraham’s debate with God about sparing the city.  Here Abraham is displaying another Jewish view of the world.  The world is supposed to be a just place.  Nobody is immune from acting justly, not even God.  Compare this with the view of other ancient civilizations.  Even Rome, which was noted for its law codes, was not exempt from rule by caprice rather than by just laws.  A “thumbs-up” or a “thumbs-down” from the Emperor and man either lived or died.  Some say that ten is the required number for the minyan because ten was the minimum number of righteous people that were necessary to save Sodom.  God hears Abraham out and Abraham returns the courtesy by accepting God’s judgment once the argument has been made.  This is an excellent lesson in human relations regardless of the venue.

19:1-28 Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:  The entire chapter is taken up with the events leading up to the destruction, the destruction itself and the events following the destruction.  The narrative is pretty straightforward.  Just a couple of comments.  First, on the subject of hospitality, compare Abraham’s treatment of these guests with that of the people of Sodom and that of Lot in particular.  Second, look at Lot’s offer of his daughters to placate the crowd and then compare it to his drunken sexual interlude after the destruction for a lesson on the subject of character and people learning from their past.  Lot and his daughters may have left Sodom.  Sodom had not left Lot and his daughters.

20:1-17 Abraham’s journey to Gerar:  This story sounds an awful lot like the journey to Egypt.  The one difference is that Abraham establishes a relationship with Abimelech as we can see starting with verse 22 in the next chapter.  Just because something begins poorly, does not mean that it has to end that way.

21:1-8 The Birth of Isaac:  Finally, after all of the promises about numerous offspring and the false start with Ishmael, Abraham has the son who will be his heir.  The theme of the difficult or unexpected birth is repeated later in the Bible.  From Abraham’s point of view, Isaac is a gift from God.  God keeps his promises.  God is a just God.  For those of you who remember the Rosh Hashanah comments, you know where this line of reasoning is going.

21:9-20 Hagar and Ishmael:  At one level, Abraham looks like the classic hen-pecked husband and Sarah looks like the nagging wife.  As long as Ishmael is around, he is a threat to her son’s inheritance.  So she nags Abraham and until he finally gives in and sends Hagar and Ishmael packing.  This may not be the classic view, but a teacher I had posed it to us in rather graphic terms.  He said that Abraham’s acquiesce was a sign of his humanity.  It was one thing to stand up to God.  It was quite another to stand up to your wife.

22:1-19 Binding of Isaac:  If repetition is a sign of significance, this episode is a seminal event in the history of the Jewish people.  These verses from Bereshit are recited every day of the year in the opening part of Shacharit, the Morning Service.  In addition, all Jews hear these words yet again on either the First or Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.  There is a copious compendium of material on the Binding of Isaac.  There are whole graduate courses devoted to this topic.  So do not expect this short guide to even scratch the surface.  I would suggest that you read the text in its entirety in whatever edition of the Bible or Chumash with which you are comfortable.  The Stone, Plaut, Hertz, Etz Hayim and others all have interesting commentaries which I will not attempt to paraphrase.  I also recommend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s treatment of this in his book Biblical Literacy.  It is quite readable and stimulating regardless of one’s level of knowledge.  As with so much else in the Torah, the text is spare and invites interpretation.  Those who call this the Sacrifice of Isaac as opposed to the Binding of Isaac are in error.  Isaac is not sacrificed.  Some Christians tie this story to the Crucifixion.  In fact, it is the opposite of the Crucifixion and provides one of the definitive differences between the two religions.  In Judaism, God rejects the death of a child as a sacrifice.  The road to salvation is through faith in God and observing the Commandments.  In Christianity, the deity demands the death of His child as the key to man’s salvation.  The role of Isaac in all of this is quite interesting.  If you do the math, Isaac is 37.  His father is over 100.  Surely he could have resisted.  But he didn’t.  How did Abraham get Isaac on the Altar?  The text does not say.  This is one of the many unknowns that have puzzled readers down through the ages.  You might remember that further on in Bereshit, Isaac’s poor eyesight causes him, in part, to bless Jacob instead of Esau.  There is a commentary that Isaac’s poor eyesight stems from the Akedah; his vision was supposedly dimmed so that he would not see the knife coming down.  Here is another way to look at the Akedah, which you may or may not have heard before.  Think of it is the second act of a two-act drama.  In chapter 21, we read about the birth of Isaac.  In chapter 22, we read about his brush with death.  Is it possible that Abraham obeys God in chapter 22 because, as described in chapter 21, he saw that God provides blessings (the birth of Isaac) and he believed in the ultimate goodness and justice of God?  Is it possible that Abraham understood that we must accept the will of God whether it is the birth of a son or the binding of a son?  When God promised Abraham an heir (Isaac), Abraham trusted him.  Possibly when he went up the mountain with Isaac he believed that God had a purpose and that purpose was something other than the death of this heir.  After all, when it came time to deal with Ishmael, God told him to listen to Sarah.  Listening to Sarah meant that Isaac was the chosen successor.  Surely God would not have lied to Abraham and Sarah.

22:20-24 Abraham’s distant family:  “And it came to pass…that Abraham was told….”  Thus begins what I think are some of the most poignant verses in the Torah.  Abraham is told about the children born to his kinsman far away.  Yes, Abraham went to Canaan to fulfill his divine mission.  But he paid a cost in human terms.  He was cut off from his family; from all who had loved him.  A passing stranger tells him he has nieces, he has nephews - he has a family to whom he has become a stranger.  Lest we forget, there is more to the reading than just the Akedah.  It ends with mention of the birth of Bethuel, the father of Rebecca, the future wife of Isaac.  For many of us, Jewish holidays mean family gatherings, whether immediate or extended.  Therefore there is an element of poignancy to the final verses “It came to pass after these things, that Abraham was told:  Behold, Milcah too has borne children to Nahor, your brother…”(22:20).  Since the commentaries are silent on this sentence we can only guess as to whom told Abraham about his brother’s family.  Did he hear it from a passing caravan?  Did some fellow shepherd hear of it and pass it along by word of mouth?  We shall never know.  What we do know is that the price of being a Patriarch was the loss of a family connection.  My son saved.  My brother lost.  As we have said, being Jewish is not always the easy way.



There are none this time from the list of 613.

Customs and Ceremonies

While there are no commandments in this sedrah, the narrative does give rise to several customs, ceremonies and/or practices, some of which have taken on the weight of mitzvoth.  These include:

  • Visiting the Sick;
  • Practicing pro-active hospitality;
  • Counting ten for the minyan;
  • Blowing the shofar;
  • Remembering the importance of humility;
  • The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.

Table Talk Questions

1.     Why did the Lord send three angels?  According to Rashi, each angel had a specific role.  The first angel was sent to cheer up Abraham while he was healing.  The second angel was sent to destroy Sodom.  The third angel was sent to tell Sarah that she would give birth to a son in one year.

2.     Where do we see evidence of the humility of Abraham?  When Abraham intercedes on behalf of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, he says of himself, “…although I am nothing but dust and ashes” (18:27).  The man who had reached a level where he could talk to God saw himself as dust and ashes.

3.     Why did the angel command Lot and his family not to look back as the cities were being destroyed?  According to the Talmud, this is a reminder that we are forbidden to take pleasure while others are being punished.  This concept is repeated in the Midrash about God forbidding the Israelites from taking pleasure when the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds.

Noah was a righteous Man in his Generation

This opening line from the sedrah No’ach (Noah) that we read a couple of weeks ago is one that philosophers and rabbis love to play with.  Why does it say “in his Generation?”  The answer may be found in this week’s sedrah when we compare the behavior of Noah with that of Abraham.  God tells Noah that the earth has become corrupt and lawless; that He is going to destroy the world; and that Noah should build an ark of certain specific dimensions so he can save his family and designated animals.  How does Noah respond?  “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.”  No questions, no appeals, no nothing.  He just went straight ahead and did what God told him to do.  But when God tells Abraham that he is going to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, two sink holes of iniquity that probably deserved wiping out if any place did, what does Abraham do?  He challenges God.  “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”  This is pretty gutsy stuff.  Abraham knows God has a temper and He has the power.  After all, He made the flood and He is about to wipe out two major metropolitan areas.  How did Abraham know God wouldn’t zap him when he came up with the line about just judges?  He didn’t.  But at the same time, he was willing to risk everything, including the wrath of God for the sake of justice and equity.  Noah was a righteous man in his time, because in his time he was the only person who obeyed God.  Abraham was a righteous man for all times because he not only obeyed God; he was willing to challenge the Ultimate authority when the world was not ordered to His will.

Please do not bypass your servant

These words from the opening lines of this week portion have given rise to many dictums and stories about the importance of real hospitality.  For example:  In a town beyond the Carpathian mountains lived a wealthy merchant with a lovely daughter.  By the by, she married a young scholar and the couple lived with the merchant.  The young scholar noticed that whenever guests would come to the house, the wealthy merchant personally waited on them, even to the point of making up their beds for the night.  One day, as the merchant was preparing a room for a large number of unexpected lodgers the scholar asked his father-in-law why he didn’t just pay one of the peasants in town to do this seemingly menial work.  The merchant replied with two questions.  First, why should I give up the honor of the mitzvah of hospitality to anybody?  Secondly, why should I have to pay somebody who would be enjoying what should have been my mitzvah in the first place?  With that, the young scholar realized that his father-in-law was not just a wealthy merchant, and loving father, but a Tzaddik in the truest sense of the word.

Who Chose Whom

Beginning with last week’s sedrah, Lech Lecha, we repeatedly ask the question, “Who chose whom?”  Did God choose Abraham or did Abraham choose God?  This week’s reading provides a partial answer.  In speaking of His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing;” (18:17).  God answers his question (18:19); because He has “known” Abraham He must tell him.  When God says, “I have known him” it is in the sense of “I have loved him.”  As the commentators point out, when you love somebody you draw them close and let them “know you.”  Modernists would call this intimacy.  In other words God chose to let Abraham know that he was loved by God by letting him learn the ways of God.  Further on, we will find statements where God asks, “Have I not chosen thee from among all people and tongues…” thus reinforcing the concept that God chose Abraham and his descendants.  If you think this is the final word, think again.  When the Israelites are at Mt. Sinai, they make a conscious decision to choose God when they accept His commandments.  And as we shall see, they make that choice for all future generations.  So did the Jews choose God or did God choose the Jews?  Is the world run by predestination or free will?  Matzoth are called the “bread over which people talk” because we are supposed to discuss and study at the Seder.  Maybe we should consider our sacred texts as “the books over which people talk” since we need to keep mining them for ever more complex answers to ever more complex, yet eternal questions.


The commandment concerning circumcision is found in last week’s reading (17:10).  But in this week’s reading, we see Isaac as the first to be circumcised on the eighth day (21:8).  Throughout history there have been repeated attacks on this practice by those who have and who have not read the text.  The ancient Greeks saw it as an act of desecration.  They worshipped the human body and cutting it in this manner was a barbaric act.  Since many of their athletic contests were conducted in the nude the sign of the covenant was obvious and unacceptable.  In fact Jews who wanted to be accepted by the Greeks (Chanukah is not that far away) actually endured epispasm, a rather dangerous and painful procedure to remove the mark of the brit.  That they would go through so much pain and trauma to remove the sign of the covenant seems a little odd since another set of critics attack circumcision because of the pain and the trauma it causes the baby.  If you accept the false notion that about the pain and trauma of circumcision, when you combine the arguments of these critics they end up saying that pain and trauma connected with creating Jewish identity is unacceptable, but pain and trauma connected with denying Jewish identity is acceptable.  The really honest critics of circumcision as commanded in the Torah are the ones who cite it as barrier to Jews being accepted by everybody else.  They are correct; the brit is a tangible sign that Jews are different.  That is why Jews are commanded to do this.  When performing the most basic of bodily functions Jewish males are reminded of their special responsibility and role as Jews.  When Jewish men and women engage in the most intimate of relationships they are reminded that they are not animals, but human beings whom God loves.  And this means we must love each other.  One last word; for those modernists who contend that circumcision is a trauma which develops latent tendencies for violence, at the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms or the European Death Factories, was it the perpetrators of the violence or the victims who had experienced the brit milah?

Why Lot?

There is a lot of discussion about why God chose to save Noah.  There is a lot of discussion about why God chose Abraham.  But there appears to be little or no discussion about God’s decision to save Lot.  There are some who assume that the decision revolved around Lot’s relationship to Abraham, but neither God nor Abraham raised the issue when they were bargaining over the fate of the two cities.  To paraphrase an earlier text, Lot was a righteous man in his town.  But that sure is not saying much.  Lot had chosen to live in Sodom despite its well-known reputation so that is a bit of a stretch.  Besides which, Lot appeared to be in no great hurry to be saved.  “And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying ‘arise, take thy wife and they two daughters that are here; lest thou be swept away in the iniquity of the city.’  But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand…And they brought him forth, and set him without the city.” (19:15-16).   In other words, despite all of the warnings, the angels had to forcibly take Lot and his family out of the city.  To make this even more confusing, from a point of morality and justice, Lot and his family do not seem to have improved from the experience.  In a world when we are perplexed with how a Just God let the innocent perish in the European Night, the decision to save Lot becomes all the more perplexing.  I am sure that there is a Midrash explaining all of this, but I have not found it.

Etiological Explanations

Professor James Kugel explains that some of the events described in this week’s reading had an etiological meaning for the ancient Israelites i.e., the stories provided the Israelites with reasons why their customs were different from the other people among whom they lived.  For example, the Israelites practiced animal sacrifice but were specifically forbidden from sacrificing their children - a practice followed by other ancient peoples.  The story of the Binding of Isaac provides that rational.  “The tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt may have been designed more to account for Abraham’s fortune and to celebrate a certain craftiness than to praise his piety.”  The story of Lot might have been used to explain everything from peculiar rock formations to why some of Israel’s neighbors spoke similar languages but were implacable enemies.

Sarah’s Laughter

Here is another of view of Sarah’s alleged laughter when she heard that she was to bear a child and then her attempt to cover her apparent folly.  “And Sarah laughed within herself, saying:  'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'  “And the Lord said unto Abraham:  'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying:  Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is anything too hard for the Lord?  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.'”  It says that Sarah laughed “in herself” which could mean she did not laugh out loud, but, as they say “chuckled to herself” which could be construed as two different acts.  When she said she did not laugh, she meant she did not laugh out loud.  Furthermore, if she had laughed silently to herself she would certainly have been “afraid” since she had concept of the all-knowing, all powerful, all present deity.

Why We Study/How We Should Teach

A group of visitors came to spend Shabbat Va-yayra with a rabbi in a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains.  While they were eating their meal, the rabbi called in his five year old son who was reputed to be a prodigy when it came to Torah and Halachah.  “Run along, my boy, and prepare a novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality” which are contained in this week’s Torah reading.  “When the child returned a little while later, his father asked:  ‘Well have you thought something original?’  The boy replied that he had, and the guests quickly finished their meal filled with the anticipation of hearing some novel interpretation of Jewish law.  As soon as the meal was over, the father said to them:  ‘Let us come along together and see what he has to show us.’  Sure enough, as they entered another room his original interpretation of the laws of hospitality caught them pleasantly by surprise:  for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place.”  The father smiled with delight for his son knew that we learn so that we may do and that the best way to teach the laws of hospitality is to be hospitable. (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin of blessed memory.)

Lot’s Daughters

We don’t know their names, but we do know the names of their sons.  The older daughter named her son Moab.  ”He is the father of the Moabites today” (19:37).  The younger daughter named her son Ben-ammi.  “He is the father of the Ammonites of today” (19:38).  The Moabites and the Ammonites were ancient people who had a variety of interactions with the Israelites which are mentioned in The Torah and Prophets.  At one time they each occupied kingdoms east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in what is the modern nation of Jordan.  By describing the offspring as being the father of these two nations, it is obvious that the author of the story lived long after the event occurred.  By tracing the origins of these two nations to a drunken incestuous event, the writers are casting aspersions (to put it mildly) on these people.  Strangely enough, King David had Moabite blood in him.  Ruth, his famous ancestor, was a Moabite woman which means one of the books of the Bible is named for, and tells the story of, one who descended from the product of a drunken orgy.  Speaking of drink, this is the second time that we have seen wine consumed in quantities that lead to folly.  This is not the last time that we will see the unwise consumption of alcohol lead to a bad end.  Aaron’s two sons are killed, according to some, because they were drunk when they entered the Tabernacle.  In fact, there is a Biblical prohibition concerning the High Priest consuming alcohol before performing his duties.

Haftarah (Ashkenazim)

4:1-37 Second Kings

Haftarah (Sephardim, Chabad Chassidim, Jews of Frankfurt am Main)

4:1-27 Second Kings

This is one of those weeks where how much you will read depends upon what synagogue you attend.  The haftarah describes episodes in the life of the prophet Elisha.

The Book/The Man:  Second Kings is the last book in the section referred to as the Early Prophets.  Originally there was only one book of Kings.  The translators of the Septuagint were the ones who divided it into two books in the third century, B.C.E.  Jews did not finally accept this division until 1518 when Daniel Bomberg incorporated it in his edition of the TaNaCh.  Second Kings begins with a narrative about Elijah and the Israelite King Ahaziah (approx. 896 B.C.E.).  The text describes several major events including the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.).  The text ends with the death of Gedaliah, the governor of Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem, and King Jehoiachin’s liberation from prison by his Babylonian captors (approx. 549 B.C.E.).  Second Kings continues the message of First Kings stressing the importance of the Temple, Prophecy and the House of David.  Elisha literally received the mantle of prophecy from Elijah.  He is credited with performing even more miracles than his illustrious predecessor; seventeen in all, two of which appear in this haftarah.  He was active starting in the reign of King Ahaziah (approx. 897 B.C.E.) and ending with his death his death (approx. 838 B.C.E.) during the reign of King Joash.  Elisha appears to have been a more sociable figure than Elijah had been.  He was probably popular with King Jehu and his descendants since he prophesied Jehu’s accession to the throne of the Kingdom of Israel.  According to tradition, Jonah was a contemporary of Elisha having been sent to prophecy in Nineveh somewhere between 862 and 862 B.C.E.

The Message:  The reading describes a series of miraculous events related to the prophet Elisha.  The first two revolve around providing oil and income for a widow so she can support her children.  The second two revolve around a barren woman giving birth and the resuscitation of a seemingly deceased child.  In reading these and other stories related to Elisha (and his master Elijah for that matter) remember that the early prophets sometimes were a blend of the masters of mystical powers as well as early harbingers of the later preachers who dealt only with issues of morality, ethics and social justice.

Theme-Link:  The prophetic portion parallels three of the themes found in the Torah Reading.  First is the importance of hospitality (2 Kings 4:8-10).  Second is the birth of a child to the infertile, aged couple (2 Kings 4:14-17).  Third is the divine intervention in sparing a child’s life (2 Kings 4:18-37).

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Readings for November 9, 2019 Lech-Lecha

Readings for Saturday, November 9, 2019

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,” in 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 cohabit 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 inherit 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.”  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 drought 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 drought 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 drought 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.  The Zionists would say, Abraham returned to Eretz Israel because it is only in his own land that he fulfilled his destiny. But then the Zionist view of things is not necessarily  the final authority.

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 which 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 aphorisms 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.


In his commentary on this week’s portion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks, “How Perfect Were the Patriarchs and Matriarchs?”  More specifically, how perfect were Abraham and Sarah.  On the one the one hand they show great courage and moral fortitude by heeding God’s call, leaving their comfortable life and their family and traveling to Canaan.  On the other hand, Abraham conspires to deceive the Egyptians about his marital status and makes his wife a partner in his duplicity.  And Sarah’s treatment of Hagar is something that even the mostly of rabbinic sages criticizes.  So they answer to the question is they were not perfect at all.  But as Sacks and others have pointed out, this should not bother us and in one sense should encourage us.  The characters in the Bible are human beings, not saints.  In some instances they behave nobly and in other cases their behavior is reprehensible.  Noah can build an ark.  But he can also get so drunk he is an embarrassment to his family.  David can face Goliath.  But he also can seduce Bathsheba.  King Solomon can build the Temple.  But he can also build palaces for his foreign princesses where they can pursue the idol worship that God forbids.  The characters in the Bible are faced with decisions.  Do I leave the Promised Land and go to Egypt because of the famine or do I stay and trust that somehow I will survive?  Do I talk to the rock when I need water or I do I strike it with my staff?  The Biblical characters are constantly faced with challenges, just as we are, and sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.  And so it is with us today.  But the Biblical characters remind us that we are not all good nor all bad.  Which means we should enjoy the “victories” but learn from the “defeats.”  Just because we got it right once does not mean we will always get it right.  And just because we get it “wrong” does not mean we are doomed.


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 70th 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 he had not.  She asked him if was afraid.  He said he was not afraid.  After all, he told her, 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, today marks the 81st 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 faced because of their respective religious beliefs.  At one point, a competing American runner offered 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).

Copyright; November, 2019; Mitchell A. Levin


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Readings for November 2, 2019 No'ach (Noah)

Readings for Saturday, November 2, 2019

No’ach (Noah)

6:6-11:32 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 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 ends 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:”

Refrain from

Denying God;

Blaspheming the name of God;


Sexual misconduct;


Eating the limb torn from a live animal;


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 some 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 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 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?


Imagine if Noah had ignored “the warnings” about the upcoming Flood.  As we read this portion in October of 2018, the parts of the Southeastern United States are feeling the effects of yet another “catastrophic” Hurricane.  Hurricanes are a fact of life, but some of the suffering could have been avoided.  Decades we were warned about the impact of building along the seacoast.  Unlike Noah, we chose to ignore the warnings so unlike Noah we are not finding a safe harbor.  The question that remains is how many of life’s other warnings do we ignore and what are the consequences of this kind of behavior.


Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Ashkenazim)

Isaiah 54:1-10(Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim)

This is one of those times when different groups of Jews have different readings from the prophets.  In this case, two groups have a shortened form.  But the readings from all three include the key theme link, the reference by Isaiah to the flood, “For like the waters of Noah shall this be to Me:  As I have worn never again to pass the waters of Noah over the earth, so have I worn not to be wrathful with you or rebuke you (54:9).”  The “you” are the children of Israel who were in exile in Babylonia at the time that this was written.  Just as the Lord has honored the covenant He made with Noah “so will He honor the covenant He made with Israel and will repatriate the exiles.”

The Man/The Book:  Isaiah is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The term major refers to the fact that their books are longer than those of the other prophets. Isaiah is also the first of the Later Prophets, those coming after the books that start with Joshua and end with Second Kings.  The book of Isaiah is attributed two at least two and possibly three authors.  Traditionally, the first thirty-nine chapters are attributed to a historic figure described in the beginning of the book.  Chapters forty through sixty-six are attributed to a second, anonymous author.  Isaiah’s name in Hebrew is Yeshayahu, which is a form of a word meaning help or deliverance.  The name is certainly consistent with the teachings of this prophet.  The historic or First Isaiah lived during the eighth century, B.C.E.  He began preaching around 740 B.C.E.  His public career lasted for some forty to sixty years spanning the reign of four Kings of Judah beginning with Uzziah and ending with Hezekiah.  He was married to a woman he refers to as “the prophetess” and he had two sons.  Apparently he was related to the royal family which meant he could address his teachings directly to those in power.  According to tradition, Manasseh whose reign was both long and wicked murdered Isaiah.  Isaiah lived in a time of great political turmoil.  Assyria was the leading power of the day.  He witnessed the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the ten tribes.  He encouraged the Judeans not to make a military alliance with the Egyptians who were the enemies of the Assyrians.  Rather, he urged the Judeans to trust in the Lord for their deliverance. Isaiah lived in a time of affluence and economic inequality.  He chastised the people for failing to care for the disadvantaged.  God would punish them for this as well as their other moral shortcomings.  The Isaiah of the Exile or the Second Isaiah is thought to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E. during the period of the Babylonian Captivity.  His message was one of comfort, hope and a vision of universal peace.  The book of Isaiah describes a unique relationship between God and the children of Israel.  They are to carry His message to the people of the world.  By following the teachings of Torah, they will show the world what God means by holiness.  At the same time, Isaiah provides a picture of God as the God of all mankind.  Isaiah transforms Him from the deity of the Israelites to the Supreme Being for all the people of the world. Isaiah provides us with the Messianic Vision i.e. the Coming of the Moshiach.  And last but not least, Isaiah is the prophet of world peace.

For it is the words of Isaiah that we read in the prayer book each week, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall men learn war anymore.”  The teachings of Isaiah, regardless of how many of them you think there are, are rich and textured.  The book of Isaiah provides us with more Haftarot than any other prophet so there will be several more opportunities to explore his thoughts and teachings.

The Message:  Isaiah preaches a message of reassurance to those living in exile.  God has made a covenant and He will honor that covenant.  Just as he has honored the Covenant made at the time of the Flood, so he will remember the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and all of their descendants).

Theme-Link:  Isaiah uses images of the Flood and God’s covenant with Noah to reassure the people and remind them of God’s forgiving nature.  God has honored the Covenant with Noah, a covenant that affects the world of nature.  God will also honor the Covenant with the Jewish people, a covenant that affects the world of ethics, morality and spirituality.

Copyright; October, 2019; Mitchell A. Levin