Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 18 to Sunday, November 19, 2017 Toldot Rosh Chodesh Kislev

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 18, 2017
Toldot (variously: “Generations,” “Descendants,” or “Offspring”)
25:19-28:9 Bereshit (Genesis)
Toldot is the sixth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading, “And these are the generations (Toldot) of Isaac.…”
We have completed the Abraham Cycle and are preparing for the Jacob Cycle.  Toldot is properly described as the Isaac Sedrah.  It divides into three major sections:
·        The birth and early years of Isaac’s sons;
·        A summary of Isaac’s adult life; and
·        Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau.
This is, to say the least, one of the most morally ambiguous portions in the Torah.  It raises a number of questions about family life, pre-destination and the ends justifying the means.
The Birth and Early Years of Isaac’s Sons 25:19-34
At the end of last week’s Sedrah we read “And these are the generations of Ishmael, the son of Abraham.”  This week we begin with “And these are the generations of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac.”  Note the subtle difference between the two verses.  Why was it necessary to add the last, seemingly redundant phrase, “Abraham begot Isaac?”  This addition must be of significance when you consider the myriad of commentaries on the subject.  The explanations for the repetitive language range from the simple - the added phrase is to reinforce the fact that Isaac is the son and rightful heir of Abraham - to the mystical - the relationship between love and kindness (attributes of Abraham) versus fear and strictness (attributes of Isaac).
“And Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea and his wife Rebecca conceived.”  Once again we find another patriarch with a wife who cannot conceive.  Of the four Matriarchs, only Leah had no problem bearing children.  Note that Isaac prayed for his wife to conceive, not that he should have a son.  Jews pray for others.  They pray for the community.  They do not pray for their own selfish ends.
Rebecca is having a difficult pregnancy and goes to a soothsayer to find out why.  The following response is critical if we are to understand the last part of the Sedrah. “…and the Lord answered her.  Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”  In other words, Rebecca knew while she was pregnant that she would give birth to twins and that the second born would supplant the first born.  Yet she never told Isaac.  We can only speculate as to why she kept this important bit of news to herself.
Esau and Jacob are born.  One is the hunter, the adventurer, the favorite of his father.  The other is a man of the tents, gentle, the favorite of his mother.  One can almost taste the rising family tensions.
“Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.”  These are the concluding words of the famous tale where the “famished” Esau sells the birthright to Jacob for a bowl of what is variously called red soup or lentil stew.
In the story Esau is portrayed as a person controlled by his appetites who does not know the real value of things.  After all, once his belly has been filled and he has avoided death by starvation, he does not try to regain the birthright.  He does not complain that he has been swindled.  “…He ate and drank and he rose and went away.”  You can almost hear the belch from his bloated gut.  From the text we can see that Jacob knows the value of the birthright.  The commentators defend Jacob’s action by saying that not only did he know the value of the birthright, he knew that Esau did not value the birthright and that it would have been dangerous to leave so valuable a thing with such an unworthy person.
A Summary of Isaac’s Life As An Adult (26:1-35)
Both literally and figuratively, Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps.  He travels across the southern portion of Palestine.  He digs and re-digs wells.  He experiences famine.  Unlike Abraham, Isaac does not go down into Egypt.  In fact, he is the only major Biblical figure from Abraham through Joshua who never lives outside of the Promised Land.  Like Abraham, when confronted by a powerful chieftain who covets his wife, Isaac uses the sister ruse with the same ultimate outcome of contrition and added wealth.  But the most important event in this section is the renewal of the Covenant.  God makes the same covenant with Isaac that he had made with Abraham (26:2-5).  God tells Isaac, “Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.”  In terms of attempts to modernize the Avot, please note that God is telling Isaac that He will fulfill the promise made to Abraham, not to Abraham and Sarah.  “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands.…”  The terms are the same as the terms of the previous Covenant made with Abraham - numerous offspring and a defined piece of territory.  Why is God doing this?  For once the Torah provides answers.
First, “…so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs.”  Commentators interpret this to mean that there is a positive correlation between the well-being of the Israelites and the well-being of the rest of the world.  Second, God tells Isaac that he is renewing the Covenant “Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed …My commandments, My laws and My teachings.”  In other words, the son enjoys the fruits of his father’s virtue.
Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob and Esau (27:1-28-28:9)
The story of the Blessing is pretty straightforward so there is no need to repeat it here.  A literal reading of the text shows Rebecca, Isaac’s loving wife, devising and directing a scheme that exploits his weakness to ensure Jacob being the blessed son.  Jacob is portrayed as a reluctant participant.  When Jacob expresses his fear of being caught (he does not object on grounds that deceiving his blind father is wrong), Rebecca tells him not to worry.  If there is a curse it will be upon her not him (27:13).  The only justification for her behavior is that she is fulfilling the earlier prophecy, “One people shall be mightier than the other and the older shall serve the younger” (25:23).  Why she didn’t tell Isaac instead of deceiving him is a question for later discussion.
Speaking of questions, was Isaac really deceived by Rebecca’s elaborate ruse?  There is some evidence to think that he was not.  First, when Isaac realizes that he has been tricked, he tells Esau that there is nothing he can do to undo the blessing of Jacob.  Is Isaac saying that a criminal is entitled to gain from his illegal activity?  This flies in the face of all concepts of morality and justice.  And we already know from the Sodom story that justice is a value of paramount importance.  Furthermore, the next time Isaac and Jacob meet, Isaac does not castigate him.  As Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan-aram, he blesses him in words that echo the Covenant (28:4).  This is hardly the behavior of an angry father who feels that his wife and son have fooled him.  Some commentators contend that Isaac knew Esau was unworthy but could not bring himself to disinherit his favorite son.  So he took the easy way out and allowed himself to be deceived.  At the end of the Sedrah, Rebecca hears that Esau has promised to kill Jacob.  Fearing the worst, Rebecca decides that it is time for Jacob to leave home.  Once again she does not tell Isaac the truth.  She resorts to another ruse.  She tells Isaac that she does not want Jacob marrying a local woman.  And in the end we see Jacob on his way to Laban’s house.  Unbeknown to Rebecca, this is the last time she will see her Jacob, her favorite son.
Many feel that Isaac is one of the most significant yet underrated characters in the Bible.  At the spiritual level, there can be no question of his worthiness.  God chose to repeat the Covenant with Isaac.  And there can be no greater level of approval than that which comes from Him.  At the temporal level, Isaac is also a worthy figure.  Without him, Judaism would have died.  If he had not followed in Abraham’s footsteps, Abraham’s discovery or rediscovery of God would have made no difference.  Nobody would have ever known about it.  As Rabbi Steinsaltz points out, “all beginnings are difficult, but continuation can be even more difficult.”  Not only did Isaac learn from Abraham, but he also transmitted that knowledge to Jacob.  What would have happened if there had been no Isaac?  Consider the fate of Alexander the Great’s empire.  He conquered the world, but had no heir.  His empire crumbled as soon as he drew his last breath.  Without an heir, without an Isaac, there is no tomorrow.
Isaac appears to be a man who was “blind” in more than one way.  He was blind to the deficits of his favorite son, Esau.  He was blind to the virtues of Jacob.  Some say his blindness forced his wife to acts of deception.  Regardless of his shortcomings, Isaac was the man who stayed the course.  The former head of General Motors said that the first key to success was just to show up every day.  If you are not there, you cannot make anything happen.  Isaac was the epitome of the man who was always there, always doing what needed being done.  Those who decry the impermanence of our modern world might just be able to learn a thing or two from steady Isaac.
Last week we saw her as a beautiful young woman, hospitable, decisive and morally resolute.  We left her as the loving bride of Isaac, providing him with emotional and spiritual sustenance in the wake of his mother’s death.  This week she is the mother capable of loving only one of her sons.  She apparently is incapable of communicating directly with her husband on issues of major importance.  Some say she loved Isaac too much to tell him things he could not handle.  Others say that she was in fact Laban’s sister and that trickery was in her nature.  Regardless, she chose to deceive her husband not once but twice.  Then wherein lies her greatness?  First, let’s remember all of the virtues listed above.  Secondly, whatever ruses she may have employed did not hurt Isaac nor did they enrich her.  Rather, they brought to fruition the words of God she had heard during her pregnancy.  Rebecca heard the voice of God and she did her best to obey it.  In the end she paid a price for her shortcomings.  One can imagine how Esau must have felt about her once he knew how she schemed to get Isaac’s blessing for Jacob.  And one can only imagine how sad she was to have spent the rest of her life without ever seeing her favorite child again.
Traditional commentators have come to demonize Esau, connecting all kinds of evil behavior to Isaac’s first born.  This almost smacks of rationalization in an attempt to justify the questionable methods under which Jacob acquired the Birthright and the Blessing.  Yes, Esau was a man of passion.  He was a physical person.  In selling the Birthright for a bowl of soup, he showed himself to be a man with limited values.  However he was not bad person.  He loved his father and his father loved him.  When his father wanted special food to eat, Esau did not hesitate.  He grabbed his gear and headed out immediately to meet his father’s request.  Later, we can see in his decision to marry one of Ishmael’s daughters a desire for parental approval.  Yes, he did threaten to kill his brother.  But we will see in a later Sedrah that Esau would forgive Jacob.  When they meet as adults, Esau greets Jacob with a warm embrace and gifts galore.  Whatever his shortcoming, Esau was every bit as much a Jew as Jacob was.  To some, Esau is a paradigm for the Fifth Son.  As such, they would say, our challenge is to draw the “Esaus” of the world back into the Jewish family; to harness their physical appetites with spiritual concepts and values.
Two Pivotal Quotes
“…and Esau spurned the birthright” (25:34) is the traditional translation for the last phrase in the tale of Esau swapping the birthright for a bowl of red liquid.  But the Hebrew word used here is “baz” which means to despise or to scorn.  So the phrase really should read “…and Esau despised the birthright.”  It was not just that Esau had no use for the birthright, he held it in contempt.  With this quote, the author is letting us know that Esau would not have continued the covenant because he could not have continued the covenant.  It is this quote that, at a human level, makes the sedrah comprehensible.  Esau was not rejected.  Esau did the rejecting.
“When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing.…” (27:34) is Esau’s pained response when he finds out that Jacob has stolen the blessing from him.  This quote has given rise to a commentary that I find appalling because it gives aid and comfort to those who later harmed us.  “Years later, our people will have to shed tears for what the descendants of Esau (the Edomites who helped destroy the First Temple and the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple) did to them, as retribution for the day Jacob made Esau cry.”  To say that the Jews are responsible for the destruction of the Temples and the Exile because of moral shortcomings is one thing.  To imply that our enemies are justified in what they are doing because we harmed their ancestor is quite another.  This leads to another point.  This whole business of equating Esau with Edom and Rome smacks of rationalization, self-justification and the demonization of Jacob’s brother.  The sages remind us that what we despise in others is often the shortcoming that really exists in ourselves.
Esau and Jacob Today
Just in case you need an extra reason for studying this, just pick up a copy of Faye Kellerman’s thriller, Stone Kiss.  In the midst of this snappy little murder mystery, starting on page 130, you will find the whole tale of Esau and Jacob complete with Rabbinic commentary.  In fact, one of the themes the story could be said to revolve around is the different facets of human nature represented by these two brothers.
One of the constant themes in Jewish thought is the importance of the Jewish family.  So what kind of family is this that we have seen in Toldot?  It certainly is a Jewish family.  But is it a family worth bragging about?  Is it a dysfunctional family from which we can learn all kinds of lessons about the importance of open communication between parents and the pitfalls of parental favoritism?  Or is it merely a family like many families - a mixture of dysfunctionality and love showing us the depths and heights of human behavior?  Since learning begins with questions, I will leave it to you to supply your own answers.
“The first one emerged red” (25:25)
Esau’s complexion was red.  Red is a sign of bloodshed.  Esau’s propensity for shedding blood became part of Jewish tradition.  Esau’s ruddy complexion would become a problem for Samuel and David.  King David was also ruddy.  Samuel was fearful that he would be like Esau, an indiscriminate shedder of blood.  According to a Rabbinic tale, God assured Samuel that David would not become an indiscriminate taker of life.  With all due respect, David’s behavior is not always consistent with one who avoids the shedding of blood.
“You shall not … place a Stumbling Block before the Blind” (Lev.19:14)
The trickery of Rachel and Jacob certainly would appear to fall afoul of this commandment.  Beyond the plain statement of the text, the interpretation has been expanded to mean that you should not take advantage of somebody who is ignorant or lacking in relevant information, i.e., intellectually blind.  Maybe this should remind us that even patriarchs and matriarchs need laws and need to be bound by those laws.
“I do not know the day of my death” (Gen.27:2)”
These words uttered by Isaac at the outset of this week’s portion gave rise to the following story.  A famous sage was seriously injured when he fell from his ladder.  Some of the local hooligans who were offended by the sage’s learning and piety thought that he would die and began drinking with joy.  When word reached the sage, who was by now recovered, he said, “I do not know the day of my death, but not only will they not drink wine, they will not even drink water.”  The sage proved to be a prophet.  He passed away on Tisha B’Av when Jews cannot eat or drink, not even water.  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory)
And Esau said…let me swallow from this red stuff…And he ate, and drank and departed; and Esau despised the birthright” (Gen.26: 30; 34)
A group of young scholars stopped at tavern in a town in which they were strangers.  When they asked for a meal, the innkeeper told them that he had no dairy food.  But he could fix them a fine meat meal.  Immediately, the young scholars began to bombard their hosts with ever more detailed questions about the preparation of the meat meal.  What kind of animal was it?  Who was the schochet?  How sharp was the knife?  What kind of pots would be used?  There was another guest who was eating his meal.  He could not help but overhear the torrent of questions with which these self-important scholars were bombarding the simple innkeeper.  He called out to them, “My how impressive you are.  You show so much care about the preparation of what goes into your mouth.  But, do you show even half as much care in thinking about what comes out of your mouths?”  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory)
An Etiological Explanation
Professor James Kugel suggests that the stories about the conflict between Esau and Jacob may have been used to explain the relations between the Edomites and the Israelites that existed from the time the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan through the early days of the Davidic Monarchy.  Part of the clue comes from the fact that the two brothers are described as the progenitors of these two nations.  Edom was a southern neighbor of Israel.  Based on archaeological findings there were many similarities between the culture and the language of these two peoples.  These similarities become understandable if one sees the ancestors of the nations as being brothers and not just brothers, but twin brothers.  Edom was already an organized national entity when the Israelites were just a group of tribes seeking their own homeland.  This would be explained by a sibling relationship where the older brother develops ahead of the younger brother.  In the days of David and Solomon, Edom fell under the sway of the Israelite kingdom, a situation that would be borne out by the prophecy that the older should serve the younger.  Edom would later break away from the Israelite kingdom and re-establish its national identity following a pattern where an impecunious Jacob fled to the house of Laban while Esau remained in Canaan and prospered.  During the last days of the Second Commonwealth, oppressive Rome would be identified as a latter day Edom.  If Rome were Edom, the oppressed Israelites would take the lesson that just as Jacob used his brains to overcome the brawn of Esau, so might the weaker Judeans use their intellect to defeat the mighty military machine of Rome.
According to Meir Shalev, this week’s Torah portion contains the second weeping in the Bible.  The first person to weep was Hagar, who when she had been cast out by Sarah and thought that she and Ishmael were going to die “sat opposite him...lifted up her voice and wept.”  Esau is the second person to weep.  When Esau came in from the fields and discovered that Isaac had given the blessing to Jacob, “he burst into wild and bitter sobbing” (27:34).  A few verses down, when Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father?  Bless me too!” his entreaties were followed by the simple statement “And Esau wept aloud.” (27:38).  If you envision Esau as a big, athletic fellow, you have to be moved at seeing him reduced to tears.  This is not the last time that Esau would weep.  When he and Jacob are reunited twenty years later the text says, “Esau ran to greet him.  He embraced him…he kissed him; and they wept.” (33:4).  When Esau was denied the birthright he wept alone.  When he was reunited with his brother and they had both made peace with the realities of their lives, they could weep together.
Merit Beats Birth Order
Primogeniture, the system by which the first born inherits the mantle of leadership must have been the norm of the society at the time of the Patriarchs.  Otherwise the story of Esau and Jacob would not have been necessary to explain the ascendency of the younger son.  Actually, based on Biblical evidence, merit trumped birth order over and over again.  Isaac, not first-born Ishmael, inherited Abraham’s mantle of leadership.  Ruben, the first born of Jacob, was supplanted by Judah because of the latter’s courageous behavior in dealing with Joseph when it appeared that Benjamin would become a prisoner.  Moses was the youngest child of Amram and Tziporah.  David was the youngest son of Jesse and Solomon was not David’s first-born.  Jacob is painted as the conman who cheated his brother and lied to his father to gain the birthright.  But maybe he deserves credit for realizing that his brother was not the man to lead the people and supplanted him for the sake of future generations.  For those who know the history of Europe and its dynastic wars, it is to Jacob’s credit that he found a bloodless way to supplant his brother.
1:1-2:27 Malachi
The Man:  We really do not know much about this prophet at all.  Malachi is probably not his name.  Rather it is Hebrew for “my messenger.”  It may be a pseudonym stemming from the third Hebrew word in the first sentence of the third chapter where we find the words of God, “Behold, I send My messenger (Malachi) and he shall clear the way before Me.”  According to some traditions, the author of this short (3 chapters) book was Ezra or Mordecai.  Along with Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi is one of the three post-exilic prophets.  In fact Malachi is the last of all of the prophets.  He is thought to have lived sometime between 500 B.C.E and 450 B.C.E.  By this time the Second Temple had been completed but the Jewish homeland was merely a province of the Persian Empire called Judeah.  Malachi preached at a time when spirituality and morality were at a low ebb.  The reality of the reconstruction of the Temple had not lived up to the expectations of redemption and a great reawakening.  In fact, from a historic and spiritual point of view, Malachi actually was setting the stage for the reforms instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah.  According to traditional commentators, after Malachi, God did not “select” individuals commanding them to speak in his name.  Going forward, leaders such as the Scribes and Rabbis would speak and teach in the name of God based on the literary traditions of the Jewish people.  Malachi represents a return to the beginning of the prophetic messages.  Some of the early, non-literary prophets were concerned about the ritual of sacrifice.  Take Elijah on Mt. Carmel as one example.  They saw the sacrifices as a key ingredient in man’s communication with God.  The Literary Prophets - Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example - shifted the emphasis to social justice and prayer.  With the opening verses of Malachi, we see a return to the message of the importance of the sacrificial system and properly performed ritual.  Could it be that in the last words of Prophecy we are being reminded that ritual and social justice are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually inclusive?  That to effect a healing of the universe we must nurture a Judaism that relies on both aspects of the divine commandments?  Or to put it in another way, we need to join ritual and social justice just as we need to bind Esau and Jacob together to create the final healing?
The Message:  At this time, the Jews are apparently questioning God’s love for them.  The reading opens with the line, “I have loved you, saith the Lord, Yet ye say:  Wherein hast thou loved us?” (1:2).  The prophet contends that God has loved the Israelites while they have shown contempt for Him.  He has offered them His best while they have brought deformed animals for sacrifice.  The Kohanim have not lived up to their role as ritual or spiritual leaders.  For Malachi, the Temple service is important because it is a manifestation of a covenant that included “teaching truth,” and walking with God “in peace and fairness.”  The prophet reminds the leaders that they are role models.  Their dereliction of their ritual responsibilities is indicative of their failure as shapers of the nation’s moral behavior.  For the people to rise, the leaders must lead.  Leaders cannot wait for the people to tell them what to do.  With the title and the tithes comes responsibility.  Although Malachi’s writings encompass only three chapters, he provides two of the Haftarot.  The prophetic portion read on Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach comes from the third chapter of Malachi.  He is an optimist who believes that in the end, all wrongs will be set right.  The Israelites and the world will know the word of God.  Malachi’s style is rather unique.  For much of his text he avoids the common exhortation or poetry and uses an approach akin to the Socratic Method.
Theme link:  The Torah portion shows God choosing Jacob over Esau even while the two brothers are in the womb.  At the outset of the Haftarah, the prophet reminds the Jews that God has chosen Jacob over Esau and that this choice is proof of His love for His Chosen People.
A Message for the 21st Century:  As we read the words of Malachi this Shabbat, the news is filled with stories about the value of employees in the modern economy.  Are they valued assets or a nagging expense to be dispensed with as soon as it is possible?  The Torah is full of laws concerning the treatment of workers including the commandments to pay workers fairly and in a timely manner.  How important are these laws?  When Malachi describes the coming of the Moshiach he declares that (3:5) “I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness…against those that oppress the hireling in his wages…”  Some of those who like to invoke the Bible and the name of the Divine when declaring their positions seem to be unaware that the behavior that will earn condemnation in the Final Days is the very behavior they choose to adopt in their business practices.
Torah Readings for Rosh Chodesh Kislev Sunday, November 19, 2017

Rosh Chodesh Kislev
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.

Kislev is the third month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah and the ninth month counting from Pesach.  Kislev is most famous for the Chanukah celebration which starts on the 25th day of the month.  Kislev is part of the rainy season.  In Biblical times, if the winter rains had not begun to fall by Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the people expected draught for the following spring.  Since the ancients believed that there was a connection between climate and morality, this lack of rain by Kislev set off special fast days and additional sacrifices in the Temple.  As recorded in the tenth chapter of the Book of Ezra, Kislev, “the ninth month” was indeed the rainy month.  9 Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered themselves together unto Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month; and all the people sat in the broad place before the house of God, trembling because of this matter, and for the great rain.  10 And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them:  'Ye have broken faith, and have married foreign women, to increase the guilt of Israel.  11 Now therefore make confession unto the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do His pleasure; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the foreign women.'  12 Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice:  'As thou hast said, so it is for us to do.’  13 But the people are many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without, neither is this a work of one day or two; for we have greatly transgressed in this matter.”  At the risk of sounding like The Farmer’s Almanac, here is one more weather related item about Kislev.  The 15th of Kislev was considered to be the start of winter.

The 19th day of Kislev is celebrated as the "the New Year of Chassidus (Hasidism)."  “It was on this date, in the year 1798 that the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 - 1812), was freed from his imprisonment in czarist Russia.  More than a personal liberation, this was a watershed event in the history of Chassidism, heralding a new era in the revelation of the ‘inner soul’ of Torah.  The public dissemination of the teachings of Chassidism had in fact begun two generations earlier.  The founder of the chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698 - 1760), revealed to his disciples gleanings from the mystical soul of Torah which had previously been the sole province of select kabbalists in each generation.  This work was continued by the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the ‘Maggid of Mezeritch’ - who is also deeply connected with the date of ‘19 Kislev’:  on this day in 1772, 26 years before Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release from prison, the Maggid returned his soul to his Maker.  Before his passing, he said to his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman:  ‘This day is our yom tov (festival).’  Rabbi Schneur Zalman went much farther than his predecessors, bringing these teachings to broader segments of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  More significantly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman founded the ‘Chabad’ approach - a philosophy and system of study, meditation, and character refinement that made these abstract concepts rationally comprehensible and practically applicable in daily life.  In its formative years, the chassidic movement was the object of strong, and often venomous, opposition from establishment rabbis and laymen.  Even within the chassidic community, a number of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s contemporaries and colleagues felt that he had ‘gone too far’ in tangibilizing and popularizing the hitherto hidden soul of Torah.  In the fall of 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on charges that his teachings and activities threatened the imperial authority of the czar, and was imprisoned in an island fortress in the Neva River in Petersburg.  In his interrogations, he was compelled to present to the czar’s ministers the basic tenets of Judaism and explain various points of chassidic philosophy and practice.  After 53 days, he was exonerated of all charges and released.  Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw these events as a reflection of what was transpiring Above.  He regarded his arrest as but the earthly echo of a Heavenly indictment against his revelation of the most intimate secrets of the Torah.  And he saw his release as signifying his vindication in the Heavenly court.  Following his liberation on 19 Kislev, he redoubled his efforts, disseminating his teachings on a far broader scale, and with more detailed and ‘down-to-earth’ explanations, than before.  The nineteenth of Kislev therefore marks the ‘birth’ of Chassidism:  the point at which it was allowed to emerge from the womb of ‘mysticism’ into the light of day, to grow and develop as an integral part of Torah and Jewish life.”

Modern Day Kislev Miracle
In modern time, some would consider the passage of UN Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947 (16th of Kislev, 5708) as the biggest Kislev miracle since Judah beat the Syrians.  This was the resolution that portioned the British Mandate of Palestine and created the Jewish state that is modern day Israel.  Considering the power and wealth of those opposed to the Jewish state, it was indeed a miracle that the vote went as it did.  One of the driving forces behind the vote was President Harry S. Truman who decided the United States would support the Jewish state because it was the right thing to do.

Kislev Commemorations
6th of Kislev:  Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” premiered.
7th of Kislev:  King Jehoiakim burned the scroll which had been dictated by the prophet Jeremiah to Barcuh ben Heriah.
7th of Kislev:  The Western Allies and the Germans signed an Armistice that signified the official end of World War I with an Allied victory.
17th of Kislev:  Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.
20th of Kislev:  Ezra called together all the men of Judah and Benjamin and told them that they would have to give up their foreign born wives.  This was part of an attempt by the returning exiles to purify and strengthen the House of Israel even though some might say that it altered the definition of “who was a Jew” as can be seen by the Book of Ruth which was written to portray a different point of view.
21st of Kislev:  According to the Talmud, Simeon the Just destroyed the Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim.  The Samaritans had undermined the efforts during the post-exilic period and this move was as much about establishing political sovereignty as it was about wiping out a “high place” intended to compete with Jerusalem.  The victory was marked by a minor festival called Mt. Gerizim Day.
24th of Kislev:  Completion of the foundation of the Second Temple.

Copyright; November, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 11, 2017 Chayei Sarah The Life of Sarah Bereshit

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 11, 2017
Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah)
23:1 - 25:18 Bereshit (Genesis)
Chayei Sarah is the fifth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis) and the third sedrah in the Abraham cycle.  The sedrah takes its name from the second and third Hebrew words in the first sentence of the reading.  “And the life of Sarah (Chayei Sarah) was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; (these were) the years of Sarah’s life.
From Bereshit through Va-yayra we have been treated to a torrent of action including:  Creation, Flood, a journey to a new land and a new deity, Earthquakes, a miracle birth and a mountain climbing expedition leading to a heightened level of spirituality.  With Chayei Sarah, we enjoy a brief moment of tranquility where we can catch our breath before continuing on our journey through the Torah.  The sedrah divides into three parts.  First, there is the death and burial of Sarah.  Second comes the quest for Isaac’s wife and his marriage to Rebecca.  Last, there are the final days of Abraham complete with his death and burial.  Yet in this apparent sea of Torah tranquility there are many lessons to be learned.
The Death and Burial of Sarah (23:1-20)
What do we learn from the fact that the sedrah begins with the death of Sarah but that is called “The Life of Sarah?”  Jews recognize that people have no control over the conditions of their birth.  But, they do have control over how they lead their lives.  We measure people by their accomplishments and we only know what they are when a person passes away.  Jews do not celebrate the memory of the departed on the anniversary of their birth.  Instead we observe their yahrzeit.
How did Sarah die?  The commentaries speculate that her death was somehow connected with the Akedah; that somehow she had been misled to believe that Isaac had been killed and she died of shock or a broken heart.  However, the text only says, “Sarah died….”  Maybe this is a reminder of another Jewish view of life.  All lives end in the same place.  How they end is less important than how we spent the time getting to our final destination.
In Abraham’s quest for a burial site for Sarah we see a precursor of many later Jewish customs related to death.  Jews bury our dead in a respectful manner.  We do not leave them by the side of the road.  Traditional Jews do not even allow cremation.  According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “You have to bury the whole body, not just part of the body in order to fulfill the entire commandment of burial.”  Escorting the dead to the cemetery is considered to be an “ultimate” Mitzvah because the dead cannot repay us for what we have done.  Jews are not buried with non-Jews.
Abraham’s quest for a burial site is another reminder that his life was a strange mixture of grand spiritual promises contrasted against the reality of daily existence.  God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation.  But he had to wait until he was an old man before he finally had a son.  God promised him that his children would possess a great land, but in fact he was a landless nomad who had to pay an exorbitant price to secure a burial plot for his wife and himself.  Centuries later, the Zionists would create the Jewish National Fund to buy land from the Arabs just as Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah from the Hittites.
The Quest for Isaac’s Wife and the Marriage to Rebecca (24:1-67)
(The story line is pretty straight forward and, thanks to the fact that Eliezer repeats the details, we get to “hear” it twice.  The following are a few highlights that you may find worth noting.)
Sarah is dead.  Abraham knows he is getting close to death.  He wants to ensure that Isaac will have a proper helpmate to carry on the tradition begun by his parents.  He does not want his son to marry a Canaanite.  The text does not say why.  Possibly he is afraid that by marrying a local girl, Isaac will be assimilated into the Canaanite culture and lose his identity.  Abraham also does not want Isaac to leave Canaan to go looking for a wife.  The fact that he is adamant that Isaac not leave the Promised Land may have something to do with a practical fear that if Isaac leaves, he will not return.  And the promise of the Promised Land is a key part of the Covenant.
When we meet Rebecca at the well, we see an almost idealized creature.  She “was very beautiful.…”  She is strong enough to draw water for all of the camels.  In tending to Eliezer’s needs, including bringing him to her home, we see her as kind and hospitable.  And in deciding to leave immediately with Eliezer we see her as moral and decisive.  We also meet Laban for the first time.  Here he has the manner of a trickster and a petty thief.  By the time we see him again with Jacob we will see a much more sinister character.  And in the Haggadah, Laban is described as being worse than Pharaoh.  The marriage between Rebecca and Isaac was arranged.  Such was the norm in those times.  Note how this section ends “…and he took Rebecca as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”  Compare this with the modern concept of love, which sometimes is little more than passion, that is the prerequisite for marriage.  For some Jews, marriage is seen as the joining of two people with common values whose relationship will deepen as they develop a joint pathway on the road of life.
The Final Days of Abraham (25:1-18)
Sarah is dead.  Abraham is alone.  So, “Abraham took another wife.…”  In Judaism, a man without a wife is seen as being incomplete, even Abraham.  Who was this woman?  The Torah calls her Keturah.  Some commentators say that this was Hagar by another name.  At a very human level, this does not make any sense.  Abraham loved Sarah.  Hagar had so insulted and mistreated Sarah that Sarah had demanded she be banished.  It is hard to see Abraham elevating the status of a woman whom his beloved Sarah had had such a negative view.  Regardless of who the partner was (and there those who claim she was merely a concubine) apparently this marriage was pleasurable because it produced several children and because Abraham died “at a good ripe age, old and contented.…”  Isaac is Abraham’s chosen successor.  Abraham provides his new offspring with material gifts, but he sends them away from Isaac and the Promised Land.  In a touching moment of filial devotion, Isaac and Ishmael (note Isaac is mentioned first) come together and bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah.  There is no animus or anger between the two sons.  This will not be the last graveside reconciliation of which we will read.  The sedrah actually ends with a recitation of the descendants of Ishmael and the announcement of Ishmael’s death.  It is as if an era has come to an end.  Sarah is dead.  Abraham is dead.  Ishmael is dead.  The way is now clear for Isaac to assume his responsibilities as the leader of the next generation.
The Sedrah is permeated with death.  It begins with death and ends with death.  As depicted here, for the Jew, death is a part of the life cycle.  It is neither feared not embraced.  Rather, it is accepted.
The question is “Who was Sarah?”  It is of major importance since she was the first Matriarch and is a role model for Jewish women.  Sarah is unique in many ways.  Apparently, God saw her as being special.  She is the only woman in the Torah whose name is changed by God.  She is the one who will provide the child who will follow in Abraham’s footsteps (17:19).  She is the only woman to whom God speaks directly (18:15).  Finally, in the case of Hagar and Ishmael, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah.  As Rabbi Steinsaltz points out, Sarah is Abraham’s partner.  Together they traveled to a new land, creating a new environment in the image of the God to whom they were both now bound.  In the life of Sarah, we can see that “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” is not the Jewish ideal for women.
Long Life
Moshe will live to be 120 years old and that is supposed to be the ideal number of years for the righteous.  Yet Sarah dies at 127.  Ishmael dies at 137.  And Abraham lives to be 175 years.  When completing the Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, one always says a verse that is first found in this sedrah, “Now Abraham was old, well on in years and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.” (24:1).  There are several commentaries on the formula used to describe the length of Sarah’s life.  Instead of saying she was 127 years old, the Torah breaks it down into three parts, 100 years, 20 years and seven years.  Most of these commentaries have to do with the tri-partite nature of perfection.  In his discussion on the subject, Rabbi Schneerson includes the following thoughts:  “…when a man finds himself in an environment detrimental to his standards, there are three ways in which he can preserve his integrity:
1.  He can strengthen himself inwardly not to be influenced by his surroundings.  This is an incomplete victory because; if he were to relax his self-control he would capitulate and lower his status.
2.  He can separate himself from those around him.  This victory is also incomplete because he has not met temptation head-on and is as prone as ever to lower his status.
3.  He can set out to influence his environment and raise it to his own level.  This is a complete triumph over one’s surroundings - the dangers have not only been avoided, they have been removed entirely.”
Meaningful Life
From Abraham we learn that it is not just important to lead a long life.  A long life is only a blessing when it is filled with meaning.  As Rabbi Schneerson wrote, “Time in this life is granted to us not merely to achieve a certain amount of good works, but also so that time itself be sanctified by our actions.  A day filled with Mitzvoth is a day which has been made to fulfill its purpose.”
Burial Site
Yes, the Hebron mentioned in this sedrah is the same Hebron you read about in the newspapers today.  Our claim to it is even more ancient than the claim to Jerusalem.  In purchasing the Cave of Machpelah, Abraham bought not just the cave, but the land around it.  So when the Israelis agreed to partition in 1947 and the Oslo Accords they were willing to give up a very real piece of real estate and our tradition for a real peace.
The Nature of Prayer
In The Bedside Torah, Rabbi Stanley Artson points out that this week’s reading contains a valuable insight into the nature of prayer.  When most of us think of prayer, we think of the stylized world of ritual and the Siddur.  We forget that prayer is, in one sense, a sincere and often spontaneous conversation between the individual and God.  When Eliezer arrives at the well and starts looking for a wife, he really is not sure if he will be successful.  So he prays.  Not some set blessing, but a spontaneous, heartfelt plea for Divine guidance.  Even when we are following the set rituals of prayer, it is not supposed to be some rote mumbling.  Like Eliezer’s prayer at the well, our prayers, either spontaneous or from the rich well of tradition, should be heartfelt and sincere.
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the approach of evening; and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold, (there were) camels coming.  And Rebecca raised her eyes, and saw Isaac…” (24: 63 & 64).  In other words, Isaac and Rebecca saw each other for the first time in the late afternoon after the Patriarch had just finished praying.  Each of the Patriarchs is connected with one of the three daily services.  Because of this verse, Isaac is tied to Minchah, the afternoon service which is traditionally performed in a time frame that starts 2.5 hours before nightfall and sunset.
The Children of Abraham
There is an interfaith group styled The Children of Abraham that seeks to find the common ground between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  While a case might be made that the common ancestor is Adam and thus the effort should be styled The Children of Adam, it is a bit of stretch to say that Christians and Moslems are Children of Abraham since each of them claim to have come to supplant Abraham’s heir, Isaac.  However, this sedrah does provide us with a chance to examine the common expressions of faith found in the TaNaCh and the Koran.  In the spirit of open dialogue that is the true measure of Torah Study, consider the following commentary by David Curzon, an Australian Jew living in New York City.
The Ones Cut Off
Today when I read in the portion of Chayei Sarah of Abraham's purchase of the cave at Machpelah, the massacre at that site in February 1994 intrudes on my thoughts.  Its intrusion forces me to see the theme of reconciliation that exists in the Jewish tradition concerning Chayei Sarah.  In the text itself we have Abraham bowing to the Hittites and describing himself as a stranger among them who wants to purchase a permanent claim to a small part of their land.  Abraham is portrayed as willing to ignore the advantage taken of him by the seller in order to have the privilege of owning some of this land.
Later in the Torah portion, at Genesis 25:1, we are told that at the end of his life "Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah."  In the Midrash of Breshit Rabbah we find the flat assertion, attributed to Rabbi Yehudah, that Keturah was none other than Hagar.  This Midrash implies that Abraham kept in touch with Hagar and Ishmael after he expelled them from his home, which was also their home.  As the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz commented, in remarks on Israel's Army Radio:  "We can see from the Midrash and Aggadah to what extent this incident bothered pious Torah scholars."  In the midrash's version of events, Abraham must have made secret trips to see Hagar and Ishmael during the intervening years before he married Hagar, like the secret meetings held over many years between Israeli prime ministers and King Hussein.
At the portion's end, after Abraham's death, there is the surprising reappearance of Ishmael, apparently mourning his father Abraham in harmony with his estranged brother Isaac:  "And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah" (Bereshit 25:9).
My eye is also caught by a midrash on Abraham, also in Bereshit Rabbah, in which the anonymous darshan, or exegete, quotes the first phrase of the first psalm, “Happy is the man," comments "This is Abraham," and then shows, phrase by phrase, the application of the psalm to Abraham's life.  The texts the darshan uses to prove his assertion are, of course, drawn from the Torah.  In the spirit of reconciliation, I will follow this midrash, using verses on Abraham from the Koran as my proof texts:
Happy is the man:  This is Abraham, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 4, "And God took Abraham for a friend."
that walks not in the counsel of the wicked, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 21, with God speaking in the royal plural, "We gave Abraham his rectitude."
nor sat in the seat of the scornful, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 11, "Our messengers came to Abraham with good tidings; they said, 'Peace!'"
He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth fruit in its season, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 2, "Abraham said, 'My Lord, make this land secure and provide its people with fruits.’''
and in whatever he does, he shall prosper, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 21, referring to the midrashic story of Abraham being cast into the fiery furnace by Nimrod, "We said, 'O fire, be coolness and safety for Abraham.'''
For the Lord regards the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish, as it is said in the Koran, Sura 108, "Surely those who hate are the ones cut off."
This dictum, "Those who hate are the ones cut off," is both a psychological truth of the inner life of the individual and a political policy essential for peace.
As it was said by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking of Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of the Cave of Machpelah and as we rightly require the leaders of the children of Ishmael to say about each of their terrorists and murderers:  You are not part of us.
In the name of the collaborative effort needed to maintain peace, as it is said at the close of Chayei Sarah:  "And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah."
Cave of Machpelah and Hebron
The Cave of Machpelah described for the first time in this portion becomes the burial place of the patriarchs and the matriarchs with the exception of Rachel.  By describing it as being located at Hebron, this ancient city takes on a special significance for the Jewish people which has lasted into modern time.  But this connection might be read as an etiological tale designed to give a special importance to Hebron by King David and his heirs.  As we are reminded in Kings 2:11, David’s 40 year reign began with a seven year stint in Hebron before moving on to Jerusalem.  By tying his first capital to the patriarchs, later generations were giving it a special importance.  Furthermore, Leah, the mother of Judah, the tribe of David, is buried in Machpelah at Hebron.  And Rachel, the mother of the “Joseph tribes” who rebelled against the House of David is not buried at Hebron.
The Cave of Machpelah and Hebron II
Jews have lived at Hebron since Biblical times.  There have been periodic expulsions, the first one probably coming at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.  But the Jews have always returned.  The most recent expulsions were as a result of violent Arab riots in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the failed Arab attempt to destroy Israel at the moment of its birth in 1948.  As is the case with so many other sites sacred to Jews, other religions have laid claim to Hebron and then sought to deny it to the Jewish people.  Deploring the murderous behavior of Baruch Goldstein does not mean that Jews have to give up their connection to the ancient burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  After all, the Bible clearly states that Abraham paid an exorbitant price for the cave and the land that surrounds it so that nobody could contest the right to ownership.
Aging and the End of the Life Cycle
As the Boomers begin to hit their fifties and sixties, we are now hearing more and more about this topic.  Think of it - seventy-two year old Henry Winkler (Fonzi) is selling Reverse Mortgages for a safe and secure retirement.  Seventy-year old Donald Trump defeated sixty-nine year old Hillary Clinton for the Presidency of the United States.  The lives of the Patriarchs offer us three views of this point in the life cycle.  In Isaac’s case, he spent his last days in a state of physically infirmity.  “His eyes were too dim to see” and his mobility must have been limited since he had to have Esau catch, prepare and serve “the dish he likes so much.”  But even worse we can assume he spent his last twenty or more years in a house overhung with sorrow and remorse.  Esau was angry with him for having given the blessing to Jacob and Rebecca must have been consumed with an overwhelming sadness at not being able to see her beloved Jacob.  Talk about doom and gloom.  In Jacob’s case there is no need to assume.  The Torah is very specific about how the Patriarch felt in his final years.  When Pharaoh asked “How many are the years of your life?”  “Jacob replied, ‘The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty.  Few and hard have been the years of my life.”  But he does not stop there.  The blessings for Ruben, Simeon and Levy read almost like curses.  There is no mistaking the undercurrent of anger he feels for each of them.  Even at the moment of death he cannot let it go.  And then there is Abraham.  The death of Sarah does not put an end to his active life.  First he conducts the very detailed and successful negotiations for the purchase of the burial ground.  This is certainly not the behavior of somebody suffering from diminished capacity.  Then he arranges the search for his son’s wife.  He actively works to ensure that the next generation will be able to fulfill the commitments of the Covenant.  Last but not least his “second family” shows that he is not diminished physically or financially since he has able to “give gifts” his sons and their children “while he was living” and before “he sent them away from his son Isaac.”  In Abraham we see the ideal - a person who remains active, engaged in life, until the end of days.
1:1-31 1 Kings
The Book:  “The Books of Kings is the fourth book of the Former Prophets section of the Bible.  In Jewish tradition, Kings is a single book.  The division into two books, I Kings and II Kings, comes from the Septuagint according to which the Books of Samuel and Kings are a single unit divided into four books.  The name of this book of the TaNaCh (Bible) is derived from its contents, which deals with Kings of the United Kingdom and the separate royal houses that provided the Kings of Israel and Judah.  The book of Kings deals with a period of time from the end of King David’s reign (970 BCE approx.) through the start of the Babylonian Exile (586 BCE).  First Kings or I Kings deals with a period of time from the last days of David though the reign of King Ahab in the Northern Kingdom and the subsequent fall of the House of Omri at the end of the 8th century BCE.
The Message:  The prophetic portion describes a scene just prior to the death of King David.  Adonijah, David’s fourth son, is in the process of naming himself king while his father lives and without his father’s blessing.  Adonijah thinks he is in line for the throne, in part, because his three older brothers are dead.  Two of them have died as a result of attempts to replace David.  In the midst of this intrigue we find Bathsheba.  She enters, reminding David of his promise to name their son Solomon as king.  Her pleadings are reinforced by the prophet Nathan, the voice of morality in the kingdom.  At the end of the reading, David keeps his promise and names Solomon.  The haftarah stops at this point, but further reading of 1 Kings will show violence and intrigue reminiscent of the Godfather or other such lurid tales.
Theme-Link:  There are two links between the sedrah and the haftarah.  In both instances, the events in Chayei Sarah stand in stark contrast to those described in the first chapter of 1 Kings.  The first link has to do with the selection of an heir.  In the sedrah it is Isaac.  In the haftarah it is Solomon.  The violence and intrigue certainly stands in stark contrast with the peaceful way in which Isaac assumes the mantle of leadership from Abraham while his other children accept their inheritance and depart in peace.  The second is the difference in the atmosphere of the lives of the two leaders - Abraham and David - as they face death.  There is a fascinating juxtaposition between the death of Abraham and approaching death of David.  Abraham was a nomad dwelling in his tents at the edge of civilization.  He tried to lead a decent life free from guile and deceit.  And he died old and contented.  David was the mighty warrior king.  He died a powerful potentate in his palace.  But his last moments on earth were ones of intrigue and anguish as befits a man who cut more than one moral corner in his life.  This is not meant as criticism of King David.  Rather this scene is a reminder of the price one must sometimes pay for power and for being an active player in the world.
Chronicles v Kings:  There are two descriptions of Solomon gaining the throne of his father.  The first is found in Kings, the opening round of which we read this morning.  It is filled with the kind of intrigue we find in the succession of the Caesars or the English monarchs in the days of Henry VIII.  The second description is found in First Chronicles.  “Now David was old and full of days; and he made Solomon his son king over Israel.” (23:1).  “And they made Solomon the son of David king the second time…Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father.”  This is not the only time that the version of events in Chronicles varies with that found in the Torah or in Neviim.  With all due respect to the commentators, the version in Chronicles sometimes seems to be a “sanitized” version of events.  From the point of view of literature, the version found in Chronicles usually lacks passion and color.
Copyright; November, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin