Torah tl;dr: “Bereshit”

We need each other.

Now that we have passed Simchat Torah, we begin our Torah cycle anew at the beginning. And still more to say in 60 seconds.

Listen to the latest episode of my podcast here:

60 Seconds to Wisdom. Short Teachings on the Weekly Torah Portion. Suitable for All Who Seek.

If a Tree Talks in the Forest, Does it Make a Sound? (On Tu Bishvat)

Today is Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees.

Originally an ancient holiday used to determine the age of trees and the fitness of fruit for Temple offerings, the day in contemporary times has become an opportunity to reflect on Jewish views of nature. Adopting a mystical tradition, we hold a Seder (as on Passover) and eat fruits and nuts and share stories and songs about trees and other aspects of nature.

In preparing for Tu Bishvat this year, I came across this midrash (Torah commentary):

In Genesis 2:5 we read, “No shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the filed had yet sprung up because God had not caused it to rain and there was no person to till the earth.” The word for shrub is siach, which means that the trees conversed (m’sichin) with one another. (Genesis Rabbah 13:1)

The rabbis of the midrash are engaging in a bit of word play. In the verse from Genesis (from the story of Creation), the word used for “shrub” in Hebrew is siach. The word siach can also have the meaning of “conversation.” Because of the two meanings embedded in the one word, the rabbis imagine that the trees therefore are conversing with each other.

This idea of a conversation among trees is fascinating, and I thought it was a beautiful metaphor. And then I came across this video:

The idea of trees talking to one another is not just metaphor, but science. Trees communicate; the trees of a forest are not solitary, but rather deeply intertwined and connected.

This is a good reminder this Tu Bishvat. Oftentimes on Tu Bishvat we focus on our relationship with trees and nature: How trees meet our needs for resources, oxygen, food, etc. and how therefore we must meet their needs as well. But we would do well to focus on how the trees have a relationship with each other, how life on this planet is deeply interconnected and complex. And the most humbling aspect of that notion is that the extent of that complexity is probably unknowable.

Happy Tu Bishvat!

Here We Are Again, For the Very First Time

This was one of my favorite phrases to come out of my recent 18-month program on mindfulness and embodied spirituality for Jewish clergy, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spoke them as we came to one of our last mediation sessions of the program.

I echoed these words as I stood on the bimah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services this year, and I thought of them as we stood with the Torah unrolled at Simchat Torah a few days ago.

Here we are again, for the very first time.

I love the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the singing and the dancing. I love throwing candy to the kids and having a glass of schnapps with the grown ups. I love the spiritual raucousness—the idea of letting loose and having fun in a context of ritual and spirituality.

But it isn’t just fun—unrolling the entire Torah scroll and seeing it held aloft by the members of the community (including those who will celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in the coming year, standing next to their Torah portion) is to me one of the most moving sights. It is moving because it is so rare—we usually engage with the Torah scroll a few columns at a time in a controlled viewing. It is moving because of the physical beauty of a Torah scroll—the weathered parchment created from natural sources and the careful and exquisite calligraphy. And it is moving because of the ancientness of the words themselves, and how generations of Jews have taken them to heart and made them a part of their lives.

And it is moving because of the fact of it being a scroll. There are no real divisions, the words and verses and chapters and books flow into one another. Seeing the whole scroll reminds us of the fact that we liturgically read the whole thing in order, that we are not able to cherry pick verses or sections we want to read, we must read (and wrestle with) all of it. And seeing the scroll we see that once you reach the end, there is nowhere else to go but back to the beginning.

When we gathered for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the new year, we gathered at the same time and the same place, but we were not the same people. We had lived a whole year with its joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. We were there again, for the very first time.

As we set out to engage with the cycle of Torah reading again, the same is true. The words on the scroll never change. We read the same stories, the same laws, the same ethical teachings every year. But we are different each time we read those words. What speaks to us, what resonates with us, what challenges us will be different this year than it was last. As we approach each portion again this year, we can say, here we are again, for the very first time.

The Torah, like us, ends with death and begins with the creation of life. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, after having viewed the Promised Land he will not enter, died and is buried. We then go back to the beginning, and read about the creation of the world. Our Torah reading cycle begins anew this Shabbat with Genesis 1.

One of the seeming great ironies of the Torah is that although the narrative arc of the text is the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and covenant in the Promised Land, the Israelites never make it there. The Torah ends with Moses’s death, with the Israelites still encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The scroll ends with the journey incomplete.

But perhaps this is not an irony after all. Perhaps the story is meant to be incomplete, that it is not so much about reaching where we are going, but the journey to take us there. For really, do we ever really get to where we are going? We may set goals, we may make plans, but their fulfillment just leads to new goals and new plans. Learning leads to learning, experience leads to experience.

Our lives are linear, but they are also cyclical. We grow and return, return and grow. The cycle of the seasons turns, the cycle of the year turns, and each time we meet them new and fresh. Every day an ending, and every day a beginning.

Each day, we say, here we are again, for the very first time.

At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule...
At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule…

The Significant Anonymous

As a rabbi, people often ask me who my favorite character from the Torah is.

Well, actually, no one has ever asked me that. But I will answer anyway. And while it is hard to choose, my vote for one of my favorite characters is the mysterious man in the Joseph story.

Who, you may ask?

Let me say at the onset that I am fudging a bit. Our weekly Torah reading this week is Shemot, the beginning of the Exodus story: the birth of Moses, his coming of age, his flight to Midian after killing an Egyptian task master, his call at the burning bush, etc. Now a major motion picture—again. We just finished reading the Joseph story, which comes at the end of Genesis. So this is a reflection backwards not forward. (Though our monthly Temple Beth Hatfiloh Torah study group will be beginning the Joseph story this Saturday.)

Ok, back to the mystery man. The outline of the Joseph story is perhaps familiar to us. Jacob had 12 sons with four wives. His favorite is Joseph, the first born son of his favorite wife Rachel. He shows him favor and gets him a fancy coat, which does not endear him to his brothers. Joseph also has the gift of dream interpretation, and has a series of dreams that tell him he will one day be raised above his brothers. In the spirit of honesty (or foolishness) he tells them of his dreams.

One day, Joseph is sent to find his brothers who are herding their sheep. When he is approaching, the brothers make a plan to kill him, and they take him and throw him in a pit. A caravan of traders pass by, and the brothers change their plans—they haul him out of the pit and sell him into slavery instead. They do tell their father that he was killed by an animal, and brandish his torn and bloody coat as “evidence.”

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is first a servant and then a prisoner after being falsely accused of assault. And through a series of steps involving dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is given a high position in the government overseeing food collection and distribution. When famine hits, his brothers leave Canaan for Egypt in search of food, only to be reunited with Joseph. This then sets up the Exodus story, as Jacob (also known as Israel) and the rest of his family move down to Egypt. The saga of the Israelites begins.

So where was the mystery man? There is an interesting detail in the story. When Joseph is sent to find his brothers prior to them selling him into slavery, the Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. (Genesis 37:12-18)

Joseph arrives at Shechem where he believes his brothers are, but they had moved on to Dothan. But, there would have been no way for Joseph to know this. If the man had not been there, Joseph would not have known to go on to Dothan, where his brothers would seize him and sell him into slavery. Therefore, it is this mystery man “wandering scarecrowin the field” who sets in motion the course of action that results in Joseph being sold and sent to Egypt, meeting the Pharaoh and rising to authority, and the Israelites moving to Egypt. This man is one of the most important in all of Torah.

Who was he? Some commentators say he is just a man, some other commentators say he is an angel.

But regardless of who he was, we can all recognize him. We can all recognize that we have people like this in our lives: anonymous people who have made an impact on our life’s journey, people whose names we don’t know but whose guidance and influence have been huge. We may have understood their impact in the moment. Or our interactions with them may have seemed insignificant at the time, but become significant much later. Or we were not ready to hear what they had to say in the moment, but their words resonate after the fact. But in any event, we would not be who we are without them.

We may be on our way to Shechem, but really need to be in Dothan, but we may not have made the journey ourselves. We needed someone to show us the way.

As we travel life’s path, there are those who seem significant to us, and those who seem insignificant. But ultimately everyone is significant because they make us who we are. Think for yourself who you saw “wandering in the fields” of your journey and who set you on a new course, or helped you along the way, or shared words that helped sustain you. Their names may be known to you, or they may not. In any event, offer up some words of gratitude for them for making you who you are. (I personally have been thinking recently about the doctors and nurses and EMTs who have helped me through my health challenges, many of whom I do not know.)

Which does take us to this week’s portion: when we are introduced to Moses at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah first introduces us to Moses’s parents. But the text does not tell us their names, only “a man of the house of Levi” and “his wife.” This allows Moses’s arrival to be that much more dramatic. But it also tells us that significance lies not in the fact of who one is, but what one does.

And sometimes, the seemingly minor engagement with an anonymous person can change everything.

God Tested Abraham. And Abraham Returned the Favor.

This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to parashat Vayera. While in the first couple of portions we have discrete stories being told each week-first about creation, then about Noah-and later in Genesis we will tell the Joseph saga over several weeks, this week’s portion is packed with several very dense and powerful stories about our ancient ancestors.

This week’s Torah portion also takes us back a few weeks to the High Holidays, for these are the stories we read as part of our Rosh Hashanah services. These stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac are told and retold, and are some of the most familiar in the Torah. We recently wrestled with them, and we will wrestle with them again.

One of those stories is the Akedah, Hebrew for “binding,” which is chapter 22 of Genesis. It is in this story that God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be offered up as a sacrifice to God. Abraham takes his son and the wood necessary to build an altar and sets off on the three day journey to the location. Upon climbing the mountain, Isaac asks his father about the animal for sacrifice, and Abraham replies that “God will provide.” Once they get to the summit, Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it. Raising his knife to kill his son, an angel calls out and tells Abraham to stop, that he is not to do it. Abraham sees a ram in the thicket and sacrifices it instead, and the angel blesses Abraham for heeding God.akedah

[In a happy interfaith coincidence, we are reading this story this week soon after our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrated Eid al-Adha, the holiday which marks the story in the Koran of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son Ismail. The sharing of these stories, albeit in different forms, is a powerful spiritual link between our two faiths.]

This is a troubling story, and a puzzling story. A conventional understanding is that God is “testing” Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham, in going through the steps to sacrifice his son, passes the test. God doesn’t want human blood, but God wants obedience.

But as we know, being Jews who wrestle with text and create oceans of commentary, the conventional understanding is only one understanding. When we confront the story year after year, both on the High Holidays and as part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, we do so with fresh eyes, with a new perspective, with another year of life and experience under our belts.

Indeed, one of the blessings of our community is the fact that Howard Schwartz, a TBH member, wrestles with this story year after year on our behalf, presenting new insight and understandings of the story on Rosh Hashanah. Whether speaking from the bimah or leading a discussion on the second day, Howard always has probing questions and challenges for thought.

This year during the discussion I could not shake the idea that Abraham was not as passive as we portray him to be. The person who challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, arguing with God to save the cities if 10 righteous people could be found within (Genesis 18); and the person who brought his distress to God in response to Sarah’s request to banish Hagar (Genesis 21); now silently and obediently goes to do what many would consider a terrible act?

But maybe, Abraham is not being passive and obedient. Maybe Abraham is being just as rebellious as ever, demonstrating some of the “holy chutzpah” which has defined his being up until this point. For Abraham is a party to this covenant with God, and knows a few things about the terms of the agreement. Abraham knows that covenant is meant to continue through his descendants, and that his descendants are meant to be numerous. So by allowing Abraham to kill his son, God is either planning to provide a new heir at a later date (probably not likely), or else God will be violating the terms of this sacred agreement. Abraham is betting that God won’t go back on God’s word.

So the story is about God testing Abraham. But Abraham then tests God. What is the nature of the tests?

The story starts out:

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.”  And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.”

God tests Abraham, as the text says, by asking him to take his son to Moriah to be sacrificed. But what if, in order to pass the test, Abraham is not supposed to say, “OK,” but he is supposed to say, “no way!” That refusing was not disobedience, but rather in order to pass the test, Abraham was supposed to refuse. God wanted to see if Abraham would abide by the covenant, understanding the need for an heir, especially after Ishmael was banished. Would Abraham uphold the covenant?, God is testing. But by carrying out the request, Abraham is actually calling God’s bluff and thus testing God, to see if God will let Abraham carry out what it is God requested.

In other words, God’s test is verses 1-2. At verse 3 the tables are turned and Abraham is testing God.

The story plays out, and God blinks. Though God told Abraham to do it, God didn’t really mean it, and had to come clean and stop him from doing it. God then has to cover God’s tracks by claiming that is what was meant to happen all along. Or, on a deeper level, by not “withholding his son” Abraham validated and redefined the covenant by proving that the ability to challenge God is a hallmark of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Thus the implications for us reading this story is that the Torah teaches we are not meant to comply with an unquestioning obedience to God. On the other hand we are meant to challenge and to question. We are meant to challenge and question God, tradition, authority and convention.

For isn’t this what has defined us as a people?

From ancient times to now we question and challenge. A recent Pew study of the American Jewish landscape portrays an ever changing people willing to confront the conventions of what it means to be Jewish. It demonstrates that the definition of Jewishness is dynamic. What is static is the connection to Judaism itself. Similarly our own personal relationships with God may change over time. What doesn’t change is the idea of God itself.

Our ancients understood this in terms of covenant. We are in covenant with the divine and we are in covenant with each other. That does not change. But as Abraham demonstrated, what does change is how we understand and define that covenant.