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Chaye Sarah – Seeking Character

The narrative of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac is curious, and it offers many insights into the characters of all involved. A couple of such insights follow:

Abraham specifically sent his servant back to Haran, to the very place from which the Almighty had directed him to relocate. The commentaries relate that Abraham didn’t want to incorporate into his family anyone from the Canaanite population, as they were descendants of Canaan and bore the curse that Noah had imposed upon them. Other explanations are given as well. But why did Abraham specifically seek in Haran?

One reason we could imagine is that he wished to keep it in the family. A marriage is seen as an act of kindness to the other and Abraham likely felt that his first recipient of kindness should be his own extended family. The Ktav Sofer, however, offers another suggestion. When Abraham took his household with him from Haran to Canaan the verse tells us that he took along also “the souls they had made in Haran.” (Genesis 12:5) Rashi cites the Midrash which interprets this to allude to all the converts to monotheism Abraham and Sarah had influenced. They had made a great impact on their former society of Haran, although in Canaan we find no reference to such influence. Perhaps the people of Canaan were more set in their ways and less impressionable. Abraham therefore directed his servant to go to Haran, a place where he knew people were impressionable, in order to seek Isaac’s life partner. He didn’t want to take his chances elsewhere and it was crucial to him that the woman serving as the bearer of his offspring be someone who can be inspired to live a godly life.

Later on, when Abraham’s servant arrived at the well in Haran, he paused to observe the girls drawing water. He stipulated a condition that only such a girl who would respond to his request for a drink by offering also to water his camels would qualify as a bride for Isaac. The Midrash relates that when Rebeca approached the well to draw water she did not need to lower the pail down. The water rose to her service. When Abraham’s servant observed that miracle he took his chances of asking her for a drink, hoping that she would meet his stipulated conditions, which she did. Rabbi Eliezer Shach poses the question why the miracle was not sufficient evidence that she was a righteous girl and suited for Isaac? Why did the servant have to pursue his pre-stated conditions after witnessing this miracle?

Rav Shach explains that miracles do not provide evidence of a person’s character. Abraham’s servant was tasked to find a girl suitable for merging with Abraham’s family. The ready kindness that was practiced in Abraham’s home had to be in her nature as well. A miracle worker can at the same time be a self-centered and destructive individual. The servant therefore needed to continue and expose Rebeca’s character to determine that she had a sweet nature to go along with all her other qualities.

Vayera – Responding to Crises

The Mishna in Avot teaches us that Abraham was tested with 10 ordeals. Those ranged from initial challenges to his monotheistic faith coming from the pagan society in which he lived, all the way to the binding of Isaac which appears at the end of this week’s Parsha. In between he had to deal with uprooting his household and relocating to a new region. He endured the pain of childlessness, he dealt with the privations of famine, the abduction of his wife Sarah; He found himself caught in the middle of wars between local tribes, as well as strife and rivalry within his household and more.

These ordeals tested Abraham’s resolve in his relationship with the Almighty. More than that, however, the struggles fueled his development of character. Abraham was forced to flex his mental and spiritual muscles time and again, which strengthened those attributes and reinforced his resilience and resolve, forming the foundation for a future nation who would follow in his path.

What was special about Abraham was not his trials, however. Everybody goes through ordeals and challenges. Nobody is given a pass in this life. The true test is whether we respond to these challenges and how we respond. Abraham was recovering from a painful procedure at an advanced age. He was not expected to continue his famed practice of hospitality while he was recovering. But he would not let an opportunity to extend his kindness pass. He invited the three travelers into his home, making them welcome and providing refreshments and respite from the heat. Abraham could have similarly turned a blind eye to the fate of Sodom and its sister cities. He knew that Lot would be extricated before the cities were overturned. He really had no stake in Sodom. But he spared no effort to seek merit for Sodom and ameliorate its plight. His sensitivity to the suffering of others, his determination to find the good in the other, his response to the ordeals, set him apart from everyone around him.

Life throws many trials at us, both small and great. The nature of these challenges, their intensity and duration, do not serve as a measure of our worth or character. The trials themselves show nothing about us. Our responses to these trials, however, reveal a great deal about our character. After 9/11 the president of the US broadcast his message, urging Americans to go back to their routines, return to the shopping malls, to the daily grind of work and entertainment. The sentiment was to try and not internalize the event, to avoid having the tragedy cause lasting effects on average Americans.

That may have been the appropriate counsel for the time, although as individuals we can do better. Judaism is very clear that God makes all events occur, that God is directly involved in every aspect of life on this earth, both major and minor. We therefore cannot be true to our faith without acknowledging this and without responding to His call.

How do we appropriately respond to God’s tap on our shoulder? The earthquake that rocked New Zealand in mid November had the power to dramatically alter our lives, although we seem to have gotten off with a severe warning. It is easy to get lost in the technicalities explaining the mechanism of the earth’s tectonic plates grinding against one another, but that distracts us from the real issue. This was a tap on our shoulder. There is a message here. How should we react? Ultimately the test is not merely to survive and move on but to pick up the message and respond to it. The one thing we have confidence in when everything else is in upheaval, the one thing that should be our rock and stability no matter what else is happening, is the ground beneath our feet. When even the ground flops and heaves, threatening to crack the walls of our homes and cause roofs to cave in, we struggle to find an alternative anchor. What should we do? How should we respond?

The Torah teaches us how we should not respond. Due to Ishmael’s dangerous conduct around Isaac Sarah demanded that he be cast out along with his mother Hagar. Hagar trudged through the desert until Ishmael grew weary and feverish. Anticipating the death of her child Hagar placed him in the shade of a bush and sat at a distance. “She went and sat herself at a distance the distance an arrow flies, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the boy.” and she sat at a distance and she raised her voice and wept.” (Genesis 21:16)

At the sign of a crisis Hagar withdrew. When her son needed her most she put herself at the center of her world, building an emotional wall rather than comfort her dying child. This is recorded in the Torah to remind us that our base nature has such tendencies and we need to overcome such instincts. We need to be better than Hagar.

We have seen many upheavals recently. The physical upheaval of the shaking earth is a physical manifestation of upheavals around the world. I have not expressed any political views on American politics and the following is merely an observation and does not indicate my personal feelings. Many liberal Jews are devastated by the recent election results in the United States. Entire communities are in shock and mourning, literally weeping in regards to America’s future. Hagar threw in the towel in despair, shutting herself out of what she assumed would be the inevitable result. Abraham, receiving news of Sodom’s demise, immediately sprung into action. How can he help, how can he negotiate a better outcome and salvage as much as possible?

The difference between Hagar and Abraham was not in the nature of the trial but in the nature of the response.

Lech Lecha – An Endless Task

Just before the Covenant between the Parts God communicated with Abraham. Following his successful campaign against the powerful alliance of the four kings Abraham was concerned that he has used up his credit.The capital for achieving such a victory had to come from somewhere and Abraham thought he had now depleted his resources. God assured Abraham that his credit was indeed great and that he need not fear. God then continued to encourage Abraham, assuring him that he would have descendants who would inherit him and continue his legacy.

“And He took him outside and said, ‘look now at the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them!” and He said to him ‘so shall be your offspring.'” Genesis 15:5)

On the surface God was promising that Abraham’s offspring would be countless, as many as the stars of the heavens. Some commentaries, noting that the descendants of Abraham have never been numerous, suggest that the blessing was in quality of Abraham’s descendants. Rabbi Meir Shapira points out the strange expression in the verse – count the stars if you are able to. Was this a challenge? Was Abraham to literally count the stars? The latter half of the phrase implies that it was rhetorical. Count them “if you can,” but no one can put a number on the stars of the heaven.

Nevertheless God had asked Abraham to count the stars, and although he had no idea how or whether he could achieve this task Abraham began to count. When God saw Abraham’s simple faith playing out before Him, when He saw that Abraham was willing to begin this daunting task without knowing how he would complete it, God blessed him “so shall be your offspring.” Abraham’s descendants shall inherit this quality of resilience, making an effort although results are not guaranteed. The Torah recognizes effort rather than results. God wants to see us try our best.

The Mishnah in Avot (2:16) states that “the task is not upon you to complete, but you are not at liberty to abstain from making every effort regarding it.” The determination to start something without knowing how we will complete it is a special quality we have been blessed with. This is thanks to Abraham’s attempt to count the stars when God gave that directive despite having no plan how he could complete this. God blessed Abraham “so shall your offspring be,” they will also have this quality. We have the capacity to begin a Mitzvah although we have no knowledge how we will follow through.

Noah – Holding God’s Hand at Every Step

Noah was complex character. The Torah labels him as simple and perfect. At the same time it implies that only relative to his generation he was righteous and virtuous – there are different views taken on Noah’s righteousness, some asserting that he was indeed righteous to the extent that he would be righteous anywhere and in any time. Others take a dimmer view of Noah, asserting that only in his corrupt and evil generation he stood out as righteous, but objectively he was nothing to write home about.

We will ignore for now the periods before and during the flood, both of which illustrate elements of Noah’s character. We will instead look at the aftermath. When the waters receded the ark came to rest on solid ground. Noah proceeded to raise his periscope in order to ascertain the conditions of the world outside the ark. He first sent the raven, but when the raven failed to cooperate he sent the dove. At first the dove could not find a place to rest, and after flying around a bit the dove returned to the ark. During its second reconnaissance mission the dove brought back an olive branch, indicating that the world’s natural habitat was beginning to recover. Noah sent the dove a third time and it did not return, having found the environment sufficiently restored to support life outside the ark.

Noah then removed the cover of the ark and saw that the ground had dried. But Noah did not then leave the ark. He waited for God’s instruction to leave the ark. This was forthcoming, as God ordered Noah, “Leave the ark, you and your wife, your sons and their wives with you.” (Genesis 8:16) All the living creatures were also released from the ark to re-establish their kind and develop the population of the earth.

One cannot help but ask, why did Noah wait for explicit instructions to leave the ark? Why did he not disembark immediately upon finding the earth to have sufficiently dried? It could not have been very pleasant in the ark. The stench from all the animals in close quarters must have been overwhelming, and the waste had surely piled up and was crowding Noah and his family. It is altogether possible that Noah was afraid of what he might find out there. Knowing the extent of the destruction he was avoiding confronting what was the graveyard of all of civilization as he had known it. The first liberators of Nazi death camps encountered horrifying sights they wish they had never seen. It is certainly possible that Noah was procrastinating here.

Yet, there is something pure about Noah and his tendency toward blind obedience. Noah had not entered the ark in the first place before God had ordered him to so. No fewer than four times does the Torah state that Noah did just as God had instructed him. The last verse in chapter 6 as well as 3 verses in chapter 7 state that Noah did exactly as the Lord had said. There is something charming about one who dutifully obeys, and we find Moses also praised for following God’s precise instructions when it came to building the Tabernacle. But there is something nagging and troubling about it as well. Nowhere do we find Noah uttering a peep to God about the coming apocalypse. He had no complaints and made no attempts to dissuade God from that course of action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks criticizes Noah’s failure to take responsibility for his generation, an important aspect of leadership.

In a later generation Abraham also was privy to the destruction of Sodom and its neighboring cities. But he did not simply nod his head in acceptance of God’s will. He fought the verdict, attempting to negotiate and advocate on Sodom’s behalf despite Sodom’s evil, and despite its destruction being of no personal consequence to Abraham. Noah did not have this sense of leadership or responsibility.

There is another source which offers us insight into Noah’s attitude, one a little more favorable to Noah. The Midrash records an argument between Noah and his sons once the earth dried. Noah’s sons wished to leave immediately, but Noah resisted. ‘I entered the ark by Divine directive and I shall leave by divine directive.’ His sons felt they needed no sanction to exit the ark and Noah felt that every initiative in life requires God’s sanction.

A colleague suggests that Noah’s sons were of a mind that interaction with God need happen only in a crisis, only at decisive and extremely significant times. The mundane activities of everyday need not involve interaction with God. Noah felt otherwise. He insisted that our relationship with God was especially defined by our everyday moments, in the ebb and flow of daily life.

Which side do we take? Are we more like Noah or more like his sons? Do we wait for a crisis in order to bring God into the picture? Someone once asked me if I could prepare their child for his Bar Mitzvah which was six months away. Well, I could probably prepare him enough to bluff his way through the day, performing the rites usually read by a Bar Mitzvah child. But could I really prepare him for being Bar Mitzvah? Not in six months or even six years! When a boy turns 13 he is deemed ready to assume all the adult responsibilities of a Jew, including all the practicable Mitzvot of the Torah. After growing up in an environment supportive of such a lifestyle, having been trained appropriately in all aspects of Jewish life, a ‘coming of age’ marks the time when the child can independently build on that identity, supported by continued learning and an encouraging household. Without that background, however, and with no supporting environment there is no way a child can fulfill the requirements he suddenly becomes accountable for at that age. If God is invited to participate in our lives only during such lifecycle events, if we are content being “yizkor” Jews or “crisis” Jews, then we have consciously or unconsciously taken the side of Noah’s sons. A Pastor once described this encounter with some of his congregants succinctly: Hatch them, match them and dispatch them. Noah himself, however, saw God’s involvement in every part of life and he therefore insisted on waiting for God’s instructions to exit the ark and begin rebuilding the world.

Bereshit – Taking Responsibility

All beginnings are difficult, the Talmud writes, and the beginning of Biblical history is no exception. A human being behind a project as large and complex as creating a world would be devastated to watch as plan after plan backfires and rule after rule is broken. Adam and Eve were placed in a paradise and given only one limitation. Eve was seduced to violate that limitation by a wily snake, and she persuaded Adam to follow suit. When God called Adam to account Adam was quick to deflect blame to Eve. Eve similarly deflected blame onto the snake. Neither was inclined to take responsibility.

Cain and Abel were the two children initially born to Adam and Eve. Cain grew jealous that God had accepted Abel’s offering but had not accepted his. There were words between them and then Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. When God called Cain to account he initially denied culpability.

There were “words” between Cain and Abel before their altercation leading to Abel’s death. What were those words? The Torah doesn’t tell us what was said, it merely states that Cain spoke to Abel his brother. “Cain spoke with his brother Abel; and it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”(Genesis 4:8)

The Targum Yonatan, a translation of the Tanach attributed to the great Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, has a lengthy addition to the verse, describing an argument taking place between the two brothers concerning reward and punishment. Cain denied that there was a future World to Come, also denying any system of justice. Abel tried to convince Cain otherwise but ultimately was unsuccessful. The argument concluded with Cain killing Abel. Numerous commentators question why the Torah neglects to fill in any of the content of the conversation, informing us only that there were words between them. One answer advanced by commentaries explains that the Torah did not wish for Cain’s words of heresy to be recorded forever in the Torah, and therefore the content of the conversation was omitted.

Rabbi Raymond Beyda cites an explanation by another commentator, who first adds weight to the question, wondering why the Torah bothered at all to mention that there was a conversation if it was not going to write what the conversation was. He explains that the Torah means to highlight that it is human nature to rationalize our actions. We are always seeking justifications for what we do. We have a conscience and guilty feelings are present whenever we do something wrong. People don’t wish to act wrongly, but when circumstances push us to act in a less-than-model manner we think up excuses as to why our behavior is justified.

Cain did not simply get up and murder his brother. His conscience would not allow such a thing. He first argued that there was nothing wrong with it, claiming that there was no system of justice and no future of eternity. Cain found excuses to allow his jealousy to act on the perceived unfairness. God had favored Abel’s offering over his own and Cain’s resentment boiled within him. Perhaps the contents of the conversation were not appropriate to be inscribed in the Torah, but recognition of Cain’s attempt to justify his actions was necessary.

Adam and Eve similarly carried the instinct to justify their actions. Adam was quick to blame Eve and Eve passed the blame unto the snake. Ideally they would both have accepted responsibility, but it is difficult to see ourselves as accountable. The Torah’s message throughout the Parsha is that we are accountable and it is important for us to take responsibility. Our instinct is to deny, no different than our early ancestors, but the goal is to train ourselves to accept responsibility.

Sukkot – Overcoming Depression with Joy

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered a shiur in London, in honor of the launch of the Koren Machzor for Sukkot. Our shul is fortunate to have been gifted with this new edition and some of Rabbi Sacks’ words are pertinent specifically to the Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot.

It is customary among Ashkenazi congregations to read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) during this Shabbat of Sukkot. The connection of Kohelet to Sukkot is not readily evident, as Sukkot is known to be a time of joy, while Solomon explores the depressing notion of mortality throughout the book. Kohelet would be the last book one would expect to be chosen to accompany this festival of joy. It speaks of the futility of all our endeavours, the transience of all human accomplishments. It depicts our pursuit of even wisdom as meaningless. Why do we read this book at this time?

A deeper understanding certain elements of Kohelet, as well as a deeper understanding of Sukkot, reveal similarities between the two and enable us to appreciate why Kohelet was chosen to reflect the nature of the festival more than any other book.

Solomon, the author of this book, appears to have been embroiled in an existential crisis. He had everything material a human being could wish for. In the second chapter Solomon recounts everything he had accumulated. He had countless wealth and inestimable power. He had amassed property and developed gardens and orchards filled with all types of fruits. He had fashioned irrigation canals to supply entire forests with water. He had innumerable slaves and vast herds of livestock. He had achieved wisdom beyond what any human had ever thought possible. And his greatest accomplishment was the great Temple in Jerusalem which attracted visitors from near and far to witness its glory. And yet he found no meaning in any of it. He was depressed by the temporality of it all; he found no purpose since nothing under the sun had any permanence. Even those accomplishments which would outlast him Solomon would not be there to see. His fear of death, the one thing he could not conquer, had driven him to attempt and overcome his mortality in all of these ways and he found all these attempts to be futile. He could not prevail over death.

But Solomon did find his answer. Solomon ultimately overcame his obsession with death and this is reflected in his writings in Kohelet. The Hebrew word for joy is simcha. This word appears 16 times in the Torah. Once in each of the first four books of the Torah and 12 times in Deuteronomy. Yet in Kohelet, seen as a depressing narrative, the word appears 17 times, making joy a more prominent theme in Kohelet than it is in the Torah. Happiness is the one way through which Solomon found he could beat death. Rejoicing with the wife one loves, enjoying today and not thinking about tomorrow, all emphasized in the 9th chapter, those are the keys to this conquest. One has to live in the moment if one is to transcend the mortality of life.

And this is precisely the idea of Sukkot. We practice the idea of living in the moment thereby achieving the joy that defines Sukkot. The basic halachic definition of a Sukkah is that it is a temporary structure, here today and gone tomorrow. Like a human being in the temporary dwelling of a body, we step into the temporary structure of a Sukkah and embrace that temporality, thinking only about here and now, an oasis of joy surrounded by a tempest of trouble and heartache. This momentary joy is the one thing that is stronger than death, the lesson eventually discovered by Solomon. It is precisely through sitting in this rickety, windblown structure that our joy can become whole.

There is a famous dispute cited in the Talmud probing what the festival of Sukkot commemorates. “In order that your generations know that I made the children of Israel to sit in Sukkot when I took them out of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:43) Rabbi Eliezer posits that the our Sukkah commemorates the clouds of glory which surrounded the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah means it literally, and the Mitzvah of Sukkah dwelling commemorates the actual Sukkah structures in which our ancestors dwelled in the wilderness.

Both positions are problematic. If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, why does the Torah not simply say clouds? Why mask the true meaning if the reference is to the clouds of glory? And Rabbi Akiva’s position doesn’t fare much better. What significance is there to the fact that the Israelites dwelled in huts? Is there some miracle in that choice of abode? Even if there were some miracle in that, it is factually incorrect! The children of Israel lived in tents, not huts. Balaam’s blessing articulates the beauty of the formation of tents of Israel’s settlements.

Rabbi Sacks explains that the discussion in the Talmud does not actually revolve around the dwellings of the children of Israel but the dwelling of God in the wilderness. Sukkah refers to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, over which a cloud constantly hovered. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the Festival of Sukkot commemorates that cloud while Rabbi Akiva believes that Sukkot commemorates the structure of the Tabernacle. Both agree that it is not the dwellings of the children of Israel but the House of God in the Wilderness which we are commemorating.

Solomon tried to make permanent this House of God. He moved God’s dwelling from its “tent of meeting” to a permanent structure of cedar and stone. But God had never asked to be moved. When David informed the prophet Nathan that he intended to build a house for God Nathan had a prophecy from God. “Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day; I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (Second book of Samuel 7:5-7)

In the first half of Solomon’s life, as documented in Kohelet, Solomon thought death could be overcome by permanence. He was therefore troubled that the house of God was a temporary structure and he set out to correct this and established a permanent structure for God. Later in life Solomon came to realize that there is no permanence. the Temple he had built as a permanent home for God was destroyed twice. Yet the tent, the temporary house of God which all of our synagogues emulate, is timeless and indestructible. It is precisely the temporal which transcends mortality. It is the Sukkah that provides this environment, the perfect condition for rejoicing.