As the Torah Turns: Rabbi Lader’s Weekly D’var Torah

IMG_4699

 

Dec. 7/8 Miketz - Gen. 41:1-44:17

Our Torah portion this week is Miketz – Gen. 41:1-44:17.  Joseph has the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and subsequently rises to second in command over Egypt, as he steers the country through years of plenty followed by years of famine.  As the famine spreads beyond Egypt, Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt to find/purchase food.  Joseph’s brothers stand before him — he recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.
 
He has the opportunity to behave towards them as they behaved towards him.  The path he chooses is ultimately towards reconciliation and reunion with his entire family.  On the surface he acts harshly, accusing them of spying and insisting on holding one of them (Simeon) as a guarantee that they will return with their youngest brother Benjamin.  Yet, Joseph shows his compassion as he secretly returns the monies they paid for the grain they return home with… and he turns away in privacy to cry when he sees signs that the brothers regret their actions towards Joseph so many years ago.
 
Joseph breaks the cycle of hateful behavior.  He had incited his brothers against him with his dreams of ruling over them.  They responded by forcibly banishing him.  It’s his turn… Joseph does not ignore the past. He wants his brothers to face up to what they did and to demonstrate that they have changed.  They will ultimately pass the test… but that is another story…
 
 

Nov. 30/Dec. 1. VaYeshev - Gen. 37:1-40:23

Our Torah portion this week is VaYeshev – Gen. 37:1-40:23 – and turns to the story of Joseph and his brothers.  We begin with Joseph, the dreamer – adored by his father and hated by his brothers… though, even his father doesn’t appear to be too comfortable with Joseph’s dream of the sun, moon, and eleven stars orbiting around him.  Jacob sends Joseph off to find his brothers and report back on their shepherding; his brothers see him for afar and plot to kill him.  Instead, they remove his multi-colored coat (a gift from Jacob) and throw Joseph into a pit, then sell him into slavery, sending him off to Egypt.  He is bought by Potiphar and is placed in charge of his household.  He catches the amorous attention of Potiphar’s wife, and when he refuses her advances, she cries out… and Joseph finds himself deep in Pharaoh’s jail.  His life has been a roller-coaster ride! 
 
  “…Joseph was there in jail. But Adonai stayed with him…” (Gen. 39:19-20)  
 
What does a person do to withstand exile?  You must constantly be aware of who you are and how you got there.  You must remember who you are, your history, your stories… your God.  Joseph was not alone. 
 
Our thoughts turn to so many who have been, and are presently, in exile from their country of origin, from their families… carrying with them few belongings, running from violence and terror, unjustly accused of crimes they have not committed.  Their lives have read like a roller coaster.  We pray that they find safety and security.  And we pray that as lonely as they might feel, that they will come to feel the outpouring of healing, support, and comfort in their lives.
 
 

Oct. 26/27 Va-yera' - Gen. 18:1-22:24

This week’s Torah portion is Va-yera’ – Gen. 18:1-22:24.  Abraham is resting in his tent and looks up to see three men/travelers – where did they come from! Rushing to be hospitable, Abraham welcomes them by offering them water to clean and refresh themselves, and “a morsel of bread and something to drink” to nourish themselves.  With their okay, he rishes off to have Sarah prepare cakes, and he himself prepares a roasted meat (briskett?) and a cheese platter (definitely before the rabbinic laws of kashrut… or maybe it was parave?).  
 
But even before he takes care of his guests, the portion opens with “And there appeared to him, Adonai, by the terebinths of Mamre as he sat near the opening of his tent in the heat of the day” (18:1)  Rabbi Menachem Mendl Krengel (1847-1930) noted a peculiarity of the Hebrew syntax, and asked (in his work Or Ha-Chayyim) “Why does the Torah put the one who sees before the One Who is seen?”  There appeared to Abraham Adonai.  Not, as it is usually translated, “And Adonai appeared to him (Abraham)…”  
 
Rabbi Krengl answers his question by teaching: “God’s drawing near or God’s revelation depends on ourdrawing near to God and not the other way around.”
 
This is brought out in a poem by the medieval Jewish poet, Judah HaLevi:
O Lord, where shall I find Thee?
All-hidden and exalted is Thy place;
And where shall I not find Thee?
Full of Thy glory is the infinite space…
 
Longing I sought Thy presence,
Lord, with my whole heart did I call and pray,
And going out toward Thee,
I found Thee coming to me on the way…
 

“And going out toward Thee, I found Thee coming to me on the way…”  

 
What do we make of Abraham and the three travelers?  The Jewish value of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests/wayfarers – is based on this text from Abraham’s story.  He does not turn them away.  He does not make excuses — Oy! It’s so hot out!  He does not turn away from people he does not know.  He opens his tent and opens his heart to welcome his guests and make them as comfortable as possible.  
 
And drawing near to them — he then sees that God has drawn near to him. 
 
 

Oct. 12/13 Noah - Gen. 6:9-11:32

This week’s portion is Noah – Gen. 6:9-11:32.  I want to share the following d’var Torah based on comments by Rabbi Isaac Mann with you:
 
Much has been written by the Bible commentators on the sins that caused God to bring on the Great Flood in the time of Noah. But little ink has been spilled (or keys pressed) in regard to what motivated the Supreme Being to ensure that there will never be a flood again to destroy the world (see Gen. 8:21, 9:8-17).
 
Surely if the corruption of humankind, and possibly the animal kingdom as well, brought on God’s anger (see Gen. 6:5-7, 11-13) and justified the destruction of all beings (except for Noah and those with him in the Ark), then what would happen if there would be a replay of this selfsame corruption? God’s hands, so to speak, would be tied by the oath God took not to put an end to all life. But then does that imply that God was wrong initially when all lives were wiped out? Did God regret doing so? Or was there a difference between the pre-diluvian generations and those that followed?
 
[To answer this question,] perhaps there is an approach that avoids the need to claim a Divine change of heart by looking for a major difference between the pre-Noah generations and the post-Noah world. Indeed we don’t have to look far. Shortly after God determines that God will never destroy the world again, but before that decision is revealed to Noah and he is introduced to the famous sign of a rainbow, the Almighty gives him a series of rules… and instructions on how to follow those rules (Gen. 9:3-7). These form the basis for what is known as the Seven Noahide Laws (discussed in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a ff.): 
 
The Sages taught in a baraita: The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot: The mitzvah of establishing courts of judgment; and the prohibition against cursing the name of God; and the prohibition of idol worship; and the prohibition against forbidden sexual relations; and the prohibition of bloodshed; and the prohibition of robbery; and the prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.
In brief, what changed after the Deluge was the giving of a Code of Law. Unlike the previous generations, for whom there were no divinely ordained and enunciated prohibitions, the new world that formed after the exit from the Ark was beholden to a God-given code that set limits and boundaries on human behavior. No longer could a powerful man, for example, take any woman he desired even if she was married to another man (as alluded to in Gen. 6:2). The code of law forbade such acts of thievery and immorality. And if one violated these laws, the consequences were severe, as the text indicates (Gen. 9:6).
…Apparently, reason and the use of logical discernment (“Of course we know that killing someone is not right…”) – coupled with a probable lack of judicial enforcement — were not enough to deter those early generations from following their evil inclinations. What changed was the formalization of a code given to Noah and to all generations thereafter which enshrined the laws that supported human civilization. “Without law, men are beasts,” as quoted by Maxwell Anderson. And even earlier this notion was expressed by Aristotle – “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst” (Politics I.2)
Indeed, God could now promise to never again destroy the [second] world, for behavior in this new world was now limited/circumscribed by Divine law.
 
 

Oct. 5/6 B'reishit - Gen. 1:1-6:8

Our Torah portion this week is B’reishit — Gen. 1:1-6:8 – and features what Rabbi Chaim Stern calls “the epic poem about the creation of the universe.”  Why begin Torah with the story of us all?  Why not begin with Abraham and Sarah… or even the exodus from Egypt – and begin with the story of the Jewish people?
 
Beginning with the story of creation helps us to reflect on the miracles of creation and on the wonders that surround us.  It is a story of “then” that renews each and every day. 
 
And, beginning with the story of creation connects us to each other in one family of humanity.  When we keep in mind that we are all created in God’s image, as we look from one to another, we can see the wonderful variety that makes us human beings.  Perhaps, too, as we are connected to each other, we can also appreciate the individualism of each of us.  
 
And the story of the Jewish people?  That will come… with time.  
 
 

Sept. 28/29 - Exodus 33:12-34:26

This week’s Torah portion for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot (Intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot) is from Exodus 33:12-34:26.
 
“Be prepared for the morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mount Sinai and stand before Me there on the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 34:2)
 
We hear two stories on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot…. We will read the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which opens with a pretty dismal world-view: Havel havalim…Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2)  And we read from the Torah about the aftermath of the golden calf, certainly a low point in Jewish history. These choices are puzzling; neither seems fitting for Sukkot, described as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
 
According to Dr. David Ackerman (who is the Director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Jewish Education through the JCC Association), the sukkah, or hut, is the connecting and clarifying link. A sukkah is a temporary structure, fragile and impermanent. It’s a reminder of humanity’s place in the cosmos. This supports Kohelet’s message. Kohelet employs the word havel five times in one verse; you can’t miss it. But havel doesn’t just mean vanity. It means breath, and is used as a metaphor for life: something ephemeral and fleeting. The sukkah suggests Kohelet is challenging us: life is short, what will you make of it? The sukkah suggests a similar message regarding the illusion of the golden calf (which provides no safety or security for the Israelites): life is short, what is worth believing?
 
The practice of ushpizin, or inviting guests (real or historical) into the sukkah, is the final piece of the puzzle. Offering the hospitality of a minimal shelter stands in contrast to Kohelet and the Golden Calf: the dense network of human relationships that over time creates community is what is of value and what will endure, and not the material objects (the amassed riches of Kohelet or gold jewelry made into a statue) surrounding us. Coming together is what makes Sukkot z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing.
 
[******* And… we rejoiced on the first night of Sukkot, with our new friends from the Lake Erie Native American Council.  Sunday night, Sept. 23rd, was indeed a wonderful opportunity to come together in a network of friendship, prayer and blessing, dance and drum, lulav and etrog.  AND, it was followed by the best way to bring people together — a delicious potluck supper.  Our parking lot was turned into an amphitheater for the program, and Ratner Hall was filled with new friends sitting side by side. It was definitely z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing.  Special thanks to David Rosen and our sukkah builders and gourd preparers; to Hal Steinhart for bringing his expertise to the planning table; to Debbie Chessin and David and Holly Neumann for coordinating the potluck supper.]