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.]
Sept. 21/22 - Ha'azinu - Deut. 32:1-3:52
Our Torah portion this week is Ha’azinu – Deut. 32:1-32:52; it is Moses’ farewell song to the Israelites, a final reminder of their relationship with God and the consequences of not keeping God’s expectations before them. Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb teaches that the word “Ha’azinu” means to listen, through the ozen – the ear. Ha’azinu is different from Sh’ma — where Sh’ma means to hear, Ha’azinu suggests a more sustained listening, something that requires effort and persistence. Through Moses’ words, we are invited to tune in and listen, to become receptive.
The High Holy Days began and ended with hearing the sound of the shofar. The mitzvah is not in the blowing of the shofar, but is the hearing of the shofar. The book of Jonah, read Yom Kippur afternoon, tells the story of a prophet who heard God’s voice, but refused to listen, and ironically, was angered when the people of Nineveh did!
Now Ha’azinu comes, inviting us to listen. To listen to each other… to the quiet of nature… to sounds beyond ear-shot… and to God’s voice. The prophet Elijah taught us that God’s voice is not to be found in the wind… or the fire… or an earthquake… but in “kol d’m’ma daka” – a still, small voice. asking us: “Ayecha?” – “Where are you? Who are you?” It is hard to really listen if our ears are constantly connected to earphones or smart phones…
Sept. 14/15 - Va'yeilech - Deut. 31.
This week’s Torah portion is Va’yeilech – Deut. 31. Moses tells the Israelites that because of his advanced years, one hundred and twenty (God bless him!) he can no longer be active – “I can no longer come and go…” (30:2). God will be with the people as they enter the Promised Land, and Joshua will lead them. He also tells the priests and the elders about the importance, every seven years, of reading “Ha-Torah ha-zot – this Teaching” to all the people. “Gather the people – men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Eternal your God…” (30:12-13)
This is a perfect reading on this Shabbat right before the beginning of our Religious School year, this Sunday, September 16th at 9:45 a.m. It is always a thrill to see all our students and their parents and our teachers making their way into the building and on to their classrooms for another year celebrating Jewish learning and living. We learn from the Midrash that: “Learning when young has two advantages: it is easier to impress knowledge on the mind, and one has time left in which to teach others.” [Special note: Three of the members of our teaching staff – Sarah Bedrossian, Karen McAleer, and Hannah Cutrona – are all graduates of our religious school… having learned when they were young, and now making the time to teach others.]
Moses is leaving very strict instructions that all the people should hear (and learn) this Teaching. This is Beth Israel – The West Temple, providing learning opportunities for us all, in all ages and stages of our lives.