Archive for the '1.04 VaYera' Category

The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

In my preparation for Rosh HaShana I have been reflecting on the two primary narratives we read in the Torah reading for the first and second say of this holiday. The first day we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael going into exile in the desert. The second day we read the binding of Yitzhak. There is deep connection between these two stories of parents dealing with the near death experience of their children. While acting under divine command, interestingly both where caused by Avraham. He sent Hagar and Yishmael out of his house and he brought Yitzhak to Har Moriah to be sacrificed. The differences between these stories is also very interesting. While there is nothing natural about sacrificing you child, Hagar’s experience is natural and common to all parents. Her story reveals the risk that is always there. While we might not think about it all of the time, as parents we spend a lot of energy worrying about the threats our children face on a daily bases. What does it mean to be conscious of the peril our child are in all the time? And what does this awareness have to do with Rosh HaShana?

This reminds me of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Damocles - Wikipedia

The threat might always be there dangling above our heads, but we just do not see it. It is always ever present, but we need a King Dionysius to point it out to us.

In many ways the sounds of the Shofar serves the same function as Dionysius. In one opinion this sound evokes the wailing of  Sisera’s mother (Rosh HaShanah 33b). As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

This depiction of Sisera’s mother at the window watching her son die gives us a deeper appreciation for the dread of Hagar. This is what it means to parent. While we do not always think about it, the threat to our children is real, severe, and always ever present.

Reflecting on the myriad issues facing us in 5780, it might seem desirable to return to the world before the concerns and anxieties of this past year entered our consciousness. This might not seem possible, or even desirable. Rosh HaShana is trying to make us aware that we (or worse our children) live under the sword of Damocles. So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

On Rosh HaShana we say- HaYom HaRa’at Olam– today is the day the world was conceived. In this way God models for us what it means to parent. God is conscious of the threats that we God’s children live all around us. And despite the horrible dangers, Rosh HaShana is a celebration. The sound of the shofar, the cry of Sisera’s mother, the fear of Hagar are all reminders of how vulnerable we all are. It is holiday of profound multi-directional empathy. It should inspire us all to be extra vigilant. Not just for ourselves or our children, we also need to look out for those marginalized by society who are in more obvious peril.

After becoming aware of the sword overhead Damocles loses his taste for the king’s food. To recover from this last year and move forward in 5781 we really need the apples in honey. We cannot pretend that the threads are not real and scary. We just need to remind ourselves that despite the treat of harm, life is worth living because the world is sweet.

Chosen Condiment

At the start of VaYera, this week’s Torah portion, we see the host with the most- Avraham watching vigilantly from his open tent. He is looking out for people lost in the desert. He sees three figures in the distance and jumps into action to welcome the strangers. There we read:

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Avraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Avraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. ( Genesis 18:2-7)

On this Rashi comments:

There were three calves so that he might give them to eat three tongues together with mustard  (Bava Metzia 86b).

To express his desire to honor these strangers he slaughteres three whole cows to allow him to give the best part of the animal to each of them. Clearly this Gemara was an expression of the magnitude of Avraham’s hospitality. But I think that this is skipping over the chosen condiment. To honor his guests Avaham served mustard.

Image result for mustard

Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’” This sense of disgust with mayo is not just a cultural thing, it is based on science. And we even have a facebook group. In an email, Mason hypothesized that the complicated relationship between Jews and mayonnaise was probably a consequence of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.” It is amazing to see our long history with mustard dating back to Babylonian Talmud let alone Avraham. Even from the begining the Chosen People has chosen mustard as our condiment of choice.

Opened Her Eyes: Some Insight on How See

There are so many other important stories in Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, that we often overlook the riveting story of Hagar and Yishmael in the desert. There we read:

When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (Genesis 21:15-19)

What is going on here for Hagar? At first blush she seems incredibly absent as a parent when they are in a crisis. How could she ignore her child in need?

Looking for interpretations of this moment I came across John Gadsby Chapman‘s 1830 painting Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert. 

Image result for Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert

Here Hagar just seems annoyed by their predicament. Chapman seems to capture this in Hagar’s teen angst in an eye roll. It is noteworthy in the Torah Hagar is crying, but God is responding to Yishmael’s voice. Following Chapman’s reading this could be understood as God’s critique of her being callous to the needs of Yishamael. While she is crying God is modelling empathy and saying I will respond to his needs and not your crying. God is redirecting her as a parent.

Alternatively we could see Hagar in a more understanding way. In Sforno’s 15th Century commentary on “opened her eyes” he writes:

God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had not been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”(Gen. 21:19)

Maybe it was not a miracle at all that Hagar suddenly could see the well that was in front of her the whole time. Rather, Hagar needed some distance from the problem to see the solution. When she got to the balcony she could remove herself from the crisis, regain her bearings, return to her instincts, and only than could she see the well.

In either way of telling this story it is one of reorientation for someone who is lost. Regardless of if you see Hagar as the protagonist or antagonist of this story it is a story about alienation which is profound in that her name means “the alien”. Any way you look at it this is an important story about how we see ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Integral Belief

What does it mean to believe in something? It is hard to read VaYera, this weeks Torah portion, without confronting this issue of belief. In it we read God commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzhak. What would it mean to believe that God told you to kill your child? (This is especially crazy if you have met our four children.) While many interpreters have dealt with the faith of Avraham throughout history, I am less interested in the answer than the question of faith.

To a scientist, the prospect of faith is a puzzle. How could any rational person believe in something that has no data to back it up? The world can only be fairly judged on what everyone can perceive. Nevertheless, the scientists are left with the problem that so many people on this planet of ours do profess some sort of faith. To the faithful, they are left trying to figure out the existence of atheists or agnostics. They experience such a preponderance of evidence to the existence of a god, how could anyone choose to ignore that “fact”?If nothing else, we can appreciate the symmetry in the universe of the argument between these two camps.

Before the birth of our children, I could honestly say that I am not sure that I am a person of faith. But one way or another I know that I have Emunah in my life now. But still I have to ask myself, what is the fine line between faith and intellectual laziness? How often do I say that I believe in something when in fact I mean I have yet to think about it fully? How often do I take something that I have thought about exhaustively and instead of going with the evidence, choose to follow my faith? If I were confronted by a new perception of the world, would I be willing to sacrifice my way of life? I strive to be emotionally honest with the world and myself. I am not suggesting that we risk sacrificing our children like Avraham the innovator of our faith, rather I am asking that we  not risk sacrificing our integrity.

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.

Push Pull Hold

I have said for many years that my Rabbinate is defined by three simple words: Push, Pull, and Hold. My job is to push people to take the Torah seriously, to pull them in by not taking myself too seriously, and to hold them when they need shelter from the storm. One might find it peculiar that “my calling” is not so centered on God. I am a man of the cloth, but where is the cloth?

I was thinking about this when reading Vayeira, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that God appears to Avraham as he is looking out of his tent for people travelling in the  desert to bring in as guests. The Talmud explains that God was visiting him because Avraham was recovering from circumcising himself (Bava Metzia 86b). It isremarkable that God comes to visit Avraham at the moment when he is in the most pain and selflessly looking to help strangers. And where the strangers? According to the Talmud they were Gavriel, Michael, and Rafael (Bava Metzia 86b). Gavriel was sent to overturn Sodom, Michael was sent to inform Sarah of her pending pregnancy with Yitzhak, and Rafael was sent to heal Avraham after the aforementioned circumcision.

Reflect on my Rabbinate of pushing, pulling and holding I strive to look out of Avraham’s tent for my own strange angels. Gavriel was sent to destroy the city. In the start of  his Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig writes, “All knowing of the All begins in death, the fear of death”. All deep thinking comes when we are pushed to confront and not evade death as part of our lives. Michael was sent to tell of the coming of Yitzhak. Here in our portion we read, ”

And the angel said: ‘I will certainly return to you when the season comes round; and, lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Avraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And God said to Avraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for God? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And the Angel said: ‘No, you did laugh.’ (Genesis 18:10-15)

It seems absurd to have a child at her age. So much so that the child in question is named Yitzhak- after this laughter. God is pulling them in with the news of this child. God knows that the weight of Jewish history would be crushing if we did not have an amazing sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. And finally we have Rafael who comes to cure Avraham.  Because some times we just need to be held and taken care of when things are tough.

The question that stays with me is if Avraham ever benefited from God’s visit. Was he too busy trying to be a good host ? Maybe he experienced God’s presence when he was helping others. I doubt my life is any different. I cannot claim to experience God with any regularity in my life. The closest I get is in helping others. Maybe God is in all of that pushing, pulling, and holding.

Do Not Linger

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the destruction of Sodom. There we read:

15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying: ‘Arise, take your wife, and your two daughters that are here; lest you be swept away in the iniquity of the city.’ 16 But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him. And they brought him forth, and set him without the city. 17 And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said: ‘Escape for your life; look not behind you, neither stay in all the Plain; escape to the mountain, lest you be swept away.’

Here Lot and his family are being told to get out of there and not to linger. And as we all know Lot’s wife does turn around and is turned into a Pillar of Salt. Lot’s daughters fear that world has been destroyed. As compared to their mother who seems to linger these young women shift into gear and set a twisted plan to save the world. They intoxicate their father and get him to sleep with them. They bear Moav and Amon. The Israelites are instructed not to marry people from these two tribes. Later on in the Book of Ruth we learn that indeed Boaz marries Ruth a Moabite. Their children are the progenitors of the David and in turn the  line of the Messiah.

In the 12th of Rambam’s 13 principles of faith we read:

I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come.

It is noteworthy that the word “tarry” shares the same root as the word in our Torah portion for lingered וַיִּתְמַהְמָהּ .  What does it mean that Lot is instructed to not tarry, but in the end the Messiah who is ultimately descended from him will linger? What do we make of this?

This seems to point to a basic human trait. We all love to procrastinate ( see Matzah here). I am not alone in realizing that I often will wait until that last-minute and then pull the all-nighter to get the job done. It seems only just that our ultimate salvation will be held up doing the same.

The Limits of Multi-Tasking

VaYera, this week’s Torah portion, opens with Avraham sitting at the door to his tent. According to the Chazal Avraham was nursing himself back to health after having circumcised himself. We learn this from the juxtaposition to the end of Lech Lecha, last week’s Torah portion, where Avraham circumcised himself. So Avraham was sitting amidst his pain when he looked up and saw three travelers. Looking past his bodily needs Avraham rushed to attend to their needs. The Rabbis explain that these three men were actually angels. But why three angels?

In the words of the Midrash, “one angel does not get sent to do two jobs” (Breshit Rabbah 50:2). Each angel was sent to do one action. There were three things that needed to be done and therefore God sent three angels to do God’s bidding. While human beings are complex beings driven by complex and competing values, angels are simple creatures sent to actualize a single articulation of the Divine will.

To a generation of multi-taskers, the modern Avraham would be sitting there sending e-mail, instant messaging Sarah, talking on the cell phone, reading an article in print, when the three figures appear in the distance. Would a modern Avraham have been able to fit these wanders into his busy schedule? This adds a new dimension to the idea that none of us are angels. Even without all of our modern distractions Avraham is not able to do it all. Avraham endures the pain of not taking care of himself to focus on helping others.

To be a good person is to know how to prioritize the needs of other with our own needs. When do we put the needs of others over our own needs? When do we give too much?  If not now, when? This balancing of needs demands a maturity of being deliberate in our allocation of resources (most important of which is time). If we hope to accomplish anything of meaning in a world inundated by the sea of multimedia-distractions we need to become more angelic and single-minded. Yes we need to focus to achieve our goals, but we need to keep others people in mind when we think we are actualizing God’s will. Faith is a good thing and it might even help us to concentrate our efforts on achieving the many tasks necessary to make the world a better place. But even faith reaches a limit. We should always be fearful that living a life justified by any absolute value may obstruct our seeing the needs of others or even ourselves. I hope that this message does not cut too deep.

The Importance of the Individual

We learn in the Mishna;

The first man, Adam, was created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5)

At the start of Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people were limited to Avraham , Sarah, and their household. Having already sent out Hagar and Ishmael, Avraham’s hope for the future of the Jewish people was Isaac. While the call from God to kill his child is hard to imagine, it is even harder to imagine the future of the Jewish people with its founder killing his only heir. When Avraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, the entire future of the Jewish people was there on that alter. As a result of the saving of Isaac, we have a Jewish people today.

At the start of the book of Exodus we see a repetition of this motif in the person of Moses. Moses was supposed to be killed at birth, but instead was saved in the ark. He goes on to save his people from slavery in Egypt, to receive the Torah at Sinai, and to bring his people to the Promised Land. While both Isaac and Moses play critical roles in the salvation of the Jewish people. We, their descendants, are forced to ask ourselves how we can continue to save the world.

Everyone needs to understand the unique contributions that s/he needs to make to improve the world around them. You might say that you cannot get much accomplished as an individual. However, Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So find some other people that share your passions and make a difference.

Laughter’s Executioner

In VaYera,this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the destruction of Sodom, expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and the binding and almost sacrifice of Yitzhak. In light of all of these “upbeat” things, it seemed only fitting to share some thoughts on the nature of humor within the Jewish tradition.

Obviously, it is Yitzhak, the person whose name means laughter in the Torah, himself who begs the question of comedy. When Sarah hears the news that she will have a child she laughs or fears that she will be laughed at for having a child at such an old age. While Avram is renamed Avraham because he will be the father of many nations, with the naming of Yitzhak, we ask is God making a joke? And more importantly does Yitzhak get it?

In the words of E. B. White, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” If Yitzhak’s life started as a joke, we see in the trial of the Akeyda (his binding) that he is literally and figuratively put under the knife. If this is a joke, it is not funny.

In the words of Woody Allen, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”. Bad things are funny the further they are from my backyard. In the case of Yitzhak comedy plus time turns into a tragedy. The Torah records no interactions with his father after the Akeyda and Yitzhak’s interactions with his sons leave a lot to be desired. It seems that with the length of time the joke is on him.

In the context of Yitzhak’s life it is interesting to look at the parallel of the nature of comedy to the nature of love. Just as the Torah introduced us to laughter with his birth, we are introduced to love when Yitzhak meets Rebecca. Just as a joke explained and analyzed, this love seems to fall apart over time. Yitzhak and Rebecca are not very communicative, there is a lot of passive aggressive behavior in their relationship, and they are not able to keep their family together. Although it is love at first sight, ultimately their relationship is dysfunctional.

In his book on psychotherapy, Dr. Irvin D. Yalom writes, “I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy- I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.”  Love like laughter does not survive explanation or analysis.  They both represent a pre- reflective visceral response in the moment.  Just as Yitzhak is conceived out a deep knowing, laughter like love comes from deep response to the revelation of a hidden truth.

We are all striving to shine the light on the world around us while letting ourselves get lost in the feeling that only exists in the shadows. Who wants to be love’s executioner? Who likes to ruin a joke? But we know that the unexamined life is not worth living. We can all relate to the person of Yitzhak. We are all always insiders and outsiders to the joke of our own lives. We are called upon to live lives of eternal meaning and reflection while letting ourselves get lost in the moment.  In that sense Yitzhak is truly the first born Jew. I guess the joke is on us.

This piece was inspired my Shalom Orzach


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 204 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: