Posts Tagged 'Avraham'

Start With Why: On Noah, Avraham, and 10th Grade

My son Yadid was asked to give a D’var Torah at his 10th grade Shabbaton. I love how he really thought about the best message for his peers. What does it mean to be in 10th grade? I love how deep and inspiring he is. I love that he is exploring his passions. Enjoy:

In the beginning of this week’s torah portion, Noah is described as a tzadik, perfect in his generations; Ish Tzadik Tamim Haya B’Doratav. Why does the Torah write, in his generations- B’Doratav ?

Rashi answers this question saying that in comparison with his own generation Noah was accounted righteous, but if he had lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been nobody of significance. So I had to ask, WHY is Avraham the model Tzadik and WHY is Noah sub par? 

I recently saw a Ted talk by Simon Sinek, that helped me answer that question. He drew this chart to answer his own question, WHY are some leaders able to inspire, while others aren’t? And he explained it in the following way:

The Golden Circle

Every single person, every single organization knows WHAT they do. 100 percent 

Some know HOW they do it 

But very, very few people, or organizations know WHY they do what they do. What is your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief? 

He explained that most people communicate from the outside in, starting with the what, and ending with the WHY. We should be doing things in reverse, like Apple. As Simek says:

They begin by saying everything we do, we believe in changing the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers, want to buy one? There’s nothing that makes Apple structurally better than any other company, their competitors are all equally qualified to make these products. In fact DELL tried this. They released an mp3 player. they make perfectly designed, quality products and nobody bought one. We can’t even imagine buying a MP3 player from DELL, WHY would you buy a MP3 player from a computer company, But we do it every day. People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. The goal is not to do business with everyone who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. 

So if Simon Sinek were to answer the question, WHY is Avraham the model Tzadik and WHY is Noah sub par? 

Noah is told to build an ark, that is the WHAT. He is given instructions, that is is the HOW. It is only after this that God even informs him of God’s plan to destroy the world. The WHY is to save the animals and humanity from the flood, but it comes after the WHAT and HOW. As we will see next week, Avraham starts with WHY. Lech Lecha– go to yourself, become your authentic self. HOW? Journey from your home of origin. WHAT? Build a great nation. Sinek would most likely say that Noah was like DELL. He went from the outside, in- WHAT, HOW, WHY whereas Avraham is like Apple- going from the inside out, WHY then HOW, then WHAT.

In preparing this Dvar Torah I thought to myself, what do all of us have in common, we are all in 10th grade. Last year 9th Grade was about orienting to high school. Next year is about the SATs and ACTs. And 12th grade is about college and Israel. But what is 10th??? It could be nothing, just a WHAT- going to class. This year could easily pass us by. Or, if we take advantage, 10th grade could be, no, should be the year we find our WHY!

I have been struggling to find my WHY, but after my dad pressured, day after day, I think I’m getting closer. My WHY is that I want to inspire people, my HOW is developing my public speaking skills, and my WHAT often is me talking with people, chilling, and right now, my WHAT is this Dvar Torah. Now I hope to inspire you to move beyond Noah, beyond the WHAT and HOW perspective, and think like Avraham, starting with WHY! 

Some of you might look at me asking “I don’t have my WHY, so what should I do?” My suggestion for you is to try one on! You might be worried that you will try out a WHY and realize it’s not for you, but as we learn from the sage, Rick Sanchez, from Rick and Morty, “It’s about the journey, not the destination” In the pursuit of our WHY’s, we will learn how to live passionately, inspiring others. 

Mark Twain said, “the two most important days in your life are when you are born and when you find out WHY.” so I ask of us, all of us, What is our WHY!??!   Thank you, and good shabbas. 

I am so proud of his guy. Clearly our family are Sinek Hassidim. Here are other pieces I have written over the years on his Torah:

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.

Atlas and the High Priest Shrugged : Caring about and Carrying the Jewish Future

A number of months  ago when we were reading parshat Tetzaveh we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but this week I want to focus in on the Ephod. There we read:

And they shall make the Ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skilful workman. It shall have two shoulder-pieces joined to the two ends thereof, that it may be joined together. And the skilfully woven band, which is upon it, wherewith to gird it on, shall be like the work thereof and of the same piece: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And you shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be inclosed in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of as a remembrance for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.  (Exodus 28:6- 12)

I have a pretty good imagination as to what the Ephod looked like, but what is the meaning of the two shoulders memorials? For whom is this a memorial? Quoting the Midrash  on this Rashi comments:

“As a remembrance”  So that the Holy One Blessed be God should see the names of the Tribes written before God’s self and give thought to their righteousness.  ( Shmot Rabbah 38:8)

The shoulder gems are not for the High Priest, but rather for God. But, why does God need these? Does God need a cheat sheet to remember our righteousness? What is the purpose of these memorials? And why on the shoulders?

These questions made me think about the story of Heracles and Atlas. As one of his Twelve Labors  Heracles had to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon. Heracles went to Atlas and offered to hold up the heavens while Atlas got the apples from his daughters. Upon his return with the apples, however, Atlas attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away. Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that Atlas take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. When Atlas set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.

What does it mean to carry the weight of the world? It does not seem to be an honor, but rather a horribly onerous task. In light of this we see the severity of the role of the High Priest. He is carrying the weight of the Jewish world on his shoulders. But, why are we revisiting Tetzaveh now?

This week in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Avraham when the project of the Jewish people was in it incubation stage. Avraham questions God: “What can you give me, I am childless?” God answers by promising Avraham that he will have children. God directs Avraham outside and asks him to look up and count the stars, saying “Thus will be your descendants” ( Genesis 15:2-5). Avraham is alone in his relationship with God. Like Atlas he bears the weight of the world. God’s answer to Avraham is that we will be as many as the stars in the sky. We each have our own role to play in the future of the Jewish people. Who will bear the weight of the Jewish people? Will it be the High Priest or each and every descendent of Avraham?

We have seen how power can make those who are burdened with its weight crumble. While we clearly need better oversight over our leaders, another approach is to insist that each of us carry our weight. If we do not run off after the apples, but stay and are willing to hold up our end of the bargain Avraham has no reason to fear.  It seems as if we are currently caught in some sort of complex prisoner’s dilemma in which we are all Hercules trying to dupe someone else into carrying the weight of the sky. Surely Avraham’s project will only work if we all do our part in carrying and caring about the Jewish future.
– For another take on Atlas see here.

 

 

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.

Between Faith and Honesty

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a Canadian Indian version of the classic Cinderella Tale. In this version of the Cinderella cycle, a father in a village has three daughters whose mother has been dead a long time. The youngest of the three is much younger than the other two, has a wonderful personality, and is loved by her community. The wicked older sisters hate her and made her dress in rags, puts cinders in her hair (hence the cinder for her being Cinderella) and burned her face and body with hot coals in effort to have people think that she is ugly.

Just outside of the village there lived a warrior whose name was Strong Wind. Strong Wind has been good to the god Glooskap and has been granted the power of invisibility which has made him a formidable hunter. Resolving to get married he has to determine who to marry of the many women who seek his hand in marriage. With the help of his sister Strong Wind devises a test for all of these fair maidens. His sister is the only one who can see him when he appeared invisible to others. Each evening when the sun was about to set, his sister takes a would be bride down to the shoreline and asks them if they can see Strong Wind. When they responded yes, as they always do, his sister asks “With what does he draw his sled?” Responding incorrectly they are all dismissed. One day our Cinderella goes to seek Strong Wind’s hand in marriage. When his sister took her to the bay and asked the first question, the ash girl said that she does not seen him. Upon hearing her honest response Strong Wind reveals himself to her. Then Cinderella is asked “With what does he draw his sled?” The girl is very afraid and answers, “With the Rainbow”. And when she is asked further, “Of what is his bowstring?” the girl answers, “His bowstring is the Milky Way.” Telling the truth Cinderella passes the test and marries Strong Wind.

This image of the Milky Way stuck in my head as I read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of Emunah- faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

How is it possible that Avraham was able to count the stars in the Milky Way? We often talk about the fact that as a man of Emunah– he believed that he could. But as I have discussed in the past Emunah does not translate to English as faith, but rather being trustworthy. All too often in our society we tell people who are in positions of authority over us what we think they want to hear. It is possible that he believed that he could count them. It is also possible that despite the pressure Avraham felt to say yes he could count them, this man of Emunah  told the truth that he could not count them. It takes a certain kind of bravery, self-assurance, and faith to just tell the truth to an authority, especially one we hope to please . Like this Cinderella being lead out to see the invisible Strong Wind it took a unique sense of sense of self to be strong enough to be honest.  In light of this Canadian Indian Cinderella story might we translate Emunah  as being trusted to tell the truth.

Count On It

In Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

While it is hard to see in modern city living, we have all been out in nature and looked up and saw the majestic night sky. We have all been humbled by the image of the vast universe with it countless stars.

Similarly, Avram was  brought out of the tent to count the stars. What made him think, feel, or believe that he could count these stars? Even today with all of our amazing technology this is still not possible. Clearly Avram was a man of faith. For most of my life I assumed that his emunah was tremendous and frankly out of reach. How could I ever achieve that level of faith?

Later in the same chapter we learn about the Covenant Between The Parts. It is dramatic scene in which Avram sacrifices a number of animals, we are told of a covenant between God and the decedents of Avram, and a flame comes down and goes in between the parts. There we read:

12 And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him. 13 And God said to Avram: ‘Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15 But you shall go to their fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And in the fourth generation they shall come back from there; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.’ 17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:12-17)

This darkness clearly sets up the theatrical moment for the fire passing between the parts. It also has profound implications as for the nature of faith.

If  the sun goes down during the Covenant Between the Parts, it implies that it was up for Avram’s moment of faith. What if was not our image of the starry night? What might it have meant for Avram to be lead out of his tent in the middle of the day to look up to the sky and count the stars in heaven?

I might not believe that I could count the stars in the universe, but I do believe that the stars will be out tonight. I do have faith that certain things exist even when I do not see them. Maybe God is just asking Avram (and us for that matter) to believe in God even when we cannot see God.  Faith need not be infinitely complex.  We can trust and believe with our eyes wide open. Maybe faith can be this simple without being simplistic. This is a faith that is within reach and one you can count on in our modern lives.


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