2 Minutes of Torah Study – Vayera

What was the sin of the Sodomites?

From the Biblical Text:

“Adultery and false dealing. They encourage evildoers so that no one turns back from his wickedness. To Me they are all like Sodom…” (Jeremiah 23:14 )

“This was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

“Moab shall become like Sodom…that is what they shall get for their haughtiness.” (Zephaniah 2:9, 10)

And From Early Jewish Literature:

“The men of Sodom said…why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling.” (Sanhedrin 109a)

“Rabbi Judah said: They made a proclamation in Sodom – everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor or the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 25)

“The Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God…they hated strangers.” (Josephus, Antiquities 11:1)

Of the 39 references to Sodom in the Hebrew bible, none are related to sexual practices. Even when used in the Christian bible, Sodom is used only as an example of inhospitality.  Yes, Jude condemns the sexual practices of the Sodomites – but only that they wanted to sleep with angels. Philo, informed by stoicism and not rabbinic literature, was perhaps the first to interpret the story as a condemnation of homosexuality, a misinterpretation later made popular by Augustine. 

Join us at 9:00am in the WRJ room each week as we uncover uniquely Jewish understandings of our sacred text.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Lech Lecha

Which was more difficult for Abraham, leaving Haran or offering Isaac as a sacrifice? The symmetry of Torah and the commentaries of our sages connect the two in fascinating ways.

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is commanded to Lech Lecha, to go forth. In the Akidah, the binding of Isaac, Abraham is again commanded to Lech Lecha, go forth…the only other time it occurs in the text.

In this week’s Torah portion the destiny is shrouded in mystery, as Abraham is commanded to go to the “land that I will show you.” In the Akeidah? To the “mountain that I will show you.”

In this week’s Torah portion we get a threefold repetition of what was being sacrificed, each more difficult than the last in the commentary of Nachmanides: Leaving your country is easier than leaving your birthplace, which is easier than leaving your parents’ house. In the Akeidah, the same threefold repetition. Take your son, then your only son, and only then is Isaac named.

In Midrash, Rabbi Levi raises these commonalities. “Lech Lecha is written twice, (this whole narrative frame is used twice), and we do not know which was more precious to God.” The rest of his comment is unfortunately lost to history. We don’t know why Abraham was twice tested, nor which was more important to him or to God. What we do know is that life is often filled with difficult moments of transition, and we pray that they each work out as well for us as they did for Abraham.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Noah

Where did they put the phoenix on Noah’s Ark? That’s the question you had while reading again Parashat Noah, right? Where did the imaginary animals fit in? Or what about those too big to hitch a ride, like the wild ox? And how on earth did Noah keep all of those animals from responding to their, well, instincts to create other animals while in the tight confines of the Ark?

The great rabbinic sages of our tradition spent a surprising amount of time answering these questions.

Animals overeager to perpetuate their DNA were only allowed on with their pre-existing mates:

Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: “Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their wives [OT:$i):w $yi)]” (Genesis 7:2). Is there marriage between animals? Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: The reference is to those animals with which the transgression of relations with another species was not performed. Therefore, the Torah underscores that the animals that entered the ark were husband and wife.

Animals that were too big either boarded when they were pups, or were tied up to run or swim behind the boat:

Genesis Rabbah 31:13: The wild ox did not enter the ark, but his whelps did. Rabbi Nehemiah said: Neither he nor his whelps, but Noah tied them to the ark and they ran behind.

And the phoenix? About the phoenix is the best story of all:

Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: With regard to the phoenix, my father found it lying in its compartment on the side of the ark. He said to the bird: Do you not want food? The bird said to him: I saw that you were busy, and I said I would not trouble you. Noah replied to the bird: May it be God’s will that you shall not die and the blessing was realized.

What are we to make of these tales, other than a rabbinic rejoinder to their Jewish mothers? If our tradition is willing to take such great care with the fantastic and the seemingly superfluous, how much the more so with important matters!

Join us next Saturday morning for Torah Study at 9:00am in the WRJ Room.

Two Minutes of Torah Study – Bereshit

Each of us is created in the image of God, we read in this week’s Torah portion.

Our sages demonstrate the preeminence of this verse when they debate its place in the hierarchy of scripture. In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Nedarim, we read: “The greatest principle in Torah,” says Rabbi Akiva, is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” His student, Ben-Azzai, says it’s not so: “A greater principle is that every single person is created in the image of God.”

Our love, our respect, our obligation to our fellow human being is not measured by the love of ourself. Even if indifferent to our own lot or wrapped in the devastation of self-loathing, we must not ignore the plight of our neighbor whose Divine image commands dignity and respect and safety.

On this Shabbat, the Jewish community, the American community, marks one year after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. We remember the eleven souls, eleven sparks of the Divine, returned to their creator before their time here on earth was finished, before their acts of kindness were finished, before their expressions of love to their family and friends were complete. We grieve for them and for the many others whose lives have been tragically ended by expressions of sinat chinam, of baseless hate. We recount their names, we retell their stories, out of love and respect and our promise not to ignore their fate nor the plight of others like them in our country.

We remember:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger

Each was created in the image of God and each died in the sanctification of God, and their memories are a constant reminder of our obligation to see God in every single person, even those — and especially those — with whom we disagree.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – V’zot Habracha

This week, we read from the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, the potion called Zot HaBrachah – this is the blessing. This portion often gets short shrift as it is read during our Simchat Torah celebration along with the first lines of the book of Genesis; as we both end and begin the Torah Cycle reading once again. 

It is an interesting portion in itself: Moses’ last words to the people before his death. Our reading begins: This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died. (Deut. 33:1)  Moses knows the end is near; and it seems that he wants to make an impression on those who have come to hear his message. The midrash imagines him saying, 

[I know I will die soon…but] Wait until I bless Israel. All my life, they have had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them not to fear God and fulfill the commandments. I do not wish to leave this world before I have blessed them. (Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzburg, Vol. III, p. 452)

Moses doesn’t want the people to remember him only as the unbending disciplinarian upholding correct behavior and thought. He wants to be remembered as kind, compassionate, understanding and capable of delivering words of blessing. However, as much as he wants to speak words of blessing, soon after he begins to speak, the focus of the text shifts to a third person narrative and we are left wondering who exactly is speaking. The text says: When Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Deut. 33:4). The commentators wonder who ‘us’ is…..the men? The women? All of the people of Israel? Only those present? All who are yet to come?

Ramban, a 13th century Spanish commentator draws our attention to the second half of the verse noting that it says the congregation of Jacob, instead of the House of Jacob. The reason? Many will join Jacob in the generations to come. Each will receive his spiritual heritage as they become a part of the people of Israel. The community will be richer because of its diversity. So too with us. Just like the biblical community, ours is one made up of some born into Judaism, some who have chosen Judaism, and some who are exploring where they fit. Thus, these words are meant for everyone; we are all a part of the ‘congregation of Jacob.’ The words of blessing are for us all. 

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Ha’azinu

“For it is no minor (or trifling, or empty) thing for you — and if it seems that way, it is your fault” we read in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1). At the conclusion of Moses’ great song or speech to the Israelite people that is Parashat Ha’azinu, we read that:

Deuteronomy 32:44-47 Moses came, together with Hosea son of Nun, and recited ALL the words of this poem in the hearing of the people. And when Moses finished reciting ALL these words to Israel, he said to them: Take to heart ALL the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully ALL the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life.

Why the emphasis on “all” — four times in three verses? To remind us that each and every word is significant. There is so much to be gleaned from our sacred text. “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it” Rabbi Ben Bag Bag says in Pirkei Avot (5:22). 

As we prepare to conclude the cycle of reading Torah on Simchat Torah, and as we prepare to immediately begin again, I invite you to think about how to make this a year of greater learning. With our Torah study group, in Beit Midrash sessions at Temple, through personal study or chevruta discussion. Open yourself to words of Torah, and Torah becomes open to you. It is our very life as Jews and I am excited to begin a new year of study together!

2 Minutes of Torah Study — Vayeilech

P’tirat Moshe, a fascinating midrash, reconciles a textual discrepancy regarding the death of Moses. While this week’s Torah portion makes Moses sound old: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old and can no longer be active;” in just two week’s time we read “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” Which is it? Was he ready for his leadership to end or not?

In the words of Midrash:

“The Holy One said to Gabriel: “Go forth and bring the soul of Moses.” Gabriel replied: “He who is equal in important to sixty myriads—how can I bear to watch him dying?” 

Then the Holy One said to Michael: “Go and bring the soul of Moses.” Michael replied: “I was his teacher, and he my pupil. How can I bear to watch him dying?”

Then the Holy One said to Samael: “Go and fetch the soul of Moses.” Now, the angel Samael, chief of all satanic spirits, had long been awaiting the soul of Moses. He immediately clothed himself with anger, girded on his sword, wrapped himself in ruthlessness, and went forth to encounter Moses. Samael found him seated and writing the Ineffable Name in a scroll. The radiance of his appearance was like the radiance of the sun’s visage; indeed, Moses looked like an angel of the Lord of hosts. 

Samael was so frightened and went back and reported to the Almighty. The Holy One commanded once more: Go, bring the soul of Moses. Samael straightaway drew his sword from its sheath and stood over Moses. At that Moses became angry at him, took the rod upon which God’s Ineffable Name was graven, and struck Samael with all his might, until Samael fled from him. With God’s Ineffable Name in his hand, Moses pursued Samael until he overtook him, plucked a radiant beam from between his own eyes, and blinded the eyes of Samael.” 

Though Moses was far from ready to die, at least according to Midrash, the time had come for him to pass on the mantle of leadership. He charged his successor Joshua with the words Chazak V’ematz, be strong and courageous, before God Godself came to collect his soul. 

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Nitzavim

Parashat Nitzavim, which we read both this week and on Yom Kippur morning, is most famous for two different passages. The idea that Torah is not in the heavens, thus unobtainable, but as close as the air we breathe is found in Nitzavim, as is the idea that all of us were gathered at Sinai for revelation: both our ancient ancestors and every subsequent generation. There is a third major concept found in the text as well to which I want to call your attention. 

“Adonai your God will return with your exiles and have mercy upon you.”

Rashi recognizes that this texts reads differently than it should. 

Had it meant to convey that God would be responsible for returning the Jewish people from exile, it would have read “v’heishiv.” Instead it implies that God went with us into exile. 

Geographically, this is an important concept for a people long removed from their homeland: God’s presence can thus be felt no matter where we are in the world. 

Spiritually, this is a key concept as we approach Rosh Hashanah. We are not yet the people we need to become, having repeatedly missed the mark during the previous year. That doesn’t mean that God’s presence is further removed from us, however, only that we need to reorient ourselves to perceive God in our midst.

“Remember us unto life, O King who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life”….for you are stuck with us until we do.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Ki Tavo

Sacrifices? Again? Didn’t we already finish the book of Leviticus? Before you let your eyes glaze over, let me show you why this passage in Ki Tavo is one of the most interesting you will ever see.

Deuteronomy 26:2-5

“You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. …The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows: My father was a wandering Aramean…”

Great. Pick your produce, put it in a basket, bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem — which they couldn’t actually say directly to maintain the narrative fiction that the Temple didn’t exist yet — and then recite this specific formula. Fine. But what if you couldn’t read?

The Mishnah, the rabbinic document of about the year 200, has a creative solution to this problem. They say:

Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7

Beforetime all that could recite [the prescribed words] recited them, and all that could not recite them repeated [after the priest]; but when these refrained from bringing [their first fruits] it was ordained that both they that could recite them and they that could not should repeat the words [after the priest].

Those who could recite the formula recited the formula, those who couldn’t repeated those words after the priest. Except now we have singled out those who are unlearned…and they simply ceased to come. The priests quickly changed their tune, ordaining that EVERYONE would recite the formula after them, lest anyone feel shame. 

Jewish tradition is not — and has not been — an inflexible, rigid system of law but rather a blueprint for living a more moral, uplifted, God-like life. It has and continues to respond to the realities of our contemporary situation, accepting us for who we are while pushing us towards who we must become. 

2 Minutes of Torah Study — Ki Teitze

We read in Deuteronomy: “Adonai, your God, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. Therefore your camp shall be holy so that God should not see anything unseemly among you.” (23:15)

While I take a more universalist approach, believing in a God who is concerned about the fate and welfare of all of humanity, I love the idea of God’s presence in our midst. This isn’t a new conception in Torah, for we also read:

“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

Nor is it a new conception in rabbinic thought, as we read in the writings of Joseph Soloveitchik:

“Halakhic man declares: the higher longs and pines for the lower…

and he possesses the tools to make it so.”

The idea isn’t new, but we still have yet to embrace it in practice. Too often we, I, act in ways convenient or self-interested but far removed from our highest values. Too often I worry God would have cause to look upon our actions, mistreatment of others, our world as unseemly. 

The high holy days give us a chance to press reset, to try again. To embrace this week’s Torah portion in the modern day, we would do well to follow the teaching of Danny Siegel:

“If you always assume the person sitting next to you

is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness —

You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.

And if the person chooses not to be revealed in your time —

It will not matter.”