Parashah Ponderings

A Moment and A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashah Ponderings

Overcoming the inner Pharaoh that abandons New Year’s resolutions.

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Happy New Year 2023! As we celebrate Shabbat on this New Year’s Eve, many of us are contemplating resolutions for the new year. Actually going to the gym where you’re a member but having been there since your introductory tour. Cutting back on ice cream. Making more time for family. Tackling those big projects that you’ve been putting off for months or years.

When push comes to shove, some of us will not only begin to address our resolutions, but actually fulfill them. Others of us, maybe not. We might make an attempt, but there’s a good chance we’ll putter out before we even make it to the end of the on ramp. It should come as no surprise that in the long run the “others,” the ones who fail to realize what they had resolved to do, far outnumber the “some,” the ones who actually succeed. The success rate after a year, in fact, is only about 8%, according to a study by the University of Scranton. (See: Surprisingly, the success rate after the first two weeks is actually 71%.)

Why such a high rate of failure over time? Here is one explanation, among many:

Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate. (See:

In other words, no matter how much we want to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, unless we’re ready to change the way we do things, it simply isn’t going to happen. Too often, we harden our hearts against the things that we know are in our best interest. In this respect, most of us are like Pharaoh, who probably wanted to be a good guy but his hardened heart wouldn’t let him.

Pharaoh, the one “who knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Israelites, figures prominently in the current series of weekly Torah readings. Pharaoh not only refuses to let Israel go upon Moses’ insistence, but he actually makes their lives increasingly miserable and, consequently, makes his own life and the life of ordinary Egyptians miserable as well. It takes ten plagues from God before Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. During four of these plagues he promises Moses that he will let the people go but reneges each time those plagues are lifted. Each time he becomes stubborn, his “heart hardens.”

He isn’t ready to change his habits. Even if throughout the first nine plagues Pharaoh wants to let the people go in order to avoid future calamities, he just can’t shake the hardness from his heart. He can’t become the conciliatory leader he needs to be in the moment. Even mounting pressure from his own courtiers, who have come to fear the God of the Hebrews, is insufficient to convince Pharaoh that change is necessary, that Egypt’s very survival depends on his letting the Hebrews go. That maybe his own survival also depends on it.

That the Pharaoh of Exodus is wicked and evil is without question. But who’s to say that, during some of those later plagues when he says he will let the people go, he doesn’t actually intend to make good on the promise? Isn’t it possible that at least during the plague of darkness Pharaoh is sincere in his desire to let Israel go, but just as he begins to fulfill his resolution, he runs after them because he simply isn’t ready to change?

Pharaoh is an effective metaphor for our own intransigence.  Despite knowing how good it will be for us to change our habits, we still don’t take the steps necessary to effect that change and bring about that good. With Pharaoh, all the evidence says that letting Israel go from Egypt will lead to a termination of the terror befalling Egypt and an overall improvement of conditions for all concerned. Despite the evidence, though, Pharaoh won’t or can’t have a change of heart. In our lives, we can know for sure that eating healthier, getting more exercise, being kinder, or just getting stuff done that we want to get done will significantly improve our lives, perhaps even extend our lives. Yet, when faced with a choice, we opt for the status quo. We won’t or can’t change our habits, even though our situation may worsen.

There is no magic pill for producing the change we desire. For Pharaoh, change comes only after seeing the death of his first born, and even then change comes reluctantly. To be sure, as I mentioned earlier, Pharaoh actively seeks to undo the change he had begun.

To be fair to Pharaoh and to ourselves, we should remember how reluctant Moses was to take on the role of liberator. When commanded by God, Moses protested. Moses, too, was not ready to change and become the person God wanted him to be.

Unlike Pharaoh, though, Moses did change. He did pursue the resolutions he had set for himself upon receiving his marching orders from God. Moses succeeded in transforming himself into a leader, liberator, and law maker.

What did Moses do that Pharaoh didn’t do? Moses opened himself to encouragement and feedback. God didn’t acquiesce when Moses pushed back against the call to free his people but rather kept helping Moses see how he could overcome the obstacles that Moses believed would prevent him from being the person God wanted him to be. Moses listened when God spoke. In addition, God provided Moses with a network and means to maximize Moses’s probabilities for success: Aaron, Miriam, Jethro and Joshua all came to Moses’s aid at crucial times to help him lead Israel through difficult times. Moses accepted the help from people he loved and trusted. Pharaoh, meanwhile, neither listened to his trusted advisors nor accepted their help.

What if we surround ourselves with people who will encourage us? What if we open ourselves to those who love us and are willing to support us in making the changes we seek? That support network, that cheering squad, might not exist at this moment, but if we are serious about changing, we can create that network, that cheering squad, simply by asking others for help and encouragement. More often than not, the people who care about us will accompany us on our journeys toward change. They will help free us from our own hardened hearts.

As we continue reading about our redemption from bondage in Egypt this January 1st, let us be mindful of the ways we’d like to feel freer in our own lives and resolve to loosen the shackles of habits that keep us from experiencing optimal health or realizing our full potential. Resolving to change is a necessary first step. Just as important, though, let us remember that we needn’t take that journey toward change alone. Moses didn’t. Like Pharaoh, Moses once experienced a hardened heart, but ultimately Moses let God and the people around him soften his heart. We all have a little bit of Pharaoh inside us, but we can overcome our inner Pharaoh if we choose, like Moses did, to have faith and to place our trust in the people who care about us most.

Parashah Ponderings

Resident aliens and sojourners are we on Christmas Eve

Parashat Shemot 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת שְׁמוֹת
Torah Portion: Exodus 1:1-6:1

This year Shabbat Parashat Shemot falls on Christmas, a holiday that is not for or by the Jewish people, but one which we Jews in America observe in one of two ways: 1) as dispassionate observers, the way we might glance at merchandise in a store window while walking down the street without breaking stride. We see what’s there but don’t think about it much, if at all. Or 2) as interested, maybe even engaged observers, who stop and look at the merchandise, perhaps entering the store to get a closer look, maybe try it on, maybe even buy it and take it home! Either way, we are as dispassionate observers or interested consumers, we are still pedestrians relating to something that is not ours as we make our way through the world.

In our own community, we each relate to Christmas in our own way. Some don’t pay much attention. Some feel put upon by all the commercial trappings of the holiday. Yet some are uplifted by the joy of the season and are moved to participate in its festivities, perhaps as supportive, caring family members of people for whom Christmas carries great meaning. At most, we are resident aliens, paying deep respect for the tradition of our majority culture. We are sojourners with those who celebrate Christmas.

In many ways, our experience as Jews during this season is an extension of the experience of our ancestors that we begin to read about in Parashat Shemot this week. In Egypt we were outsiders, oppressed for four hundred years following the death of Joseph and the rise of a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph. Then we left Egypt and commenced 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, heading toward an unfamiliar destination. Eventually, we became a sovereign nation and would one day again, but for most of history, we were strangers in someone else’s lands. Even with the birth of the Jewish State in 1948, most of us have chosen to reside outside of our homeland. Maybe we are in a constant state of exile, or maybe we have come to call the place where we are “home.” In reality, these two possibilities are always present, always tugging at us, never letting us become too comfortable or complacent but also never letting us feel entirely rootless and out of place, either. That’s how it is today, and that’s how it has been for centuries.

As resident aliens and sojourners in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries, our ancestors had their own response to Christmas. In the 17th century, they named it “Nittel Nacht” – the Night of the Nativity, but beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, they had already begun to refrain from studying Torah on Christmas eve. They also refrained from having sex, and they ate lots of garlic. In the beginning, they were doing what their Christian neighbors were doing, but for different reasons. Christians were getting rowdy and turning up the lights to ward off evil spirits and protect themselves from the walking dead. They refrained from sex, lest the children they conceive “be cursed and become tools of the devil”(

The Jews did these things partly to look as busy as their neighbors and protect themselves against pogroms. They weren’t concerned so much with evil spirits and the walking dead as they were with the spirit of Jesus that their neighbors were conjuring up. At one time the Jews had mourned the birth of Jesus on Tisha B’Av, when they also mourned the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. After all, it was in Jesus’s name that their neighbors and the church made their lives a living Hell. They had reason to mourn. That Tu B’Shevat tradition eventually gave way to Nittel Nacht, a concretization of Jewish antipathy toward the Christian’s savior. 

Nittel Nacht faded away as a common observance in the 19th century as relations with Christians warmed, but it is still practiced in some communities to this day. In fact, once when my family and I were living in Houston, a local Orthodox synagogue held a night of studying about Jewish views of Jesus – a clear departure from the synagogue’s regular fare of Jewish learning.

Thank God the days of Nittel Nacht are mostly behind us, those days of fear and loathing. In many places and at many times, rioting, rape and death were constantly lying in wait. Our ancestors resorted to standing in front of the store window as they walked down the street and engaged in mockery as they sought to gird themselves against hatred and oppression.

On this Christmas Eve, as we remember the wanderings of our People, we give thanks for our Christian neighbors and the love they bestow on us as a community and as individuals. Such would have been unimaginable at other times and in other places throughout history. And just as our Christian family members sojourn with us on our sacred festivals, so, too, let us sojourn with them in their celebration of Christmas. As Jews, will most assuredly eat Chinese food, go to the movies and take advantage of empty ski slopes, but let us also be sure to bless those around us with joy and peace and wish them all a very Merry Christmas.

Parashah Ponderings

Thanksgiving Angst

Parashat Vayishlach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיִּשְׁלַח
Genesis 32:4-36:43

Thanksgiving falls next week. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a joyous holiday — a time of feasting with family and friends and, of course, a time of giving thanks for our abundant blessings. For too many, though, Thanksgiving is anything but joyous. For them, it is a time of acute angst, a time of fear and loathing. I’m sure we all know someone who does all in their power to avoid “celebrating” this classic American festival with family members with whom they are all but estranged, people with whom they passionately disagree about everything from politics to table etiquette to the proper way of raising children to sports to — well, you name it! You or I may be one of these people who suffer from Thanksgiving angst. Sometimes we may be able to avoid the conflicts we dread by making plans that put us far away from those whose views and/or behaviors we despise. Sometimes, though, we suck it up and manage as best we can through several hours of confinement with those same people.

How sad that we let our passions separate us from our families. As one friend said to me recently, “Love them or hate them, they’re still family.” The family is as the most essential building block of our society. At it’s best, the family is where we learn to help one another, if not love one another. At it’s best, it’s the source of values that make for an orderly, compassionate society. When we become separated from that source of caring, of love, of learning, we are lucky if we can find another well to nourish us. Unfortunately, many of people who suffer from a rupture in their family relationships are left to flounder, to stew in misery and angst.

Our ancestor Jacob was one of those people who would have suffered from Thanksgiving angst were he alive in our own day. Imagine if Jacob’s reunion with Esau after 20 years would have taken place at Esau’s residence. Imagine Jacob receiving an invitation to join Esau and his family for Thanksgiving.

To help you visualize this encounter, consider what we read in Genesis 32:8-13:

Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’!I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”

In this moment, Jacob cares only about self-preservation, keeping himself safe as well as those in his immediate family. “What if Esau comes after me?” he says. “I better protect myself.” “Even the promises of You, God, give me little assurance that I’ll make it through this encounter.” If he were preparing to reunite with Esau on Thanksgiving, he’d be doing everything he could to steal himself for the encounter, to prepare himself emotionally just to survive.

Yet, he decides to move forward, to make the journey toward what he believes will be an unpleasant encounter. On the way, he encounters an angel with whom he wrestles. He emerges from the bout with a limp and a new name, Yisrael, “one who strives with God.”

Shortly after Jacob takes on a new gait and a new name, we find him approaching Esau (Gen. 33:1-5):

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”

He shows up on Esau’s “doorstep,” if you will, with his family. Instead of fending off arrows and swords, Jacob receives an embrace and a kiss. An embrace and a kiss from the brother he cheated, not once, but twice! The story here has a happy ending! We imagine they have their Thanksgiving meal. Maybe there’s even laughter, and singing, and lots and lots of story telling.

What happened? Why didn’t Esau attack Jacob and all that was his? Maybe it’s because Esau had years of really effective therapy. He remembered what Jacob had done to him, but he had learned to deal with it in a way that wouldn’t consume him or his sacred family tie. Maybe it was that after Jacob wrestled with the angel, a violent encounter with Esau seemed like child’s play. He wasn’t scared any longer. He showed up with an open heart.

The point is that we need not let our Thanksgiving angst keep us from the ones we should and will again, God willing, love. There certainly is some of Esau and Jacob in each of us. Let us let our best Esau’s and Jacob’s emerge this Thanksgiving.

Parashah Ponderings

Where is God while migrants suffer?

Parashat Vayeitzei Genesis 28:10-32:3

It has been heartrending to hear about the 2000 or more migrants in Belarus who are stuck at the border with Poland. Belarus is a Russian-aligned nation whose neighbor, Poland, is a member of the European Union. Most of these migrants come from the Middle East and Asia, apparently lured there by Belarus with the promise of receiving assistance to enter the European Union. Belarus is corralling the migrants toward the border and reportedly brutalizing them there. Meanwhile, Poland has built a fence of razor wire and is refusing to let the migrants in and both nations are rattling their sabers and mobilizing their militaries on either side of the border.

Things closer to home feel no less distressing. Nearly 800 migrants, 40% of whom are minors, live in one makeshift camp in Tijuana, hoping for legal passage into the U.S. At last count, roughly 1.7 million migrants, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been detained at the border . Under Title 42, most asylum seekers are being sent back to the border or to their home countries.

I do not have the solutions to these crises, nor am I going to pretend I know and understand all the facts and factors involved — from the causes of the crises to the barriers, physical and political, to reaching just conclusions. All I know is that there are thousands upon thousands of human beings all over the world who are seeking refuge from terror, criminality, and famine and no one is eager to give them safe harbor. Again, I don’t have the solutions, but I know these human beings deserve better than what the world’s leaders, including in our own country, are offering them. 

As a nation of immigrants, we as Americans and we as Jews, should be outraged! Adam and Eve were the first migrants, kicked out of Eden for a sin, a mistake or for their own gullibility, but God saw that they had the means to make a home outside Eden. They would have to work. They would suffer. But they would be agents of their own destiny, and with that, they would have their dignity.

Abraham leaves his homeland in response to a Divine call. He gets to his destination only to encounter famine and so keeps on moving. Abraham was a migrant.

Two generations later, Jacob would become a migrant. We see in this week’s Torah reading Jacob running for his life from his home in Beersheva to Haran. In Haran, he lives for 20 years as an indentured servant to his Laban, but ultimately outwits Laban and returns to Beersheva with his two wives and their very large families. 

What Adam and Eve, Abraham and Jacob all have in common is that they were never abandoned by God. God provided for Adam and Eve when they worked the soil and bore children. God gave Abraham a home in Canaan when he demonstrated his faithfulness. And Jacob encounters messengers of God enroute to Haran and then again enroute back to Beersheva, angels that promised Jacob security and gave him hope for a better future.

Where is God for the migrants in Belarus, Mexico and so many other places that don’t make the headlines? I am reminded of the famous saying of the early 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotzk: God is where you let God in. I would add my own belief that God is where human beings behave and work in Godly ways. 

International relief organizations of all kinds are busy trying to get access to these migrants and provide for their daily needs. Journalists are risking their lives to bear witness to the migrants’ suffering and despair as well as their hope and perseverance. God is there in those migrant camps because extraordinary people make sure that God is there.

But the suffering continues because elected officials, autocrats, and bureaucrats, put nation and self over compassion and dignity. I know the world’s problems are not easily solved, but amassing troops on your borders, aiming guns not at the migrants but at the other nation, hardly signals a will to find a solution. There is no Godliness in hardened hearts. There is no Godliness in the conditions that allow migrants to wait out their days in squalor, not knowing if they will find refuge, be sent to their places of origins — where very often certain death awaits — or languish indefinitely in no-man’s land. At these hardened hearts — at this vacuum of compassion and lovingkindness among those who could bring an end to the suffering of migrant men, women, and children — we should be outraged.

On this Shabbat, when we read about our ancestors, who themselves were migrants, let us be mindful of and grateful for those angels, those divine messengers, who bring migrants hope and security. But let us also raise our voices so loudly that they shatter the outer crusts of those hardened hearts that fail to see the spark of the Divine in those human beings who await justice. Let us demand of the world’s leaders that they, too, let God in.

Community Discussion

The Thanksgiving-Chanukah Convergence

November-December Bulletin Article

It’s not quite Thanksgivakah this year, but it’s close: Chanukah begins on the Sunday night following Thanksgiving. When Thanksgiving and Chanukah nearly converge like this, I believe both holidays become more meaningful and festive. 

Chanukah has its origins in the biblical thanksgiving festival of Sukkot. During Sukkot the Temple priests would sacrifice a total of 70 bulls, 70 being the symbolic number of nations in the world. Our ancestors gave thanks not just for their blessings for the blessings of all peoples. Since the Maccabees were engaged in battle during Sukkot in the year 164 BCE, they delayed their Sukkot-thanksgiving celebration until after they had recaptured Jerusalem and purified the Temple. By then, the Maccabees and the Jewish People were ever more grateful for the miracles God had wrought for them in recent years and, perhaps, ever more grateful for those nations with whom they were at peace. In our day, the near-convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah might inspire us to feel just as grateful for our blessings and remind us to give thanks for our neighbors with whom we coexist peacefully here and abroad.

Another thought. Though many families reunite during Chanukah to light the chanukiah (Chanukah menorah), to eat latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and to open presents, more families, I believe, actually come together to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, when asked about my favorite Jewish holiday at my interview for rabbinical school, I offered Thanksgiving as my answer. For me, this was the moment, more than any biblical festival, when I would reconnect with distant aunts, uncles and cousins and experience a deep sense of gratitude, and it was that connectedness and gratitude that was — and still is — at the core of my Jewish identity. It is a real gift to be able to visit with family on Thanksgiving and celebrate an actual Jewish holiday at the same time.

Finally, when Chanukah falls early in the secular calendar, our Chanukah festivities seem to stand more on their own, rather than in the shadow of ubiquitous, over-commercialization Christmas cheer. While both Christmas and Chanukah share an intention of bringing light to the darkness of winter, Chanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas. Who eats fruitcake along with their sufganiyot and latkes? And, contrary to popular belief, there is no halakhic (Jewish legal) requirement to give gifts; there is not even any mention of gift-giving at Chanukah in the Talmud. (Purim traditionally is the time for gift giving.)  True, there is the shadow of Thanksgiving, but as I’ve observed, the shadow of Thanksgiving accentuates, rather than obfuscates, the meaning of  Chanukah. 

I personally am looking forward to celebrating Chanukah with you as we did last year. Each night we’ll join together on Zoom, and a different household will lead us in the brachot (blessings) for lighting the Chanukah candles and increase the light even more by sharing a song, a story, or an inspirational thought. This year, we might also see some Thanksgiving decorations on the walls of each other’s homes as we “visit” with one another as a CAA family. And, no doubt, once we log-off from our computers, many of us will dig into our Thanksgiving leftovers and enjoy latkes on the side and sufganiyot for dessert. Just the thought makes me believe our holidays in November this year will be sweeter than ever.

Please share your thoughts on the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah in the comment box!

Parashah Ponderings

Zuckerberg’s Halloween or Abraham’s Shabbat?

Parashat Chayei Sara 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת חַיֵּי שָֹרָה
Torah Portion: Genesis 23:1-25:18

If you are someone who gets into Halloween and is okay with Jewish kids trick-or-treating, then let me wish you an early Happy Halloween. If you are like my modern Orthodox friend, with whom I spoke today, then I simply wish you Shabbat Shalom. I asked him, “Did your children do Halloween when they were young?” “Oh, God, no. That’s for the gentiles.” If he is right, then I must be an honorary gentile, because I’m one Jewish boy who thinks Halloween is great.

Another Jewish boy who apparently thinks Halloween is great is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of what was called Facebook, Inc. until today. As of today, Facebook, Inc, has a new name — Meta Platforms. So “meta” is the ancient Greek word for  “beyond,” “after,” or “behind.” But in Hebrew, “meta” is the feminine form for “dead,” which makes today officially the Day of the Dead in Israel. This is very confusing for people of Mexican heritage living in Israel who were planning on observing Dia de los Muertos on Monday night and Tuesday.

When the new name was announced on Twitter, a Jewish academic tweeted “The Jewish community will ridicule this name for years.” Not so quick, Professor. When volunteers for the Orthodox Jewish emergency rescue service Zaka learned of Facebook’s new name, they tweeted, “Don’t worry, we’re on it.”

Would Zuckerberg, who wrote on his application to Harvard that he could read and write Ancient Greek, French, Hebrew, and Latin, have gone public with the linguistic cross-over name Meta if it hadn’t been the shabbos before Halloween? Coincidence? You be the judge.

Speaking of judges, in the Talmud the rabbis speculate that the Judge of Judges, i.e. God, has a heavenly scribe named Metatron. We even learn that a particular heretic among the rabbis believed Metatron was a deity, a second divine superpower, if you will, though apparently the other rabbis believed Metatron was some form of angel.

I’m pretty sure that when Zuckerberg goes trick-or-treating with his children on Sunday night, he’s going as Metatron. But lest you think the costume will be something like the grim reaper or a Dementor, it’s more likely to look like a cross between Tinkerbell and court report with a stenotype machine. Not so scary until he starts asking for all your personal information and political views.

It turns out that Facebook will still exist, just under the umbrella of Meta, which describes itself on its website as “the next evolution of social connection. Our company’s vision is to help bring the metaverse to life, so we are changing our name to reflect our commitment to this future.” 

Marvel Cinematic Universe now has company, except it won’t be just tweens and comic-book enthusiasts who get sucked in. It’ll be all of us, too! There might even be a special blackhole to take care of all those people investigating Facebook. All of a sudden Zuckerberg’s legal, political and ethical problems will simply disappear into a vortex of time, space and matter.

I’m sure this was an idea planted in Zuckerberg’s brain by his rival billionaires, who are tired of being mocked for launching tourists into space in oddly shaped projectiles.

But, yes, there is a connection to this week’s Torah portion which gives me religious cover for offering up this third-rate late-night tv monologue.

For Zuckerberg, creating Meta is, above all, a business decision. But it’s coming at a time when his main product, Facebook, is coming under close scrutiny for all kinds of reasons. No wonder so many of Zuckerberg’s critics are questioning his motives.

In this week’s Torah portion, we find another Jewish boy making an entirely different kind of business deal but in a way that leaves absolutely no doubt about his motives or his integrity. After his wife Sarah dies, Abraham approaches the Hittite, Ephron, and offers to buy a parcel of land so Abraham can give her a proper burial. Abraham shouts out in the middle of the town square, “I’m not a member of your tribe, but please sell me a burial site.” When the townspeople say, “Sure. Take any spot you want,” Abraham responds, “I just want a cave on that man Ephron’s property.”

Ephron, who is in the crowd, yells out, “It’s yours! Take it. I’m giving it to you.”

But Abraham wouldn’t have it. “No, no. I insist on paying you full price.”

Ephron says, “It’s only 400 shekels. What’s that between friends? Keep your money.”

But Abraham insists. And in front of the crowd that has gathered, reaches into his bag and starts counting out 400 shekels, placing each shekel in the seller’s hand.

That property, The Cave of Machpelah, can be visited today in the town of Hebron. Abraham wanted the locals to know that he was now the legitimate owner of this property, and he eliminated any possibility of someone being able to challenge him in the future.

This business transaction has become the model of ethical business dealings for all time. Abraham was clear about what he wanted, and he made it clear that he would pay the full fair-market price. Everyone could see the transaction was above board.

When we start to keep our business dealings secret, it raises all kinds of suspicions. I’m not one to judge Metatron, um, Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m glad I’m not in his shoes having the world look upon me with suspicion. Most of us will never have the kind of power Zuckerberg wields economically and politically, but we can still glean a lesson from what we read about him on the front page. We can learn that ethics matter in business, in politics, and society. To avoid raising doubts about our integrity, we should all be as transparent in our undertaking as that other Jewish boy, Abraham. 

So if you were wondering who you would dress up as on Halloween, Mark Zuckerberg or Abraham, let me urge you to go with Abraham. Even my Orthodox friend would have to approve of that!

Shabbat Shalom

Parashah Ponderings

People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold a beloved elder in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. A long-time member of the congregation who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.

Parashah Ponderings

The Noah Story as a Model for Mindfulness

Parashat Noach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week I looked at the story of Noah with fresh eyes, and I saw it for the first time as a model for mindfulness. Maybe that is because I’m in a six-week introduction to mindfulness meditation and I’m seeing everything as either a model or a catalyst for mindfulness. Be that as it may, let me share the lesson about mindfulness that I see in this week’s Torah portion.

First, it must be said, Noah is, on one hand, the quintessential children’s bible story. It features a great big boat, lots of animals, and a nice man doing what God tells him to do. But, on the other hand, once you get past the great big boat, the animals and the nice man, you’re left with an R-rated drama depicting the total destruction of humanity and the entire natural world. Throughout the story, Noah remains silent, never arguing with God to ease up on humankind. To cap it all off, shortly after the flood waters dissipate and the land dries, Noah’s son Ham walks into his father’s tent and finds his father naked and asleep, an unfortunate incident for which Ham would forever be cursed.

I’d like us to see Noah as something other than either a cute children’s story, on one end of the narrative spectrum, or on the other end of the spectrum, a profoundly disturbing and tragic attempt by God to create a more perfect world populated with blameless human beings.

In the mindfulness course I am taking, I am learning to practice a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which seem to have two things in common. All these practices seem to have two things in common: breath and presence. In essence, mindfulness is about quieting the mind and achieving release and relief from life’s stressors. Breathing, so elemental to sustaining our lives, is constant, always with us, and yet we can have some control over it. Our breath is something that we can focus on as we strive to be fully present in any given moment. By taking breaks during our everyday lives to simply breath and be present, we allow ourselves to then re-engage the world with peacefulness and, often, new insight.

The story of Noah takes place in a mythic period of human existence but it takes place in this world, not middle earth or outer space. Noah’s world is our world — a world filled with chaos and pain and darkness but also semblances of order, joy and light. Noah’s world was, for God, beyond repair. God saw no order, no joy, no light and so God decided to start all over again. God saw in Noah and his family the best chance to replant humanity in newly tilled soil.

I think we can all relate to the need to replant ourselves every now and then, to pull ourselves out of the soil and set ourselves down in more hospitable ground. Or, like Noah, to find refuge in an ark until the storm passes over. We all live with stress and tension — in our places of work, in our homes, in our heads. I would argue that we should each find our own ark where we can regroup and face the world with renewed energy and clearer vision.

There are some obvious challenges using the story of Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness, but we can learn from the ways in which the story doesn’t conform to an ideal state of mindfulness. For one, once he emerges from the safety of the ark, the world as he knew it had been obliterated, with the exception of his family and the animals who were on the ark with him, and with the exception, apparently, of vegetation and the very ground upon which he had walked before the flood. So some things were the same, but the conditions for life had been drastically altered. 

When we emerge from a meditative state, we can expect that not much will have changed outside of ourselves. We are not Noah, and for that we should be grateful! Part of being mindful is accepting the world as it is, knowing that we are called to engage in tikkun olam, to do our part to improve it. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just will the world around us out of existence, though I must admit that sounds very tempting. We can, however, strive to be present in it and do what we can to increase the order, joy and light.

Another challenge is that Noah is most certainly not in a quiet, serene setting. He’s not secluded in a dark room with only a scented candle. Nor is he sitting in the lotus position on a hill with a view of Mt. Monadnock on a beautiful day. No. Around Noah is noise and stench and confusion. Who of us would choose to take refuge under such conditions?

For us to be fully present and mindful in the world, we need to learn to breathe deeply even under trying circumstances. Even with the noise, stench and confusion of life, we must remember to breathe. Just three breaths in and three breaths out, consciously inhale and exhale. Quiet the mind while you breathe. Maybe close your eyes if you’re not driving or on a Zoom call with your boss or client. The noise, stench and confusion won’t go away, but you can reorient yourself in a way that makes it all more bearable. In this sense, maybe we are all like Noah. We’re on a busy, bustling ark at the same time that we’re taking refuge from the world around us. 

I am no expert in mindfulness. I have much to learn. In fact, I am interested in the ways others might see the story of a Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness. What lessons can you find in the story to help you live a more peaceful life? How can the story help you be more present in the here and now? I suspect if you join me in reframing the story of Noah as something other than a children’s story or a horror story, you will find your own riches that will bring order, joy and light to your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashah Ponderings

Creating in the Image of the Divine

Parashat Bereishit 5782

One of the great ideas of the Torah is that the first human was made in God’s image. We read in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27 of Bereishit (Genesis): 

Vayomer Elohim, na-aseh adam b’tzalmeinu ki-d’moteinu… Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo. B’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’nikeiva bara oto. God said, “Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness… And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God did God create (adam).

The idea of the first human being created in the image of the Divine was a radical idea in the ancient Near East. Heretofore only ruling kings had considered themselves made in the image or likeness of a god. The Torah rejects the idea that only the powerful and elite bear a resemblance to the divine, and asserts emphatically that we are all endowed with characteristics of the Sovereign of Sovereigns. We hear echoes of this assertion later in the Torah when we learn that the entire People of Israel is to be “holy” because God, their Creator and Ruler, is holy. Nowadays, we believe the Torah calls us to live lives of godliness — to become partners with God in creating a more perfect world and to extend to one another the same attributes of lovingkindness and justice that our tradition associates with God.

In chapter 5 of Bereishit, we learn that part of what it means to be created “in God’s image, after God’s likeness,” is that we should ourselves must seek to create others in God’s image:

Va’yehi Adam sheloshim u-me’at shana va-yoled bidmuto c’tzalmo, vayikra et sh’mo Shet. When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth (Gen. 5:3).

Adam was made in God’s image, and lo and behold, Adam’s child is made in his image. The late 12th-early 13th century French commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the likeness that Adam has imparted to Seth is something entirely human. Just as Adam had matured into an intelligent human being capable of learning from his mistakes, so too will Seth grow in intelligence. Kimhi suggests that the reason Cain and Abel are not listed here is because they were children of the younger, more reckless, less intelligent Adam. The image that Adam wanted to impart to his offspring was, thus, first realized in Seth. 

I think there is a lesson here about parenting, specifically, but generativity and the creative enterprise, more generally. That is, in whatever we create — whether it be children or students or ideas or things of beauty — we should strive to imbue our creations with the best aspects of who we are. In the case of Adam, this meant waiting 130 years for those best aspects to emerge within himself before trying again to create another human being. Sometimes we need to be patient before embarking on the act of creation to ensure that we have the skills to fashion something worthy of our own name.

But the text in chapter 5 is ambiguous. It says that Adam begat a son “in his image, after his likeness.” Who is the “his” here? If it is Adam, then let’s remember what Kimhi teaches us about what it takes for you and me to be creative. If, on the other hand, the “his” is engendered language referring to God, then perhaps we can find different meaning in the teaching of his Spanish contemporary Nahmanides, or Ramban.

Ramban teaches:

Obviously every living thing begotten from another living thing is in its likeness and after its image. This verse is telling us that Adam begot a son in God’s likeness, after God’s image, just as Adam himself had originally been (The Commentator’s Bible: Genesis, p. 58). 

Ramban’s view is shared by the Eitz Chayim Torah and Commentary, where we read “The first two human beings transmitted ‘the image of God’ in themselves to all future generations” (p. 30).

What Rambam and the Eitz Chayim teach us is that we are passing on to our children more than our own DNA, even more than our own character traits, for better or for worse. When we raise children or express generativity in other ways, we are transmitting something much larger and greater than ourselves. We are transmitting the very image and likeness of God that has been handed down to us from the time of Adam and Eve. 

What a responsibility! On one hand, we need to be capable stewards of God’s image. We need to give it exercise. We need to show it off. We need to nurture it so that God’s very being is experienced in the world. On the other hand, we must realize that God’s image is not for our own glorification but for the glorification of humanity for all time. We must be capable stewards, but we also must be capable teachers. To use a metaphor from track and field, we have to be careful that the baton does not get dropped as we pass it off to the next generation.

Ultimately, I think both Kimhi and Ramban are correct. Through our creative acts, we reproduce the best and worst of ourselves, but when we strive to pass on the best of ourselves, we are also passing on the image of the Divine that we inherited from those who came before us. To be a good steward is to care for that image of the Divine within each of us — to allow the Godliness within us to flourish. When we are ready to pass that picture of Godliness onto others, we must do so with utmost love and care.

Perhaps Adam needed to live 130 years before he was prepared to transmit his own image to his child. Perhaps, too, he needed that time to understand how to care for and nurture the image and likeness of God himself and to feel confident that he could then teach his child. It is my prayer that we can follow in Adam’s footsteps in our own, much shorter lifetimes, so that the best of us will flourish in future generations and God’s image will continue to shine light on the world.