Category Archives: Divrei 5777


Balak בלק

By Zwi Reznik, July 8, 2017

Several weeks ago I was invited to present a דרש  on בלק. I have learned not to question such an invitation and agreed. SO, I proceeded to re-read בלק and start examining some of the commentaries. I found myself ill at ease with these commentaries which characterized בלעם as a thoroughly evil individual. One who has an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a proud soul. In fact this characterization was a subject of discussion in our Mishnah study group recently. We were studying Pirke Avot, chapter 5 mishnah 19 which deals with the attributes of the disciples of אברהם and the disciples of בלעם. I discovered that the far more learned individuals I study with were also uncomfortable with the standard characterization of בלעם. So rather than ask myself “who am I to question the Rabbis of Midrash Rabbah and even Rashi” I am comfortable in my obligation to bringing my own thoughts and experience to this parshah. So I will speak of parshah בלק as the story of the spiritual transformation and redemption of the good, or godly, man בלעם.

In my own mind I considered the contrast between the actions of בלעם and another well known prophet. This other prophet when contacted by God and instructed to “…2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. 3 Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to  יפו and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.”  Jonah’s response to hearing God’s explicit instructions is to run away by the fastest means available in the opposite direction.

On the other hand how does בלעם relate to God. We need to examine the text and be mindful of both the older commentaries like Midrash Rabbah and Rashi as well as more recent ones like the well-known commentaries and other works of Nechama Liebowitz. Leibowitz wrote Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities. Moab and Ammon produced a Ruth and Naamah respectively, [and] Egypt two righteous midwives.” So I would suggest we immediately discard any criticism, implied or otherwise, of בלעם based on the fact that he was not one of us. After all Jonah was one of us.

The parshah begins with בלק, King of Moab, hiring בלעם to “22:6… put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.”  Now the gentlest critique I have found of בלעם is that he was a mercenary. Typically we think of a mercenary as someone who fights, and kills, solely for money rather than a principled cause. Therefore, this is a somewhat negative characterization. So rather than mercenary I prefer to think of בלעם as an independent consultant, specializing in divination, and with a possibly undeserved reputation for blessings and curses. As was noted in our Mishnah study group, he had to make a living. What בלעם did for a living would not have been an uncommon occupation in his time and pIace. In my time and place I also had to make a living. I myself was once an independent consultant specializing in exploration geophysics in the quest for fossil fuels. Aside from the moral ambiguity of making a direct contribution to climate change I also recall the character of some of the people I worked for. I would not wish to be judged on the basis of my successes in finding fossil fuels or my client list. However, the Midrash as well as Rashi clearly condemn בלעם for his client list.

What follows in the parshah is a sequence of events, including three blessings, that illustrate the development of בלעם as a moral individual. In her classic עיונות בספר במדבר, Leibowitz uses the phrase “From Common Sorcerer to Prophet” which I believe is the progression we observe in the parshah. I have already noted the King of Moab’s request to בלעם. Now consider בלעם’s first response to בלק’s representatives. “22:8… Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the LORD may instruct me.”. בלעם  does not immediately accept the contract offer and clearly states that he must consult with God first. This supposedly evil heathen sorcerer first want’s to find out what God wants him to do before he responds. And God says “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” בלעם reports to the representatives, they leave and בלק sends new representatives with a new offer-basically ‘I’ll pay you all I can’. To which בלעם responds, without even consulting with God first, I don’t care what you’ll pay me “22:18… I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.” Once again בלעם invites the representatives to stay overnight while he consults God again. God responds, “22:20…you may go with them. But whatever I command you that you shall do.” In other words, you can go but remember who you’re actually working for.

While it appears that God has changed his mind he actually has not. Newer commentaries take up a grammatical argument to demonstrate that. This may seem like a diversion at this point but, I think it may be an example of the revival of Hebrew as a modern living language may have influenced commentary. Leibowitz, for example, refers to a 19th Century commentary and this issue is also discussed by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg in his work “Torah Gems”. The text uses different Hebrew words which are both translated as the English phrase “with them”. In God’s response to the first request, in Verse 12, for בלעם’s services the Hebrew word used is עמהם. Rather than the modern Hebrew conjugation, איתם, of the preposition עם (with) with the personal pronoun הם (them), the word used is a simple concatenation of the words with and them. In verse 20 God’s second response uses the Hebrew,אתם , for “with them”. The modern Hebrew conjugation of הם and את, the preposition used to reference a direct object is אותם. There is just a vowel sound difference. On the basis of these grammatical differences the modern commentaries note thatעמהם  indicates both a joint purpose and a joint action—i.e. both the trip to בלק and acting on בלק’s purpose. אתם indicates that בלעם’s traveling is only a joint action, the trip to בלק, but not a joint purpose.

Then we see the grammatical issue again in verse 21 where the phrase translated as “… with the Moabite princes.” uses the word עם. So it seems that we’re back to having a joint purpose, which the commentaries note as the reason for the anger at Balaam here. I will just note that at this point בלעם may not be as spiritually fit as his ass since he can’t see the Angel in front of him while the ass does, but, the path to redemption is not always direct.

Finally בלעם gets toבלק , reports in to his client and advises him to set up for the cursing session with seven altars and seven bulls and seven rams. Then he tells בלק that he has to go meet with God and to wait for him to get back. He meets with God, tells him what he has done in preparation, that the altars had been built and the bulls and rams sacrificed  and then the text tells us  “23:5 And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth …”. Here we need to make another remark about the Hebrew in the text. The Hebrew word in Chapter 23 verse 5 that is typically translated as ‘word’ is דבר. In modern Hebrew that is the word for object or thing. Now the rabbis of the Midrash must have understood that word as thing or object. In Midrash Rabbah they interpret the thing as being a bit put into the mouth of a beast in order to make it go in the direction it’s master desires. Rashi makes that analogy as well, but also extends it to a hook in the mouth of a fish.

What happens next? No curses from בלעם, just blessings. As a former consultant I can tell you this is not the way to keep a client happy. Of course we know that בלק is not the client and בלעם even tries to make that clear to him. בלק doesn’t get it and simply wants to try for the curses again at another location. The same things happen. The hook in the mouth, the altars, the sacrifices, no curses just blessings, בלק gets angry and בלעם again reminds him who he is really working for. One more time בלק tries a change of location. This time to “23:28 בלק took בלעם to the peak of Peor, which overlooks the wasteland.”

Only now everything changes. The text informs us that “24:2 As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God (אלהים רוח) came upon him.” There is no hook in the mouth for בלעם this time. Then בלעם delivers his words, one of most famous sets of lines in the entire Torah. They include one of the most famous single lines in the Torah “24:5מַה־ טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” I see these words before me regularly, in large brass letters on the outside wall of the shule at Beverly Boulevard and Stanley Avenue as I walk through my neighborhood.

The story of בלק and בלעם now ends. בלק is so angry that he tells בלעם that he isn’t going to pay him. בלעם tells him he doesn’t really care since he has regularly informed him of who he is really working for. Then בלעם really piles it on with another prophesy, which is certain to not only lose him the King of Moab as a client but also many others. Finally “24:25: Then Balaam set out on his journey back home … .”

There are other significant transformations of the spirit that are in the Torah. The first we learn of are those of   אברהם and שרה, whose transformations were marked by name changes and who we recall whenever a convert acquires them as parents. There is יעקב whose fear of an upcoming encounter with the brother he knowingly defrauded of his birthright leads to a great struggle and a spiritual transformation. That transformation was so profound that his name had to change to ישראל. However, בלעם‘s transformation probably did not merit a name change. Neither did what I think of as my own, which led me to leave my earlier profession to become a teacher– work that is inherently valuable. I would note that for me even recognizing that a transformation had occurred took years to become aware of.  However that experience did impel me to identify with בלעם in this parshah.

But what of those older commentaries which are entirely negative regarding בלעם‘s character. At this point in the parshah רשי and others state that the Spirit of God left בלעם and he promptly returned to his evil ways.  However, what demonstrates that he had evil ways to begin with. That he was a non-Jewish heathen? I’ll recall Nechama Leibowitz’s comment Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities…”.  In his commentaries on Pirke Avot (1945) Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, makes the following statement regarding the Mishnah I referred to earlier: “The characterization of the followers of Balaam are harsh, but—as a Christian commentator admits—so were the attacks on Jews by the contemporaries of the author of this saying.” Is it possible that our image of Balaam has at least partly been based on hatred of the other, fear, resentment and anger? Unfortunately we are all aware, or should be, of the prevalence of those emotions all around us. Consider also the broader question of whether the disciples of even a good man can commit evil acts? Of course they can and do. We have no lack of examples in our world.

I really needed to also examine all of the specifics of our source document’s depiction of בלעם. In particular the ones that are not in parshahבלק . Thanks to the electronic version of the Jewish Publications Society’s Tanach I found 61 instances of the nameבלעם . Of those 52 are in בלק. Of the remaining nine just one in parsha מטות is a truly damning statement about בלעם. Two of the others simply note his fate. The remaining six, which appear in דבורים, יהושע, מיכה & נחמיה are all variations on the unremitting evil of Moab with the hiring of בלעם just presented as evidence of their evil intent. Give some thought to that as well.

The parshah has not ended with בלעם heading home. What follows is one of those troubling stories that appear occasionally in the Torah. Then in two weeks we’ll hear some more about בלעם. But, I would prefer to stop here with just the vision of a happily content בלעם peacefully heading home, so I will.



By Susan Laemmle, May 13, 2017

God, Torah & Israel: the Responsive Shma within the Torah Service

There is a moment in the Torah Service whose power is undeniable: the shaleach-tzibur grasps the Torah, which has just been removed from the Aron Ha-kodesh; faces the congregation; and sings out, loud and clear: Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu, Adonai Echad. The kalah responds by repeating. And it repeats again after the leader proclaims: Echad elohanu, gadol adonaynu, kadosh v’norah shmo.”

The impetus for this Dvar Torah derives from my feeling the power of that moment, both when leading the Torah Service and as part of the kahal — and to my noticing years ago that it is typically done differently in Reform and Conservative congregations. Most Reform synagogues I’ve davened with recite it in unison, leader and kahal together, like the Shma line within Shacharit. In contrast, most Conservative synagogues are like Temple Beth Am in doing the Torah Service’s Shma and its attendant line responsively. What, I wondered, could be the reason for this difference?

More broadly, I’ve long been interested in, and moved by, the liturgical rubric called devarim sh’b’kedushah — literally, the words or things that are holy. We know them as the sections of the service that require a minyan. If you’re an egalitarian woman in an Orthodox setting or a mourner wanting to recite Kaddish when fewer than ten people are present, you’ve particularly felt this principle in action. What interests and moves me about devarim sh’b’kedushah is their back and forth rhythm — the “antiphonal” structure within which their holiness presents itself. All the devarim sh’b’kedushah are characterized by that back and forth, that antiphony.

Writers on the Mourner’s Kaddish typically extol the way in which it draws the mourner out of his or her isolation into the comforting arms of community. For me, the Kaddish’s effect comes not simply from the mourning individual’s being in the presence of other Jews but from the way in which the words spoken by the mourners interleave with those said by the others who are present. (In this, all the mourners are, as it were, unified into one entity.) To my mind, the mode of recitation in itself affirms the interconnectedness of individual and group — the Jewish and human commonality of mourner on the one hand, and those whose family circle is currently intact, on the other. I believe that the way in which Mourner’s Kaddish is recited — the reciprocity in itself, apart from the words’ meaning or even their entrancing rhythm — strengthens mourner and non-mourner alike.

I am no psychologist, but let me suggest that this saving, soothing, strengthening reciprocity goes back to the bond that forms between parent and infant; the bond that goes on to support the toddler who ventures forth and then returns to the parent’s side; the bond that echoes and culminates in the love that binds couples who become life partners.

I’ll take a deep breath now and return to my topic of devarim sh’b’kedushah and the requirement of minyan. It turns out that Parshat-Emor contains one of the three Torah verses that generate that requirement through the Talmudic rule of g’zeyrah shavah. The Emor verse is Leviticus 22:32 on page 724: “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people” [read Hebrew]. The word b’toch, “amidst,” also appears in Number 16:21: “Separate yourselves from amidst the congregation.” And this verse’s word for “congregation” — ha-eydah — is also used in an earlier Numbers verse (14:27) that describes the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. From this triangular combination, the Talmud in Megillah 23b concludes that “sanctification” should take place in the midst of a congregation of ten.

This morning, the first point when we required that magic number was Borchu; next, the Kedushah within the Amidah; and then came the Torah blessings and congregational responses which precedes the out-loud public chanting of Torah — which were originally just one blessing and one response. Like variations of the Kaddish which occur at sectional breaks, these minyan-dependent liturgical moments go back and forth between the one and the many.

And so it is, I now suggest, with the responsively done, echoing, repeated Shma that comes at the beginning of the Torah Service. Through being performed responsively rather than in unison, it gets elevated in sanctity, becoming a dvar s’b’kedushah. Some of you may will know that a devar sh’b’kedushah is also what’s called a “doxology” — praise of God and God’s eternality. The Shma does not present the classic face of doxology, but it does affirm God’s enduring oneness in relation to Israel.

I am still at the beginning of my understanding of connections between minyan, the Shma, and the Torah Service. But for now, let me bring forward a few ideas gathered from others: The early twentieth century liturgist Ismar Elbogen postulated that in ancient worship, the Shma and its sequel — Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed — were recited antiphonally, with the congregation and what he calls the “precentor” alternating. In the fullness of time, the non-Torah sequel line was traditionally repressed into a whisper except on Yom Kippur. And the Shma within Shacharit became a unison affirmation by shaleach tzibur and tzibur together — even if there is not a minyan present. This and other instances of the Shma, both congregational and private, have been set free of the reciprocal restraint characteristic of devarim sh’b’kedushah. Thus the person who davens at home, who prepares to sleep, or who — God forbid! — faces danger or even martydom can summon the Shma unilaterally. In contrast, the Shma of the Torah Service is always a communal event. As our own Elliott Dorff puts this in My People’s Prayerbook: “Here, in the Torah service, the responsive face-to-face rendering of these lines makes them dramatically declarative: we as a community affirm the convictions contained in them.”

Let me very briefly broaden the context to say that ancient sources do not know of any special prayers before, during or after the reading of the Torah. That changes by the 8th century, when removing the Torah from the Ark gets surrounded with prayers that convey pomp and majesty. It has been argued that, consciously or unconsciously, the biblical account of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem by King David in II Samuel (6:5) had a decisive influence on the formation of this ceremony. The responsive Shma Yisrael and Echad Elohaynu are mentioned in the 8th century Masechet Sofrim, as is lifting of the Torah to display its text — which we do at the end of the Torah reading while Sefardim do it at the beginning. All branches of Judaism recite Psalm 34, verse 4 — Gadlu Adonai ee-tee — every time Torah is read but the two verses “Hear O Israel” and “One is our God” are found only in the Roman and Ashkenazi rites, and there only on Shabbat and Chagim.

We’re so used to it that we hardly notice the extent to which the Torah Service, and especially the responsive Shma, highlight Adonai, rather than the Torah. Rabbi Dorff suggests that “the Rabbis wanted to guarantee that we worship God, the Torah’s author and source of its authority, rather than the Torah itself.” Here during the central, most public portion of Shabbat and holiday services, amidst choreographed and formalized ritual, the closest thing to a creed in Judaism, the Shma, is proclaimed in the most elevated and impactful manner that Jewish liturgy knows.

Before concluding, I want to bring forward another responsive moment in Jewish life that moves and pleases me. This moment is much smaller than the Torah Service’s Shma and it requires only two people, not a minyan. Technically then, it is not a devar sh’b’kedushah. And yet, this moment captures the communality of Jewish life and adds real sweetness to the Shabbat (or holiday) table. It comes when the person reciting Kiddush on Friday night (or Erev Chag) concludes the introductory verses from the first chapter of Genesis that culminate in the creation of the Sabbath (or their holiday equivalent), and prepares to recite the blessing over wine leading into the Kiddush itself. The leader looks out at whoever else is present, whether one or hundreds, and asks their permission, their moral support really, in going forward to sanctify the holy day, proclaiming: ­­Savrai maranan v’rabotai or Savrai chaverai.

And the response comes, echoing across the centuries of struggle and persecution, achievement and aspiration. We respond in one voice: L’chayim – To Life!

Shabbat shalom!



Vayetze: Rachel and Reconciliation

By Rachel Marder, 12/10/16

I have a confession to make: I am a feminist. Okay, that part is not the confession. My confession is that I really struggle to connect to our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Other female characters in Tanakh, such as Tamar who stands up to her rapist brother Amnon, Deborah, the judge, poet and military hero, Esther, who saves the Jewish people, even the Shunamite woman — check out her fascinating story in 2 Kings — have always seemed to me to exhibit far more depth of character than our imahot. In the text, the imahot are at least named, which is more that can be said of other women in Tanakh (again, see Shunamite woman), but it often seemed to me that they are defined solely by their husbands and their ability or inability to bear children. The central drama of their lives is their children’s and their husband’s adventures and divine encounters. In particular, Rachel, the figure whose name I carry, along with most other Jewish women born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, often struck me as one-dimensional. I didn’t blame her for this — likely she was constructed by men who devoted little space to women’s inner lives and non-male-centered interactions — but I did find it frustrating that she wasn’t a stronger character. However, I realize now that I was not giving Rachel her proper due. She is a character of great substance with much to teach us. Through her struggle with infertility, she conveys the harsh reality of being a woman in the ancient world; forges a direct relationship with God; and offers us a model for reconciliation both with her sister, and with God.

When we first meet Rachel in this week’s parasha, Vayetze, the Biblical narrator immediately pits the two sisters against each other.  “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful,”  יפת תואר ויפת מראה, (Gen. 29:17). With this initial verse contrasting the sisters’ physical appearance, the narrator is alerting us of what is to come: competition, jealousy, and strife between the two. Like Jacob and Esav, who are described as opposite in nature — Esau was a hunter, while Jacob is an indoor person, Rachel and Leah are also described as opposites.

Jacob loves Rachel and works for 14 years to win her hand in marriage. During this time Lavan tricks Jacob into marrying Leah. Once married, it is now God who fosters resentment between the sisters. “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved or hated, שנואה and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (30:31).  Each sister possesses what the other desires: Rachel has her husband’s heart, but is jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness; Leah can have children, but yearns for Jacob’s heart.

Rachel laments to Jacob: “Give me children or I am a dead woman” (30:1). The Reform movement Women’s Torah commentary explains her tragedy: “Rachel equates her inability to give birth with death, implying that her story will never be told if not condensed in the name of a child.” She is protesting not only her barrenness, but a frustration with “the limits that her society sets on female autonomy.” (p.165). She turns to her husband who holds authority over her, but he responds angrily and deflects blame to God. “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (30:2) Jacob asks rhetorically. The Women’s Torah commentary notes, however, that “had Rachel not spoken out her journey would have had no beginning and no fulfillment” (165). When Jacob, according to Rashi, refuses to pray for his wife to get pregnant, she tries another tactic; she gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob, as a concubine, so that “through her I too may have children” (30:3). Bilhah gives birth to two sons, two points for Rachel, but Leah begins to feel threatened, so she gives her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob, who fathers two more sons through her. Rachel then tries medicinal aid to get pregnant, bargaining with Leah for her son Reuven’s mandrakes, known as “love fruit,” apparently an aphrodisiac or fertility aid in the ancient world. Rachel takes three distinct actions to get pregnant: a verbal protest, bringing in a concubine, and eating mandrakes, and God responds to her in turn with three actions: “ויזכר אלקים את רחל, וישמע אליה אלקים ויפתח את רחמה — God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb” (30:22). Rachel’s efforts to conceive alert God to her desperation to be known, remembered, and hold a place in history.

Like Jacob, Rachel is a wrestler. She struggles with her sister and with God in her effort to get pregnant, and, like Jacob, she succeeds. When Rachel’s son Naftali is born to Bilhah, she says: “נפתולי אלקים נפתלי עם אחותי וגם יכולתי’’, A fateful contest I waged with my sister, yes and I have prevailed” (30:8).  Rachel’s wrestling, like Jacob’s in next week’s parasha, is transformative. She becomes a matriarch in Israel, and will ultimately be remembered as the mother of all of בני ישראל, “weeping for her children who are not” (Jeremiah 31:15) following the Babylonian exile.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso writes that Jacob demands a blessing from the angel he wrestles before he lets him go; Rachel too receives a blessing from her adversaries. Leah gives her the mandrakes, and not long after that, God opens her womb. A midrash teaches that the effort to help Rachel conceive was a shared one: “all the wives of Jacob — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah united their prayers with the prayer of Jacob and together they besought God to remove the curse of barrenness from Rachel. On Rosh Hashanah, the day when God sits in judgment upon the inhabitants of the earth, God remembered Rachel and granted her a son” (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews).

Unlike Jacob and Esav’s bitter conflict, which is seemingly resolved in the text but for the Rabbis continues eternally with Esav fathering an oppressive nation — Rome —  the Rabbis recall Rachel and Leah’s relationship as one marked by enduring reconciliation and mutual nurturing. The gemara in Megillah 13b teaches that when Jacob and Rachel decided to wed, Rachel warned Jacob that her trickster father would try to marry him to Leah. So Jacob devises a plan to share simanim, secret signs, with his beloved that only she would recognize so that if Rachel is switched with Leah on the wedding night he will be able to tell. But when Rachel sees that Leah is married off to Jacob she does not want her to be embarrassed that night, so she shares the signs with her so he won’t know that it is Leah. Hence, the Torah says that the next morning, as if Jacob were surprised, “behold it was Leah” (29:25).

Midrash Rabbah Eicha adds an additional poignant detail:  Rachel even hid under Leah and Jacob’s marital bed to convey the signs to her sister. Rachel’s concern for her sister is matched by her sister’s concern for Rachel’s infertility in the mandrakes episode. The two sisters model compromise in this interaction; in striking their deal, they each get something they want; Leah gets Jacob for the night and Rachel gets help in her effort to conceive. In contrast, when Jacob strikes a deal with Esav for his birthright, he cheats his brother, and then steals his father Isaac’s blessing.

Rabbi Sasso notes another fascinating difference between sibling pairs Jacob and Esav and Rachel and Leah. Unlike Jacob who had to run away from his brother before they were able to reconcile, Rachel and Leah “build their lives in the same tent. Rachel’s struggle teaches us that reconciliation is not a process apart from other people, but with them, and that we come to better know ourselves through the eyes of another human being. Jacob’s spiritual search demands solitude. Rachel and Leah tell us that it demands engagement” (p.81). We also note that Jacob and Esav’s children do not get along, but Rachel and Leah’s do. They are not without conflict – they do sell Rachel’s son Joseph into slavery — but they also reconcile. And according to a midrash in Eichah Rabbah, Rachel, who was buried along the road to Efrat, greets Leah’s children as they return to the Land of Israel from exile.

Because of Rachel’s kindness toward her sister in sharing the secret signs, she is credited in Eichah Rabbah with convincing God to reconcile with the Jewish people and return them to the land. Rachel says: “I did her a kindness, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King who lives eternally and is merciful, be jealous of idolatry, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword… Immediately, the mercy of the Holy One blessed be He was stirred, and God said: ‘For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place.’” Rachel is peacemaker between God and the Jewish people, and makes national rebuilding possible.

Though initially described as beautiful and shapely, it is actually Rachel’s strong voice, sincerity, and sacred struggle that set her apart. Rachel teaches us to engage closely with others — especially those with whom we struggle — and that a single act of kindness can have far-reaching effects.









Chaye Sarah

Chaye Sarah  ח” שרה

By Zwi Reznik, November 26, 2016

A month ago I received an e-mail inviting me to present a דרש for the first time. Today’s Parsha was one of the choices offered. My first thought was to reply “No, I don’t know enough”. Then I read the rest of the e-mail, which began by noting “Don’t say you don’t know enough”. Accepting the invitation was then the only possible reply.

There are Parshot that can be intensely personal. That is for me the case with חיי שרה. I must speak of the deaths of my Step Daughter Kerry Jo and my wife Judith.

The parsha begins with (23:1-2) “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and that is all that is said about Sarah.

Almost 31 years ago, February 1st, 1986 my wife received a phone call from the Littleton, CO police department informing her that Kerry Jo’s body had been found with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. At the time we were living in Denver and were members of a Reconstructionist Chavurah. Several of the Chavurah members and our Rabbi, Steve Kaye, came over immediately after we contacted them. My wife was a convert. We had been fortunate in being able to participate in the unique joint conversion program which Denver had several years before. Participating in it were the three Modern Orthodox Rabbis, the three Reform Rabbis and the one Conservative Rabbi of the Denver area. A basic requirement was that each potential convert have an individual converting Rabbi who would accept them into the program. Judith’s was Rabbi Daniel Goldberger,זכרון לברכה, one of the orthodox Rabbis. Rabbi Goldberger called Judith as soon as he learned of Kerry’s death. By then we had learned from the autopsy report that Kerry had a 0.305 blood alcohol level. When apprised of that Rabbi Goldberger excused himself and said he needed to check something. He called back promptly and informed Judith that under Jewish law Kerry’s death would be considered an accident given that a blood alcohol level of that magnitude would have made her incapable of making a conscious choice. Kerry Jo was not Jewish and there was no issue of burial in a Jewish cemetery. I have always felt that Rabbi Goldberger’s call was a pure kindness to a bereaved parent.

We know nothing of why and how Sarah died from the Parsha so we turn to the commentaries. The placement of her death immediately following the binding of Isaac is readily noted in the Midrash as having occurred just when Abraham has returned from Mount Moriah. Rashii has written that “The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the binding—that her son had been prepared for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed—she received a great shock (lit. her soul flew from her) and died”. I can’t help but note that Rashii lived in the 11th century and survived the massacres of the first crusade. The death of children would have been a far greater occurrence for him than it is for us.

There is a Midrash that takes a somewhat different direction, part of which is—“…So השטן, (the adversary), told Sarah that Abraham had killed Isaac and offered him as a burnt offering upon the altar. Sarah began to weep and to cry aloud three times, corresponding to the three sustained notes (of the shofar) and she gave forth three howlings corresponding to the three disconnected short notes (of the shofar), and her soul fled and she died”.

When the phone call came from the police my wife was on the second floor of our home and I was in the yard. The first thing I heard was my wife screaming for me to pick up the phone. I did so, spoke briefly to the police officer and then ran upstairs. It is difficult for me to describe the anguish in my wife’s voice. However, the sound of the howlings of the repeated notes of the shofar is far better than anything I have ever come up with.

After the first verse and a half we are done with Sarah and turn to what Abraham does in response to her death: 23:2-…-23:19 and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (3)Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites saying, (4) I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”…I’ll bypass for the moment the negotiations…” then Abraham buried his wife…

This past Erev Yom Kippur was the 5th anniversary of Judith’s stroke. This was not a case of a sudden death but, was rather a sudden and overwhelming change in our lives. I had retired a year and a half before from my teaching position at Fresno City College and we were supposed to leave the following morning for one of our regular visits to Los Angeles and Disneyland. I called 911 and waited for the ambulance. When the ambulance arrived our friends and neighbors, Mary and Beth, came over from their house and took over my house for the next couple of days as I accompanied my wife to the hospital. We were not members of a synagogue at that time in Fresno. So the first calls I made were to close friends, two of whom were able to come to the Hospital almost immediately. By mid-November I had consulted with an attorney who specialized in Estate work and Judith was able to converse with me and others. Our attorney met with us at Judith’s rehabilitation facility and we began preparing all those documents that you’re supposed to deal with before there’s a crisis. One of the questions asked was what final arrangements we wanted. I had not given it much thought but, Judith clearly had. She wanted to be buried in Leadville, Colorado at the Evergreen Cemetery. If any of you have ever heard of Leadville it is likely because you’ve seen the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Leadville was, and is, a mining town founded in 1877 at an elevation of 10,200 feet. There were Jewish residents there at the beginning. In 1880 the Hebrew Benevolent Association purchased a portion of the Evergreen Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. The Hebrew Cemetery, as it is called, fell into disuse in 1893 as the Jewish Community largely left Leadville for Denver. A synagogue, Temple Israel, was not built until 1884 when about 1% of the Leadville population of 30,000 was Jewish. It ceased to be used as a Synagogue in the 1890s as well. Title was transferred to private ownership in 1937. In the early 1990s the Temple Israel Foundation was formed and re-acquired Title to the building in 1992. In 1993 the Foundation acquired Title to the Hebrew Cemetery which was reconsecrated and Jewish burials began again in 2001. In November of 2011 I purchased two plots. Far sooner than I expected my wife entered Hospice care, following the necessary decision to end treatment, and in January 2012 one of those burials was of my wife Judith.

The reason that I found a gravesite for my wife in the town she wished to be buried in was that 132 years before a small group of Jews, many of whom may well have had the status of Resident Aliens, knew that the first thing the Jewish community of Leadville had to do was acquire a burial ground. The synagogue could wait another four years. The precedent of starting a Jewish Cemetery as the first communal act can be traced back to this Parsha. So let’s go back to the Parsha and some commentaries.

The bulk of chapter 23 deals specifically with the negotiations for the acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah. The details can be viewed as interesting even just as a record of ancient business practices. In particular it specifies when negotiations are deemed complete. In 23:15 Ephron states the land in question is “…A piece of land worth 400 shekels..”. In 23:16 we learn that “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites…”. So it is done! As the Jewish Publication Societies Torah Commentary notes “…payment is manifestly accepted by the seller of his own volition…”

All the detailed minutiae leave no doubt about Abraham’s acquisition of Title.

All that is left to do is noted in 23:19 where it is simply stated “And then Abraham buried his wife…”. It is also noted in the commentaries that verse 19 is particularly terse. “There are no descriptive details…there is simplicity and lack of ostentation”. So our present day burial customs can also be traced back to this Parsha.

There is more that can be discussed at length, but not now. Some say that the redemption of the land which began with land purchases with the wealth of Jews such as Moshe Montefiore and Baron Rothschild had its roots in this Parsha. And this is Hebron we are dealing with in this Parsha. Those are discussions that are necessary, but not now.

I have spoken of the death of Sarah and Abraham’s purchase of a grave site and the burial of Sarah. To do so I needed to speak of the death of Kerry Jo and what that did to Judith and later the death of Judith and her burial. The balance of the Parsha speaks of how Abraham continued with his life. After my wife’s death I spent a year being numb. I then had to continue with my life and that has brought me to Los Angeles and the Library minyan. Our Torah, MY Torah, is indeed very personal.

Lech Lakha

Lech Lakha

By Tamar Levin, November 12, 2016

Avram is 75 years old and has lived a large part of his life when he is told “Lech Lakha” – leave all that is familiar to you and the urban culture and home in which you were raised and go to a place that you have never seen. Everett Fox translates “Lech Lacha” as “Go-you-forth”, and my Yiddish Yehoash translation says “Gay dir avek”, take yourself away. Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch writes,”If all the Torah wanted to say was: Avram, Go from Aram to Canaan, it could say Lech or Tzeh, but adding the pronoun Lecha, gives the act a particular, individual, isolating connotation. Holekh is related to khalak, to be divided and connotes separating oneself from the place where one happens to be. This can be going away for the purpose of going somewhere else, or it can be a purpose in itself, simply to get away from where one is. By the addition of the pronoun, Lakha, the second idea is more precisely stressed; go for yourself, to yourself, isolate and detach yourself from all your previous connections.” The text elaborates that this requires separation from country, birthplace and even the site of his earliest development and shelter, his father’s house.

This demand placed on Avram is in contrast to the tenor of his times. Not individualism, not recognition of the worth and importance of the individual, but centralization was the prevailing view in Mesopotamia. Men were mere nameless workers as large city states were rising. The prevailing view was that majority opinion represented what was the highest and best in all spheres and everybody was expected to honor it. Attachment to community is certainly valued by Judaism, but from the start, the worlds “Lech Lecha- go for yourself” were higher still. Hirsch notes “ No one may say I am as good, as honest as everybody else is and that is sufficient. Everybody is responsible to God for himself and if necessary must stand alone. This is what was demanded of Avram at the starting point for his and his future people’s mission. “

‘How could we have existed, how continued to exist, “ Hirsch asks, “ if we hadn’t from the very beginning received from Abram the courage to be a minority

In the midst of Chaldea, Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt, where sensuality and power and killing of individual freedom were the values of the day, Avram arises. While everybody else in the world is making every effort establish themselves, and settle securely, he makes himself a refugee and throws a protest in the face of the gods worshipped by all nations. This requires courage, conviction of the truth of his inner feeling, consciousness of the Jewish God, Jewish confidence and boldness. That was the first thing Avram needed to do to justify his appointment.”

Avram and Sarah are to be the founders of a great nation despite their age.

Avram’s spirit is to repeat itself in his descendants; Yitzkhak and Yaakov. We still refer to,Elokay Avraham, Elokay Yitzkhak, Elokay Yaakov. God as each of them knew Him, as He revealed Himself to them, and guided their lives.

Considered more closely, Hirsch continues, the whole scheme of Jewish history is given to Avram in a nutshell: “ First Avram appears merely as an individual who dares to be alone, then the Nation appears but without external contact and finally the Jewish nation is connected to others. Others may bless him, or others may curse him and by their choice they themselves will be blessed.” So Avram’s task was to isolate himself, live alone with God, create a people – out of homelessness, and wander until he came to a place where he would see , or be shown, by some visible sign ,that there he should remain.

He is blessed but is told that it is his task to be a blessing.

Others nations may strive to be blessed, but we are charged to be a blessing and devote ourselves to the Divine purpose of bringing blessings to the world and to all mankind.

Everett Fox notes that Buber comments on the unifying effect of the verb “ to see” throughout the Avraham stories. Buber understands that Avraham is the father of the Prophets of Israel, formerly called “seers”.

Hirsch, the traditionalist believes that all our revelations, ability to “see” emanate from God to Man. In this view, God speaks to the prophets not in them. The Hand of God comes on the prophet not out of him. Man is the receiver, never the active producer. How God spoke or speaks to us can remain an eternal mystery – but suffice to say that He did speak to Avram and made Himself visible in some way.

It seems to me that if we examine the history of our own families or our own lives there were and are times when we are called to step into an unknown place and make a serious change. I have pondered where the courage finally comes from to move from a known but abusive marriage to the insecurity of freedom. Making a change in the belief that life would be better elsewhere motivated our grandparents or parents who traveled to these shores. My grandfather had a good life in Lithuania, and his family had been there for many generations. But he sensed or saw or was enabled to see in 1924 that times were changing, and that his 7 children would have a better future elsewhere. He arrived in NY at the age of 64 with no knowledge of English and lived in reduced financial circumstances, but his courage to leave Lithuania insured the survival of our family.

I have wondered, what possessions Avram and Sara took along on their new path, and what did they leave behind. What did our immigrant ancestors carry on their journeys? Did they value and maintain their languages? Their minhagim? Their niggunim, folk ways and folksongs? Was it possible to pack Bubbeh’s candlesticks? Zaydeh’s kiddush cup? I am reminded of the famous Steiglitz photograph of people on the deck of a boat headed for Ellis Island. Amidst the packed deck there stands a lone Jew wrapped in a tallit. Clearly he had chosen not to leave that behind. On the other hand, there is the tale of my husband’s grandmother who threw her sheytl into NY Harbor. Do immigrants know what will be useful or of value in a new land? And what of the displaced of our own day. What are they able to salvage as they flee into an uncertain future?

For most of us, our life story has required making a move and the realization that change is a part of life. Even Avram is told that when he reaches Canaan, future generations will be strangers in a new land not their own . Permanence of place doesn’t seem to be part of the plan though the continuation of the Jewish people does. This knowledge has made me less fearful of change. The challenge had always been how to hold on to our authentic selves no matter where life takes us.

A friend was in a taxi in Washington, DC and the cabbie said ” I’m from Ethiopia.

Where is your famiy from?’

“Well,” answered my friend, “that’s a complicated story.”

“Jewish aye?” responded the cab driver.

Shabbat Shalom.