By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
In search of inspiration for this week’s Thursday Thought I turned to our very own Rabbi Emeritus Vernon Kurtz’s book Encountering Torah. One of the reflections in this collection is entitled “Deborah’s Legacy” that brought to my attention an obscure line toward the end of our parsha I hadn’t noticed before.
“Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth. [‘the oak of weeping’]” (Gen 35:8).
How did Deborah end up with Jacob and the rest? Rashi notes that Rebecca promised Jacob “I will fetch you from there [Laban’s house]” (Gen. 27:45). Still is this the same nurse that went with Rebecca and Abraham’s servant Eliezer all those years ago? Maybe, maybe not. Rabbi Kurtz shared an opinion from Genesis Rabbah 81:5 that “while Jacob was mourning Deborah, he received the news that Rebecca had also passed away.” Rebecca’s death is never explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This may be why the site of Deborah’s burial is called Allon-bacuth — plural of weeping because of the two losses in the family. If you’re interested in what else Rabbi Kurtz wrote, you should check out the book.
What happens next I find especially moving. “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram. And God blessed him.” (Gen 35:9) According to Rav Acha in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, God blessed Jacob with the blessing of consolation addressed to mourners. (Genesis Rabbah 81:5). Just as God comforts mourners, so too should we comfort mourners. This is one of the examples of how we ‘walk in God’s ways.’
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
Experiencing hardship is a challenging and unavoidable feature of life. And these obstacles placed in our path often force us to make difficult life choices. Do they stop us from moving forward and force us to abandon our dreams? Or will they prompt us to find or create new paths, or even new destinations?
At the end of last week’s parshah, Jacob reaches a difficult moment in his life. We learn in the Torah that Jacob was given the first born blessing by his father Isaac. This is a positive development that indicates Isaac’s wishes that Jacob become the next patriarch. However, Esau felt this blessing should have been given to him and became enraged when he found out that it was given to Jacob, instead. Thus, Jacob was forced to flee his home for fear that his brother, Esau, might kill him. From this moment forward his life was drastically altered: instead of the comfortable and happy life in his family home, which he had anticipated, he was now on a journey, all alone, to a foreign land to live with a relative he had never met. His path into the future that had once been so secure was now blocked and obscured.
How would he handle his misfortune? What choices would he make? What path would he choose? While Jacob was not perfect by any stretch, and made poor choices as well as wise ones, one critical decision that he made from which we can learn is that he chose to maintain hope and faith in the face of this life challenge. Eschewing an attitude of despair, or a complete rejection of his previous life (two possible alternatives), he remained committed to Gd and was determined to be successful. Shortly after running from his home, he had a miraculous dream, after which he made a covenant with Gd, reaffirming this commitment to his family values and the core vision of the blessing bestowed upon him. Once he arrived at Rebecca’s; brother’s home he worked diligently for his Uncle Laban, got married (twice), had lots of children and became a successful businessman. All through this time he maintained his relationship with Gd and was therefore blessed by Gd. Further, despite his life being very different than he ever imagined, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal — to return to his homeland and fulfill his birthright as the next patriarch. While his misfortune prevented him from doing so in the straight-forward way he had always imagined, due to his ability to maintain faith, embrace hope and stay committed to his ultimate goals, he got there by a different path. As the life of our patriarch Jacob demonstrates, hardship is inevitable. But with determination, resilience, hope and faith, we can often find a way to continue to flourish and a different path to fulfill our dreams.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
I am the older brother in my family. There were times when I was happy to be older, and there were also times when I wished I were the younger child. I imagine many younger siblings at times desire to be the older one. But is being the older sibling actually better?
In biblical times it was, if for no other reason than that the firstborn inherited double the amount of other siblings. That’s a better deal than most older children today! But of course there’s more to it than that.
Parashat Toldot contains a prophecy that God tells Rebecca when she has twins struggling in her womb.
God says, “Two nations are in your womb… one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gn. 25:23). At this moment Rebecca knows – and we readers know – that the younger son Jacob will triumph over the older brother Esau. And that’s how it played out.
Interestingly, this is how nearly every sibling relationship in Genesis also played out. In other words, you did not want to be the oldest sibling.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Among the first pair of brothers, Cain killed Abel (not good to be either one in that scenario). Later on Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael became his own nation, but the Jewish family tree bypassed him in favor of Isaac. Isaac then had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and it was the younger Jacob who continued the family legacy. Next, Jacob expanded the family tree by having 12 sons and one daughter. His oldest sons, like Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, never captured their father’s heart like their younger sibling Joseph. Then Joseph’s two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were given a blessing by Jacob who famously crossed his arms to give his fuller blessing to the younger child. No reason is given as to why other than that Jacob foresaw that the younger one would be greater. But the older Menasseh must have had his feelings hurt by this relegation. To his credit, he did not pick a fight or threaten his brother, unlike earlier generations. This might be the reason, suggests the Etz Hayim Humash, why parents bless their boys Friday nights to be like Ephraim and Menasseh.
So the Torah presents a clear pattern that the younger child succeeds more than the older child. Why might this be?
I think that it has to do with the status quo. In ancient days, older sons were entitled to much more than younger brothers. It seemed to be destiny for them to accomplish more because they had such a head start. When the Torah empowers the younger sibling, it upsets the status quo. Remember that in Genesis, the family’s mission was to live a life according to the values of the one God in a world awash with idolatry. By definition, the Jewish family was upsetting the status quo simply by being! A key lesson from the Torah is that just because the world is as it is does not mean we should not change things to be what the world can be.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
Yossi Klein Halevi stated the following this past Monday evening at Beth El: “Israel is the State of all Jews, and the State of all of its citizens.” Its first function is to be a home for all Jews world-wide, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. Similarly, Israel is a country for all of its residents, whether they are in the Jewish majority, or in the sizable non-Jewish minority.
The second part of his statement also connects with this week’s Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah. Following Sarah’s death, Avraham needed to make burial arrangements for his beloved wife: “Then Avraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a resident alien (ger v’toshav) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’”(23:4) Avraham purchases Ma’arat Ha-Makhpelah as a burial place for Sarah in Hevron for 400 shekels, the first parcel of real estate acquired by our founding father in the promised land.
Avraham mentioned his status as ger v’toshav because a resident alien was unable to purchase real estate. Midrashic commentary continues: Avraham is uncertain whether his neighbors accept him as a fellow resident or Hayyei Sarah him as an alien in their midst. The Hittite’s answer surprises him: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (23:5-6) Abraham is surprised because the Hittites have gone beyond acceptance and toleration. They truly admire him for the quality of his faith.
This opening section of Hayyei Sarah is a paragon for how to respect our neighbors, regardless of our differences. The latter half of Halevi’s statement, “Israel is the State of all its citizens,” is inverted at this biblical moment. Avraham, as the first Jew, is clearly in the minority. But regardless, the Hittites welcome him with equal opportunity for burying his beloved wife, Sarah.
Despite being the majority in Israel, Jews are the minority in the Diaspora. Throughout Jewish history, Jews outside of Israel have lived as “ger v’toshav,” resident aliens in the midst of other nations.
Avraham was welcomed as an equal by his Hittite neighbors with kindness. Whether we dwell in the Diaspora or in Israel, we recall our roots with this first biblical moment of being strangers in a strange land.
Just as Avraham greeted some unexpected guests with extraordinary hospitality in last week’s parasha, Vayera, so too, he was warmly welcomed by his neighbors to enjoy the rights of full citizenship.
It is a two-way street. Let us all consider both perspectives in our interactions with our own neighbors. Just as Avraham and the Hittites modeled what it means to be a good neighbor, to be hospitable, may we always strive to be respectful neighbors amongst those with whom we dwell.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Our parasha begins (Gen 18:1-2): “Hashem appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at the heat of the day. Looking up, he saw three people standing about him and seeing this, he ran from the tent’s entrance to greet them and bowed toward the ground.”
It is known in our tradition that these three ‘people’ were in fact three angels. However the word in Hebrew is anashim, which literally means people (or men). In a few weeks we will read about Joseph who was sent by his father to find his brothers in shechem. The Torah says “a man came upon [Joseph] wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’” and Joseph goes on to tell this Ish–this man, who then directs him toward Dothan where his brothers had gone. Here again, but in the singular, we see the word for a human man, but Rashi teaches us that this was the angel Gabriel.
In fact, according to Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, the angels who visited Avraham and Sarah “were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Michael had been assigned the task of announcing that Sarah would have a child and to save Lot. Both of these assignments were expressions of God’s love or mercy respectively, and could therefore be described as being of the same category. Raphael had the task of healing Avraham. Gabriel’s task was to turn Sodom upside down.”
These angels appear to our ancestors as regular human beings and there are two commonalities: 1) they have a specific task or message, and 2) their arrival appears to be serendipitous. As Lawrence Kushner wrote, “The Hebrew word for angel is malakh which also means “messenger,” one who is sent…Unsuspecting and unaware. Consumed by their own plans and itineraries. Busy at work on their own schemes…people chosen to be messengers of the Most High rarely even know that they are God’s messengers…I do not know how many times in one’s life one is also a messenger. But for everyone it is at least once.”
When we read parshat Vayera we are reminded that an angel may indeed come in the form of a regular person. Kushner’s words, which can be found in Siddur Lev Shalem (p.153), echo a spiritual sentiment I’ve held for many years. In our lives, we never know when we might be the person in the right place, at the right time with the right message for our loved one, our friend or even a stranger. I can recall moments when I’m certain I’ve encountered such angels in my own life. Perhaps these were just unlikely but pleasant coincidences, but I look to Maimonides for a little assurance. In his Guide for the Perplexed he wrote, “Before the angels have accomplished their task, they are called men (human), when they have accomplished it they are angels.” Perhaps it is on us to develop our dispositions toward kindness, open our hearts and minds to the beautiful mystery of random chance, and treat everyone as though they might be an angel, or in need of an angel. We might visit the sick like Raphael, we might bring good news and hope like Michael, or we might help someone find their way like Gabriel in the Joseph story. Imagine greeting everyone we met with that same rush to embody Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. The world would be a much more angelic place.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
You have probably heard the expression: “It’s not just what you do that matters, but how you do it.” We learn from Abraham: How quickly we do something matters too.
If I ask somebody to bring me a bottle of water, for example, it’s a very different impression if it takes that person a moment or a full minute. The former conveys, “what you said is important, and I want to meet your needs right away.” While the latter communicates, “I’ll do it when it’s convenient for me.” Same action, different speeds, different emotional takeaways.
Abraham had a reflex for doing things quickly. At the end of our Parsha, Lech Lecha, G-d instructs him to circumcise himself and those males of his household. Isaac is 8 days old, which is why Jewish baby boys ever after have the Bris on the 8th day. But his father Abraham is 99 years old. Nevertheless, the Torah says he does this “B’Etzem Hayom Hazeh – on this very day” (Gn. 17:23). That he does not delay shows his devotion to G-d and his eagerness at entering the covenant. We learn from this the expression “Zrizin Makdimin Lamitzvot,” which means those who are eager do the Mitzvah on the sooner side.
This is a great lesson for how we today should respond. When we have the opportunity to do a Mitzvah, we should jump into it. Similarly, it’s a great reminder of an important way to show love to people important to us, like family or friends. If they need a hand, extend it right away. Try it; they will be touched by your quickness to respond.
This enthusiasm is part of Abraham’s spiritual DNA. When we fast forward to the next Torah reading, Vayera, we encounter the scene of Abraham extending lavish hospitality toward three strangers, ushering them into his tent and providing the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner. Look carefully at the speed at which he operates (words in bold): The L-rd appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords! If it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. (Gn. 18:1-7)
Again and again, Abraham is in a hurry to take care of these strangers, which indicates that the hospitality is not mere lip service, but comes from a place of genuine enthusiasm. His outward speed conveys his internal conviction. We, Abraham’s children, can do the same.
By Rabby Michael Schwab.
This week we entered into the Hebrew month of Heshvan. This month is also referred to as MarHeshvan – ‘The bitter month of Heshvan”, because it contains no holidays. In fact, after Simchat Torah, we must wait until Hanukkah for the next holiday. In modern America Hanukkah is often characterized by the giving of gifts. Our children and grandchildren eagerly anticipate the presents they will receive each night as the family gathers to light the candles. However, as many of you know, the idea of gift giving on Hanukkah is a relatively recent addition to the observance of the holiday.
Yet, despite the modern origin of this custom, on some level, Hanukkah has always been about gifts, though not in a material sense. The true gift of Hanukkah actually lies in its profound spiritual essence which has the power to be transformative for each and every Jew. The Hebrew word, “Hanukkah”, actually means “dedication”. This is because, after the victory of the Maccabees, the Jewish people were able to redeem the holy Temple, which the Hasmonean Greeks had desecrated and used to store their livestock. In a ceremony that began with the rekindling of the lamps of the sanctuary, the leaders of Israel dedicated the Temple to the service of God once again.
However, this deed was much more than the physical dedication of a building. The mere fact that the rabbis simply refer to this holiday as the holiday of “dedication”, without specifying exactly to what, allows the spiritual power of such a dedication to transcend any specific historical event and allows the holiday to take on multiple meanings. In other words, the gift given to us on the holiday of Hanukkah is embodied in its ability to inspire us, today, to dedicate ourselves to a higher purpose in a way that is relevant to each of our current situations. Hanukkah, therefore, is a personal opportunity for us each to rekindle our individual flames and to inspire us to live up to our ideals.
In religious terms, Hanukkah thus gives Jews a chance to renew our faith and to renew our commitment to Jewish life. Thus, ironically, during a holiday whose practice was so influenced by the surrounding Christian culture, we are actually supposed to think about how we can integrate our Judaism more deeply into our lives. Can we renew our dedication to following Jewish law and tradition? Can we renew our dedication to fulfilling the mitzvah of helping others in need? Can we renew our dedication to supporting and loving our family? Can we renew our dedication to building our community? On Hanukkah we get a chance to take stock of what values we have been actively fulfilling and we get a chance to assess how successful we have been with the personal resolutions that we may have made during the High Holidays only a few weeks ago.
So rather than a bitter month, we can see this month as a time to plan how we are going to re-dedicate ourselves to our Judaism. Here at Beth El, we have so many ways to do this: help make a minyan, participate in Social Action and Hazak to help others, write a letter in the Torah to fulfill 613, celebrate Shabbat and holidays and participate in the many learning opportunities available. Looking forward to seeing you here at Beth El!
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
Genesis begins with brimming promise and potential – people are endowed with the Divine image! And then humanity immediately devolves into chaos and wickedness. How did people fall so fast?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z”L writes a wonderful essay zooming in on people taking responsibility. Or, more correctly, not taking responsibility.
First are Adam and Eve, who not only eat of the forbidden fruit, but then claim it’s not their fault. Adam blames Eve (and G-d) while Eve blames the snake. Neither takes personal responsibility for their actions. Neither says, “I messed up, and it’s my fault.”
Next we meet their sons Cain and Abel. Burning with jealousy, the older brother Cain murders his younger brother. When G-d confronts him about his deed, Cain famously replies: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By doing so, Cain fails the test of moral responsibility. Of course we are responsible for those close to us! Cain does not deny his action or blame somebody else, but he wonders why he should care about anyone beside himself.
Later we meet Noah, who diligently builds the ark that G-d instructs to survive the flood. If you look carefully, you will see that Noah never says a word throughout the story. While Noah is righteous and obeys G-d, he never speaks up on behalf of humanity or asks G-d to spare them from destruction. Noah does not understand collective responsibility.
Each of these generations fails a different test of responsibility. Interestingly, it is Abraham who later succeeds them and passes each test. He meets the test of personal responsibility when he says “Hinneni, here I am,” and carries out the binding of Isaac himself. He meets the test of moral responsibility when he welcomes three strangers into his tent and graciously offers them wonderful hospitality. And he meets the test of collective responsibility when he speaks up on behalf of the wicked residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking G-d to save them for the sake of the innocent.
We Jews are descendants of Abraham, the first Jew. As we reread these stories of the birth of humanity, let us recall that these tests of responsibility await us in each of our own lives as well.
The Torah teaches that we celebrate the festival of Sukkot in order to remember that God provided sukkot for B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness:
“You shall live in Sukkot (booths) for seven days, all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot; in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths, when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 23:41-43)
But what exactly were these sukkot?
This Talmudic machloket (debate) (Sukkah 11b) states the following:
‘I made the Israelite people live in Sukkot (booths).’
Sukkot refers to the “clouds of glory,” said Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva says: God made real Sukkot for them.
According to Rabbi Akiva, we are supposed to remember the actual huts that B’nai Yisrael lived in while God led them through the wilderness. There is no particular symbolism to this word, as he understands this very literally. It is what it is.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, the “sukkot” we are supposed to remember are not the tents they lived in, but God’s pillar of cloud, God’s clouds of glory that miraculously surrounded and protected B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness (Shemot 13:21-22).
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, interprets this debate, with both Eliezer’s physical and Akiva’s metaphorical understandings in mind.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains Rashbam’s understanding of the purpose of the sukkot as follows: Rashbam says that the sukkot were there to remind the Israelites of their past so that, at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel – at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land – they should remember their lowly origins. They were once a group of refugees without a home, never knowing when they would have to move on. The festival of Sukkot, says Rashbam, is integrally connected to the warning Moses gave the Israelites at the end of his life about the danger of security and affluence:
‘Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God …Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery …You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”’ (Devarim 8: 11-17)
The festival of Sukkot, according to Rashbam, exists to remind us of our humble origins so that we never fall into the complacency of taking freedom, the land of Israel and the blessings it yields, for granted, thinking that it happened in the normal course of history.
As we dwell in and visit all of the wonderful sukkot in our community, may we all experience that empathetic recollection of what our ancestors experienced, reminding us not to take the shelter that we have today for granted, further reminding us of the miracles in our lives today. Having this attitude of awe and gratitude, especially during the festival of Sukkot, leads us to an attitude of happiness. For as we know, this is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of happiness. May this week bring us all much joy, as we celebrate in sukkot across our community.
As it is written: V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayita ach sameach! You shall rejoice in your festival…and be only joyous! (Deut. 16:14-15)
There’s a small poem1 by Yehudah HaLevi that can be found in the Mahzor on page 231 or in Siddur Lev Shalem on page 359 that reads,
1 יָהּ, אָנָה אֶמְצָאֶךָּ? מְקוֹמְךָ נַעֲלָה וְנֶעְלָם!
וְאָנָה לֹא אֶמְצָאֶךָּ? כְּבוֹדְךָ מָלֵא עוֹלָם!
“Yah ana emtza’acha m’kom’cha na’aleh v’ne’lam? V’ana lo emtza’acha? Kevod’cha maleh olam!” It means “God, where will I find You? Your place is high and hidden. But, where would I not find you? Your glory fills the world.” The poem plays on an apparent contradiction found within the Kedusha.
2 קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ:
“Holy Holy Holy is Hashem Tzeva’ot – His Glory fills the whole Earth”2 and “Blessed is the glory of HaShem from His Place.”3
3 בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד־יְהֹוָה מִמְּ֒קוֹמוֹ:
Where exactly does God live? Is God in Heaven somewhere entirely distant and grand? Is God in a place that can only be described as HaMakom (The Place)? Or is God everywhere – all around us, across the globe and the cosmos, constantly nearby at all times?
Starting 5 weeks ago in Elul we began adding Psalm 27 to our daily prayers, and in it we recite: “One thing I ask of You, Hashem. To dwell in Your house all the days of my life.”4 And throughout the year, when we recite Ashrei we claim that those who ‘dwell in God’s house’ are joyous.
4 אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֮ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הֹוָה כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י
But where is G-d’s house? High and hidden? Or filling the whole world? Is God transcendent, ineffable, and entirely impossible to grasp? Or is G-d’s presence iminent, always close to those who call out to G-d in truth? The answer is both. G-d is everywhere, visible in the manifold works of creation we see anytime we truly open our eyes. G-d is felt everywhere, audible in the praises of all that breathes a breath of life. G-d is all around us, we are reflections of His divine image.
G-d is where we feel safe. G-d is also present, witnessing our discomfort serving as our help and strength in times of distress. G-d is at the synagogue, and G-d is at home. G-d is up in the highest Heavens, and G-d’s glory fills the Earth. G-d is not only found on the lofty throne of Judgment making decrees on Yom Kippur. G-d is found outside, in a flimsy and temporary sukkah we build to remind ourselves that it is by G-d’s grace alone that we survive. As we transition from the spiritual height of Yom Kippur to Sukkot – known as the Season of our Joy, let’s remind ourselves: joyous are those who dwell in G-d’s house, they praise God forever. Selah5.
5אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃
And as we leave our houses to dwell in Sukkot, let’s embrace the opportunity to tune into the natural, physical, beautiful world filled with
G-d’s presence. Let’s invite that presence into our sukkot, and into our lives and joyfully reside in G-d’s house. Chag Sameach!