Rabbi Sacks on Vayera – family values

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks uses the brief dialogue of aqeidat Yitzchaq as his impetus to discuss the lack of family values that pervades the current world.  He blames the riots in England on the lack of good parenting on the part of the recent generation, as it led to disaffected youth who could do nothing more than violently riot during the summer.  I would offer a couple of comments on R. Sacks’ piece.

1.  I am not sure the single line of dialogue between father and son should be the impetus for this type of discussion.  The opposite just might be the case.  While the Torah only records that which is relevant to advancing the story, it seems strange that our forefathers have little communication with their parents.  Abraham and Isaac only talk in this story.  Isaac and Jacob have the one dialogue leading of the bracha Isaac gives him after being deceived.  It is only with Jacob do we see an involvement in his children’s lives (not always at the right time, but at least he tried).  My point is that while words don’t always leave as much of an impression as action, there is something missing in the Torah’s description to warrant the lesson R. Sacks tries to derive here.

2.  I do agree that the value of Shabbat includes the idea of family structure, allowing families to have a time in once a week to actually focus on themselves rather than on outside issues and situations.  Yet, I am not sure that we can make the jump that Shabbat itself is enough to show that Jewish values are greater than secular values.  Values are only as good as those who practice them.  And, the whole package can be valuable if the practitioners show sincerity.  

Walking Together

There is one image that haunts us across the millennia, fraught with emotion. It is the image of a man and his son walking side-by-side across a lonely landscape of shaded valleys and barren hills. The son has no idea where he is going and why. The man, in pointed contrast, is a maelstrom of emotion. He knows exactly where he is going and why, but he can’t make sense of it at all.

The God who gave him a son is now telling him to sacrifice his son. On the one hand, the man is full of fear: am I really going to lose the one thing that makes my life meaningful, the son for whom I prayed all those years? On the other hand, part of him is saying: just as this child was impossible – I was old, my wife was too old – yet here he is. So, though it seems impossible, I know that God is not going to take him from me. That is not the God I know and love. He would never have told me to call this child Isaac, meaning “he will laugh” if He meant to make him and me cry.

The father is in a state of absolute cognitive dissonance, yet – though he can make no sense of it – he trusts in God and betrays to his son no sign of emotion. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

There is just one moment of conversation between them:

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22: 7-8)

What worlds of unstated thoughts and unexpressed emotions lie behind those simple words. Yet as if to emphasise the trust between father and son, and between both and God, the text repeats: Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

As I read those words, I find myself travelling back in time, and in my mind’s eye I see my father and me walking back from shul on Shabbat. I was four or five years old at the time, and I think I understood then, even if I couldn’t put it into words, that there was something sacred in that moment. During the week I would see the worry in my father’s face as he was trying to make a living in difficult times. But on Shabbat all those worries were somewhere else. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. We walked together in the peace and beauty of the holy day. My father was no longer a struggling businessman. Today he was a Jew breathing God’s air, enjoying God’s blessings, and he walked tall.

Shabbat was my mother making the food that gave the house its special Shabbat smell: the soup, the kugel, the lockshen. As she lit candles, she could have been the bride, the queen, we sang about in Lecha Dodi and Eshet Chayil. I had a sense, even then, that this was a holy moment when we were in the presence of something larger than ourselves, that embraced other Jews in other lands and other times, something I later learned we call the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

We walked together, my parents, my brothers and me. The two generations were so different. My father came from Poland. My brothers and I were “proper Englishmen.” We knew we would go places, learn things and pursue careers they could not. But we walked together, two generations, not having to say that we loved one another. We weren’t a demonstrative family but we knew of the sacrifices our parents made for us and the pride we hoped to bring them. We belong to different times, different worlds, had different aspirations, but we walked together.

Then I find my imagination fast-forwarding to August this year, to those unforgettable scenes in Britain – in Tottenham, Manchester, Bristol – of young people rampaging down streets, looting shops, smashing windows, setting fire to cars, robbing, stealing, assaulting people. Everyone asked why. There were no political motives. It was not a racial clash. There were no religious undertones.

Of course, the answer was as clear as day but no one wanted to say so. In the space of no more than two generations, a large part of Britain has quietly abandoned the family, and decided that marriage is just a piece of paper. Britain became the country with the highest rate of teenage mothers, the highest rate of single parent families, and the highest rate – 46% in 2009 – of births outside marriage in the world.

Marriage and cohabitation are not the same thing, though it is politically incorrect to say so. The average length of cohabitation is less than two years. The result is that many children are growing up without their biological father, in many cases not even knowing who their father is. They live, at best, with a succession of stepfathers. It is a little-known but frightening fact that the rate of violence between stepfathers and stepchildren is 80 times that between natural fathers and their children.

The result is that in 2007, a UNICEF report showed that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world – bottom of a league of 26 countries. On 13 September 2011, another report by UNICEF, compared British parents unfavourably with their counterparts in Sweden and Spain. It showed that British parents try to buy the love of their children by giving them expensive clothes and electronic gadgets – “compulsive consumerism”. They fail to give their children what they most want, and costs nothing at all: their time.

Nowhere do we see more clearly the gap between Jewish and secular values today than here. We live in a secular world that has accumulated more knowledge than all previous generations combined, from the vast cosmos to the structure of DNA, from superstring theory to the neural pathways of the brain, and yet it has forgotten the simple truth that a civilisation is as strong as the love and respect between parent and child – Vayelchu shenehem yachdav, the ability of the generations to walk together.

Jews are a formidably intellectual people. We have our Nobel prize-winning physicists, chemists, medical scientists and games theorists. Yet as long as there is a living connection between Jews and our heritage, we will never forget that there is nothing more important than home, the sacred bond of marriage, and the equally sacred bond between parent and child. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav.

And if we ask ourselves why is it that Jews so often succeed, and succeeding, so often give to others of their money and time, and so often make an impact beyond their numbers: there is no magic, no mystery, no miracle. It is simply that we devote our most precious energies to bringing up our children. Never more so than on Shabbat when we cannot buy our children expensive clothes or electronic gadgets, when we can only give them what they most want and need – our time.

Jews knew and know and will always know what today’s chattering classes are in denial about, namely that a civilisation is as strong as the bond between the generations. That is the enduring image of this week’s parsha: the first Jewish parent, Abraham, and the first Jewish child, Isaac, walking together toward an unknown future, their fears stilled by their faith. Lose the family and we will eventually lose all else. Sanctify the family and we will have something more precious than wealth or power or success: the love between the generations that is the greatest gift God gives us when we give it to one another.

Shabbat Shalom

The Pursuit of Truth

Rabbi Angel offers a piece on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, which asks the age-old question of whether or not we should acknowledge the literal story presented in front of us, specifically when it comes to whether or not the characters sinned.  He uses this as a polemic against literature that tries to gloss over the failures of the great rabbis.  In many traditions, it is inappropriate to assign sin to someone of grand stature, so instead the stock answer is that don’t really understand why they did what they did.  Now, I do believe the suspension of vulnerability and humanness among these people has led to lesser folks seriously sinning (i.e. the countless charges of sexual inappropriateness among clergy), yet the biblical element is more complicated than that.  It is difficult for some people to see a role model as being imperfect.  So instead, we gloss over or reinterpret the imperfections in a way as to exonerate the individual.

Personally, I want to see the vulnerability and the flaws.  It reminds us that we too are human and that we are all susceptible to error.  Yet, we can make mistakes and still rise to the highest of levels.  Instead, if we read about superhuman humans, we can easily feel less inspired because without the innate abilities that each has, we are merely treading water throughout life.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a Hassidic Jew who assured me that his Rebbe never committed any sins. He stated with certainty that his Rebbe was endowed with a grand and holy soul, far superior to the soul of any other people.

When I pointed out to him that even Moses committed sins, he flatly denied that this was so. I reminded him that the Torah itself reports Moses’s shortcomings. He said: You do not understand the Torah! It is impossible that Moses could have done anything wrong. He was perfect in every way.

The conversation came to an end, with both of us unhappy with the result. He felt I did not demonstrate enough faith in the perfection of saintly personalities, and I felt he was guilty of distorting the Torah’s words and distorting the reality of the human condition.

This conversation came to mind recently when I received an email from a colleague, in which he included some important passages by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The comments related specifically to stories reported in Parashat Lekh Lekha—but Rabbi Hirsch’s point is of general relevance to our study of Torah…and to our evaluation of saintly individuals.

The Torah relates various problematic narratives about Abraham.  For example, when going to Egypt, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would murder him and take his wife Sarah. Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, rather than his wife. In spite of (or because of!) this deception, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was given rewards and he thrived in Egypt. When God punished Pharaoh and when Pharaoh realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh expressed outrage to Abraham over the deception. Pharaoh expelled Abraham and Sarah, who left Pharaoh’s domain with much wealth.

This story surely does not cast Abraham in a good light. He asked his wife to participate in a deception. He let his wife be taken by the Egyptians. He reaped financial rewards while his wife was in captivity in Pharaoh’s house.

Rabbi Hirsch makes a profoundly important point: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not give to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.”

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that “we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuinely great teachers and commentators.”

Our great biblical heroes, as well as our great spiritual heroes of all generations, were real human beings, not plaster saints.  They had real feelings, real conflicts. Many times they performed admirably; on some occasions they fell short.  To suggest that anyone is “perfect”—totally devoid of sin and error—is to misrepresent that person and to misrepresent truth.

There is a popular genre of “religious literature” that presents biographies of biblical and later religious luminaries as paragons of virtue, totally devoid of sin and inner conflict. In fact, such books are not authentic biographies, because they describe their heroes in an untruthful way. These personalities are drawn in such superlative terms, that readers will find it exceedingly difficult to identify with them or to emulate them.

There is an opposite tendency in some circles to point to every flaw and sin of our spiritual heroes, and to undermine their credibility as religious models. Our prophets and teachers are presented as though devoid of higher spiritual and moral qualities.

Just as it is false to overstate the perfection of our heroes, so it is false to undervalue their spiritual achievements. Rather, we must study their lives honestly, recognizing that these are remarkable individuals who reached great heights—and who had to struggle mightily to attain their levels of religious insight and righteousness.  Their failings can be as instructive to us as their successes.

Just as Truth is the seal of the Word of God, so is the pursuit of Truth the proper objective of all students of Torah and Jewish tradition.

Parashat Noach – Dvar Torah which doesn’t relate

With all due respect to the author, just because Rashi quotes a midrash does not create the need to tangent off into a dvar Torah completely unrelated to both the parsha as well as to Rashi (see below)

A Place To Be

“And it came to pass after the seven-day period that the waters of the Flood were upon the earth”(7:10)

According to most Halachic opinions “shiva”, the seven day mourning period observed after the death of a close relative, is not a Torah-mandated obligation, rather a Rabbinical institution[1]. Rashi cites an allusion to shiva from this week’s parsha. After Noach completed construction of the Ark, Hashem delayed the onset of the rains for seven days. Rashi cites the Midrash which states that Hashem waited until after the righteous Metushelach passed away, before punishing the world. The seven days preceding the flood was the shiva period observed after his passing[2].

It is customary to comfort a mourner with the statement “Hamakom yenachem eschem besoch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” – “Hashem (lit. “the Place”) should comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”[3]. Hashem has other names, such as “Rachum” or “Chanun” which reflect His mercy and compassion, and they would therefore seem more appropriate for this occasion. Why do we use the appellation “Makom” – “Place” in this case? How is this statement a source of comfort for a mourner?

Regarding Hashem, the Midrash states “M’komo shel olam v’lo Ha’olam mekomo” – “the world is contained within Hashem’s space and not Hashem within the space of the world”[4]. Our Sages are teaching us that space was not a preexisting reality. Rather, when Hashem brought the world into existence, He created the reality of space. Consequently, Hashem does not exist within space; space exists within Hashem’s reality.

The name of Hashem which reflects this notion is “Makom” – “Place”. It is therefore appropriate to specifically use the appellation “Makom” when comforting a mourner. The sense of loss precipitated by the death of a loved one stems from the feeling that the deceased no longer exists within the same reality as the living. In times when long distance communication was non-existent, the migration of a family member to a distant country would not invoke the same sense of loss as the loss brought on by death, for there is comfort in knowing that a loved one continues to exist within the same space as us. The appellation “Makom” is reflective of the notion that everything is within Hashem’s space. Therefore, even though the departed has left our own perceived reality, he continues to exist within Hashem’s created reality. Although he may be on a different plane of existence, he continues to share the same space as us. This concept is a great source of comfort to the bereaved.

1.Yoreh De’ah 398:1

2.7:10

3.Shabbos 12b

4.Bereishis Rabbah 68:9

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim – R. Marc Angel

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim, September 24, 2011 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Marc Angel presents a real thought provoking piece for this week’s Torah portion about the ability of our communities to accept people who are not “one of us.”  In the story he shares, a man who converted to Judaism expresses his frustration over the lack of feeling accepted by asking if he could have his conversion annulled.  To me, this is just sad.  Have our communities become so fearful of insincerity that we are afraid to make people welcome?  Do we not realize we are all on equal ground?  R. Angel relates this to the beginning of the Torah portion, in which the entire nation is gathered together to confirm the covenant one last time before entering Israel.  His piece is a must read before Rosh Hashanah, as perhaps our goal this year should be focused on being better to each other, especially in this crazy world we live in today.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives and the stranger/convert that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water” (Devarim 29:9-10).

Over the years, I have received many hundreds of inquiries from people interested in converting to Judaism. Some have been spiritual seekers who have found meaning in the great teachings of Torah. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some have fallen in love with a Jew, and have wanted to become part of the Jewish people and raise a Jewish family. Whatever the motivation for their contacting me, I have derived much satisfaction and joy in dealing with this large and diverse group of people.

Recently, though, I received an email inquiry which was entirely new to my previous experience. The note came from a person who had converted to Judaism with an Orthodox Beth Din—and now wanted to know if it would be possible to annul his conversion!

I informed him that once a person becomes halakhically Jewish, there are no annulments. But then I asked him why he wanted to annul his conversion? I wondered if he had lost faith in God and Torah, or if he had experienced anti-Semitism, or if there were other factors which motivated this unusual request.

His answer relieved me…and pained me deeply.

It relieved me because he assured me that he loved God and Torah, that he studied Torah regularly, that he found great satisfaction in observing mitzvoth. His problem wasn’t with Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It pained me deeply because he informed me that the problem was the Jewish community in which he lived! He felt that members of the community treated him like an outsider. Being a single man, he was having great difficulty establishing a positive social life. Whether this was his own impression or whether it was objectively true, he felt that he was discriminated against because he was a convert, because he was of a different background from the mainstream of the community. So he decided he wanted to annul his conversion because Jews had rejected him.

I told him that he should stay true to God, Torah and mitzvoth—but that he might be happier moving to another community! He seemed reassured by this answer, and wrote to me that he indeed would continue to study and observe Torah…but that he would try to find a more congenial Jewish community in which to live.

In describing the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the Torah informs us that ALL Israelites were to stand before God—from the elite leaders, to the humble masses, men and women, old and young, born Israelites and converts. The essential quality of the covenant is that it included every Israelite—all as equals before God.  If Israelites did not recognize the ultimate equality of each member of the group, this would constitute a breach in the covenant itself.

Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 6:3) provides the parameters for what it means to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” His words are of profound importance: “A person must speak in praise of his neighbor and be careful of his neighbor’s property as he is careful with his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person will have no portion in the world to come.” In the very next law, Maimonides notes that it is incumbent to love the proselyte, first because he/she is a fellow Jew, and second because there is a special Torah obligation to love the proselyte. All Jews are equal before God; all are equal partners in the covenant with God; all must be treated with the same respect and consideration that we want others to show to ourselves.

As we prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, it is important that we re-focus on the framework of the covenant between God and Israel, that we recognize how important it is for each Jew to be treated as a fellow partner in our adventure with the Almighty. Our communities need to reflect a sincere inclusiveness, a feeling of mutual respect among ourselves. One of the great strengths of the Jewish people is our diversity, our richness of traditions and backgrounds; we stand as one people before God, each of us equal in the eyes of God.

If even one Jew feels rejected or alienated because he/she is of a “different” background, race, or ethnic group—then the structure of the Jewish covenant with God is shaken. If even one Jew wants to “annul” his/her Jewishness because of feelings of rejection by other Jews, then the Jewish religious enterprise is challenged. Self-righteousness and smugness are antithetical to the ideals of Jewish peoplehood.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God…”

Let us each stand before the Lord imbued with love of God, love of our fellow Jews, love of our fellow human beings. Let our communities reflect love, compassion, spiritual vitality. Let us renew the covenant between God and Israel.

The value of a flag

I really enjoyed the following Dvar Torah that I read on Shabbat from Zomet’s Shabbat B’Shabbato.  Pay particular attention to the story in the middle about the Holocaust survivor’s parochet.

Every Man Standing by his Banner – by Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg, Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B’Yavne

“His banner expresses love to me” [Shir Hashirim 2:4]. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, declared: the idol worshippers have many different banners, but the only banner that I love is that of Yaacov, as is written, ‘Every man standing by his banner’ [Bamidbar 2:2].” [Tanchuma Bamidbar 10]. The Midrash continues, “This teaches us that the banners were objects of greatness and glory.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Rabeinu Bechayai writes, “‘Every man standing by his banner, with his symbols’ – this is a hint of the verse, ‘with all the yearning of your heart’ [Bamidbar 12:15], showing that the nation yearned for banners.” He then goes on to describe the detailed symbolism of the banners. (Yearning is “avat” and the “symbols” are “otot.”)

Some people show no respect for a flag. In a letter to Baron Hirsh, Herzl wrote: “You might well ask me, in a mocking way: What is a flag after all? Just a pole and a piece of cloth? No, my good sir, people follow a flag to the place where they want to go, even to the promised land. For a flag, people will live and die!”

In the year 5623 (1843), after the Polish people raised their national flag as a symbol of their revolution, the rabbi of Gur, the RIM, came into the Beit Midrash and declared that he is very afraid of heavenly criticism of the people of Yisrael. He said: the Polish people are giving up their lives for their freedom and to free their land from foreigners, but what about us? What do we do?

David Wolfson described the origin of the flag of Israel. He wrote that Herzl gave him the task of making preparations for the Zionist Congress. He hesitated about which flag to use to decorate the meeting. “And then, I suddenly had a thought – we already have a blue and white banner, the talit in which we wrap ourselves during prayer. The talit is our symbol. Let us take it out of its case and fly it in front of the eyes of Yisrael and in front of all the nations. I asked for a blue and white flag with a Star of David in the middle.”

Rabbi Yisrael Lau tells of a young rabbi who turned to Rabbi Ruderman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner-Yisrael. He said that his congregation refused to accept a gift from a Holocaust survivor of a parochet, a curtain for the holy ark, with a Star of David embroidered on it, because this is a symbol of the Zionist country. Rabbi Roderman was astonished to hear this: “That country rescued hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees whose entire world had been destroyed, gave them food and shelter. There are indeed things that should be fixed in the country – the people should repent, we must all repent, both those in the country and those outside. Leave the parochet as it is. Don’t remove the Star of David, and don’t hurt the feelings of this poor Jew.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote something similar. “You ask me how I, as a Jewish Talmud expert, views the flag of the State of Israel, and if it has any halachic significance. In general, I do not think that flags and symbolic ceremonies have any significance… But let us not ignore a law in the Shulchan Aruch: If a Jew is killed by Gentiles he is buried in his clothing, so that his blood will be visible, and people will avenge it… The clothes of a Jew become holy to some degree when they are stained with holy blood, and this is certainly true of the blue and white flag, which is soaked in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the defense of the land and the settlements. It has a spark of holiness which stems from dedication and self sacrifice. We are all obligated to honor the flag and to show respect for it.”

Jethro tries to prevent Moses from becoming another Pharaoh.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Jethro comes to the encampment of Bnai Yisrael.  Upon seeing the goings on between Moses and the people, in which Moses receives all disputes, Jethro advises Moses to set up a system of courts so as to alleviate the stress of listening to all the people’s problems.  In thinking about this advise, I am reminded of a midrash discussed in Masechet Sotah.  The midrash says that when Pharaoh was deciding how to respond to the growth of the Jewish people and the fear about being overthrown, he consulted three advisors, Bilaam, Iyov and Jethro.  Bilaam advised Pharaoh to drown the baby boys.  Iyov stood silently by and Jethro protested and ran away.  As such, Jethro merited to have his daughters marry Moses and Aaron.  Jethro realized that it is very easy for a ruler to ignore his advisors for the sake of his own decision making process.  When Jethro sees Moses judge alone, he begins to fear that Moses will fall into the trap of Pharaoh, that Moses won’t listen to other’s advise and trust other’s judgment.  Therefore, he advises Moses that he can’t do it all on his own and that he will need judges under him for him to delegate authority.