Archive for January, 2020

This week’s parashah, Va’eira, begins with God introducing a different name to Moses than God did to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus:6:2,3 states, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am יְהוָֽה (yod, hey, vav, hey).  I appeard to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יְהוָֽה .”  We generally read this name as “Adonai”.

The difference between the two name is significant and there is interesting discussion as to why the name revealed to Moses was not revealed to the Patriarchs.  The letters yod hey vav heyof the name revealed to Moses contain the root letters for the verb “to be (exist).”  In last week’s Torah portion, when Moses met God at the burning bush, and Moses asks what name should he reveal as God’s name, God answers, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which means, “I will be what I will be.” The implication is that God is to great to be defined by a name, rather the identity of Gd should be that which is eternally existent.  So we could then interpret God’s statement of “I am yod hey vav hey” as a statement, “I am Eternal.”

In the beginning segment of this parashah, God is informing Moses what God will be insuring is accomplished as Moses works to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.  God makes the statement of  “I am Eternal” three more times in this opening segment of the Torah portion. This is not an unusual use of the statement in important interactions with Moses.  In Leviticus chapter 19, which reveals the holiness code, the phrase “I am Eternal” is a consistent ending piece to many of the commandments.

The Torah analyst Cassuto says the name of El Shaddai is often associated with the attribute of fertility, which is why it is so relevant to Abraham and Sarah, who end up with a child at such an old age (see Genesis 17:1,2).  The name of yod hey vav heyis more connected to the fulfillment of promises, exactly the context that Moses is being assured of in his first interactions with God.

In Exodus 6:6,7, and 8 there are indeed significant promises God makes to Moses about the future of the Isaelites.  Here they are:

  • hotzeiti– I will bring you out from the labors
  • hitzalti – I will deliver you from Egyptian bondage
  • ga’alti– I will redeem you with an outstretched arm
  • lakachti– I will take you to be my people
  • heiveiti– I will bring you to the promised land

Jewish tradition considers the first four to have been fulfilled.  Those four are the basis for the four part structure of our Passover seder.  The number 4 is also the basis for the four questions, the four sons of different style.  The fifth promise, “I will bring you to the promised land” connects to the fifth cup of wine left for Elijah, representing the hope for fulfillment in the future.

The typical question asked today is, how is the fifth promise not fulfilled with the existence of the state of Israel, our promised land?  A rabbinic explanation is that the fifth cup represents the messianic vision of an age of peace.  For now the promise is not fulfilled because Israel is not at peace.

There are two elements of conflict we can draw from this.  The obvious first one is the constant violent attacks by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbullah.  Until that is resolved, we cannot say Israel exists in peace.  With the rise of anti-Semitism, we could add that this also applies to Israel as the name applies to all of the Jewish people in the world.  The second reality is the inability for Israelis, in fact Jews in general, cannot seem to be at peace with each other.  If we look at the five promises made at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we must say that God did wonderful things by freeing us from slavery, the authoritarianism of Egypt, saving us from the Sea of Reeds, and by taking us into a covenantal relationship.  But wouldn’t God have done us a bigger favor by teaching just teaching us how to get along with each other?

The Torah exhibits a long history of our people not getting along with each other.  The Israelites doubted Moses would actually get them out of Egypt.  Just after they did and crossed the Sea of Reeds, watching the Egyptian army drown, they began to complain about not having water.  The Torah is filled with Israelites’ complaints: water, food, boredom with eating manna, the trip back to Canaan being too long.   Korach, being jealous of Moses’ relation with God, rebels against him and Aaron.  Did God really want to hear all the moaning of these children of God?  Perhaps that is why God seems to be the absentee parent and Moses the au pair.  The Israelites never learned to play well with each other.

Sadly, the lack of peace in the Jewish world exists today.  Politically, the general political polarization has created deeper divides in the American Jewish community.  Yet the deeper source of conflict is the incredible number of religious movements in our small world Jewish population.  There are a couple of dozen factions in the Chasidic world, some of whom completely condemn not only non orthodox Jews, but other Chasidic communities.  This is in addition to the general conflict between the Haredi and progressive Jews. There are even conflicts in the non orthodox Jewish world, as some who have more radical views condemn those who do not agree with them.

Rabbinic tradition recognizes this weakness, not just among Jews, but among all people.  Consider this teaching from Pirkei Avot 4:3 “Do not despise any man and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man who has not his hour and there is no thing that has not its place.” In greater detail, there are teachings that the people of Israel (worldwide Judaism) must care for each other.

What generations of rabbinic teaching stress is that our coming to the Promised Land is not God’s failure, but our failure.  God has given us the opportunity to truly obtain it.  But the responsibility lies with us.  Moses’ life is one of growth, of getting the chance from God to help the people of Israel and doing it.  He left a narrow form of life caring for a flock of sheep to realizing the necessity he had.  Moses learned his life was transient and God was eternal, yet he accepted a path.  If we can model Moses just a little, we can move us towards our Promised Land.

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How do we fare when called upon to face unpleasant truths?  How do we manage that call to do a difficult, seemingly endless task?  How deep is our empathy?  This is the essence of what Moses is facing at the burning bush theophany in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.

Exodus 3:6 says, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  That raises a theological question.  If Judaism teaches God has no physical form, what was Moses afraid to look at? Cassuto points out that the Torah is careful not to imply a physical form, just that Moses knew God was presenting some kind of vision, and Moses was afraid to look at it.  However, Moses listens very attentively.  So he is receptive to hearing God’s message, but is clearly missing something.  Moses will accept the mission, but we can say he does so somewhat “blindly.”

Malbim takes the analysis of Moses hiding his face a bit further.  By hiding his face, Moses shows he is not ready for a complete relationship with God. Malbim says that the Hebrew verb meihabit is not seeing so much as giving full concentration on something.  Hiding his face is really Moses retreating into the material world, not able to spiritually and intellectually comprehend God.  The material world is kind of his safety net.  He hears God’s commands.  On some levels he understands what is being demanded of him.  But he is not ready for what eventually will be “knowing God panim el panim(face to face).” It is very important to note the intellectual component of the human/God relationship implied by Malbim.  Meeting God “face to face” is intellectually as well as spiritually demanding.

Did Moses act properly by hiding his face?  Sages who argue he did not say God would have shown him what was above and what was below – the secrets of existence (Shemot Rabbah 1:27).  Malbim’s commentary seems to agree with this by adding Moses was not ready for ultimate truth.  Ba’al Haturim, however, takes a slightly different tack.  He says that had Moses looked into God’s presence at the bush and asked for relief of the Israelites’ suffering, the exile would have been ended right then.  Israel would have been freed.  Thus we can ask, what is it Ba’al Haturim thinks Moses would have seen had he not hidden his face, that is, if he had tried to look at God face to face?

If we extend Ba’al Haturim’s reasoning, God would have shown Moses the full extent of Israel’s suffering in Egypt.  If we combine the comments of Cassuto, Malbim and Ba’al Haturim, we might construct this scenario.  Moses had seen the suffering of an individual Israelite, which led him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster.  Moses is listening to what God is trying to convey, but is not yet ready to grasp the enormity of Israel’s suffering.  Moses is not yet ready to perceive truth from God’s perspective – an intellectual and spiritual experience that is beyond him at the time of the call to his mission.  Moses is just human.  Trying to understand the full scale of human suffering and ultimate truth is a tall order. But Moses DOES listen, so he begins a path to lead the Israelites and finally know God “face to face.”

We can put reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism today in a similar context of Moses’ theophany.  Like Moses, we are obsessed with each incident as it happens in our individualized manner.  These include the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the shooting in Poway, the shooting in Jersey City, and the knifing in Monsey, NY – just to name a few. Further, we tend to analyze them strictly on our political backgrounds and perspectives:  are we liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats – just to name the obvious examples.

We are quick to declare that the dominant form of anti-Semitism is on the opposite side of our political belief.  We are afraid to look at the whole picture, that there is hatred of Jews coming from across all the political, religious, and ethnic spectrums.  I read articles written by liberals who refuse to see the seriousness of anti-Semitism from certain people whose general political stands they support.  I read the same approach from conservative writers, who also stupidly condemn Jews like George Soros for his liberal approaches using anti-Semitic tropes.  I have yet to read a condemnation of pastor Rick Wiles by right wing Christians.  Wiles claims the attempt to impeach Trump is a “Jew coup.”  Meanwhile, those on the left use “intersectionality” to justify any anti-Israel approach, saying that Israel is an oppressive country and therefore Jews who support Israel can be condemned.  This opens the door to left wing anti-Semitism.

Like Moses, we are over focused on what is in our own minds instead of truly trying to “look at God face to face,” which means starting to see the larger picture, the full extent of what Jews must be facing today.  The best article on anti-Semitism that I have read is from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who gives a good insight not only into hatred of Jews, but racism and bigotry in general.  https://www.jta.org/2020/01/02/opinion/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-the-keys-to-understanding-american-anti-semitism-and-fighting-back?utm_content=buffer81f6b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=jtafacebook&utm_campaign=social&fbclid=IwAR3zqO4Nyr2Z0crZGRjBfrM2yHkYUf1hCeq6s2g-B5cnc5KAYqO-Ha2KRng

If, like Moses, we learn to look at God “face to face” and not just hide our face (really our minds), then we will see a much larger picture.  This picture not only includes the depth and diversity of anti-Semitic sources, but also the depth and diversity of those who are ready to stand with us Jews as we fight bigotry.  While a number of the New York attacks on Chasidic Jews are from blacks, the vast bulk of African Americans are deeply caring people who just want bigotry to end.  While the terrorism in the Middle East against Israel is through anti-Semitic Muslim groups (e.g. Hamas), I have met so many Muslims in America who stand with the Jewish people against hatred.  While there are people on the left wing who produce anti-Semitic narratives, the vast majority of liberals can be defined as liberal because they very strongly condemn oppression of Jews.  While some of the most violent anti-Semitic actions have come from right wingers, and there are increasing numbers of white nationalists who stress their hatred of Jews; most American conservatives fiercely condemn anti-Semitism.  If we are truly trying to see God, we will not only see those who hate Jews from all sides, but the vast number of those who will stand with us as our friends.  If we also hear all of these people’s pains and sufferings, and stand with them like they will stand with us, we will gain, like Moses, a deeper understanding of God.

God’s call to Moses at the bush is not about forcing a religious ideology upon the Egyptians.  It is not about violent coercion of any kind.  It is a call to lead a group of people to freedom, to alleviate suffering. When we hear the pain and suffering of others, we are starting to perceive God’s voice.  If we look at the truth of how humans act – the good and the bad – we have taken a step on the path to know God.  Ultimately there can be no hiding of our faces.  If we look into the vision God provides, if we really understand what we are being shown, then, when we dare to look at God face to face – we will find our own face staring back at us.


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What does a blessing actually mean?  If we offer a blessing to another person, are we simply wishing them well or are we trying to get them to contemplate a perspective unlike they way they have thought and acted?  In this week’s Torah portion Vayachi, Jacob delivers blessings for his sons.  Yet, when we read them, we wonder if these are truly blessings.  Here is the beginning from Genesis 49:1 – 9.  I am showing the Hebrew in the first two verses.                                                                                                                            וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

Vayikra Ya’akov el-banav vayomer ha’asfu v’agidah lachem et asher-yikra etchem ba’acharit hayamim.

1)  And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.                                                                                       הִקָּבְצ֥וּ וְשִׁמְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְשִׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אֲבִיכֶֽם׃

Hikavtzu v’shim’u b’nai Ya’akov v’shim’u el-Yisra’el avichem.

2) Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father:

3)  Rueben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellence of power;

4)  Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it, mounting my bed.

5)  Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords.

6) Oh my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger, they slew a man, and in their wanton lamed an ox.

7) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and they wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide the in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

8)  Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be in the neck of your enemies; yourfather’s children shall bow down in your presence.

9)  Judah is a lion’s cub, from the prey, my son, you are gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

We can see from the beginning of Jacob’s “blessings” for his sons, the diversity in content, reproving for bad actions, praise for some sons, and predictions to their future. However, the predictions are not for their individual futures, but for the tribes who will descend from each of them. Indeed, we can read this as Jacob’s teaching on the developent from being an individual to a tribe, a society, even a nation.  One hint is the use of two names, Jacob and Israel.  It is Jacob who is calling his sons together for their blessings and followed by the name Israel, when they are told to listen to their father’s words of analysis and prophesy of the future.  We will expand on this, but first let’s review the improper deeds done by the sons receiving their reproofs.

Reuben, Jacob’s first born, laid with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, who was the mother of a number of Reuben’s brothers.  What is worse, he did this just after Jacob’s wife Rachel had died.  Simeon and Levi reacted violently to the incident with their sister Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, but was in love with her and wanted to marry her.  While Jacob agreed to the marriage if everyone in the town of Shechem would be dedicated to God (and the men were to be circumcised to officially proclaim that), Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the men while they were recovering from their circumcisions.  Jacob’s reproof of Simeon and Levi is a condemnation of their excessive anger, cruelty, and violence.

A key question is how will Jacob’s sons, and their descendents, properly direct their lives as they move from individuals to a nation, the nation of Israel?  In midrash Genesis Rabbah 98:2 3 three rabbis, Juden, Pinchas, and Abun, all interpret the Hebrew word el(look at the first two verses in Hebrew) to actually mean “God,” as Elnot only means “to” but also is a Hebrew word for “God.”  Rabbi Juden interprets the beginning of verse 49:1 to mean “And Jacob called God to be with his sons.”

In Genesis Rabbah 98:3 Rabbis Juden and Pinchas have a slightly different interpretation of who is being referred to by “God.”  Juden says it is the God of Jacob (their individual father) who should be the God of Israel (the eventual nation).  Pinchas teaches the sons must be honoring their father, and his teachings, at the same level they would honor God.  In either case we can draw a significant lesson very applicable to us.

Judaism is not only about the respectability of individuality, but the necessity to place our desires and thoughts behind what is necessary to create a successful society, community, nation.  Reuben’s action is seen as simply selfish, the desire to have sex with a woman despite her relationship with his own father.  While Simeon and Levi were justified in having anger over what happened to their sister, their reaction was a violent punishment way beyond the guilty person, but victimizing all the men of the town of Shechem.  They did not accept the attempt of Shechem to correct things and create a way to cooperate.

You can see the parallel in this world through entries in social media.   So many people refuse to consider a different point of view.  I have read so many nasty comments on FaceBook by people whose only interest is to condemn those who have a different perspective than them.  I never see a post of forgiveness for a wrongdoing, or apologies for demeaning others. It is also clear that so many of today’s problems can be traced to personal, political desires and egos as opposed to what is best for the community.  The assumption is that the personal belief opinion is best and NOT true listening to the approach of those who think differently, even friends.

How does God’s presence (as depicted by Genesis Rabbah midrash) impact these problems?  First, acknowledging God forces us to realize we are part of something much bigger and beyond ourselves.  Second, if we see God as a parent/creator, we know we must respect what exists and work to improve our larger family – the nation of our Jewish people and thus, the world. Are our actions creating conflicts or attempting to create understanding?  Judaism allows disagreement on topics but makes it clear that ALL perspectives are acknowledged by God.  We can stand up to defend ourselves but must balance our aggressiveness with kindness.

What was the response of Jacob’s sons according to these midrashim?  It is taught they recited the words of the Sh’ma, “Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”  Despite the diverse “blessings” each brother received from their father, they acknowledged a need to come together in a divine way.  The Hebrew of the Sh’ma uses two different names of God, which shows in its own way that diversity should not prevent unity.  Jacob’s response is, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the name of the glorious majesty forever and ever.

What is a blessing? It is a direction away from sin to a hope that we will find a moral and divine path in our future.

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