Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The Song by the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites just after crossing the Sea of Reeds, completely escaping the Egyptian army, is without question among the highlights of the entire Torah.  One of its lines is chanted or sung during every morning or evening service throughout Judaism:

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai, mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh, nora t’hillot oseh feleh.

“Who is like unto You O God, among the mighty?  Who is like unto You, glorious in holiness awesome in splendor, working wonders?”This is a song of redemption, the first in the history of the people of Israel, setting a precedent for a series of redemption songs throughout our history.

In today’s world there are countless versions of music for these words, ways to sing or chant.  The variance in styles of music present in Mi Chamocha reflects the variance in feelings represented and transmitted by each service.  There are moments of sadness, moments of happiness.  There are moments of anger, moments of joy.  There are moments of frustration, moments of celebration.  Yet in all the variables of prayer emotions conveyed through Mi Chamocha,the recognition of redemption, achieved by a combination of God and the Israelite people, links all of the emotions together.

The variance of how the Song by the Sea was sung by the Israelites is a subject of discussion in the Talmud, Sotah 30b.  Three versions are presented.  The first, by Rabbi Akiba, says that Moses would sing a line and the people would affirm by singing the first line Moses sang again and again.  Here is the example:

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted.”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God.”

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosse puts it a bit differently.  He says the Israelites repeat each line after Moses sings it. Here is the example:

Moses: “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted”

The third method is the Israelites singing what Moses did then completing each phrase with what is considered their own words.

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted.”  (created by the people in response)

Let’s consider what each version of the singing style might represent.  The first one, in which the people repeat again and again the first phrase that Moses sang, can be seen as an affirmation of his leadership.  They are only following the leader, which is represented by singing no words of their own. The second can be seen as admiring the leader enough to model what he is doing (singing).  The third can be interpreted as the people learning from the leader enough to create something new.  The result is the leader and the people working together in order to move everyone forward in the most meaningful way.

In modern times it is easy to see how each version can be interpreted and applied in today’s politics.  The first might be seen as authoritarianism, the second as being obsessed with a celebrity and the third as the only correct version of a relationship between a leader and his/her people.  This kind of interpretation, however, misrepresents what rabbinic tradition is trying to convey by pointing out each version of the song.  It is not about determining which is appropriate, but recognizing that there are moments of need for all three.  In other words, life is way too complicated to focus on only one approach.  More important is how all aspects of life are properly balanced.

I would suggest that what is fully relevant for life today is not any of the means in which the song Moses begins and sings to, for, or with the Israelites. It is what comes immediately after the end of the Song by the Sea.  Here is that verse 15:21:

מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם

Vata’an lahem Miriam, shiru L’Adonai ki go’ah ga’ah, soos v’rochvo ramah vayam.

Here is a common translation, “And Miriam sang unto them, sing to Adonai for God is highly exalted, the horse and his rider God threw into the sea.” However the most accurate translation of the very first word, vata’anwould be “and she answered.”

What Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s prophetic sister, did was to answer the feelings of the people of Israel.  What Moses did was to use the song to establish some version of his leadership. There was nothing wrong with what Moses did.   It was just incomplete.  Miriam, however, was not focused on her role, but on providing an answer to the Israelite people.  It is clear that Miriam’s role is admired by our tradition through the Torah’s presentation of her death and the midrash on its result.

What is the relevant teaching about Miriam for today’s world?  Perhaps we can conclude that leadership filled only by men cannot possibly be complete.  We need women to provide leadership as well; for their perspective is the best way to balance the how men lead.  Indeed, given what we are learning about the reality of genders in today’s world, perhaps what we need is true gender diversity providing societal leadership. The name of this week’s parashahis Beshalach, which means “it came to pass.”  May it come to pass that we improve the content and quality of our leadership through diversity.  That will evolve our culture in a very positive way.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

I have shared this story before, about my youngest daughter, adopted from Korea.  When she was 4 and a half years old, I found her crying while looking into the mirror.  When I asked why, she responded how upset she was that her eyes did not look like mine. My wife and I kept trying to assure her we thought she was beautiful just as she was, and looking like us was not important.  We tried the advice from a book about adopted children, but that had no effect.  As she turned 5, we took both of our children to Disney World.  While eating lunch at a restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, a woman came up to us, pointed to our Korean daughter and asked if she could take a picture of her.  When we asked why, she said that our daughter’s eyes were the most beautiful she had ever seen.  Our daughter heard this, sat up, smiled, and never complained or cried about her eyes ever again.

We had no idea who this woman was who changed our daughter’s self-perception.  It just felt like God had sent her, as a special divine messenger, to re direct our daughter.  I wonder how many of us have encountered unknown people whose words or actions made a dramatic change in our lives?  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, this is exactly what happened to Joseph.

His story seems a bit sad in this parashah.  While he is described as Jacob’s favorite son, his brothers are portrayed a despising him.  Their hatred for him increases when he describes dreams that are metaphors for the rest of the family bowing to him.  Just after his sharing of these dreams, his brothers take Jacob’s flocks of sheep to pasture in Shechem, their father, here being referred to as Yisra’el, sends Joseph to check on how the flocks are doing.  When Joseph arrives in Shechem, he cannot find his brothers and the flocks.  As he wanders in a field, a man finds him and directs him to where they actually are.  Once he finds them, their hatred of him results in him being imprisoned in a pit and then sold as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt.

While this episode, as well as the balance of Joseph’s experience in this week’s parashah, is oppressive and punishing of Joseph; it actually sets up the path on which he eventually becomes the vizier in Egypt. Decades later; having this position saves his family from a famine.  While Joseph suffered from finding his brothers, in the long run, the unknown man who found him directed him on the path that resulted in his high achievements. A key question is if this unknown, nameless man, was a divine messenger sent by God to make sure Joseph’s path was in the right direction.

The midrash Bereshit Rabbah 84:14 says this man was one of 3 angels.  Nachmanides puts this in the context that Joseph deserved having a messenger from God help him, because the text from Genesis 37:12 -14 shows that he was dedicated to honoring and obeying his father, displayed by his wandering the fields in Shechem searching for his brothers.  In this context he must have known they despised him.  A further proof given is the word used in his response to his father’s direction to find his brothers and bring back a report on how the flocks were doing.  Joseph’s response was hineini, “here I am,” which Rashi explains connotes humility and enthusiasm for doing the bidding of his father. Throughout the Tanach, hineini, implies a deep presence with a commitment to God.

Rashi gives a little different explanation of who the unknown man is.  He still describes him as a divine messenger, but one whose name is Gabriel, which in Hebrew means “God’s man.”  A proof Rashi uses is a reference to Daniel 9:21, a verse from a description of a vision Daniel had in Babylon.  In rabbinic tradition, Gabriel is the name of one of 4 key angels who serve God.

Perhaps the most important piece that implies this man/angel/messenger is acting on behalf of God is the word that describes his encountering Joseph, in Hebrew vayimtza’eihu, which directly translated is “and he found him.”  This was not an accidental encounter, rather, this verb implies a purposeful one.  The deeper version of the question above now is whether the messenger sent by God was a divine, heavenly being, or a human whose “finding” of Joseph was not planned by him but in an unknown way by God?

And this question raises something for all of us to contemplate.  How much in our lives is just accidental and how much is meant to aim us in a particular, meaningful direction?  Judaism does not teach that everything in our life is pre-planned by God, but a combination. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, “All is foreseen yet choice is given.”  This is generally interpreted to mean that God knows everything that is going to happen in this world, yet we have individual choices.

Akiva’s teaching can be rather confusing.  If God foresees everything, how can our choices truly be free will?  One possible answer is that God know every potential outcome in our lives.  We make free will choices of the path we wish to try and take, but God knows how that choice will define our future.  We do not. We are aware of hints about our potential, about how life might evolve, but we can truly never foresee any end result. Sometimes, as we move down a path, a person we have no idea about, and unexptectedly have an interaction with, often impacts our life in a positive direction.   It does not completely secure a path, as the ultimate result depends on our choices.  We can see this as a piece of help that God provides.

We can apply this all to Joseph’s story.  His path is not completely pre-ordained.  It is dependent on the choices he will make, and great examples will occur after he arrives in Egypt.  But without the help of the unknown man in the fields of Shechem, Joseph would never get to Egypt.

Here is a final contemplation:  are we the recipients of the aid of the unknown messenger of God OR have we unknowingly played that role.  While the rabbis commenting on the man in the field identify him, they do not all say he knew the role his act would play.  And I am sure the woman who praised the eyes of my 5 year old daughter, had no idea how that would affect her, but God did.

The famous heroine who saved many slaves, Harriet Tubman, originally was named Araminta (Minty). At a key moment in her life, she changed her name to Harriet.  Some historians say this occurred when she decided to rescue herself from slavery. If true, this was a large contribution to her total identity change as she achieved freedom.  It was the identity connected to her life as an amazing heroine who, after gaining freedom, dedicated all of her work to freeing others still in slavery.  Harriet’s decision to change her name becomes connected to her life of impacting the world to benefit others.

In the Torah, name changes are tied to the new directions in the lives of Torah characters.  Abraham (Avraham) begins as Avram.  Once his covenant with God is in place, he becomes Abraham, which can be translated as “father of the people.”  His wife Sarai becomes Sarah.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob, (Ya’akov) becomes Israel (Yisra’el).  The Torah presents God as the name changer.

Part of the story of Jacob’s name change is well known.  Jacob learns he is about to meet his brother, Esau, whose threats to his life is the reason he fled from his homeland.  He separates from the rest of his family, dealing with his fear of Esau.  Once alone, he wrestles with a man who somehow turns out to be representing God.  Jacob does not lose the fight, so this divine person presents a new name for him, Yisra’el(Israel), as the meaning is “struggling with God.”  However, his name does not actually change at this moment.

The Torah portion continues and Jacob experiences a number of difficult incidents, starting with his meeting with Esau.  He then deals with the rape of his daughter, Dinah, tries to find a way to handle it, and struggles with what two of his sons do in revenge for their sister. Finally, God tells Jacob to go to the place he began his journey when fleeing from his home so many years earlier, Beth El.  It is here that Jacob is told by God his name is now Yisra’el.  A question we can ask is, what is meant by this delay in his name change?

We can start with a commentary by Rashi, who states that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was Esau’s ministering angel.  Therefore it was necessary for Jacob to be connecting directly with God for the name change to become real, and that would happen at Beth El, the place Jacob awoke to the presence of God when he began his life’s journey.  Nachmanides adds that Jacob’s second experience with God at Beth El might imply it is okay for him to be called either name, Jacob or Yisra’el.  This makes us look a bit deeper into the meanings of both names.

Jacob (Ya’akov) is related to the word akeiv, which means “heel.”  Esau and Jacob are twins, with Esau being born first.  Ya’akovimplies an attempt to catch the heel of Esau.  It is a prediction of Jacob’s overcoming of Esau via the inheritance from and blessing of their father.  Some rabbinic commentators also connect the name Ya’akovto the Hebrew word akavah, which can mean deceit, guile, or provocation.  Any or all of these words describe how Jacob got Esau to turn the right to the inheritance over to him as well as the trick Jacob played on Isaac to get his blessing.  All of these actions provoke Esau into his hatred of Jacob.

When Jacob flees from Canaan to escape Esau’s threat, he has his first true experience with God, and wakes up to God’s presence where he does not expect it.  However, he does not express full faith in God, but tries to strike a deal that his faith depends on God staying with him and protecting him (Genesis 28:20,21).  His life is filled with ups and downs, so it can be interpreted as a constant struggle with his faith in God.  Another way to interpret Jacob’s wrestling in this week’s Torah portion would be an internal conflict over how much to trust God, especially as he is about to reconnect with his aggressive brother.  Thus we get the translation of Yisra’elas “struggling with God.”

However, there are other ways to translate that name.  Using the same consonants but changing the vowels, you could pronounce the name as Yashar El, which means the one who God makes straight.  After the struggle with God (or the divine representative) Jacob has a peaceful yet somewhat struggling meeting with Esau.  Following that, he tries to deal with Dinah’s situation and the aftermath in a way he thinks is best.  He is angry over some of the results.  Perhaps God, at Beth El, is using the name to try and straighten out how Jacob deals with difficulties.  At least Jacob has straightened out by no longer using deceit to achieve what he wants.

There is yet a third way to interpret the consonant letters that are in the name Yisra’el, it could be read as yesh ra El, “there he saw God.”  At Beth El, the Torah states that God appears to Jacob (Genesis 35:9).  God then confirms the change of his name to Yisra’eland also shares one of God’s names, El Shaddai.

By simply re pronouncing the consonants of the name Yisra’el with different vowels, the name takes on 3 meanings that all apply to the path of Jacob’s life.  As someone who gains what he feels he deserves by deceit and guile, he launches a complex path.  While he acknowledges God’s presence, he struggles with the actual impact God has on dealing with the difficult moments he experiences.  Perhaps he is wrestling with his personal expectations.   By reaching a point of belief in the proper risk to take; God (and/or his faith in God) straightens his path.  Then, when something amazingly impactful happens, he ends up “seeing” God.  It is a brief moment, but it provides strength in dealing with life’s struggles. Jacob finally accepts the additional name that will define not only his future, but of all his descendants – us.

Yisra’el becomes the name for all of the Jewish people.  Its various potential meanings represents what all of us end up experiencing:  struggles, wondering about our faith in God, trying to counter our incidents of deceit including repentance for them, straightening our path in life, and then seeing – for a moment – something divine that inspires us.  Most important, we actually decide on whether or not we accept the name.  Yisra’el is not just the label for our people.  It represents the reality of complexity in each of our lives.  God supplies the name, but we choose where to take that reality.  May our choices, despite life’s difficulty, result in moral commitment like Harriet Tubman.

A Rolling Stone

The world of music changed so much while I was growing up.  When the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I watched with my parents, but was afraid to express my interest in music different from what my dad liked.  So it was not the Beatles that pushed me into contemporary music in those years.  No, it was the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.  I used to listen to that piece every time I was at my friend’s house.  It was The Rolling Stones who opened my mind to the dramatic evolution of music occurring in the 1960’s.  In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), Vayetzei, there is a rolling stone that is interpreted to open one’s mind – not about music, but about God.    

Jacob has left his family in Canaan to head to Haran to escape from his brother Esau and perhaps find his mother Rebekkah’s family.  He arrives at a well in Genesis 29:1.  There he sees a water well with 3 flocks of sheep lying by it. The well was covered by a heavy stone that would be rolled away when all of the sheep needing to be given water were present.  Jacob sees the beautiful Rachel, daughter of Lavan, coming with her flock of sheep. He then rolls the stone off from the well in order that the flock can get its water. 

Seems like a simple story.  Yet, it is seen as a metaphor for a number of things.  According to Sefas Emes, the well is a symbol that contains a life sustaining, even life changing element.  Jacob is coming to his.  The 3 flocks of sheep represent chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da’at (knowledge).  The stone covering the well represents our corporeality, the limitations our physical body provides that interferes with what we need to be aware of God. 

When Jacob sees Rachel, he feels something for the first time in life – falling in love.  At the beginning of the Torah portion, Jacob has a dream that makes him realize God is everywhere, not a place in particular.  However, his mind is still filled with questions.  He tries to make an agreement with God to stay with him to maintain his faith.  But love opens his soul in a way that allows him to delve into wisdom, understanding and knowledge; thereby giving him the ability to roll the stone back that is inhibiting his connection to God.  This is one interpretation.

Here is another.  The well represents prayer – another way to connect with God.  The stone represents our evil urge that needs to be controlled in order for us delve more meaningfully into life.  There is a commentary that says we pray “Adonai s’fatai tiftach” (God open our lips) before the tefillah, asking God to give us the means to roll back our evil urge.  Yet, asking God for the help is not enough to move to a deeper connection to God.  We need to serve God through our actions in order to truly open our mouths and hearts.  The argument among Jews is what are the real service actions for God that achieves this?  Is it following ritual halachah (law) or moral/social justice actions?  What all Jews agree upon is that praying is not enough.  Our covenant with God demands we act in a way that serves God. That deepens the meaning and effect of prayer. 

We can also look for meaning in the word translated from Hebrew as “rolling,” vayigal.  A number of traditional commentators relate this word, whose root is gimel, lamed, lamed to galah, whose root is gimel, lamed, hey; which means “reveal.”  Rolling the stone is a metaphor for revealing inward truth.  In this story about Jacob we can interpret this as teaching how love pushes to have Jacob reveal his true self. 

Here is one more perspective, by Malbim, that the location of the well determines the completeness of connection to God.  If it is in the city, this represents the Jewish people being in their land, Israel.  If it is in the field, it represents them being in the diaspora. 

The potential meanings are numerous, yet there is one piece upon which all Jewish commentary would agree – the power to do the opening to assess, God, prayer, connection, or our true selves – whatever we might believe the well represents, resides within each of us.  It is our level of caring, actions, dedication, and desire to improve that can provide the ability to roll the stone.  It is a challenge for us all.

Finally, I must admit that until I looked deeper into this Torah portion, I never saw the connection of The Rolling Stones to the Torah.  And, I did get some satisfaction.

The Next Day

It was the day after the worst in Abraham’s life.  He was thinking hard about his life’s journey, close to 100 years.  Leaving his family’s home in Haran – was hard.  Trusting that he had properly understood God’s directive to him to travel to Canaan, thus leaving his mother and brothers was hard. Dealing with Sarah’s grief over their infertility was hard.  Dealing with Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar after Ishmael was born was hard.  Having to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their family’s camp was unbearably hard, but God confirmed Sarah’s wish to Abraham, so he did not question it.

Now, on the day after the worst day in his life, believing he had once again understood God’s directive; Abraham had taken his son Isaac, to the top of Moriah.  He left his two young servants at the bottom of the mountain, being ashamed for them to witness what he thought God commanded him to do – slaughter Isaac as a sacrifice to God.  But he did not slaughter Isaac.  God sent a messenger at the last minute, as Abraham held the knife above Isaac’s neck.  Isaac laid shivering with fear on the altar.  The messenger told Abraham God knew of his loyalty, and did not want him to sacrifice his son.  Instead, a ram appeared for Abraham to sacrifice.  He felt incredibly relieved.  He believed since the incident was over, and Isaac was safe, they could go home to continue a normal life.

But that was not to be.

As they were leaving Moriah to meet their young servants, Isaac made it clear he could no longer bear to be with his father.  “How could you possibly think that the God who cares about human life, would command you to sacrifice me?” Isaac demanded.  “You taught me devotion to our God was better than how our neighbors worshipped their various idols, some of whom you told me demand child sacrifice. How can you now say God is any better than Ba’al or Ashteroth?”

“Son, you don’t understand.” Abraham replied.  “There are many times we just have to trust our faith in God and not question Him. God was testing me.  I don’t know why or for what purpose, but I had to follow God’s command.”

“Nonsense,” said his son. “That’s not how you reacted to God when He told you He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah because of their sins.  You stood up for those cities filled with awful people.  Why would you not stand up for me?  Am I too awful to live?”

“No,” his father replied. “You are anything but awful.  God was making a demand of me, not just telling me what He was going to do.  There is a difference.”

“If that is how you think, I can’t go home with you.”  Isaac said in disgust.

“But what will I tell your mom if you don’t return with me?”  Abraham asked his distraught son.

“Tell her I went to a school to get some training in some useful skill.  I can’t believe anything you teach me.  I need to leave you.  You might think all is OK just because you didn’t kill me, but I have to separate from you to try and understand your insanity.”

“Then I will tell your mom you went to study God’s word with Shem and Ever,” (1) Abraham replied.

“They’re dead Dad. Gosh, I cannot stand your inability to see and confront the truth.  Damn, I hope I don’t inherit your blindness to reality!”

So Isaac did not descend Moriah with his father.  When Abraham met up with his servants at the bottom of the mountain, they asked where Isaac was.  He mumbled about going off to some school.  They did not question him, but could tell their master was disturbed.  Abraham knew he should go directly home.  He just could not find the nerve to face Sarah.  She was way too smart to accept any untrue story about what happened on Moriah. She would be angry that Isaac was not with him.  She would be suspicious of whatever Abraham told her.  Even worse, Abraham knew that on most issues, God affirmed Sarah’s perspective.  He did not have the strength to face her recriminations.  He realized that he committed a tremendous wrong to Isaac. Somehow he had misunderstood what God really wanted.   And he had wronged Sarah by not even telling her that he and Isaac were leaving their camp near Hebron, let alone telling her what he thought God was demanding. He knew the right thing to do was to return home, to pour his heart out in honesty to Sarah.  However, he did not have the nerve.  So he went to Be’er Sheva.

Abraham and his servants found an inn in Be’er Sheva.  The 2 young men with him, who worked as shepherds, loved the opportunities there.  It was a town filled with entertainment, places to drink and eat, and best of all, gorgeous women, who made themselves readily available.  So they enjoyed city life.  Abraham, however, barely left his room at the inn except to eat.  He sat brooding, trying to figure out how to handle things when he eventually headed home.  How could he get Isaac to return? How to make peace with Sarah?  Each day that Abraham avoided going home increased his anxiety. In his heart he knew he was failing by not returning to Sarah, by not talking to her honestly about his mistakes, about his now broken relationship with their son.  He confronted the truth that it would be Sarah, not himself, who would be able to sit and speak sense to Isaac.  But Abraham was a broken man.  For the first time he actually felt the weight of his years, the weight of all he had forced Sarah to experience because of his relationship with this invisible God.  Yet, if he would be completely honest with himself, God was telling him to go home, to repair his relationship with Sarah.  He was just afraid.

However, Abraham also realized he could not let Sarah sit and wait without hearing from him.  So he sent his two young servants.  “Go home to Hebron,” he told them.  “Tell Sarah I am in Be’er Sheva conducting business, getting some things we need for our herds and household.  Assure her all is OK but do not mention that Isaac is not with me.” The two lads then left for Hebron, sad to be leaving the nightlife of Be’er Sheva, but knowing they had to carry out their master’s demands.

Now Abraham was truly alone.   He felt agitated.  He could not sleep.  His mind was tortured by his torn relationship with Isaac.  He kept trying to figure out what he would say to Sarah.

Late one night, Abraham could no longer stand the mental torture of being alone in his room, so he began wandering in the streets.  This was before the Israelite presence of later years dominated the town, so there were a number of cultic temples throughout the city.  Some employed prostitutes.  Abraham walked in the night without any awareness of where he was going. He did not know he had strayed into an area of prostitution.  A very young woman approached him.  “You look lost and lonely sir.”  She said. “I can help you feel better.  Come with me.  You look like you are suffering.  Let me ease your pain.”  It took some time until Abraham realized she was speaking to him.  When he finally looked at her, he saw her as an alluring, beautiful woman, who was beckoning him, inviting him.  In his state of mental confusion, Abraham followed her, wordlessly, into the side room of a small cultic temple.  There he lay with her and fell asleep.

He awoke hours later, his head in her arms.  He sat up sharply.  “What have I done!?” he thought disturbingly.  He turned and saw the beautiful young woman and the worst of his fears overcame him.  “What have I done!?” he now said aloud.  “You have spent the night with me, my lord,” she replied.  The disaster of his time in Be’er Sheva now came sharply into focus. He had betrayed Sarah in the worst possible way.  Yes, technically Abraham could be with any woman he desired, and marry as many as he wished, but in his heart he knew his treatment of Sarah had fallen to the lowest of the low.  He then had a second revelation.  If he was truly taking the teachings of his God seriously, then he had also done this young woman wrong.

“What is your name?” he asked her. “Keturah,” she replied.  “Keturah, a beautiful name.  Keturah, please forgive me but I have committed a terrible sin with you. I must and will make this right with you.”  “Whatever you pay me will be enough,” Keturah replied.  “No,” said Abraham.  “That is not how my God says I am to treat a woman that I have been with.  I am sorry, I must return to my home near Hebron to be with my family, but I promise this – I will return soon and take you to be my wife. You will live a life of comfort, and I will take care of you.”  “As you wish my lord,” answered Keturah.  She smiled to herself, knowing that if they did indeed marry, it would be a far better life than she could have ever before imagined.  And if they did not, her life would be as it was, a zonah in the service of he idol she worshipped.

So finally Abraham headed to his camp near Hebron.  It did not even take him a day.  As he rode home on his donkey, he thought through how he would speak honestly to Sarah; telling the truth about Isaac, what he thought God told him to do, and to deeply apologize for not telling Sarah and for suddenly disappearing from her with Isaac.  He looked back on his life and realized the burdens he had placed on Sarah each step of the way.  He decided to begin by acknowledging to his wife that his decisions had not made her life easy.  He realized how deeply he loved Sarah, how much her wisdom, her presence, completed his life.  He knew he had to do repentance, to ask her forgiveness.  Yes, he was old, but he felt he still had time to try to make things right with Sarah.  Abraham was afraid, but now he was also determined.

When Abraham arrived at his camp, he knew immediately something was wrong.  Eliezer, his most trusted and chief servant, greeted him with despair engraved on his face.  “Eliezer, my friend, what is wrong?’ Abraham asked.  “Master, Sarah is dead.  The two lads who arrived yesterday are on their way back to Be’er Sheva to tell you. They did not tell us when you were coming home.”

Abraham ran into his wife’s tent.  There she lay, motionless, with an expression of deep shock on her face.  Abraham embraced her and cried.  Eliezer waited patiently at the entrance to the tent. Finally Abraham looked up at him and asked, “When did this happen?  How did this happen?  She was not ill or feeling sick when I left here.”  “Master,” replied Eliezer.  “They day you left, Sarah woke up and was distressed to find you and Isaac gone. She told me to send some of our folks out to seek out where you had gone.  About 3 days later, a man came here named Sama-el.  He told Sarah that you had taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah to kill him, to sacrifice him to your God.  Upon hearing his words, she screamed, clutched her heart and collapsed. (2)  Master, why is Isaac not with you?  Is he truly dead?”

His servant would never vocalize his inner thoughts, but Abraham knew from the expression on Eliezer’s face the disdain he was feeling because of the thought Isaac was dead. “No, Eliezer.  Isaac is alive.  He decided to attend a school to enrich some of his skills.  We will send someone to bring him home to mourn for his mother. Meanwhile I will buy an appropriate place for her burial.”

Abraham was trying to be stoic, to present strength in the face of tragedy.  But inside, he churned, he grieved, he tried to reconcile the loss of Sarah before having a chance to talk to her, to repent for the wrongs he had slammed upon her.  He had no idea how to handle his guilt.  What could he possibly do?  How could he possibly repent?  Sarah was gone and he had to live with that responsibility.  Sarah was gone.  There was no way to ever apologize to her.  In his mind, life was now a failure.  He could only think of two things left he could possibly do.  First, he knew that Isaac would not only bear resentment towards him, but would deeply grieve over the loss of his mother.  So Abraham had to find a wife for Isaac; someone who was as strong and smart as Sarah; someone who could be Isaac’s rock throughout his life, a source of wisdom.  So he sent Eliezer back to Nahor, where, he heard, there were some exceptional women, one of whom might be a great partner for Isaac.  Isaac might never forgive Abraham for Moriah, but Abraham knew he had to do something to secure Isaac’s future.

The second thing Abraham knew he had to do was to marry Keturah.  He had no true interest in having a young partner.  She could never be what Sarah was.  But she was alive and he could do what was right for her. Abraham could not let her live a life as a prostitute.  He had been with her.  God’s law demanded he marry her.  As we learn in Genesis 25:1 “And Abraham went on and took a wife and her name was Keturah.”

No one reading this has ever tried to physically sacrifice a child. I am sure that every one reading this has faced a crisis, has had a moment when your actions have created deep pain for your loved ones.  I am sure that everyone has struggled with how to do repentance, has faced fear over having to do teshuvah.  How do we handle that moment?  I am sure that all of us have had that horrific day after our misdeed, when we churn and grieve over our action.  What did we do?  Did we hide and delay?  That is human nature.  Were we honest with ourselves?  We know that a delay in confronting the realities of our lives, as hard as that confrontation might be, will only increase and prolong the pain.

If we are serious about trying to correct our paths, to heal the wounds we have caused; it is not only about repentance.  We must try to find actions to create a new, more positive direction.  We cannot reverse the past.  We cannot erase the tragedy we might have caused.  All we can do is commit to what is necessary to create a new path; building a better alternative to the path we have tarnished.

Abraham could not correct all that happened on Moriah.  But he tried to create a new path.  This week’s parashah states the following upon Abraham’s death, and I believe it is connected to the path of repentance Abraham chose, “and God blessed, Isaac, his son.” – Genesis 25:11.  May we create paths for God to bless our loved ones.

  1. Genesis Rabbah 56:11
  2. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 32

 

Judaism, like most religions, has priorities over which sins we must absolutely avoid versus which are less impactful.  At the top of the list, logically, are murder, rape, and turning away from God.  Defining the last of those sins is a source of great disagreements between different religions.  Our human evolution of understanding the world also changes how we define what it means to turn away from God.  Yet, despite what various religious groups claim, despite an old vision of God as opposed to a modern one; we can find underlying moral truths that connect all of us together, by simply reading an incident in this week’s Torah portion and seeing its connection to other parts of the Tanach (which Christians call the “Old Testament”) as well as in the Talmud and rabbinic commentary.

Parashat Vayeira opens with Abraham hosting 3 men who turn out to be God’s malachim (angels).  They predict the eventual birth of Isaac.  As they move on, Abraham accompanies them and 2 of them head towards Sodom and Gomorrah.  At the point God decides to inform Abraham of the intention to destroy those cities because of their awful sins.  Here is the centerpiece of this incident, from Genesis 18:22 to 25

“The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before God. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there whould be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 in it? Far be it from You to do such a think, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.  Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

There are two of the key questions that typically arise about this story.  What exactly are the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? How should we react to Abraham’s response and challenge to God?

There are numerous religious groups that look at the response of the Sodomites to the men (actually malachim – angels) who arrive at Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s house.  The conclusion drawn as the key sin is the sexual sin of sodomization.  People who believe this will draw a connection to the verses of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  However, sexual sin is NOT actually stated to be the central sin, or even an ongoing sin in Sodom elsewhere in the Tanach. Rather, the central sin is stated in Eziekiel 16:49, the people of Sodom refused to give help to the poor and the needy.

Two rabbinic pieces of literature, chapter 25 in the midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sanhedrin 109, offer a lot of detail and elaboration of the level of these sins.  In PRE it describes how the people of Sodom were extremely wealthy, but did not place trust in their Creator and Owner (see the connection to last week’s commentary?). Ergo they never offered food to the poor or a visiting stranger.  Indeed, they did so much to protect their food they even put covers on their fruit trees that prevented God’s singing birds from sitting on the branches and singing. Further, they appointed corrupt judges who ruled against every wayfarer and alien getting any food.  This midrash continues by adding that anyone who gave help to the poor and needy by even giving them a loaf of bread would be burned to death in punishment.

Sanhedrin 109 adds to this by quoting from Job 24:7 “They lie at night naked without clothing and they have no covering for the cold.”  This is in the context of describing an evil community and the Talmud uses this to describe how the people of Sodom treated the poor and aliens – making them suffer even while trying to sleep at night.  It further adds that Sodomites would steal from widows of their own community.  Finally, this page in Sanhedrin tells a story of a young woman who would take bread hidden in a pitcher to poor people.  She was found by the men of Sodom, then tortured by being pinned to the city wall, exposed to being bitten by insects and finally dying.

We saw in last week’s parashah that Abraham lived knowing God was the actual owner of the world, and respected the reality that no human can own anything forever.  Therefore, they must not just focus on their own wealth, but helping the needy and the poor.  The stories of Sodom add a connection to the multiple Torah statements that we must welcome the stranger through kindness and proper treating. All of this adds to the curiosity of Abraham’s challenge to God to behave justly when judging Sodom.

Rashi points out that the Hebrew word vayigash, translated as “came forward” is often used in multiple emotional situations including war, conciliation, and prayer.  One can conclude that Abraham was trying to be fierce in approaching God, to get God to be conciliatory if enough righteous people were in Sodom, as well as praying that God would do what is proper.  Malbim takes the perspective that Abraham knew that God’s work of destroying Sodom would be done by the malachim, just as the first born of Egypt would be taken by the angel of death.  Ergo, Malbim thought Abraham was pushing God to be sure the malachim would act properly on behalf of God.  In either case, God is responsible if the righteous are destroyed with the guilty.

Abraham’s interaction with God on this issue concludes by God agreeing to not destroy Sodom even if only 10 righteous people exist there.  However, Sodom is destroyed.  It is clear that God knew what the conclusion would be, yet God not only informed Abraham what was being planned but listened to his pushing God’s requirement for justice and mercy.  Since God knew how this would end why did God allow Abraham’s objection and negotiate with him?

My conclusion is that God was training Abraham, and providing an example for all of humanity, that we must never be afraid of challanging and questioning those in power if we are concerned not only about the sinful doings, but the true application of justice along with mercy and forgiveness.  If we are allowed to challenge God, then there is no human we are forbidden to challenge over justice and morality.  We must challenge those who place their insistence on ownership of parts of the world over the commanded morality that results from accepting God’s ownership.

The subject sequence of the first few parashot of the Torah is logical, narrowing with each step.  They begin with a focus on the creation of the world (universe), followed by the creation of humanity, which hits the glitch of falling into ultra violence, so in parashat Noach the point is about rebooting humanity.  We see by the end of that parashah, through the story of the Tower of Babel, that despite the rebooting, humanity has consistent moral problems.  In this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, the focus narrows even more, on the story of Abraham, Sarah and the family they create that begins the basis for the Israelite people.

Beginning with this week’s parashah, the balance of Genesis lays the groundwork for how our ancestors ended up in Egypt, which is the basis for the rest of the Torah.  Many of the individual stories and myths establish thoughts on the essence of God and how these thoughts are applied to our way of life.  Here is one story about Abraham in Lech L’chathat pushes us to think about God.

A fugitive informed Avram (Abraham’s name at this point of the Torah) that a group of kings invaded the homeland taking prisoners and possessions from local kings and cities. One of the prisoners taken was Avram’s nephew, Lot.  Avram gathered his crew, went and defeated the invaders, and brought back the possessions taken as well as the captured people.  Here is what happened next, Genesis 14:17 – 24

“When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Shalembrought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.  He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator (koneh)of heaven and earth.   And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.  Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”   But Abram said to the  king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator (koneh) of heaven and earth:’”  I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’

There are numerous ways to interpret the words and actions of Melchizedek, the king of Shalem, as well as comparing him to the king of Sodom.  A first and obvious one, brought up by Or Hachaym, is how Melchizedek brought out food and drink for those who saved his people and possessions whereas the king of Sodom brought nothing.  Avram notices the difference and pays an unrequested tithe to Avimelech.  Avram then refuses to accept anything from the king of Sodom other than what his crew needed to recover themselves.

But there is a lot more in understanding the depth of Melchizedek, described as a priest of “God Most High.”  One question is whether he believes in monotheism like Avram or  follows another God.  A midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer refers to Melchizedek as Noah’s son, Shem, ergo a monotheist.  However, at this time, given what would be the impossible age of Shem, it is better to recognize Melchitzedek as a seperate from Shem.  His name can be translated as “my king of righteousness or justice” and the place he rules, Shalem, can be translated as “peace.” Some commentators say that Shalem is actually Jerusalem, ergo, Melchitzedek is already attached to God in the place Jewish tradition sees as God’s closest connection to this world. So one lesson to draw from this is the only way to truly establish peace and connection to God, is by a life of righteousness and justice.

We can take this even further by looking at the term Melchitzedek uses for God, koneh.  Numerous commentators translate konehas “creator.”  However, the root of this word means “to acquire,” ergo, Ramban and other commentators translate this as “owner.”  The implication is that God did not just create the world, but owns it as well.

This is a critical difference; not because Judaism teaches that God controls how everything happens before we do it, but to remind us that our supposed ownership of any part of the world is very transient compared to the eternity of God. There are numerous examples in the written and oral Torah that can be tied to the idea that God owns the world, not us.  One is in Leviticus 25, where the Israelites are told they must not bother to plant crops every 7thyear, as the land must have a sabbath for rest. Another is Deuteronomy 15 in which any indentured servants must be set free in that 7th year.  Yet one more example is a midrash that tells a story about God instructing Adam and Eve that they must take proper care of trees and plants of the world as if they do not, they are the ones responsible for ruining the world.

Look at the responsibilities implied by God, who is eternal, owning the world.  Our use is temporary and not true ownership. We must treat fellow humans with proper respect, the land needed for planting with limitation and the existence of the environment in a way that will preserve it.  Our personal profit is not as important as the life of righteousness and justice we must follow in order to create a place of “Shalem,” and a deeper connection to God.

When Avram refuses to accept any material payment from the king of Sodom, he uses the same word for God, koneh, as Melchitzedek, illustrating he is perceiving God in a way that acknowledges he must put his personal desires under control to create a better society and preserve the beauty of this world.  You will see a way this plays out in next week’s parashah.  If we want to consider ourselves the descendents of Avram (Abraham), then we must do the same.