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.

When personal immoral disasters occur, trying to figure out who caused it is often complicated.  It is usually possible to find a justification to condemn any participant in the situation that results in moral (and sometimes physical) decimation.  Yes, there are incidents in which a witness can confirm a horrible misconduct (rape, abuse, bullying etc.), but there are more cases in which trying to clarify the problem source is a difficult and complex discussion. In Noach, this week’s Torah portion, there is an episode demonstrating this.  Here it is from Genesis 9:20 through 25.

“And Noah began to be a man of the earth and he planted a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk; and he laid uncovered inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, laid it upon both of their shoulders, and went backward, covering the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.  And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’”

Here are some observations and questions you can ask about this episode:

  • What is the true sin that happened here?
  • Who is to blame for the problem, Noah, who got drunk, Ham who saw his father’s nakedness, or Canaan, who is the one being punished?
  • Ham is actually the middle son, not the youngest son, so who is meant by the youngest son?
  • Why is the punishment and curse going on Noah’s grandson, Canaan, instead of Ham?

In the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (on 70a), the actual sin is described as either a castration of Noah or a Sodomizing of Noah.  One argument says it is both.  In either case it is Ham that is declared the one who committed the sin.  This is based on the used word vayar, and he (Ham) saw.  This word appears in other places in the Tanach when someone is about to be abused.  The example given in commentary is when Dinah was seen then abused.  One reason given that Canaan is the one being cursed by Noah is Noah wanted to have a fourth son, and after being castrated could not, so he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan.  Another reason given is that in verse 9:1 God has blessed all three of Noah’s sons, so the only way Noah can get revenge is to curse one of Ham’s sons.

Here is the problem with blaming Ham.  Noah got himself drunk.  The overdrinking of wine is an item addressed in Jewish tradition.  Ergo, what Noah did begins this problem.  Indeed, the larger context of the above explanation of the sin given in Sanhedrin is a series of explanations about the problems with those who do not control their drinking of wine.  So now we can see the complication in the question of who is to blame for the moral outrage occurring here?

Here is another perspective. The story in Sanhedrin is not matching the literal translation of the Noah story.  Ham is said only to see the nakedness of his father.  Noah seems so embarrassed by this, that he decides to take it out on his grandson, Ham’s son, which certainly hurts Ham more than if he were cursed himself.  If all Ham did was to see the nakedness and then inform his brothers, what was he guilty of other than not covering Noah himself.  Ham’s biggest sin was to expose his son to a punishment for something he had nothing to do with.  Ham was protected by the privilege of being blessed by God.  His son was not.

Perhaps that is truly the sin that must be most avoided.  How often do we take our actions in a way to protect the following generations?  How often do we act simply for ourselves versus those who will exist after we are gone? Do we care only about our privilege, or attempting to improve life for those who come after us?

There is a Talmudic story in tractate Ta’anit that Choni Hamagil took a 70 year nap.  When he woke up he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him why he was doing this and he answered, “When I came into this world I found a carob tree that others had planted for me.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my descendents.”

In the story from the Torah and the version from Sanhedrin, Noah and Ham are both morally irresponsible.  Both seem to care more about themselves then the following generations.  While the story of Noah surviving the flood is one explaining how humanity survived, the story of his wine drinking, nakedness and whatever Ham did illustrates their moral failure that impacts the next round of humanity’s existence.  A question we must ask ourselves is this:  how do we stop acting like Noah and Ham and create the right world for the children to come?  And the follow up question is this:  are we over focused on pointing at a person to blame or on creating a better world?

The past couple of weeks have brought out illustrations of what is seriously going wrong with the values of our country.  Some call it polarization.  That is a true label, but I would go even further and say that polarization is based on the refusal to tolerate any diversity of thought.  Each side of the political spectrum is becoming hyper focused on getting its folks to think and believe the same, and not accept different ways of thinking or analyzing issues and events at the center of their attention.

Here is example number one. It has become clear that a significant group of people in the left wing are insisting that the only way to establish a health care system that best serves the American people is to create “Medicare for all” which must include the elimination of all private health insurance.  There is refusal to even consider how the private health insurance held by so many American workers through their employers is their preference.  Democratic candidates who even start to question the best solution or combination are being condemned as too conservative and not worthy of the nomination for president.  There are other issues starting to fall into the same mud hole – how to handle creating more education opportunities for those at the bottom of our economy and the best way to handle serious environmental/climate change issues are just two examples.  These are all serious issues that need diverse thought in order to find the best solutions.  The left, however, is becoming too obstinate placing the necessity to think alike in order to be accepted in place of diversity of thought.

This is an undermining of the best definition of “liberalism,” which is “open mindedness.”

The right’s obstinance was demonstrated by their embracing of Trump’s change to the celebration of American Independence Day – July 4th.  Yes, it is understandable that some folks would enjoy and appreciate honoring the American military, yet it is also very understandable why so many people would question the manner in which Trump decided to do this – at a large public expense with funds taken from original intended uses.  However the real exposure of the right wing’s true problem, which is dedication to a personal figure (Trump) as opposed to support of true American values is through postings and comments in social media.

Trump made ignorant historical comments that many news organizations reported and/or put in a satiric manner.  Yes, sometimes Trump makes a correct decision (correct left wingers?), but Trump supporters illustrated their own narrow mind set by either trying to explain his remarks as actually true, or by saying he was really referring to something else, or by simply stating their dedication to the president they admire, refusing to acknowledge the truth of the following:  his constant lying, his constant misstatement of historic facts, his constantly proven immorality, his stating of policy position through narcissistic praise of himself.  A large chunk of Trump supporters have become simple demagogic followers.  Being dedicated to Trump has become more important to them than standing for true American and moral values.

Why do I see this lesson coming from July 4th?   Not really because of the celebration in Washington, DC.  No, I have been researching the heroic life of my great uncle Richard.  Part of his heroism came in World War II while serving in the 48thEngineer Combat Battalion.  I found a book written about the history of this battalion during the war, and here is what I read in the prologue of the book on July 4th:  “An outfit isn’t a machine…It’s a group of 600 individual personalities who are thinking 600 different ways towards getting the job done.  It’s the 600 ways of thinking that makes an outfit good.”

Wow, imagine the worthiness of an army battalion being judged not by the single mindedness of its members, but of its diversity of thought!  This battalion was cited by President Roosevelt for the excellence of its performance during a very difficult and critical section of its campaign in Italy.  The book shows the diversity of the soldiers and their approaches to solving the issues confronting them.

Our country needs to reject mental obstinance and embrace the diversity of individuals and their thoughts, fulfilling the basic American value exemplified by an army battalion in World War II.  Then we are true Americans.


Last Sermon in Tallahassee

I begin with a quote from Psalms 39:5 and 6.  Hodi’eini Adonai kitzi, umidat yamei ma he, eid’ah mah chadeil ani.  “Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days that I may know how frail I am.”  Verse 6 continues, “You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”

The first verse seems somewhat mysterious, if not redundant; for the words “my term” and “measure of my days” would appear to mean the same thing.  But the Hebrew words are very different.  The word kitzi, translated as “term,” also means end. The word midat, translated as measure, also means “type” or “quality.” The Psalmist is asking two things. One is to know the length of life, through the number of days.  The other is to know the tenor of what will fill those days.  The rest of the quote is a declaration of the shortness and fragility of life, punctuated at its end by the Hebrew word, Selah.

Is this an impossible request?  Perhaps.  There are moments we can know the limit of our time, or how long a “term” might be. But we can never foresee the quality that measures our days.  We do not know what we will learn and what we will fail to learn.  We do not know who we will meet and who we will wish we might have met.  We do not know who we will impact or who will impact us.  We cannot know the fullness of each day, each moment, until we experience it.  We cannot know if our time together will be rewarding or not, happy or sad, short or long, loving or hateful.  All we can ever know, with surety, is that every segment of time eventually comes to an end.  We are finite Creatures.  Any of our time is merely a “breath.”

“Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days?”  I had no idea that I would spend an 18 year career at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. My original contract was for 3 years. For Audrey and me, coming here was an experiment, a diversion from the comfortable path we had by staying in the Philadelphia area.  I had an offer there, 30 minutes from our home.  We decided, however, to try something different, by moving to a place in the south, a place I had never imagined I would even consider.  Our thought was if it did not work, then we would just transfer to a congregation in an area that felt more like home.

At the end of my 2ndyear here, the president, Ed Stafman, came to me and said it was time to negotiate my next contract. I already loved my work here, the relationships being formed with members of Temple Israel, the progress in education, the quality of services, and the connections I had begun to make to some people around the community.  I knew, however, that unless Audrey felt comfortable, we could not stay.  We had already made dear friends here, and she had found a job she loved.  So when I told her it was time to make a decision her response was, “You are not going to make me leave here, are you?”

In 2007 I faced another decision.  The director of rabbinic placement suggested that I apply to two large congregations.  Both were in need of stability.  In addition, one of my mentors said the experience of applying would help me learn whether or not I truly wanted to do my career in Tallahassee.  I had no interest in one of those congregations. The other, however, was in the north, close to family, and a very historical place.  Being the senior rabbi there would have given me the chance to be part of national leadership.  As the interview process went forward, I became one of the leading candidates. When I went to my on site interview, I took the approach of needing to learn what I truly wanted.  While I was there my career choices became clear.  If I took that job, I would be a CEO.  If I stayed at Temple Israel, I would be a rabbi. While interviewing there, it became obvious I wanted to be a rabbi, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be serving in this wonderful congregation in Tallahassee.  As I was flying home I called our president at that time, Wendy Wiener, and told her I was not leaving.

I have a number of rabbinical colleagues who are serving or have served in toxic congregations.  I have always told my colleagues that Temple Israel is the complete opposite of toxic.  It is warm, relaxed, moral, flexible, yearning for more education, dedicated to helping improve our general community, and incredibly respectful of clergy. As I retire from serving you, I must thank you for being a congregation that has made my life feel so meaningful.  I thank you for providing the best environment any rabbi could ever imagine.

There is a story I have told before, but will tell again, as I see its context for all of us.  It is about a man and wife who are very poor.  They had heard a rumor of the existence of an island on which the ground was strewn with diamonds.  All someone had to do was to get to the island, and fill their pockets with diamonds. The husband told his wife that he had to try and find that island, to get the diamonds, so that they would no longer be poor.  His wife reluctantly agreed that he should do the search, so he left.  He traveled to many shores, seeking word about the island, but heard nothing; of no ship that had passed it, of no sailor who knew of its existence. Finally, in a distant port he heard a rumor of a sea in which the island existed.  He boarded a ship that was journeying to that sea, which had never been explored by this group of sailors.

They found the island.  The man asked to be let off and to be picked up when the ship would return to the area.  The captain informed him it would be at about a year until the ship would return.  The man went ashore.  Indeed, the diamonds existed all over the ground.  But, as diamonds were so common, the island’s culture did not treasure them as the man’s home did.  In order to survive, he had to earn a living, so he learned a trade; to create something he could trade for food and clothing.  He became a candle maker.  After some months he became the best candle maker on the island. His ability to make candles enabled him to acquire anything needed.

After a year, the ship returned for him.  So he gathered his candles, and sailed home. When he arrived his wife asked about the diamonds.  He showed her the candles, but he had forgotten to take the diamonds with him. At home, the candles were almost worthless.

The candles, of course, represent the nitty gritty of everyday life and functioning – things that must happen in order to live normally.  The diamonds, however, represent those precious moments that stay in our souls.  They are gems we can appreciate because of their high quality, their beauty, their durability.

My friends, we can enumerate many candles that we have done together.  Religious services occur as scheduled every week.  Religious school happens as it should with few problems.  Over the years I cannot even count how many children have had their bar or bat mitzvah.  A huge number of teens have either gone through Confirmation or our current teen program.  Babies have been named, people married.  There have been over 100 converts to Judaism.  We have had 4 adult b’nai mitzvah classes.  We have done study sessions of the entire Torah and almost all of the prophetic books of the Tanach.  In 2007/2008 we rebuilt this sanctuary and part of the building into the beautiful rooms they are.  There have been many Intro to Judaism classes as well as other adult education classes. If we bother to measure these items by numbers, then we are saying we have been successful at making candles.

But I believe that we have NOT made candles.  Together, we have collected diamonds.  Each Shabbat service, each High Holiday, each bar or bat mitzvah, each wedding, each class with the teens, each adult education class session has been a moment to treasure.  Together we have laughed and cried, prayed and sang, argued and agreed.  Every one of these moments has been precious.  For me, they are diamonds.  I will never forget working with FSU musical students in leading services. Two became actual cantors.  I will never forget the incredible ruachthat Stefanie and Angel have created in our choirs.  I will never forget the fun of our special Chanukah services, or the laughter of our Purim celebrations.  I will never forget how the 12 week Lunch and Learn class from the winter of 2002 became an 18 year unique interfaith deep learning class, in which non-Jews have learned to appreciate the depth of Jewish learning.  I will never forget the creation of Bagels and Biscuits, or how wonderful it has been to lead services with Brian and to work with him and Melanie to create a beautiful teen program.  I will never forget working with wonderful Temple presidents.  I will never forget the countless great conversations with Lisa as we tried to handle a wide range of issues and subjects.  I will never forget how dedicated Akol is to doing anything necessary to improve our congregation.  I will never forget how Alex Molina grew from an 8thgrader who seemed to always be in trouble to a deep hearted human being who models true caring for all people.  I will never forget how Angel has become such a treasured part of our congregation.  I will never forget how Stefanie has been my beloved partner in deepening Jewish life for our community.  I will never forget the exceptional quality of you, the members of this congregation, who have caused me to love every moment of my service here.  Each of these is a diamond.

“You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”  These words from Psalm 39 are the essence of our relationship with God and time, as explained by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  God IS that which is eternal.  We are temporal.  The dissonance between us and God is caused by that fact.  We are constantly reaching to understand that which is eternal.  We are rarely open to hear or feel God’s reaching out for us.  That openness, says Heschel, must begin with the sense of radical amazement.  Radical amazement is the realization of the grandeur of creation itself. It is the realization that our time in that creation is precious, and not to be wasted.  It is the realization that our use of that time is what will connect us to each other, and ultimately to God.  Our time together, 18 years, has been just a breath from the perspective of God’s existence.  But I believe it has been a holy breath.  Through you, I have felt the presence of God.

The verse from Psalms ends with the word selah.  Selacan mean 2 things within a Psalm.  Selahcan be the command for vocal silence, so that the instrumentation may take over.  After this Shabbat, my voice as your rabbinic leader comes to an end.  But the instrumentation of this congregation will continue.  You will decide which symphony it is that you will play.  Choose well.  Make music of beauty and harmony.  In Rabbi Michael Shields, you have a high quality person and rabbi joining your orchestra.  The combination of a new voice with your instruments should not result in a cacophony, but in a symphony.  Selahis the command for all of you to participate in a harmonious way.

However, Selahcan have another meaning.  Selahcan mean the raising up, the exultation of a voice.  While either your or my time is limited, Selahis the command to raise our voices, even though they will last for only a breath!  Selahis the call for us to do the most with our allotted time.  Selahtells us that our time together, while ending, is something to celebrate, not mourn.  Selahis the word telling us we are allowed to sing HalleluyahSelahtells us that we are not only to experience sadness at the end of a time, but the gladness of a beginning – for you and I are both at a time of beginning something new.  Selahtells us not to cry, but to sing.  It is a word that punctuates the music of our lives.  So I now end my words by simply telling you, Selah!

(Our soloist then sang and led Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah”)