a thanksgiving meal

Maimonides writes in his letters that after he survived a life threatening ocean voyage he established an annual family thanksgiving meal of thanks to God. [1]

Every 19th of Kislev, Chabad Hasidim have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate the release from Tzarist prison of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of the movement.

There is also a custom amongst families that have made Aliya to Israel, to commemorate the date with a festive meal held on the anniversary.

These festive meals are called a Seudat Hodeyah (סעודת הודיה) and have biblical antecedence.  In Genesis 21: 8 Abraham has a festive meal of thanksgiving at the weaning of Isaac.

And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַיִּגָּמַל; וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל, בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת-יִצְחָק

Rashi, citing the midrash, lists amongst the guests: Shem, Eber, and Abimelech.

When there was a Temple, there was a Thanksgiving offering (קרבן תודה) intended to give thanks to God.  It was a discretionary offering, which like the Passover sacrifice, was to be completely eaten by the participants.

If he offer it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour soaked.

And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning. (Leviticus 7: 12 and 15)

אִם עַל-תּוֹדָה, יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ–וְהִקְרִיב עַל-זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן, וּרְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן; וְסֹלֶת מֻרְבֶּכֶת, חַלֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשָּׁמֶן

וּבְשַׂר, זֶבַח תּוֹדַת שְׁלָמָיו–בְּיוֹם קָרְבָּנוֹ, יֵאָכֵל:  לֹא-יַנִּיחַ מִמֶּנּוּ, עַד-בֹּקֶר

With a Temple, the concept was to share a meal with God ….  sans Temple, the tradition is to invite friends and to provide a meal for the less fortunate. [2]

The American Thanksgiving Holiday has always appealed to Jews as an American holiday, albeit a religious one, which we could and should all celebrate.

Mordecai Kaplan believed that we needed to reconstruct our Judaism to incorporate the American Experience.  His controversial The New Haggadah was also known as the New American Haggadah.  True to his philosophy, in 1951 he also co-wrote a book called The Faith of America in which he suggested liturgy for “The Celebration of American Holidays”

Below I am happy to provide some scans of the contents and Thanksgiving prayers found in that book, which contain echoes of Teddy Roosevelt’s environmentalism along with a healthy dose of anti-consumerism .

Kaplan 1 kaplan 2

 

 

kaplan 3Alan Brill in his wonderful blog The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: has posted:

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein as well as

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1945 – Rabbi David de Sola Pool (here’s the pdf) which includes a liturgy of Thanksgiving Psalms reminiscent of Hallel.

Wishing all my fellow travelers a most thankful Thanksgiving….

 

———–

[1]

הרמב”ם באגרת מספר שבאחת הנסיעות שלו באוניה הים רעש וכמעט הם מתו בספינה, ופתאום הסערה רגעה. הרמב”ם קבע את יום זה כיום הודיה שבו הוא עורך סעודה וקובע אותו כיום טוב לו ולזרעו.

(see)

[2]

כאשר בית המקדש היה קיים, ניתן היה להקריב קרבן תודה. קרבן זה מוקרב בתודה לקב”ה, והוא נאכל ע”י הבעלים: “וכי תזבחו זבח תודה לה’ – לרצונכם תזבחו: ביום ההוא יֵאכל, לא תותירו ממנו עד בֹּקר…”. בנקודה זו, סעודת ההודיה דומה לקרבן התודה; אך כמובן שקיים הבדל חשוב בין קרבן התודה לבין סעודת הודיה: בקרבן תודה, אכילת הקרבן נספחת לפן העיקרי – הקרבת הקרבן. מדוע בסעודת הודיה אין אנו מברכים ברכה מיוחדת, במקביל להקרבת קרבן התודה? מדוע אין אנו משתפים את הקב”ה בשמחתנו?

ייתכן שבמקום לשתף את הקב”ה בסעודת ההודיה, אנו משתפים אנשים נוספים. כשם שהקב”ה היטיב עמנו – כך אנו מיטיבים עם אנשים אחרים. סעודת ההודיה, אם כן, היא מעין צדקה שאנו נותנים בהודאה על הנס שאירע לנו. ואכן, בעל ה”תניא” מסביר שמצוַת הצדקה שקולה כנגד כל המצוות כי היא מעלה את הנפש הבהמית – האדם נותן לאחרים מהממון שיכל ליהנות ממנו בעצמו. במקביל, גם בסעודת ההודיה – האדם מרגיש צורך להעלות את נפשו ולקדשה, ולשם כך הוא עורך סעודה לו ולאחרים.

(see)

The first joint Thanksgiving as envisioned by artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936)

The first joint Thanksgiving as envisioned by artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936)

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what’s in a name

parshat toldot

In a recent post (Isaac’s smile) we explored how Isaac’s name reflected his origins, personality and resolution of the angst in his narrative.

With the birth of Jacob (Yaakov) one has to conclude that the Biblical giver-of-child names deserves an award for choosing the most demeaning and pejorative patriarchal names.  Isaac’s name basically was “joke” and Jacob’s is “heel”….

There has to be something more than malicious name-calling going on here.

The modern day scholar who focuses most closely on the original Hebrew sounds of the biblical text is Everett Fox, who has written a translation of the Torah following on the heels of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  Fox takes the Bible, if not as an oral document, certainly as an aural one.  Fox believes that using echoes, allusions, and powerful inner structures of sound, the text of the Bible is often able to convey ideas in a manner that vocabulary alone cannot do.  Fox argues that virtually every major (usually male) character in Genesis has his name explained by a play on words many times hinting at an eventual fate or character trait.

Let’s listen to the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:26

26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them.

וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו, וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו, וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, יַעֲקֹב; וְיִצְחָק בֶּן-שִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, בְּלֶדֶת אֹתָם

The association of Jacob – Yaakov with a heel is strange.  Jacob is not the only mythical hero with a famous heel, but in Achilles case, he was the owner of the heel.  Jacob’s relationship with his brother’s heel is vicarious.  If the biblical author, let alone his parents, want to be flattering, they do a lousy job.   Jacob is to be known, at best, as a “hanger on”. Fox’s translation: “Heel-Holder”

Even if we choose to think of Jacob as a bootstrapper, we can’t forget that he pulls himself up by a bootstrap attached to his brothers heal.  And let’s not forget that Esau’s heal, like Achilles, is his most vulnerable body part. Metaphorically, the heel[ii] is the exposed rear of an army (see Joshua 8:13 and Genesis 49:19).  When God curses the snake for tempting Eve, it is on the snake’s metaphorical heel that man shall forever stamp (Genesis 3:15).  Attacking an enemy’s heel is an insult to both the attacker and the victim.

Our unflattering association is echoed by Esau himself later in the story.  After Jacob steals the birthright, Esau taunts (Genesis 27:36):

And he said: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’ And he said: ‘Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?’

וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם–אֶת-בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח, וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי; וַיֹּאמַר, הֲלֹא-אָצַלְתָּ לִּי בְּרָכָה.

Here Ekev-heel is used in the sense of “to throw one down, to trip one up, to supplant, to circumvent, to defraud.[iii]  Fox’s translation: “Heel-Sneak”. Check out Jeremiah 9:3

Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother; for every brother acteth subtly, and every neighbour goeth about with slanders.

אִישׁ מֵרֵעֵהוּ הִשָּׁמֵרוּ, וְעַל-כָּל-אָח אַל-תִּבְטָחוּ:  כִּי כָל-אָח עָקוֹב יַעְקֹב, וְכָל-רֵעַ רָכִיל יַהֲלֹךְ

Jeremiah is pulling no punches, he uses “ekov Yaakov” the “heel of Jacob” as a synonym for acting deceptively.

What kind of parents would the biblical author have Isaac and Rebecca be?  Who gives a child such a name?

Clearly, Jacob is in need of a name change… and in fact, this is what happens after he wrestles with the Angel at the River Jabbok (literally: wrestling river).

There is nothing flattering that one can say about Yaakov’s name.  His name can only portend a change.  A change from a swindler, a scrapper, a kniver… someone who by choice or circumstance is forced to steal his blessings and eke out a living and a life.  Yaakov is the outsider, the Ghetto Jew, but his name portends another name, where he crosses the river into his homeland and can stand on his own feet and pull himself up from his own bootstraps … attached to his own heel.  This is what hopefully lies ahead for him in his future name and this is what presumably is up for grabs in the blessing that he steals.

So far in the text, you don’t have to listen to the Hebrew words of the text, you can look the words up in a dictionary or Biblical Lexicon… but when it comes to the patrimony and blessing that Jacob coveted… you have to listen: (Genesis 26: 3-5)

3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham thy father;

4 and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these lands; and by thy seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves;

5 because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.’

גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ:  כִּי-לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ, אֶתֵּן אֶת-כָּל-הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל, וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ

וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנָתַתִּי לְזַרְעֲךָ, אֵת כָּל-הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל; וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ, כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ

עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי; וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי

The word translated as “because” is our old friend “ekev”[iv]. Used in this fairly rare sense, it has the sense of “as a consequence, a gain, a reward, end”.  It is that which results from a long, tedious, painful, tortuous and circuitous journey. A pilgrimage full of blisters.  Esau, might have been, like Achilles, the golden boy and favorite son and Yaakov, the parasite, but Yaakov struggled with what little he had.  Esau may have been well heeled, but Yaakov had the fortitude and faith in a God of history to grab steadfastly for a better future[v].  He deserved the blessing… it had his name on it.

Listening to the lyricism of the words in the original Hebrew and opening our ears to the playful and suggestive way the writer weaves one word; ekev into the narrative, we can do what Fox[vi] suggests we do; move explanation and commentary from the footnotes, back to the body of the text.


[i] See Strongs Biblical lexicon tsachaq H6711

Lexicon :: Strong's H6711 - tsachaq

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6711 – tsachaq

[ii] See Strongs Biblical lexicon aqeb H6119

Lexicon :: Strong's H6119 - `aqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6119 – `aqeb

[iii] See Stongs Biblical Lexicon aqab  H6117

Lexicon :: Strong's H6117 - `aqab

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6117 – `aqab

[iv] See Strongs Biblical Lexicon 86118

Lexicon :: Strong's H6118 - `eqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6118 – `eqeb

[v] It is no surprise that this last sense of Ekev, came to represent the promise of the future and messianic times.  The bad times and trial preceding the coming of the messiah were referred to as the “footsteps [heel steps] of the messiah”  Sotah 49a-b
R. ELIEZER THE GREAT SAYS: FROM THE DAY THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, …. THERE WAS NONE TO ASK, NONE TO INQUIRE. UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE MESSIAH   עקבות המשיח  INSOLENCE WILL INCREASE AND HONOUR DWINDLE;  …  THE GOVERNMENT WILL TURN TO HERESY  AND THERE WILL BE NONE [TO OFFER THEM] REPROOF; THE MEETING-PLACE [OF SCHOLARS] WILL BE USED FOR IMMORALITY; …. THE WISDOM OF THE LEARNED6  WILL DEGENERATE, FEARERS OF SIN WILL BE DESPISED, AND THE TRUTH WILL BE LACKING; YOUTHS WILL PUT OLD MEN TO SHAME, THE OLD WILL STAND UP IN THE PRESENCE OF THE YOUNG, A SON WILL REVILE HIS FATHER, A DAUGHTER WILL RISE AGAINST HER MOTHER, A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW, AND A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD;  THE FACE OF THE GENERATION WILL BE LIKE THE FACE OF A DOG,  A SON WILL NOT FEEL ASHAMED BEFORE HIS FATHER. SO UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN.

[vi] Although I must admit that Fox does not pick up on the ekev of the blessing, possibly because it does not appear directly in the blessing, but in the patrimony preceding and in the narrative.  I would argue that it is nonetheless intentionally placed in the literary piece.

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the next aliyah

parshat Hayei Sarah

In a previous post (Divine Birthers II) I continue to explore the child of God in the Hebrew tradition, but since I am currently in Israel and spending most of my time meeting with Israelis and traveling the land… a welcome opportunity to revisit the notion of the “people of the Land”….  עַם הָאָרֶץ

And Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he spoke unto Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: ‘But if thou wilt, I pray thee, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.’ (Genesis 23: 12-13)

וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אַבְרָהָם, לִפְנֵי, עַם הָאָרֶץ

וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-עֶפְרוֹן בְּאָזְנֵי עַם-הָאָרֶץ, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אִם-אַתָּה לוּ, שְׁמָעֵנִי:  נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה, קַח מִמֶּנִּי, וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת-מֵתִי, שָׁמָּה

I had dinner with a long-time friend of my family; a card-carrying member of the Labour Party who at 95 had participated, in one way or the other in every war and served his country in the ministry of defense for many years.  When discussing the current difficult situation, he said with a twinkle in his eye… the Problem with the Jewish State is the Jews..  I had heard the comment before and it follows a long tradition of blaming the problems in the Holy Land on those who came before or after the blamer…..

In Abraham’s case, the “people of the land” are the Hittites who preceded the Hebrew in the land of Canaan.  Abraham wants to buy his first plot of land and the Hittites would prefer that he just visit and bury his wife on land that is charitably provided to him with limited recourse. Somehow, the concept of the People of the Land always means the people that immigrated there to the land before me.  Somehow these previous immigrants are always a thorn in the butt and the source of problems inherited by those that follow.

Many years latter, in Talmudic times, the term Am Ha-Aretz” was used to refer to an ignorant Jew, but the source of this pejorative which became popular with the rise of the Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism was actually with the return of the exiled Jews from Babylonia.  Writes Aharon Oppenheimer in his classic: The Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, 1997 (note to page83):

AmHaaretz

The Jews in Babylonia, led by Ezra and Nechemia had changed the face of Judaism.  When the first temple was standing, washing and purification before eating food was relegated to the priests and Levites and to eating temple sanctified food.  The returning Babylonian Jews had extended this requirement to every Jew and for all foodstuff.  Similarly tithing was continued by the Babylonian Jews, even though the priests, who benefited from such tithing, no longer had a Temple to work in.  The Jews who had remained in Israel, known as the Amei Ha-aretz had not gotten this memo and probably thought that the Babylonian Jews were living in denial… there was no longer any reason to ritually wash nor tithe.  And finally, the Jews in Babylonia had come up with this idea of the resurrection of the dead and possibly other such elements of eschatology such as belief in the world-to-come and a messianic age…. here too the Am Ha’aretz did not get the memo.  The Am Ha’aretz, were for the Pharasees and annoying reminder that they had, in fact, re-invented Judaism… not rediscovered it.

In current parlance, Am ha’aretz (or AMHA) refers to a movement arising from the early pioneers in Israel and their love of the land. Members of AMHA in Israel tend to be in elite military units and kibbutzim and reflect the traditional values of the secular Israeli pioneers. The leaders of AMHA are called Shoftim, and are elected by the membership. AMHA has also spread to the USA in recent years, where the first Shofet outside of Israel now resides. (see: Wikipedia: Am ha’aretz).

There is a profound irony about this too holy land that brings immigrants based on their love and connection to it’s history but who at the same time deride and blame the achievements of the immigrants who preceded them… the am ha’aretz.

The late Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar, in a wonderful comic skit, portray the common social phenomenon where every immigrant group is disparaged by the group that precedes it and disparages the one to follow.  The skit, which I am happy to provide below,  pokes fun at the deep cultural rifts in Israel till today.  It would have been equally entertaining and relevant to make a skit about how, only in the land of Israel, each subsequent immigration disparages and undermines the contributions of those who preceded it… the am ha’aretz.

Maybe for the rifts to heal, we need a new aliya… a new immigration where we all accept our immigrant status at the same time as accepting our being people of the land… maybe we all need to live more in the moment of aliya and less in the various strata of the land.  Maybe that’s the message of the current seventh Shemita/Sabbatical year where we need to separate from the land, in order to live in it.  Shemita Shalom.

Arik

 

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[1] For more recent scholarship on this subject see Daniel Boyarin , Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity p. 251 note 122

AmHaaretz boylerin

 

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Isaac’s smile

Parshat Vayera

In a previous post Divine Birthers I, I explore the concept of miraculous birth and resurrection in Judaism.  It’s ironic that such a heavy discussion is raised by the birth and life of a guy named Isaac … יִצְחָק which literally means to laugh and in context, means to laugh at God.

And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’  And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.  Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not'; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ Genesis 18: 12-16

וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר:  אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם:  לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי

הֲיִפָּלֵא ה’, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן

וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי, כִּי יָרֵאָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא, כִּי צָחָקְתְּ

 

And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him and Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’  Genesis 21: 6-7

וְאַבְרָהָם, בֶּן-מְאַת שָׁנָה, בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה–צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים:  כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי

This past Rosh HaShanah, my Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn asked why, Isaac, the “middle Father” of the three patriarchs was featured in the Torah readings of the High Holidays?  The first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac:  Genesis 21: 9.   Ironically, Ishmael is banished by Sarah because he exhibits the same trait as Isaac… he’s a jokester….

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is admittedly not a laughing matter.

Even the Torah makes a connection between the Sacrifice of Isaac.. the Akeda and what lies before… the account of he Akeda begins with Genesis 22:1

And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham'; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

 וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה

Like any middle child, argued Wiederhorn, Isaac had a conflicted life and much to teach us…. ergo we read both of these troubling stories that revolve around him on the high holy days.

What connects Isaac and his jokester brother Ishmael is how these two brothers came to reconcile with each other, and forgive their father.

According to the the Talmudic sage Raba in Baba Batra 16b  quoted by Wiederhorn, these two feuding brothers reunited at their father’s funeral and shiva.

Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father. [We know this] because it says, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him. (Genesis 25: 9) But perhaps the text arranges them in the order of their wisdom? — If that were so, then why in the verse, And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Genesis 35: 29) are they not arranged in the order of their wisdom? What we have to say is that the fact of the text placing Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way (‘made him lead’)  for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham’s lifetime. [1]

According to a conversation imagined by Rabbi Wiederhorn…. Ishmael was bitter and complained to Isaac that that their father had cruelly rejected and exiled him…. said Isaac “Dad rejected you… but he tried to kill me!”.  It was this humor shared by these two victims of exile and persecution that brought them together.

But there’s more joking going on in this narrative.  When in Genesis 26: 8 the Abimelech, king of the Philistines catches Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebecca, many commentaries provide sexual innuendo…

And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.

וַיְהִי, כִּי אָרְכוּ-לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים, וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק, אֵת, רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

I must say, I have always loved the Torah’s humor in “Isaac was sporting” “Yitchak Mitzahek”  יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק  but Wiederhorn makes the point that not only does the author of the Torah make us smile with this word play… but maybe, just maybe it was not gratuitous sex that was part of this screenplay …  maybe for once we should take the text literally and Isaac was making his wife smile in a way that only one who is intimately connected can.  Isaac, true to his name, used humor, charm and a gratuitous smile to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life.  that was what Isaac was doing too…. making Rebeca smile in a way that showed the closeness of the relationship.

According to Wiederhorn’s sometimes we need to look on the bright side of life…

Writing this post in Israel, after a difficult few weeks of conflict over the Temple Mount and terror attacks with cars mowing down innocent victims waiting for a light rail, the message of Isaac could never be more timely… we … all parties.. the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, need to smile more and make each other smile more.  We share enough tragedy to smile in a way that only those sharing the same fate and suffering can.  If we can’t smile together, we may never get out of the rut we’re in.

———————

[1]

baba batra 16b

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from the land

parshat lech lecha

In a previous post walking without pretext, I explore the lost Jewish gestalt of pilgrimage. It is one of my favorite posts since I was contacted by the author of a book that I quoted (A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful by  Gideon Lewis-Kraus) with gratitude for a “thoughtful blog post” and gladness that I enjoyed his book.  Writers of books and blogs love positive feedback!

In today’s post, I’d like to explore the flip side of lech lecha.  (Genesis 12: 1)

Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

The word “Land” אָרֶץ ‘erets appears twice in the verse. Later in the Hebrew Bible, when the word “land” is used without modification, it refers to ‘erets yisrael, the Land of Israel.  In modern Hebrew, when one makes reference to “b’arets” (in the land) one is referring to Israel.  In this specific verse, clearly the first reference to “land” is to Abram’s land of birth, probably in the modern land of Iraq.  Using a small dose of poetic license, I would suggest that for the lech lecha gestalt to take full effect, one must both leave one’s land and go to one’s land… at the same time.

To really arrive in a new land, or for the Jew or Israeli, to truly arrive in a new Israel, he or she must both move away and towards the land.  When this happens, there is real progress.. there is real lech lecha.

Such a moment happened recently (this week) when Reuven Rivlin became the first President of Israel to attend the annual memorial ceremony commemorating the 1956 massacre at Kafr Kassem.  According to the headline in the Times of Israel “Rivlin condemns ‘terrible crime’ of Kfar Kassem massacre. President says Jews and Arabs must draw lessons from killing of 49 civilians in village by border policemen in 1956.”  It seems to me, that for Israeli leaders to recognize the crimes that were committed while establishing the modern State of Israel is an important step for Jewish Israelis in rejecting bigotry and racism and entering the next stage of redeeming the land.  It also provides a much needed example for Arab Israeli citizens as they create a narrative that both embraces their privileged citizenship in the only true democracy in the Middle East without having to betray their parents and grandparents suffering and victimization.  In order to move on (lech lecha) all Israelis need to recognize a past without artificial sweeteners while embracing a shared future. For more on the importance and implications of Rivlin’s historic act see Daniel Gordis: Israel’s Overdue Reckoning With Its Arab Citizens

In November 0f 2013 I was privileged to glimpse such a future.  I was in Jerusalem with my wife and our good friends Nachum and Chani from Tel Aviv told us about a weekend of tours scheduled in and around Jerusalem called Open House Jerusalem; part of the international movement www.openhouseworldwide.org.  They were going on a tour called Lifta – A Look from Within.  According to the blurb:

The tour will be led by the architect Shmuel Groag, who heads the Conservation Unit at Bezalel`s Department of Architecture. He will examine the village of Lifta from its architectural, anthropological and environmental aspects, as a site earmarked for preservation that is unique not only in Jerusalem, but in all of Israel.

The tour which was conducted in Hebrew and for Israelis (not tourists or a visiting mission) was extremely well attended.  We learnt about the unique architecture of this Arab town and it’s history. Most importantly we learnt of the controversy and legal fights to save Lifts from demolition and to make way for more Jerusalem housing sprawl.  We learnt of the movement by both Arab and Jewish Israelis to preserve the ruins of Lifta as a heritage site. For more (much more) on the history, significance and status of Lifta see: In the Midst of the Ruins: Activists Struggle to Save the Palestinian Village of Lifta, Tikkun Magazine, by Marc Kaminsky, May 2, 2013.  The author of the article took a similar tour as we did.

What I would like to add to the historical record is a video shot by my friend Nachum of the highlight of my tour… a chance meeting between our tour of Israelis and a grown son with his 80 year old father, returning to Lifta on the annual occasion of the father’s birthday.  As I watched, it occurred to me that this father and son were doing what many of us do… going back to the old country to visit the village they were born in… only the residents of Lifta resettled just a few kilometers away.  What struck me was the dignity of both of them, especially the dad who just wanted to get the dust off of his trousers.  These were not people stuck in victimhood.  They were well dressed and had clearly made a new life for themselves, even reestablished a community of Lifta; outside of Lifta.  To my eyes, these two generations of witnesses we met, showed no malice as they pointed out homes of well known families in the town, the mosque, shops and local workshops… all destroyed.  As important was the respect and profound interest of the Jewish Israeli visitors.

To me it was a Lech Lecha moment.  Watch for yourself.

20131108_134231

 

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my children are my buildings

parshat noach – haftarah Isaiah 54

This is my first post after completing a post on each of the parshat of the week… so I haven’t really decided yet what the focus of future posts will be.

To see previous posts on parshat noach you can go to of noah’s ark, cathedrals in time and jewish ships where I explore how Noah’s ark may have been the first temple…. or cathedral in time.

In a recent post sustainable kashrut, I explore the origins of kashrut and the biblical predisposition for vegetarianism… which Rashi cites in reference to Noah.

Since Noah was my Bar Mitzvah portion, I’d like to share something I learnt from an archaeologist in a car returning from a visit to Masada.  I was telling the archaeologist what I planned to say on the occasion of the dedication of a building for Graduate Studies dedicated by my dad Jerome Stern at Bar Ilan University.  I was going to quote Isaiah 54 and the Talmud’s interpretation.

The verse from Isaiah 54 is the haftorah for parshat Noah.  It says:

And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.

וְכָל-בָּנַיִךְ, לִמּוּדֵי יְהוָה; וְרַב, שְׁלוֹם בָּנָיִךְ

The talmud in Berachot 64a goes as follows:

R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.  Read not banayik [thy children] but bonayik [thy builders].

berachot

This piece of Talmud is actually cited in the Sabbath prayers after the Eyn Keloheynu prayer.

In my comments at the building dedication, I planned to say that this might be the first building that my dad had built…but  in the tradition of the Talmud in Berachot, he had been setting an example for his kids and mentoring artists and supporting education all his life…  building human beings…

The archaeologist turned to me and said…. “the talmud in Berachot is actually not an interpretation of Isaiah… it is based on a variant reading of Isaiah that has been preserved in the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah.. whose text is actually thy builders!”

and here it is:

bonotecha

 

There are a number of lessons here…1)  It’s a good idea to talk Torah while riding or walking… especially if one’s companion is a scholar.  2) We are always discovering new material that helps us understand our sources and text. 3) our sense of oral traditions needs to include variations in texts… and finally… our kids are really our greatest building.. not just according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, but even according to the Ancient Prophets.

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regarding moses

parshat Vezot Hab’rachah and simchat torah

Eight verses before we finish reading the Torah, Moses dies.  Since in Deuteronomy 31:24-26 Moses is purported to have given the completed book of theTorah (סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה  ) to the Levites, this is problematic… How could Moses have finished the Torah … posthumously?

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.

 וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה’

Rashi

And Moses… died there: Is it possible that Moses died, and [then] wrote, “And Moses… died there”? But [the answer is:] Moses wrote up to that juncture, and Joshua wrote from then on. Says Rabbi Meir: But is it possible that the Torah Scroll would be lacking anything at all, and yet Scripture states (Deut. 31:26),“Take this Torah Scroll” [and Moses commanded this to the Levites; so, according to the above opinion, is it possible that the Torah Scroll referred to there was an incomplete one, up to the juncture of Moses’s death? This cannot be!] Rather, [continues Rabbi Meir, we must say that] The Holy One, blessed is He, dictated this [i.e., the verse “And Moses… died there”], and Moses wrote it in tears. — [B.B. 15b, Sifrei 33:34]

וימת שם משה: אפשר משה מת וכתב וימת שם משה, אלא עד כאן כתב משה, מכאן ואילך כתב יהושע. ר’ מאיר אומר אפשר ספר התורה חסר כלום, והוא אומר (לעיל לא, כו) לקוח את ספר התורה הזה, אלא הקב”ה אומר ומשה כותב בדמע

The image of Moses writing his own epitaph, in addition to not making it to the Promised land… is heart wrenching. on a human level But as students of the Bible, we cannot help but note that whichever Rabbinic opinion one accepts, either the Torah had at least one additional author besides Moses, or, at a minimum, the writing of this book continued even after the death of it’s author… whether his actual death or his literary death.

In a previous post I have referenced a legend in the Talmud, where the rabbis declare that the Torah is no longer in God’s hands and it is up to future generations to decide the law.  God smiles at this affront and says “My children have defeated (or eternalized) me!”

Now it is Moses turn to discover his eternity in the eternity of his Torah.

tagin

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Thy hand?’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses; ‘permit me to see him’. He replied, ‘Turn thee round’. Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [in the cheap seats for the less gifted students ed] [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master ‘Whence do you know it?’ and the latter replied ‘It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai’ he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!’ He replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’. (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b)

  אמר רב יהודה אמר רב

בשעה שעלה משה למרום

. מצאו להקב”ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות

אמר לפניו

רבש”ע מי מעכב על ידך

אמר לו

אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות

בסוף כמה דורות

ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו

שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ

תילין תילין של הלכות

אמר לפניו

רבש”ע הראהו לי

אמר לו

חזור לאחורך

הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות

ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים

תשש כחו

כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד

אמרו לו תלמידיו

רבי מנין לך

אמר להן

הלכה למשה מסיני

נתיישבה דעתו

אמר לפניו

רבונו של עולם

יש לך אדם כזה

ואתה נותן תורה על ידי

אמר לו

שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני

The term “a law from Moses at Sinai”   (הלכה למשה מסיני ) is used profusely in rabbinic literature, and unlike the phrase “The Torah is not in heaven”, “a law from Moses at Sinai”   has legal standing.  It is used whenever there is not a clear textual source for a law, but the contemporary rabbinic authority believes it to be binding.  In modern Hebrew one uses this expression to characterize a rule, belief or practice that is not to be questioned… Speaking of one’s boss: “What does he think … it’s a law from Moses at Sinai?”

For me, the power of this story is that it not only provides a justification for reinterpreting and modifying Jewish practice, but in so doing, it reveals the secret of the immortality of the Torah and Jewish learning.  By linking Moses with Akiba and putting them in the same study hall this magical aggadah showcases what is done on every page of Talmud, when multiple scholars, not to mention you the student, engage in a conversation bridging the constraints of time.  Biblical characters refute sages of the Ancient world who in turn have their words sliced and diced by medieval Rabbis.

At the end of the day… and it was the end of Moses’ day.. this story gives us all the secret of immortality and… for Moses, it gives him his promised land.

I am reminded of a scene in a movie starring Harrison Ford called Regarding Henry.  Henry, is a highly paid and ruthless corporate lawyer who gets shot in the head and needs to re-claim his identity and re-learn everything he ever knew.  In the scene, his  daughter is reading him a book and Henry is spellbound…. Henry can’t read a simple children’s book.  “Who taught you that?” asks Henry.  Replies his daughter…  “You did dad… you did.”

To follow in the footsteps of Moses, we need to teach our children (and friends) well… for it is in our teachings, questions and comments… that we live forever.

With this post I finish what I set out to do over three years ago… to write a post on every one of the weekly Torah portions… and with the help of my readers…. touch eternity.

Hazak Hazak Venitchazek

חֲזַק חֲזַק ונתחזק

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