Circumspect about Circumcision

chayei sara, genesis 24

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 17th 2022. With the Binding (Sacrifice) of Isaac still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspecitve and review the meaning, function and contemporary controversies regarding circumcision.


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sara. After last week’s clubhouse discussion, I dropped in on another clubhouse discussion that segwayed from a discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac to circumcision. It got me thinking…. So with Akedat Yitzchak still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspective and review the meaning, function and maybe even contemporary sensibilities regarding circumcision. So, join us for Circumspect about Circumcision.


Well, welcome, welcome, Rabbi, welcome you faithful. So, you know, this week’s parsha really doesn’t talk all that much about circumcision. So just as excited as I was to link it with the binding of Isaac, I do have to link it to the parsha. So, the parsha begins, … after Sarah passes away, Abraham is concerned about his son Isaac, and he’s concerned like many parents are about finding a nice bride for him. So in Genesis 24: 2 it says as follows. And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, most of our rabbis believe this was Eliezer, who had to charge of all that he owned, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by God, the God of Heaven and the God of Earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. So “under my thigh” Rashi writes, Rashi almost assumes it is that he was holding the member, the penis of Abraham, but more importantly, the sign of the circumcision of Abraham. And while she explains, because whoever takes an oath, must take in his hand, some sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah, or tefillin, as circumcision was the first commandment given to him. And because it’s only through much pain, it was consequently dear to him; to Abraham. And therefore, he selected this as the object upon which to take the oath. So, we have heard already of the commandment of circumcision, we might even go back during today’s review and see where it’s written. And it’s a sign of the covenant. But we’ve never really had any meat put on it, so to speak. And here is a fascinating instance of how it was used. Rabbi, what do you make? Is this is this something that strange? Does it give us any insight in what circumcision is?  Well, I’ll tell you what the rabbi’s say. You know, throughout rabbinic history, whenever you took an oath, in court, you know, whatever it is, like we put our hand on the Bible, like Jews put their hands on the Bible or hold the Torah. In the Talmud, they hold the Torah scroll. But in the time of Abraham, there was no Torah scroll. There was no mitzvah, the only mitzvah they had was circumcision. So what the Rabbi say is that the reason he grabbed his circumcision is like grabbing a Torah scroll, like putting your hand on the Bible. And this isn’t an isolated case. It happens once more.  No, no, this happens a few other times. It’s not necessarily, you know, an exciting explanation, but it’s probably right. It sounds correct, doesn’t it?

Geoffrey Stern  04:22

Well, it does. Yes, it does appear elsewhere. Under for instance, Jacob; when Jacob is about to pass away, and he wants his family to swear that they’ll take his bones out of Egypt and bury him in the Promised Land. The same thing he says. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned Joseph and said, place your hands…  so number one, it doesn’t seem to be something out of the ordinary, it seems to be kind of accepted. And one of the commentaries Rashbam, but also Shadal who we’ve quoted before, says that the making of a covenant or an oath of a son or a slave to his master was in this fashion for they shared the aspect of subjugation. And it is thus written a son shall honor his father and his slave, his master. However, (this is fascinating) handshaking or cutting an object into two for a covenant and passing between the pieces is found with other persons. So just as I think we’ve established that this was not a unique occurrence, I think what rush bomb and shutdown are saying is that this is something that you might find even in other traditions, it’s a sign of subjugation that a slave might give to the master. And I think of a brand. You know, a rancher brands, his animals, and after a while we do call it an “OT” a sign, it is a sign upon the flesh. So what he’s saying is it at the one level it’s almost like a branding and it’s almost like a slave would touch the sign of the brand. If it’s the okay corral, he puts his hand on that sign of the okay chorale to show fidelity. I think if you want to stop here and say what does Brit now mean between the Jewish people and God, it would be kind of like, we’re God’s servants, we are branded to the Master of the Universe. And that would be a very natural way of taking it. The other thing that Shadal says it is making a covenant and that of course, we saw in the in the original texts, whether Abraham made a covenant between the pieces where he cut animals in half, and maybe Abraham walked through them. But there was this sense of it. I was just blown away when he says כף אל כף, handshaking. It’s like sealing the deal. So we’ve had a metaphor of taking an oath, and holding something tangible, like a bible we have that when you get sworn into office, it seems to be all of these things combined. And seems kind of straightforward. The only thing that I would add is it reminds me a little bit of joining a gang like West Side Story.

Adam Mintz  07:39

Well, I mean, that’s exactly right. It is joining a tribe. And the one sign that the tribe had was bris that’s all they had.

Geoffrey Stern  07:50

But in terms of that tribe, where you would see a tribe or a gang, I should say, where they have their mark. And that would make sense where you make an oath, you touch the mark. And you say, yeah, man, I’m a Jet. Well, I’m a whatever, it does put it in to context, although clearly, when someone like a we read it. It seems very, very strange. But I think it puts it into the context of tribal relations, of swearing on something tangible that has meaning, of a sign. I think it’s in that way, it is it is kind of helpful.

Adam Mintz  08:44

Very helpful. I think what you’re you explain is really an elaboration about what I said; the circumcision, because it was all they had, it represented all of the things that you described, that idea of being part of the tribe, that that that covenant between God and the people, everything was reflected there. Now I find it interesting that he requires this tribal handshake of the person who’s not part of the tribe.

Geoffrey Stern  09:16

So I think, again, if we look back at Genesis 17, where this was all commanded, it’s clear that ….

Adam Mintz  09:26

Eliezer did have a circumcision…

Geoffrey Stern  09:28

It’s your servants to its its real branding. You know, the question is, does the sign of the covenant on a servant, mean fidelity to the master you or does it mean fidelity to the master of masters? But I think in 17, it says God further said to Abraham as for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages, so keep My covenant, such shall be the covenant between me and you and your offspring to follow. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant א֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵינֵיכֶֽם. And then he goes on to say, as for the home born slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of yours offspring, they must be circumcised home bound and purchased alike. The covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And so clearly, here we have the outcome of that, where Eliezer is going on a very, I wouldn’t say a risky mission…  important mission. And he’s got to take this oath.

Adam Mintz  10:32

With uncertain outcome.

Geoffrey Stern  10:48

Absolutely. Absolutely. And this, this thing of “OT” is also kind of fascinating. You know, we’ve talked in the past, about belief, and whether belief was a commandment, or it was the basis for all the commandments. But here, even though there’s no question that circumcision is one of the 613 commandments, it kind of has a place of its own. in the sense that it is this “OT”. I mean, for instance, in practical terms, so many of the commandments you don’t do on Shabbat, Shabbat, overrides them, but one that doesn’t. And I gotta believe that doing a circumcision on Shabbat, I mean, does that literally break? One of the 39 melachot?

Adam Mintz  11:41

Yes, yes, it does. Yes, it does. To cut skin on purpose is a prohibition, one of the Lamed Tet Melachot, and it’s allowed because it’s a bris.

Geoffrey Stern  11:52

So in a sense, its kind of in a class of its own in that regard. Yochanan who is not here tonight, but who is becoming one of my favorite visitors to Madlik he was on last week in the after-party discussion. And when I went to another place of meeting and clubhouse, and he said that there is this verse that says,  דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום “Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful” and he quoted one source that says with the exclusion of Brit Milah. So, Brit Milah is in kind of a class of its own. And  that becomes kind of interesting, does it not? I mean, you’re involved with conversion. Circumcision is a big part of conversion. It’s not simply just another commandment.

Adam Mintz  12:53

A male cannot convert to Judaism without circumcision.  Now some non-Jewish men today are circumcised at birth. That was because there was a period where they believed that that was healthy. But and even in that case, they need to have a symbolic, ceremony to turn that circumcision by the doctor in the hospital into a Jewish circumcision. The Jewish handshake as you call that.

Geoffrey Stern  13:28

Is it really called that?

Adam Mintz  13:30

The Jewish Handshake… Yeah, of course it’s called. That’s what you’re referring to when you gave the whole description. The Jewish Handshake.

Geoffrey Stern  13:36

Okay, okay. So there are different metaphors. There are some fascinating stories about circumcision that I’m going to review now. In Exodus, Moses spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and he’s finally going down to Egypt, and he’s going to do his main mission and free the Israelite people. And he’s traveling down with, it seems two sons. And all of a sudden, he’s at a night encampment, Exodus 4: 24 And at the night encampment on the way God encountered him and sought to kill him. So, Tzipora his wife took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin touched his legs with it, saying, You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי And when God let him alone, she added a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision. Well, first of all, we have to ask the question, why did this all happen and what’s the lesson? But clearly then, there is this question of letting blood and this starts to become interesting in the understanding of what that sign is, and I think this will segue us a little bit into starting to think of what how, if any parallels there were to the sacrifice of Isaac or the Akedah. But here somehow she is saying that by doing the circumcision on her son, she is now forever connected to him. And what connects her is the blood that was shed. What do you make of this strange story?

Adam Mintz  14:53

It’s a strange story, very strange story. You know, it’s something about the same thing, which is that was the sign that they were committed to going back to Egypt and representing the people, and therefore the son needed to be circumcised. The question is why Moses doesn’t do it. And why there needs to be such drama. We don’t usually have drama at circumcisions. You just have the circumcision? Why is there so much drama to circumcision? It also raises an interesting question, that the blood of the circumcision is the important part of the circumcision. That introduces the possibility that what we’re talking about here is really a sacrifice. That a circumcision is actually a sacrifice. Now, we don’t believe in human sacrifices, we can’t really give a human sacrifice. But we can do something that in a way reminds us about it, you.

Geoffrey Stern  16:35

So I think in the commentaries that we mentioned last week, when we were talking about call it the sacrifice of Isaac call it  the Binding of Isaac was this John Levinson. And he argues very strongly that the Qaeda, The Binding of Isaac has to be put in the tradition of sacrificing the first fruits, the firstborn to God. And he develops that throughout our tradition, and there’s plenty of legs for him to stand on. Because we have be Bikkurim, the first fruits we have Orla, the first harvest, we have pidyon ha’Ben, (redemption of the first born) we have all of these things, I think what you just said, would fit very well into his tradition, which means that the eradication of sacrificing one’s child or one’s one’s first child, for sure. But any child is something that takes a long time. It doesn’t disappear. It gets redirected. And clearly, and that’s why I was so impressed when I went to that other clubhouse. And they segwayed so naturally, from talking about the sacrifice of Isaac to brit milah. To circumcision, it took me a second to kind of connect the dots. But they were onto something there is this connection, I believe, between the two. And in a sense if that’s the case, then every time we have the Brit Mila, in a sense, we are reenacting….. They talk about the Mikdash ma’at (the small Temple), this is the Akedah Ma’at, is there anything there?

Adam Mintz  18:15

Yeah, no, there’s something there. This is it. This is the Akedah Ma’at, every religious experience, needs an Akedah moment. Now, usually, we don’t think about it as needing, you know, blood or sacrifice or any of those things. But you know, the more literally you take it, the more you get to that conclusion that you actually need a physical act. And like you said, from the beginning of Exodus, that act might require blood. I think that’s something that’s not emphasized enough in that Exodus story. The fact that  חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת that God says you are like the groom of blood for the bris. It’s all about the blood.  You know, as a result of doing my research this week, I said, well, let me pull out a siddur and let me take a look at the Milah, the circumcision ceremony. And I never saw this before. It was just a matter of I looked at the Ashkenazi Siddur on Sefaria and didn’t have the milah ceremony. So I went to the other side. I went into the Sephardic siddur. And I’m going to read you a Ye’hi Ratzon that I found in the Sephardic Siddur. It’s right up there.יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ,   שֶׁיְּהֵא   חָשׁוּב וּמְרֻצֶּה   וּמְקֻבָּל לְפָנֶֽיךָ, may it be the your Will, Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that it  be considered (the Brit Milah) and regarded favorably,  and accepted before You,  כְּאִלּוּ הִקְרַבְתִּֽיהוּ לִפְנֵי כִּסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ as though I had offered him (as a sacrifice) before the throne of your glory.  So, there it is. We don’t have a parallel to that in the Ashkenazi service, do we? That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon, I mean, that clinches your argument right there. You don’t need to go any further than that. That’s the only source we need tonight. That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon. That Yehi Ratzon means that in the Sephardic tradition, they are supporting that view.  So here’s where we start looping back and connecting the dots. If the Akeda is so difficult for us, what how does that impact upon the Brit Mila, and it I came across the sensitivity in modern society to this because I was involved in a wedding of a young couple. It happened to have a Jewish mom and a husband who had not yet decided to convert but she wanted a Jewish wedding. And sure enough, nine months later, they called me up. And she said, we’ve decided not to circumcise our son. And my father, she said, is beside himself. But we just feel that it’s traumatizes. She, she told me about a movie called American Circumcision, which I hadn’t watched until today. Boy, you know, if you watch this movie, you would be afraid of it too. There are those out there, it’s a new thing. It’s a new thing. There are two areas I think that the younger generation is starting to look at one is what can they do that similar for a girl in terms of a rite of passage, but the other is there are those who are very troubled by the whole circumcision procedure. So, what I told her, I want to work out with you. And I want to see what your opinion is. Before I tell you what I told them. I want to continue with our discussion of Tzipora. So as you say, Why did Moses not give circumcision to his son traditional interpretation is that the reason why Moses had not circumcised him was because they were going on a journey. “If I circumcise him and immediately proceed on the journey the child’s life will be in danger” is what Rashi quotes from the rabbinic sauces סַכָּנָה הִיא לַתִּינוֹק. And most of us know this when a baby is born, and they have jaundice or whatever, that Shabbat might not delay a Brit, but the health of the child definitely delays the circumcision…  to the point, and this was always fascinating to me, that there is a tradition that the whole generation of the Exodus was not circumcised. Meaning to say that in Joshua 5, it says as follows that all the people that Joshua brought …. Moses had died. Now he took the whole new generation out of the desert, and it says “proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites”  וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שֵׁנִֽית. And here the commentary to say something very similar to what they said by Moses and Tzipora and that is לֹא נָשְׁבָה לָהֶם רוּחַ צְפוֹנִית, there was no let-up in this northern wind all 40 years in the desert. And so, it was a sakana, it was too dangerous. There was a perceived health challenge of circumcising in the desert. And so, which is kind of amazing, if you think about it, you know, because you and I both know, they didn’t move every day, they camped out in some places for a long period of time. But nonetheless from this Joshua, there was this tradition, that we learned that if it’s something dangerous to your health, you can postpone it. So, what I told to this couple, because truly, I just felt here was a couple who wanted to be Jewish, who asked for a Jewish wedding, who hopefully had a very good experience, but you watch movies like these, and you can become very scared. And I said, If you truly believe that this is something that is dangerous to your child, you can put off the circumcision. That’s what I told him. And I’m sure there’s no rabbi, including you who will agree with that halachikly. I do think it was the right response because they weren’t going to have a circumcision one way or the other. But I’m curious. I never would have thought of that. But that is actually brilliant. Because now they can always keep in the back of their mind that they can always they can still do it. You didn’t say you’re bad people if you don’t have a circumcision, and I didn’t said you’re delayed.

Geoffrey Stern  25:24

Yeah. And I didn’t say you don’t have to do it or you, you’re gonna not do it. You delay it,

Adam Mintz  25:29

You’re delaying it. We’ll worry about it next.

Geoffrey Stern  25:31

Well, because maybe another movie will come out with other doctors and the other doctors will say it’s okay,

Adam Mintz  25:36

These things are clearly cyclical, because I can just tell you, as someone who’s involved with conversions, Until last year, I almost never had a young man who came to convert who wasn’t physically circumcised. Because 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, everybody was circumcised, the doctors circumcised, everybody in the hospital, just now I’m beginning to get people who are not circumcised. Because 20 and 25 years ago, they started this movement. “American Circumcision” is one example of that movement, that circumcision is bad for you. So, you have these young men who are going around and they’re not circumcised. Now, that’s fine. I mean, that was a decision, but it’s unfortunate when they come to convert to Judaism.

Geoffrey Stern  26:26

So the other thing that I learned, and this is a segue to my next question, practical question to you, is from this Rashi in Joshua, where it says that the whole generation did not get circumcised in the desert. It picks up on the language that it says “a second circumcision”. And a Rashi says that, שֵׁנִית זוֹ פְּרִיעַת מִילָה שֶׁלֹּא נִתְּנָה לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ that, is this the prick that you hear about?

Adam Mintz  26:58

 No, it’s the uncovering of the foreskin. They cut it, and then they uncover it.

Geoffrey Stern  27:05

So is it different than the circumcision?

Adam Mintz  27:08

No, they just pull the skin back so that the circumcision is visible. priya means to uncover.

Geoffrey Stern  27:17

So one of the things that came up in my research that I had not realized before, and I’m embarrassed to say that it was on Wikipedia, Is that we all heard about during the Hellenistic rule, the Maccabees….  Hanukkah is just around the corner, that the Greeks disdain and disgust with circumcision was so great, that there were Jews who wanted to assimilate who actually went through an operation to reverse their circumcision. And according to the sources, and actually I joke when I say it’s, it’s in Wikipedia, Wikipedia quotes, the Jewish Encyclopedia, which quotes Genesis Rabbah, and quotes the Tractate of Shabbat  were as a result of that the rabbi’s incense made circumcision more extreme than it had been before. Am I making any sense? Is there anything any basis to this that maybe circumcision before this whole Hellenism thing? was a little bit less?

Adam Mintz  28:32

It could be I’m not familiar with this. But that doesn’t mean so much.

Geoffrey Stern  28:36


Adam Mintz  28:37

I’m not familiar with that. But it fits in all those sources. And it’s right. Yeah, I’ll actually go down and dig out the sources. And for those of you listening, by the way, the sources are posted this week, right on our clubhouse, but it seems to me that circumcision is something that on the one hand is extremely, extremely basic. And that any, any movement like the one in this movie, I think, who questions the need to have circumcision as one of the Jews that are interviewed and says, look, if I wasn’t Jewish, I would question it too. But I have a religious commitment here. I think, then we’ll finish on this that one of the things that made circumcision even more important was that we were persecuted for it. And that once you get persecuted for fulfilling a mitzvah, then it becomes a line in the in the ground. So for instance, we all know that there were only certain commandments that you have to give your life for and they do not include circumcision. But the Rabbis say if you make a case of something in public if it becomes a litmus test, even changing the color of your shoelace, is something that is forbidden. And I think that in helping a next generation navigate this, we have to understand that today the issue of circumcision, thank God, is at least not one of a polemical nature or one of standing up against and standing for being Jewish. It’s a personal decision. And I think that studying the Torah and clergy and the community has to help a next generation understand it, grapple with it because if we can grapple with the Akedah, we can grapple with circumcision, they do seem to be linked. It’s spilling of blood.  I think that I think that’s great. This was a great topic tonight. Geoffrey, thank you so much. Chayea Sarah. Next week, Thanksgiving, everybody Toldot; you cannot beat it. Shabbat Shalom everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  30:58

Shabbat Shalom to everybody and thank you all very much. And be sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and if you like what you hear, share it with friends and family and give us a Star or a nice review. Thank you all so very much

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s podcast: Life is with People and so is Death

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Unbinding Isaac

parshat vayera, genesis 18 -22

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on November 10th 2022 on Clubhouse. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test. What possible lessons are to be learnt from this narrative other than blind faith and obedience. Finally, we are puzzled why Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera and we watch with pride as Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but we are dumbfounded as Abraham remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test?  What possible lessons can we learn from this horror story other than that blind faith and obedience are to be rewarded? So put away your puzzles and join us as we try to untangle this riddle: Unbinding Isaac.


So boy, it really is a riddle. And it’s a riddle every year, it never goes away, it never gets solved. This strange story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. So, I think I’m gonna just jumped into the text. The only thing that I will say is what is going to be different about this year is we’re going to at least try to put it into context. And that is because it begins with four words, וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. And through the magic of computers, and Google, and Sefaria, I can tell you that this is the first time that phrase is used in the Torah. So, this is a episode. This is a drama that cries out to be put into context. So here we go. It’s Genesis 22. Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, Abraham, he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there is a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you. So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, he split the word for the burnt offering. And he set out for the place of which God had told him and on the third day, looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, you stay here with the ass, the boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you. Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He Himself took the firestone and the knife and the two walked off together. וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו. Then Isaac said to his father, Abraham Father? And He answered, Yes, my son, and he said he are the firestone and the wood. But where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, It is God who will see to the sheep for this bunt offering my son, and the two of them worked on together, וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו they arrived at the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, he laid out the word, He bound his son Isaac, he laid him on the altar on top of the wood, and Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, then a messenger of God called to him from heaven, Abraham, Abraham, and he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. When Abraham looked up his I fell upon a ram cord in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site ה’ ׀ יִרְאֶ֑ה whence the present saying on the mountain of God there is vision, the Messenger of God called Abraham a second time from heaven and said, by myself, I swear God declares because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your favorite one, I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and the sands on the seashore. And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command. Abraham then returned to his servants, I could add alone, because it says only Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer Sheva, and Abraham stayed in Beer Sheva. This is the whole chapter, the whole literary episode. And boy, does it raise questions or their nuances, or their commentaries and commentaries on commentaries between the lines. So I just want to raise the question that would come to any modern reading this, and I am going to put two reactions to this that are on the two extremes. The first is the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who tried to establish the rational basis of all morality. And he said, we can use as an example, the myth of the sacrifice that Abraham was going to make by butchering and burning his only son at God’s command, (the poor child without knowing it even brought the wood for the fire.) Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice, that I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain, but that you this apparition are God, of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from visible heaven. So, Kant, on the one hand, says, no matter how you read it, it is an offense to reason it is an offense to logic, go so far as to even say it it is an offense to any perception we have of a God, Kant would say, this cannot be God. And on the other extreme, is Kierkegaard. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish existential philosopher, read it and said, The only conclusion that you can take from this is that we have to have a leap of faith, that we have to have a suspension of the ethical, that the basis of all religion is not to follow God when it makes sense. Not only to follow God, when it doesn’t make sense. But precisely when it doesn’t make sense. That is when faith is achieved. So here are the two extremes rabbi, is there any place in between?

Adam Mintz  08:15

I think there has to be. Let’s start from the beginning. So, Kant takes I think, what’s a more logical kind of explanation, that it can be justified, God’s command cannot be justified.  Kierkegaard really introduces something that needs some explanation. I don’t really know what suspension of the ethical means. I mean, obviously, I’ve heard it from Rabbi Riskin when I was 14 years old. So, I’ve heard it, I know it, but I still don’t really know what it means. Suspend the ethical, is that actually true? Does God expect us to suspend the ethical, I kind of think that God wants us to never suspend the ethical, why should we ever need to suspend the ethical? Shouldn’t the ethical be the ultimate by which we make all decisions?

Geoffrey Stern  09:12

But I think you could argue that if all religion is ethics, is what we would call wisdom and logic. What do we need God for? Where does God come in? I think Kierkegaard would say if you are an honest, in his case, Christian, and we might say an honest Jew, what you’re saying in the words of Hebrew National, is there is a higher authority. And that’s, I think, what he’s coming at from suspense. I think, the Akedah even in our tradition, Rabbi I mean, there were martyrs who martyred themselves, their children, their families, and did Kiddush Hashem sanctifying God’s name based on this story, saying, I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. But my faith in God transcends that, at least Are you with me that you understand that there is a thought process like this, that there are those who would look at us who say it’s all ethics is saying, well, then where does God come in? And where do you stop projecting your ethical ideas on the world?

Adam Mintz  10:29

I mean, obviously, that is what Kierkegaard says. And what’s interesting is that point is made by God being unethical. I would be happier if that point was made by God being ethical. But the point is made by God being unethical, God saying, kill your son. And what Kierkegaard is saying is you need to respect God, even when he says, kill your son. So, you’re right. That’s the way Kierkegaard defines religion, religion needs that, the phrases you quoted Hebrew National, the phrase that they always use is a leap of faith. The difference between religion and science is that science, everything makes sense. Religion always needs a leap of faith. And Kierkegaard is saying that the leap of faith in this case, is a leap of ethical faith, meaning we need to trust God, even though what God is doing breaks our rules of ethics. Isn’t that what it’s saying?

Geoffrey Stern  11:37

So it breaks all rules of ethics. But you know, I promised that we would stir the pot a little bit tonight, it actually breaks God’s rules of ethics. If you look at Deuteronomy 12: 31, it says, God detests that they should offer their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. So, there is a very strong tradition in Judaism. And, you know, I had a conversation with Loren this week about what it is that Abraham actually introduced to the world. And to say that he was a monotheist, in our western sophisticated sense is a hard one. But we can identify certain things in the Torah, that Judaism came to reject. And certainly Malach, the religion that was in the Canaanite religion, of sacrificing your children to God is explicitly rejected in God’s own Torah. And then in Deuteronomy 13, there are rules about listening to a false prophet. So, you can put Kant, and you can put Kierkegaard to the side, but we have an additional wrinkle in the story of the arcade dad, that God is almost asking Abraham ….  sure, the Torah has not been given yet. But he’s asking him to break his own Torah. And he’s asking him to listen from a voice from heaven. That sounds like it’s God. But maybe because of the tenants in our own Torah, you can question whether that’s a Navi Sheker, whether that’s something that I shouldn’t be listening to, does that enter into it too?

Adam Mintz  13:30

I don’t think it’s a problem that God says in Deuteronomy, you can’t kill your children, because God makes the rules. So, if God wants to make the rules, God can break the rules. We can’t break God’s rules, but God can break his own rules.

Geoffrey Stern  13:44

So that doesn’t bother you as much I get it

Adam Mintz  13:47

That doesn’t bother me as much because the whole thing bothers me. But that doesn’t bother me. The fact that there’s a contradiction in God’s Torah. When we get to it in Deuteronomy, we’ll figure out what the answer is.

Geoffrey Stern  13:58

You’ll get a good Brisker scholar and there’s a loophole here.

Adam Mintz  14:06

Right in the middle of the summer, we’ll figure it out.

Geoffrey Stern  14:09

Okay, so I promised that we would look at it in context, because of those impactful four first words. So why she says after these things, all of a sudden, this story that could be very isolated, is connected to what happened before. And Rashi says some of our rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan, who denounced Abraham saying of all the banquets which Abraham prepared, not a single bullock, nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to you God. So basically, we have a story where Satan is coming in and saying, You think this guy is so great? You think he’s so holy, wait till you test him and an end that is what it means after these things. And the other thing that he says is others say that it means after the words of Ishmael. So now he has a story where Ishmael with Israel says…, it seems like to Isaac, he says, You know, I got circumcised at age 13. What the hell did you do? You were just a baby. If you had to stand up to what I did, you would not have persevered. So, it’s fascinating. What Rashi brings from rabbinic literature. I mean, the first thing where he talks about this Satan, we all know there’s this amazing book called The Book of Job. And the book of Job literally starts by saying that the Satan comes to God, and he says, you see this guy, Job, who you’ve given so much to, I’m not sure, if you gave him a few challenges, he would stand up. And there was a book that I just read from my friend, Richard Middleton, it’s called Abraham’s Silence The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. I recommend highly, because it really surveys all the literature on the subject of the Akedah. But for the book, he tries to compare the story of Job to the story of Abraham. And Rashi, in a sense, is saying it’s a similar type of a story. So, we have two threads that we can untangle here, even if we only look at these two. The thing about comparing it to Job is that they were many in the Talmud, and Rambam, my mother is, in particular, says that if you look at job, it’s a parable. Job, it never really happened. It’s one of these kinds of ethical dilemmas, ethical stories that we’re supposed to learn from. So even kind of comparing it to Job puts it in a whole different perspective, is this something that really happened? Or is it a parable that we’re supposed to learn from? So, before we even get to the second part of Rashi, that talks about comparing it to Ishmael L. Rabbi, can we look at this as something that is so farfetched that it almost becomes in the same category as Job where it becomes a kind of a legal fiction, something that were supposed to do what we’re doing tonight, which is, evaluate and look at, but maybe something that never really happened?

Adam Mintz  17:44

So I think that’s what Kierkegaard says, I don’t think Kierkegaard cares whether it happens. Kierkegaard says that the story is there to tell you something important. You know what that important thing is that you have to suspend the ethical sometimes, because God is always God did it happen did not happen did Job happen, doesn’t make any difference. The details don’t matter. What matters is that you have to realize that our ethical understanding can’t be the last word. It’s really what you said before, that you pushed back to me, and I think that’s right. So, I think that that point you just made is a really interesting point, that point that whether it happened or not, even though in Yeshivah obviously, you know, it happened, how could it not have happened? But when you look at it really honestly, I don’t think that matters,

Geoffrey Stern  18:34

Except that so much of what we do at Madlik is to say what happens if you look at this as literature as opposed to reality? You know, if you look at  אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה as the beginning of a new chapter, in a parable, I think maybe as we go through the evening, that might take us in a different direction. I think Richard Middleton, in his book, tries to really press the parable of Job because as we all know, in Job, he is confronted by people saying you shouldn’t question what happened just now, you should actually be that pious servant of God who takes that leap of faith and suspends his ethical judgment. And the punch line of Job is no God says, You, you Job are right in questioning, and you should silence these guys. And Richard wants to project that on to the Akedah. But of course, that only leads to more questions because of the silence of Abraham. In what I read in the beginning. Abraham only says two words to God or to God’s angel throughout the whole narrative Hineni. I’m here. It’s really amazing. how little he says, I mean, it’s almost as amazing how little he says to his son, there have been hold studies done on this in terms of just how powerful a story it is because so much is left in between the lines, I really emphasize that they walked together, the walking together is a powerful positive image. But the negative image of that is that they walk quietly. They didn’t talk, the father did not talk to the son, the son, only at the end said, Where’s the sacrifice. It’s such a powerful story because of what’s not said, as much as what is said.

Adam Mintz  20:44

So here now you come into a different, you see, up to now, we’ve been talking about God. Kant talks about God. Kierkegaard talks about God, just now you started talking about the people. Abraham, why was Abraham silent. So, there was a German literary critic in the 1950s. His name was Eric Auerbach. Eric Auerbach wrote an essay on the Akedah, he asked your question, (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition Erich Auerbach) what did Abraham and Yitzchak talk about on the Akedah. Don’t tell me they didn’t talk. That’s idiotic. They didn’t talk if they didn’t talk, because they were petrified. But that also needs to be said, Right? What did they talk about? So, he makes the following argument. He said: What did Avraham and Yitzhak talk about? He said, They reflected on what their lives had been up to that point. What else would you talk about? When you’re on the way to sacrificing your son? They must have talked about what their life was and what Avraham’s dreams were for his son, and what Yitzchak’s dreams were for himself. And that was all going to come to an end. So, Auerbach thinks that the Torah doesn’t tell it to us, because the Torah wants to focus on God. But actually, there’s no reason to believe that Abraham and Isaac don’t have a father son relationship.

Geoffrey Stern  24:13

So I love that you mentioned Auerbach, because he really does focus on how distinctive this whole narrative is. And you definitely raise one of the points. But you know, it seems to me that we need to look, the text is crying out for context, we’ve already emphasized how powerful the questions are. But if you go back this parsha is so unbelievable. It starts with God, after promising to Sarah that she will have a child. It says that these three people that came to visit, go down towards the Sodom. And now God had said in Genesis 18: 16. Now he had said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him, for I have singled him out that he may instruct his children for posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right in order. So, God is contemplating destroying Sodom. And he says, How can I hide this from Abraham, Abraham is a paradigm of he is going to be the model of ethical behavior, I need to share this with it. And then Abraham are kind of almost mimics Gods introduction. And in verse 25, says, Far be it from you to do such a thing, after God tells him he’s going to destroy Sodom to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. And he says, Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly. So this story of the Acadia is not on a Tuesday afternoon, where nothing is going on? We are just finishing a story about doing justice, about doing the right thing. And Abraham goes on in verse 27, says, Abraham spoke up saying, Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. So this Abraham who says nothing during the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac, all of a sudden has a voice. And he just goes on in verse 30. And he said, Let not MY LORD be angry, if I go on, what if 30 should be found there? I will not do it. If 30 are there, he talks to God he goes if there are 50, 40 30 righteous people, and then he goes on he says, Let my Lord not be angry if I speak this last time. What if 10 should be found there? And God says, I will not destroy for the sake of 10, having finished speaking to Abraham, Hashem departed, and Abraham returned to his place. So, I don’t know, maybe this is what the beginning of the Akedah is referring to when it says, After these things, but here we have a different Abraham, we have an Abraham, who is arguing with God who has a voice, certainly there has to be that contextual irony of it. What do you make of that? Why does he argue for the people of Sodom, and not argue for his son, his only son, Isaac?

Adam Mintz  25:44

Well, first of all, I want to tell you, if we had an answer to these questions, we could retire the clubhouse class, because no one’s ever had a good answer to that question. I mean, that’s the question right there, you ask the question. It can’t be. And that has nothing to do with Kierkegaard that has nothing to do with suspending the ethical, that has to do with Abraham, fighting for people. He’s willing to fight for the anonymous person of Sodom whom he doesn’t know. And he doesn’t fight for his son, the religious answer, the answer you heard in Yeshiva, once upon a time, is that when it came to his son, that was a direct order, and therefore he couldn’t fight with Sodom. God gave him some wiggle room. So, we fought, but that’s not a satisfactory answer.

Geoffrey Stern  26:35

So, some of the commentaries are asked, why did he stop at 10?

Adam Mintz  26:40

Yeah, that’s a good question.

Geoffrey Stern  26:42

And they also asked, wasn’t this all about his nephew, Lot at the end of the day? Who was living in Sodom? I mean, isn’t how the story progresses? Why doesn’t he say, will you not save Lot.

Adam Mintz  27:00

I think he probably knew that God wouldn’t kill Lot. Because already in the war of the Four Kings and the Five Kings last week, God didn’t kill Lot. So, it’s pretty confident that Lot was safe.

Geoffrey Stern  27:12

So this is one of the insights that I got this year. And it was as a result of reading this book, Abraham’s Silence by Richard Middleton. If you look back at our initial story, in the beginning, and you pointed this out this week, God says to him, take your son, your favorite sub one, Isaac, whom you love. And of course, you pointed out last week Rashi, quoting the Midrashic interpretation, is where Abraham says, We’ll take your son, he says, I have two sons, your favorite one, he says, I have two sons that I love. And then he finally has to go to Isaac. What is fascinating is that when the story ends, it says, first of all, in verse 12, Do not raise your hand against the boy, for now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you love. And then at the end, it also says in verse 16, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favorite one. Again, it doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. So we at Madlik. We don’t live in one week in isolation. We know that last week, we talked about the story of a Ishmael. And we commented, and that’s also in this week’s parsha that when Sarah said to Abraham to send off Ishmael, Abraham also saddled up his ass early in the morning. There are people that make direct parallels verse to verse, between the rejection, the exiling of Ishmael to the story of the Akedah and here we quoted last week that it seems as though Abraham actually loved Ishmael very much if we’re talking about an argumentative Abraham as I said in the intro, even then he argued with Sarah Why send him out? This quiet hineni Abraham of the Akedah argues with Sarah Why send him out. And ultimately, he listens to Sarah and he listens to God. But one of the things that I started thinking about this week based on the fact that the beginning of the Akedah story is talking about Isaac, who you love and the end where The angel has to call out twice to Abraham not to kill the boy, and says, now you’ve proved your point. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. I wonder if this is also about that dynamic. I wonder if this is a story of God putting Abraham to the test, I joked about whether Abraham passed or failed the test. But a test is made to show the teacher but also the student, who they are and what they know. And maybe there’s a dynamic here as well, about testing Abraham to see how much he loved this son, Isaac. And from that perspective, I think it’s an open question whether he passed or failed the test.

Adam Mintz  30:51

I’m with you. I’m happy to end the half hour with that. I’m with you. I do not disagree with you. I think that that’s an open question. I think actually, the whole story of the Akedah. The point is that it’s an open question. I don’t know whether Kierkegaard is right. Or Kant is right. I don’t know whether Abraham passed the test. I’m not exactly sure. You know, we call it The Binding of Isaac. Yeah, we call this class unbinding. Isaac. But why? Why is Isaac part of it? Isaac has no say, we don’t have time for this tonight. But there’s a fantastic question. How old Isaac is, there were three opinions in the commentaries. Either he’s five years old, 17 years old, or 37 years old. Now, if he’s five years old, it has nothing to do with him. He didn’t have any say in it. He was a kid. If he was 15, then you know, I understand he’s still a kid. But if you imagine he’s 37 years old, and his father wants to kill him, how could he not stand up for himself? We didn’t even talk about that part. So I don’t know if Isaac passed the test.

Geoffrey Stern  32:04

So I’m going to say something now that’s going to take Isaac out of the equation, I’m going to say something and that I’m just going to leave you all with that rudimentarily changes the whole story. Buried in the Guide for the Perplexed part 2: 41. Maimonides says, whenever there is an angel in a story, it is a dream. And if he had stopped there, we would all be flagging around saying, when does this apply? But he actually quotes our verse, of the angel coming in saying, Abraham, Abraham. And he talks about Abraham’s first Mareh (vision), where there was something terrible and fearful, which the Prophet feels while awake, and he has a great vision, and then his strength is taken away. What happens if the whole Akedah is I wouldn’t even say Abraham’s dream, I would say it’s Abraham’s nightmare. It’s Abraham’s attempt to deal with unresolved issues about his son Isaac, about his son, Ishmael, about who he is. And it’s all unresolved issues, too, in a sense. That’s what it’s all about. This becomes a kind of a canvas for all of us. it’s an open question it will always be open like a dream, that every year, we try to wrap our arms around, but to me, it puts it in a totally different perspective that this is going on in Abraham’s mind, and he’s trying to resolve unresolved issues.

Adam Mintz  33:55

That is a great way to end. Enjoy your Hadar Shabbaton, Geoffrey.  I can’t wait to hear what their insights are Shabbat Shalom to everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Parshat Hayei Sarah, Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  34:08

Shabbat Shalom and can’t wait till next week. And if anyone has any questions or wants to continue the discussion, go ahead, raise your hand.

Yochanan Lowen  34:22

Thanks, Rabbi The binding of Isaac is maybe my favorite topic of all. So, and I think I will have to open a room about it. So what I would say that you mentioned, Maimonides is talking about it. But according to what I heard from Professor Mark Shapiro, Maimonides himself does not actually talk about the binding of Isaac, but one of the commentators on the Gude for the Perplexed. (Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History Hardcover – May 1, 2015 by Marc B. Shapiro pp 67-70) I think his name was Narvani. He says that, according to my Maimonides, The Binding of Isaac was you can say it was only a dream or a vision. It wasn’t real. But guess what? This piece of Nirvani was censored. In the later editions. You have it only in the first edition of this commentator on the Guide of the Perplexed. And that’s very illustrational. There is, I think, maybe many people will be surprised to hear that I think that according to Talmudic and rabbinic opinion, Kant was more right than Kierkegaard. The Talmud says that all the the religious rules and laws of God has to fit with common sense logic and pleasantness. (דרכיה דרכי נועם see.  If it doesn’t fit with that, it cannot be a commandment from God. There is a famous rabbi in the 18th century, who says that there is only one exception in the Torah for that. There’s only one commandment that doesn’t fit with pleasantness. And that’s the mitzvah of Brit Milah. But besides that, there is no other What do you think?

Geoffrey Stern  36:31

So first of all, I love that there’s a commentary that says that but in our source sheet, you will look at my, the guide, Philippa Plex to 41. And literally in here, he talks about anytime that there’s an angel, it is just a dream, I shouldn’t say just because obviously, this was a powerful dream. But he literally mentioned our verse. So it’s, it’s buried in there. There was a guy who I don’t have a lot of respect for named Leo Strauss, he was a professor at Chicago University. And he wrote a whole book on Maimonides, especially the Guide for the Perplexed, and it was called Persecution and the Art of Writing, and he said that my Maimonides hid many things in between the lines. I don’t know if I ascribe to it in total, but certainly in this case, my monitor is whether we sing that job is just a parable, which is widespread in the Talmud, or here saying that the whole Akedah is a dream, I think definitely gives us license. I love what you said about the Toa having to be pleasant. There was a great scholar, he was actually in the family of the Chatam Sofer, the Katav Sofer, he called himself the Dor Rev’eiee, the fourth generation, he was a very orthodox, but he also supported starting a state of Israel. And

Yochanan Lowen  38:04

He was the Rabbi of Klosenberg.

Geoffrey Stern  38:06

Yep. And and he, he says, he quotes the verse כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה. In Deuteronomy, it says that the Torah is your Hachma, which is wisdom, Binatchem your discernment in the eyes of the nation. And instead of taking that as something that was descriptive. He took that as something that was prescriptive, so that we are commanded to be logical to be ethical to be moral. And he took it has ramifications. So, I love that you bought that, that that that part of it into it. But this is truly also one of my favorites, my favorite stories as well. It is just fascinating. And it’s what Torah is all about. It lends itself to so many different perspectives and insights. Lauren, welcome to the Bimah what’s on your mind tonight.

Michael Weiser  39:09

This has been very, very interesting to me, because in Genesis 20, to one it says sometime afterward, as you said, God put to the test Abraham saying to him, Abraham, and Abraham answered, and then to stop this whole transaction. It was the angel that got involved. And you went through like four explanations whether it was a dream or whether it was actually God speaking. Why do you think to begin with? God spoke to Abraham in the text. And then it was concluded with the angel speaking to him was there only because of the fact this was a dream but what precipitated the dream, if it was God that started it.

Geoffrey Stern  39:57

So first of all, I’d like to say There is it’s very easy to come down very hard on Abraham here. And you know, maybe I was leaning towards the fact that Abraham was ready to sacrifice this guy Isaac because maybe he loved a Ishmael more. Maybe he resented what he had had to do to Ishmael. I mean, I’m not sure about his relationship with Sarah even I mean, twice, once in this week’s parsha. He pimps her off to a king or somebody saying that she’s my sister. Really, this is a fascinating relationship. But I do think that the commentaries that focus on what you just pointed out, which is that the command came from God, and the cease and desist came from an angel, that almost bodes well for Abraham, that he was waiting for anybody to tell him to stop. On the other hand, why did the angel have to say, Abraham, Abraham, you know, so there’s so many nuances into this. But clearly, the classical commentaries do recognize that the original command came from God. And Abraham in the Midrash says to the angel, well, who the hell are you I was commanded by God, if anyone’s going to stop me, it needs to be God. And nonetheless, he did acquiesce. But that is another nuance, to this story, no question about it. And of course, if you make it all into a dream, it’s this nightmare, where he’s torn, he really resent this son. And, and he, he wants to, to, to stop the sacrifice, he wants to embrace him. But at the end, he can’t bring himself to say, my son, Isaac, who I love. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk about, was that the idea that came into my head was that, you know, Abraham was one of these leaders who loved humanity in the abstract. So, he could definitely argue for Sodom, he stopped at 10. He didn’t get into his nephew Laban. He loved humanity in the abstract. And those are the kinds of leaders whether it’s a Marx or even a Herzl, who can start a movement. But when it comes to their own family, when it comes to their own people, you know, I’m thinking of a Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov of he says, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” So I think this might be even a parable about leadership. And let’s face it, at the end of the day, you know, there was Noah, and then there was Abraham, it could have stopped there. You know, Abraham could have had the 12 tribes. There are piyutim in the sources that I bring in the source notes that say why Abraham could not get the Torah, why it had to wait for Moshe. And the reason he couldn’t, is because he was not אב על בנים. He was not a good father; he obviously had not worked this whole thing out. And that’s an amazing story, also, that we get through Genesis, how we have parents trying to figure it out, and they’re not altogether successful. And therefore, there’s a process, it doesn’t just stop with Abraham.

Michael Weiser  44:17

Thank you. Just one last quick question. Did Abraham love Lot?

Geoffrey Stern  44:21

You know, who knows? Who knows he had a transactional relationship with Him, in terms of Abraham came rich very quickly, partially because of Sarah, because this whole story that I reflected on before where he said she was my sister, and then the king gave her up and he gave much riches to Abraham, but he comes back to the land of Canaan, and he lets Lot choose where he will go. There’s friction between The shepherds of Lot and Abraham. So, it’s, it seems to be on the personal level. You know, the one you’d like to say that Abraham had the real relationship with was Ismael. But again, he’s he tried to stand up to, to Sarah, and he folded according to Rabbinic Judaism, you almost have to conclude his real relationship was with Hagar, who, after Sarah dies, he goes to in the stories that we read last week, it’s really a fascinating account of a not perfect individual, which is ultimately all of us, but the one who was responsible for creating this nation that was like the stars and like the sand. I think that’s a message too. There’s a there’s a biography coming out, I believe on Herzl, and hurt so of all the people in the world was the most imperfect individual, but he had one dream and I mean, it’s like Churchill was a failure until he came to World War Two. I think this might be a little bit of a parable in terms of leaders and leadership.

Michael Weiser  46:18

Thank you so much. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  46:20

Shabbat Shalom to you. Yochanan. So Yochanan, I am fascinated with you and what you what you do on on clubhouse and I’d love to learn more.


Thanks, Rabbi. I it’s a very big compliment when it comes from you. And I think I’m going to open now room about the binding of Issac, you inspire me.

Geoffrey Stern  46:45

So what is your background? And you’re very active on on on clubhouse I think I’m looking at your bio. You are the Hasidic Maskil of clubhouse Tell, tell us what that means.


It sounds kind of a paradox or oxymoron, right? Because the Hasidim and the Maskil were the biggest enemies. But I’m not the first one. From the 19th century. The first Hasidic Maskil was Eliezer Zweifel,   he published a book Shalom al Yisrael to make peace between all the Jewish movements of the time, the Hasidim the Misnagdim and the Maskilim and, and even the radical Maskilim like reformers or so. And he took for his book he took for recommendations from each of our four movements. It took recommendations of his book, believe it or not, even a Hasidic rabbi from the Schneerson dynasty, gave him a recommendation in 1870. So I grew up the siddik. I was a Hasidic Torah teacher. And now I’m Hasidic Maskil.

Geoffrey Stern  48:06

I am a paradox world. So I mean, I, obviously I didn’t grow up religious, although we always had Friday night. Shabbat and then at age 14, I became very religious, and I went to yeshiva in Brooklyn Torah Voda’as. And for six years I was in that world and don’t regret a second of it. But I really feel that in the shtetl, there was always someone who studied the Talmud on Shabbat with a cigar, whether he was called an Apicorus or a Maskil. And Judaism always thrived with those. And so when I saw that you were the Hasidic Maskil, I said, that must be a kindred spirit. And I think that we really do need more people like us.  What we stand for, is that this Torah, and this religion and our mesorah and  tradition belongs to all of us, and dare you, dare you tell me that it’s not mine, Because I don’t live up to some sort of predetermined threshold. It was given to all Jews and all humanity actually. So I think that we are very important to the world. And you know, there was a whole generation of very learned Jews that came out of Europe, and they went whether to Israel or to the states. There were scholars that came out of the Slobtka Yeshiva…   there’s a book on them. There was a Harry AusternWolfson at Harvard, there was Menachem Alon. A jurist, a Supreme Court judge in Israel, they will all totally knowledgeable in our Jewish tradition, but we’re no longer observant. Big deal, they also own it, they also have a right to speak about it. And I think that’s, I think we need, we need more of that. So Kol HaKavod to you.


I like what you said Geoffrey. So the greatest, the most famous Torah Scholar of the 18th century was Rabbi Jonathan Ibshitz. And he, he was kind of a radical rabbi, at the time, there was big dispute about him until today in the Torah world. And he he wrote in one of his esoteric Kabbalistic books, he wrote that in the period of the Messiah, the Messianic era, the mitzvahs would not be relevant anymore, but the Torah will always be relevant. So he made the distinction between the study and the knowledge of Torah and observing themselves of the mitzvah. So it’s a very radical idea, and he was actually persecuted for that. And obviously, he had to deny his authorship on that book. But all the academics today believe that he was actually the author.

Geoffrey Stern  51:25

Amazing. I had not heard that. Michael, welcome to the Bima.

Michael Weiser  51:30

Thanks so much, and quick question for you appreciate the discussion. I’m happy to listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac during the second day of Rosh HaShana, as traditionally, but you know what, I don’t know why it’s customary to read it that day. So if you have any insight to that, I would love to hear it.

Geoffrey Stern  51:54

So I, in typical Jewish fashion will amplify your question. Because what’s read on the first day is the story of Ishmael. So I made reference today a little bit to the fact that they both start off identical fashions that Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his ass. And there are those … you can google it very quickly, to see those scholars who have literally mapped the two stories one to the other. And this is modern scholarship. But as I always believe modern scholarship, there’s nothing that they have on the rabbis and the rabbis in the Talmud, because it does go back to the Talmud, who said on the first day, we talk about the story of Yishmael, that is considered also a test of Abraham. And on the second day, the story of the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. So I think if you pull back and you know, clearly, there are many Rabbi sermons that we’ll talk about why we have the two parshiot out on the two days, I think, if you pull yourself back from all of the highfalutin, and hermeneutics and darshanut. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you can not but recognize that for the most straightforward approach. You know, we’re talking about Abraham’s two sons, and they went on different paths, and they had different functions. But that had to have been very impressive. I think the Talmud itself always looks at the story of Abraham as the paradigm of sacrificing for God, for piety for listening to God, and that they took as a message that we were to have on Rosh Hashanah. And that’s literally what’s said, in the in the Talmud, in Megillah, but I think you can’t but ask, number one, these are two tests for Abraham. And at the end of the day, we’re almost looking at Abraham not as a patriarch, but as a dad, as a human being torn between these two instances. So again, I apologize for not focusing only on the Akedah. I think if you had to answer the A Qaeda, that’s a pretty easy answer, the Qaeda, and here we have to bend a little bit to Kierkegaard is the preeminent example of blind faith, of piety, and that’s how it has been kneejerk taken. And that would be the most obvious answer to say, on Rash Hashanah whether it’s the holiest day of the year or leading up to the holiest day of the we need to know that we need to listen to our God, no questions asked. And that what the Acadia is about. But I think it’s more complex than that. And I think the fact that the story of Ishmael is on the first day blows me away every year. And I’m curious why that also wasn’t a question to you, but the Akedah is, is, you know, we gotta listen to a higher authority. That’s a pretty obvious choice for a high holiday in my mind. Anyway.

Michael Weiser  55:29

Well, thank you so much for your response and Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  55:32

Shabbat shalom. Thanks for joining us. I wish you all a Shabbat shalom. Come next week at eight o’clock Eastern. And make sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and give us a few stars and a good review and share it with your friends and family. Shabbat Shalom and I’ll see you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s podcast: The Miraculous Birth and Ressurection of Issac

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Call me Ishmael

parshat lech lecha, genesis 16 – 25

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 3rd 2022. We discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, the older son Ishmael’s banishment in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego of the Jewish people. We will discuss…

Sefaria Source sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, normally associated with the birth of the Jewish people.  Reading it afresh this year we discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, it is at the expense of the older son Ishmael’s banishment.  We explore how Ishmael’s role as the outcast in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego and narrative to the Jewish people. So with apologies to Herman Melville, join us for Call Me Ishmael.


So yeah, we’re going back to Moby Dick. It feels like we’re back in high school. For those of you who have forgotten your high school class in literature, it is the first three words of Moby Dick. And he Ishmael is the narrator of the whole story. And he kind of disappears. He’s characterized as someone with little or no money in his purse, nothing to do. He says, If I stay here any longer, I’m gonna start hitting people. So that’s when I take to the sea. So he’s kind of a wanderer. And maybe that’s why Melville called them Ishmael. But more important to us, he kind of disappears in the narrative until the end when he’s the only survivor. So normally, as I said, in the intro, when we read Lech Lecha, we are focused on the birth of the Jewish people on the amazing narrative, of Avram and Sarai leaving their homeland and going on this amazing journey and pilgrimage. But along the way, we get this breadth of Ishmael this other character, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick appears, and then seemingly kind of a disappears. So, I think I’d like to introduce this whole episode, because we are talking about Isaac and Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham, with a quote from Robert Alter, the great modern commentary as literature on the Bible. And he says the entire Book of Genesis is about the reversal of the iron law of primogeniture, about the election through some devious twist of destiny of a youngest son to carry on the line. So, if last week, we talked about the flip side of choosing a Noah choosing an Abraham was regretting another choice. Today, we’re going to talk about if the narrative of all of Genesis is choosing, not the firstborn son, the second born son, and then the flip side of that is the rejection of the firstborn son. Or to put it in a more ironic way. If primogeniture is a sense of entitlement of the first born, the Bible systemically rejects the first boy. So it’s the rejection of the entitled, if you will. And that’s kind of an interesting way to look at the, the dynamics of not only Ishmael and Isaac, but Esau and Yaakov. What do you think, Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  04:05

I mean, that is the story. Actually, last week, we were given a little glimpse of that, because the story of Noah getting drunk after the flood, there was Shem, Ham and Yefet, and the one who’s really chosen is sham, who turns out to be the youngest son. So, we get that a little bit there. But here for the first time, we get the idea that Abraham has two sons, Ishmael should have been the chosen son. He was born, you know, Sarah suggested that he bear a child with Hagar with the maidservant. And he was born and he should have been the one and there should not have been any story. But Sarah gets jealous and God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. So, the story is the fact that the older one is put aside for the younger one. And the famous introduction to the story of the binding of Isaac tells us that God says to Abraham, take your son, your favorite son, the son that you like more than anybody else. And Rashi says, why does he have to say so many things just take, say, your son, take your son, there’s no reason to take your son. He says, I have two sons. Take your son you love. He says, I have two sons that I love. Take the son that she only wanted. Well, I have two sons, the only one so they’re two. They’re one mother. And so therefore, Abraham wasn’t so sure which son it was. God had to tell him which son it was,

Geoffrey Stern  05:33

Man, you hit the nail on the head, right There’s no question about it. I think to me, what’s intriguing is when you systemically, reject the firstborn, and you pick what you normally call the runt of the litter, then the first port becomes the rejected. And that’s kind of what’s fascinating here. And it’s fascinating, as you say, when in that episode, where God says, pick your son, Abraham keeps going back to his quote, unquote, rejected son, who is the first born. So here we go. We are in Genesis 16. And Sarai, Abraham’s wife had bought him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid servant whose name was Hagar. And so, I said to Abram, look, God has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid, perhaps I shall have a child through her. And Abraham headed Saria’s request. So, I Abam’s wife took her maid Hagar the Egyptian, after Abraham had dwelt in the land of Canaan 10 years, and gave her to her husband Abraham as a concubine. I just want to note that the Hebrew here is וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה. So even though the translation is a concubine, I think Rabbi you’ll agree with me אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה  is as a wife, in a sense. So, then it goes on. And he says, And he cohabitated with Hagar, and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered and her esteem. So here if you give me a little literary license, either Hagar God looked down upon Sarai, because actually, she had delivered and Sarai was barren, or Sarai is somehow projecting on to what Hagar must be thinking, because then it says in verse five, and Sarai said to Abram, the one done to me is your fault. She blames it on Abram, I, myself, put my maid in your bosom now that she sees that she is pregnant, and I am lowered in her esteem, God decide between you and me, Abram said to Sarai your maid is in your hands deal with her as you think right, then, so Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. So there is a lot of focus later, when Ishmael is actually born, that he misbehaves, and he is thrown out of the house, but tellingly, even here, before he is born, Sarai sees a reflection in her Hagar’s attitude, and already acts in such a manner that Hagar ran away? That is pretty profound, don’t you think?

Adam Mintz  08:54

It is pretty profound, you know, think about what it means to run away. Here’s a maid servant. She’s has nothing. She comes from Egypt. She’s living in the home, let’s say of a successful man, you know, in Canaan, if she runs away, she’s nothing. Can you imagine, people lead like an au pair, who comes from a foreign country running away from the family that she’s working for? They’re helpless. So it’s a big deal that she runs away. It must have been pretty horrible.

Geoffrey Stern  09:24

So runaway is one way to look at it. But if the circumstances were such as though she had no choice, in a sense, she was exiled. She was pushed out and remember as a Jew, reading the Bible, I have a certain sensitivity to people who are exiled. So that becomes a fascinating double entendre here, and then it goes on … and remember, Ishmael is not born yet. A messenger of God found her by a Spring of water in the wilderness the spring on the road to Shur, (8) and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she says, I’m running from my mistress. And he says, Go back to your mistress submit to her harsh treatment. And then the messenger of God says in verse 10, I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count, the Messenger of God said to her further, behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son, you shall call him Ishmael.  So, it’s almost a parallel story of a latest story that we will read, where a Sarah actually rejects and throws out Hagar. she also comes to a spring of water. And she also is given a blessing. This is almost like practice, like when children watch the scary movie over and over again, so that they can wrap their arms around it, but already, you get a sense of there is this respect, and this sensitivity, and this simpatico with Ishmael. The Rabbis said that there were only a few people who were named before they were born. And Ishmael is one. So here you shall call him Ishmael… he’s in a select few of people. As much as we know the later story just forgets about Ishmael. At this point. You could almost say to me, I don’t know where this story is going. I don’t know who’s going to be the hero.

Adam Mintz  11:49

Yeah, I mean, that’s good. Let me just to go back to just said somebody good things here. The fact that the story in this week’s power shot and next week’s PowerShell are basically you know, the same story. There’s only one difference in this week’s parsha Hagar gets banished in next week’s Parasha she doesn’t like Ishmael, Ishmael is a bad influence on her son. So, what happens to Hagar in both the cases is the same. But Sarah’s view is different. In this week’s parsha, you have this funny thing she’s competitive, you have to understand that right? He’s taking another wife. Not really, because clearly they had this idea of maidservants. But Sarah get’s jealous. Next week, she’s worried about the kid. And he’s a bad influence, the older son, which we can understand right… the teenage brother who gets the younger brother in trouble?

Geoffrey Stern  12:45

Absolutely. You know, normally, when we discuss a parsha, we don’t talk about what happens at toward the end. But I think that’s why my comment about Moby Dick and Melville is so important that Ismael is a figure who gets forgotten. But if you know all the stories coming in the future, we already can see stuff here, that gives impact. And if we only discussed it later on, we would forget this crucible, this beginning of the whole account. So, as I read on, it says, You shall call him Yishmael and God has paid heed to your suffering, he shall be a wild ass of a person, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. Here again, we see another motif where both Ishmael and ESAV they have the kind of skill set that you might need going forward in Jewish tradition going to the Shoftim (Judges) going forward in conquering the land, they are the people that have the skill set to conquer the land to make their way and, and in all of their cases, they have their supporters in this particular case we’ll see that Abraham really is consistent in his love and his dedication to Ishmael. In the case of Esau and Yaakov. Again, we have a Yaakov kind of likes Esau because he’s out there hunting and stuff. So this is another kind of theme that I want us all to keep in mind. It’s kind of like we’re repeating this story over and over again to learn something from it.

Adam Mintz  14:44

Good. I mean, that’s all good. The fact that the father seems to favor the son who loses. Now you could explain that that the father always favors the older son, but you could also explain it the way you just explained it Riskin always says it that way that no the father saw something in the older son that maybe the father lacked or maybe he saw that that would be important for the future. And therefore, he actually preferred that. Now the older son did not win. But the father saw something that was special in the older son.

Geoffrey Stern  15:16

Absolutely. So, here we are, and we are starting to see some patterns. And the patterns are fascinating, but the story moves on. And the story then goes to and God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:; 15, As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. So changing Abraham’s name and Sarai name is almost like a rebirth. It’s שינוי שם משנה מזל and I will bless her indeed, and I will give her a son by her I will bless her that should give rise to nations rulers of people. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed as he said to himself, can a child be born to a man 100 years old? Or can Sשרשי bear a child at 90? Verse 18. And Abraham said to God, Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor. In the Hebrew it is ל֥וּ יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל יִחְיֶ֥ה לְפָנֶֽיךָ. And the Ramban says its meaning is that he live and his seed shall always exist. So here, if you follow this interpretation, or even if you don’t, you would think that when the son from his wife is announced, his first thought would not be about his previous son, his son through his handmaid, so whether you give the Ramban’s interpretation or not, all of a sudden, Abraham consistently is thinking about Ishmael. But if you follow the Ramban, he’s saying, he wants to make sure that Ishmael is not displaced. I think that is fascinating. And then it goes on. And it continues in verse 20. And it says, as for Ishmael, God says, I have headed you, I hereby bless him, I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of 12 chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year, done speaking with him, God was gone from Abraham. So the meeting was over. But I had never realized Rabbi that God had promised Ishmael 12 tribes. I mean, in response to Abraham’s request, I just said never resonated to me. And it really does give power to these parallel stories and Abraham’s dual sense of love for his both his children.

Adam Mintz  18:29

Yeah, I mean, it’s really very powerful. And you know, it seems that Abraham… the second time, when he sends Hagar away with Yishmael that he sends them with that with a good knapsack full of stuff, which also is interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  18:44

Yeah. Okay. So so we get to the point now, that Yishmael is cast out. And at this point, we have a commentary like Rashi on 21: 10 says, the matter distressed Abraham greatly for it concerned a son of his וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ. And the story goes way beyond our parsha, and we can only be like a prequel to what happens. But to do that prequel what ultimately happens is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out, Sarah again has an issue with them. In this case, she says that he is being Mitzachek… . He is fooling with Isaac. Some commentaries say that he was sexually perverse. Some say that he was making fun of him, which is the obvious explanation one modern day commentary says that he was Isaacing him …. he was trying to say that I am the firstborn. But whatever the case was, the concern of Sarah is I think I consistent that she wants to make sure that the covenant is with her son, Isaac. And the concern of Abraham is also consistent, that he is concerned about his other son, he loves him as well. And I think this is a powerful message. And, you know, I’ll go right to the end game rabbi, I’ve always been struck by the fact that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out being exiled. And on the second day, we read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and you know, there are all these modern day. Commentaries, I’d love to find out the original source of who decided what the Torah reading was for each day.

Adam Mintz  21:13

Goes back to the Talmud, it’s about 2000 years old.

Geoffrey Stern  21:17

I don’t know if the Talmud gives a reason. But at the end of the day, if you get rid of all the commentaries, you’re dedicating day one, to the narrative of Ishmael. And a two is the narrative of Isaac, I mean, that’s the long and the short of it. Or to put it slightly differently. You’re dedicating day one to the test of Abraham with Hagar and Ishmael, and day two to the test of Abraham with his son Isaac. Fascinating.

Adam Mintz  21:50

That is fascinating. And the lesson of the banishment of Ishmael is the opposite lesson as the Akedah right, so that’s interesting, all interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  22:04

So it is fascinating. So what I want to do is it’s fascinating where this story goes, in Genesis 25, and this is way beyond a today’s Pasha. It says that Sarah dies after the akedah, and that Abraham then marries a woman named Keturah. And the tradition is that that is Hagar. She was named Ketorah according to Rashi, because her deeds were as beautiful (sweet) as incense (Ketoreth) (Genesis Rabbah 61). One of the Midrashim says she was שֶׁמְקֻטֶּרֶת מִצְווֹת וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים full of mitzvot. And this takes on a whole new story in the later Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer and i enjoin you to all see the source notes on Sefira where I quote at length Pirkei D’Rab Eliezer which was written in the much later in the eight hundreds. That says that, basically what happened was that during Sarah’s life, Abraham had asked, could he go visit his son Ishmael. I mean, it almost sounds like after a divorce, where you asked your wife can I go visit my child from my previous marriage, and in Perkei D’Rav Eliezer 30 that he gets permission from Sarah to go visit is Ishmael as long as he doesn’t get off the camel, meaning to say I think that, you know, don’t stay there, don’t plant any seeds there. Make sure that you come back. And it’s a long story. And he goes to the wilderness of Paran. And he meets his wife. And he says, Where is Ishmael and Hagar and she says they’re out, you know, picking dates. And he says, Well, I’m a visitor, could you feed me? And she goes, I got no food. And to make a long story short, he says, could you give a message to smell and tell him that an old man came and that he should basically change the entrance to his house; his threshold. And according to Perkei D’Rav Natan Ishmael comes back and goes you know what happened? And she says this old man came and he asked about you and he told me to change the threshold of my house. And he understood, Ishmael understood that meant to change his wife, so he changes his wife. And again, Abraham comes back a while later. And this time the story repeats itself. And this time he says to the wife, do you have anything to feed me, and she feeds him as it happens, she feeds him and he tells her to tell Ishmael about this. And Ishmael is told that his threshold is good. And that’s the end of the story in Perkei D’Rav Natan. The amazing thing Rabbi that I discovered is that there is a Muslim version of this story. And the scholars all try, they’re crunching their heads, they’re, they’re there twiddling their beards to find out, which was the original story, and that interests me less. But in the Muslim version that is in the Sefira notes, it almost goes pretty much the same. In that version, Hagar is no longer alive, he comes to visit his son. And again, he tells her to change wives, they change wives. But the difference is that in the Muslim version, his feet are washed by her, they come to a place called Maquom. And then he helps him build a temple. And according to Muslim tradition, this is Abraham and Ishmael building the Kaaba in Mecca. And there is part of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, that involves ceremonies that kind of re-enact this whole episode. So, it is absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. Number one, since we are in the parsha which is about pilgrimage, we can’t but say that Haj is the same as the Hebrew word Hag, which is the word for three times a year of making the pilgrimage. So, we are united at that level. But to me, it is just fascinating that we share this story. And I think there are multiple places where Islam has either preserved Midrashim, or introduced Midrashim that were picked up by the rabbis. But it is it is absolutely fascinating how we share the story of a smell. Have you heard this before?

Adam Mintz  27:54

Yes, I have heard this before. The fact that there are shared traditions between the Jews and the Muslims is not surprising. You see, the Muslims believe that they are line when through Ishmael. So therefore, Ishmael needs to be the winner. Not Isaac, now the Torah has Isaac is the winner. But what the Muslim traditions stories have, they say even though Isaac was the winner, but he was only what appeared to be the winner. Everybody thought he was the winner. But actually quietly, what Abraham was doing was he was going out to the desert. And he was building Mecca, you know, the temple in Mecca. So, it’s really a very interesting thing. You know, how can you have Ishmael be the winner? When the Torah says that he’s not the winner? And the answer is that they have this this underlying current, which says that Abraham was more interested. Now, it’s not made up. And this is the point, Geoffrey that you made at the beginning. And that is, it’s not made up. Abraham likes Ishmael. He may even prefer Ishmael. So, the bottom line is that from the Torah, obviously, even though Abraham prefers Ishmael, but Isaac is the one who’s chosen Isaac is the one who has the Akeda, and all those kinds of things. But the idea that Abraham should prefer Ishmael, it’s not as if the Moslems were making things up out of thin air, there really was something that was substantial about all of this.

Geoffrey Stern  29:33

So we don’t have a lot of time. But let me move it to the third religion of Abraham, in Galatians, which is about Paul otherwise known as Saul, a student of Rabbi Gamliel… Paul says, and he’s talking to a bunch of Jews who want to keep this new version of Judaism for only the circumcised and they want to keep keeping the laws, and he brings up Ishmael and Isaac. And he says that, Isaac was the son of promise. Isaac was the promised child. And Ishmael was that natural child, we’ve heard that concept before. And he compares the Jews to the older son. By the way, when you hear the Pope or whatever, saying we love the Jewish people, they are older brothers, implicitly saying that we are the oldest sons, the older brothers we’re not chosen. But that’s another topic. But the fascinating thing is, and I don’t want to comment on Paul or the New Testament, and the whole concept of supersessionism, which is where they took over the covenant. But it is fascinating to me, that Paul does the obvious. He compares the Jews to the exiled Ishmael… he says that you got the Torah in Sinai in Arabia. And we have Midrashim that say we got the torah in neutral land outside of the land of Israel. It is fascinating that we, as the Jews could easily be compared to the rejected son, who happens to be the entitled son, who is rejected by our tradition. It’s a fantastic irony. And the one thing that comes to my mind is Paul talks about the first wife, and at this point, we should all be confused, because we don’t know for Abraham who the first wife or the first mother is, and last week’s parsha we had an amazing Haftorah which happened to be my Bar Mitzvah haftora and it talks about רׇנִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה לֹ֣א יָלָ֑דָה, that the barren women shall rejoice because they are the blessed and at the end of the day rabbi, what we do find throughout all of Genesis is the miracle of birth. And that ultimately, is what we are celebrating here. Whether it’s the miracle of birth from someone barren, or a surrogate, we are all joined at the hip. And I just find that the story of Ishmael who ultimately was loved by the rabbi’s. We have rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael multiple Rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael we have no rabbis called Esau, you know, so, there is this love relationship and this kindred experience with Ishmael that I feel we cannot ignore and comes through loud and clear in this parsha and the narrative to follow.

Adam Mintz  33:16

Thank you so much Geoffrey. This is an amazing topic. It really there’s so much food for thought enjoy Lech Lecha everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  33:26

Shabbat Shalom to you all.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Lech Lecha Madlik Podcast: Abraham’s Epic Journey and Our Own

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

With regret, God

parshat noach, Genesis 6

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on October 27th 2022. According to the popular Bible translations, “in the generation of Noah, God regretted having made humankind”. As if to say that regret is the first Divine emotion represented in the Torah… not mercy, not anger, not joy, not love and not jealousy. We discuss…

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week we read the parsha called Noach and according to popular Bible translations, “in the generation of Noah, God regretted having made humankind”. It’s the first time an emotion is attributed to God in the Torah.  Not mercy, not anger, not joy, not love and not jealousy but regret is the first Divine emotion we encounter. That’s something worth considering … so join us for: With regret, signed: God


Well, welcome back. Rabbi Adam, it’s great to have you back. We certainly missed you. And you missed the Bereshit. But you’re here for Noach, and we are all the children of Adam, but we will so all the children of Noah. So, from a certain point of view, this is a beginning all over again. And as I said in the intro, I surprised myself….  I was always intrigued by this verse that we’re going to start with where God regrets having made humans on the earth. But I surprised myself in the sense that it is the first emotion that is ever attributed to God. Maybe I’m wrong, but I went back from the beginning and read all the way up to our Parsha. It says God said it says God rested. And there are emotions attributed to God. I mean, there’s jealousy, there’s anger, there’s all sorts of things. But here is the first time an emotion is associated with God. And we’re going to spend some time defining it. But anyway, you define it וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’. God was, let’s say, regretted. It’s the first emotion attributed to God. That’s a pretty big moment. Do you agree?

Adam Mintz  02:19

That’s a pretty big moment and don’t lose the fact that וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם means he regretted is the same word is Noach.

Geoffrey Stern  02:27

So so we have seen this kind of thing before where a literary piece like the parsha plays, and fiddles and rotates, and bobbles, a word … a name, and as you say, it starts by using this word וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם, but in וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם is the word, Noah. And we’ll see when we read the whole parsha, not tonight, but when you go ahead and read the whole parsha, you’ll see that it continues when the dove gets cast out. And is looking for dry land. It says וְלֹֽא־מָצְאָה֩ הַיּוֹנָ֨ה מָנ֜וֹחַ, the Yona the dove did not find rest. And again, it’s this same word. מָנ֜וֹחַ…..   .נֹ֔חַ I think you’re absolutely right, the fact that it’s the first time an emotion is used, and the fact that here the progenitor of all of human races, is associated with this emotion, again, as you say, makes it even more important. So, with that, let’s go to Genesis 6: 6 and I am literally going to read you a few different translations of the verse. I’ll say it in Hebrew first, because we’re going to spend the whole evening on this one verse וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’ כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ. So the first translation is the Jewish Publication Society. And it says, And God regretted having made humankind on Earth with a sorrowful heart. So that is what always attracted me to this, I only recently realized that was the first emotion attributed to God. But this concept of regret …. of God regretting his creation, in the second parsha has always intrigued me and made me want to understand is it the correct interpretation? What does it mean to us? I mean, it is pretty powerful that God after creating this whole beautiful world, calling it good calling it at the end Tov M’od, all of a sudden, 6: 6 he’s regretting it.

Adam Mintz  04:55

It’s fascinating, and of course that goes without saying the whole idea that God should regret something, it goes against our idea of God, obviously, right? I mean, we think that God gets it right. If God can’t get it, right, I mean, how can anybody get it? Right?

Geoffrey Stern  05:17

So, you know, I think the bigger question is anthropomorphism, how can you talk about God in any human, finite terms? How can you say that God said, how can you say that God rested on the seventh day? But certainly, when you get to emotions, it raises the ante a little bit. And when God is regretting something, our western I would say Greek philosophically influenced concept of God, is he or she is perfect. So how can something perfect make a mistake? Because isn’t that the basis of regret? So, I think we’ll see in the commentaries or in the translations, I should say, that maybe there’s a little bit of sensitivity to translating it as regret. So, if we go to Everett Fox, he says, God was sorry, that he had made humankind on Earth, and it pained his heart. So we really need to focus on two words here. One is וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם, and the other is וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב. And here Fox says וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם means to be sorry, and וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב …If you notice, in the JPS, it said the second word was with a sorrowful heart. He says it’s a pained heart. But what I think just getting to these two verses shows us…, there are many times especially in Psalms, where the way the Bible tries to convey the sense of a word is almost use synonyms is almost to say the same thing twice. A lot of times, the rabbi tried to pause it and say, well, why did it say a twice it must have different meanings. But I think you’ll agree with me that many times, you don’t have to say it means something different that we can learn from what one word is what the other word is. And here we have in these two translations, a perfect example of that, because the first translation talks about with a sorrowful heart, that is how it translates וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ, and the second translation of Fox translates וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’, as and God was sorry. So certainly we are getting more nuance about what this regret is. It’s regret. It’s sorrowful.  You know, when you regret something, I think the implication is, you think you could have done it differently. And when you are sorry about something, I’m not sure you always the implication is always that you could have done it differently. Certainly, when you are pained by something. It just hurts. So, I do think we’re getting some more nuances, don’t you?

Adam Mintz  08:16

Yeah. Well, I mean, let’s, let’s start at the beginning. And God was sorry. And he was pained. Now, isn’t that obvious? When you’re sorry about something, then you’re upset about it? What is the Torah tell you? The Torah seems to suggest that maybe God was sorry, but that maybe God was in pain by it, because God is God, and God can do everything. And therefore, if God decided to do what he wasn’t sorry about it, he was satisfied with the way that it worked out. But it really turns God into a person by saying that God was sorry. And that being sorry, led him to feel badly about it, right? Both pieces are important, because they kind of emphasize what we’re talking about.

Geoffrey Stern  09:08

Yeah, no question. The two words can amplify each other. But they can also be a progression. We’re not sure yet. You go to the Koran Jerusalem Bible. And it says, And the Lord repented, that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him in his heart. So, I think repented, all of a sudden starts to be it’s really a human type of term. And as you said before, it strikes us as odd but it sounds like he’s going to do something about it. Being sorry about something being pained about something, you don’t necessarily get a sense that you can do or you need to do something. But when you repented about something, then we start to get this feeling of maybe he’s going to do something it’s a forecasting of the rest of the parsha which of course, we know is full of a lot of action as a result of this emotion that God is feeling. The Metsudah Chumash says Adonoy was comforted that he had made man on earth, and he grieved in his heart. So here is the one that uses וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם in the way I think most of us would take it from a number of perspectives. You mentioned at the outset that the word וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם has the word נֹ֔חַ in it. No, I would typically mean the comforter, would it not? Noah, it was the fixer. Noah, it was the guy who ….  as regretful as God was about the rest of the world. Noah was the one who he could cast his lot with. We talked about the Yona the Dove, finding a resting place, again, that comes from finding comfort, finding a happy place, finding a place to lay one’s head, if we want to talk about comfort. Nowadays, when God forbid somebody passes away, and you go to the house of mourning, you are Minachem Avelim.. you are consoling the mourners, and there is a a formula that you need to say  veyinachem haMakom etchem that God should comfort you. So that would be the most natural translation. But it’s very hard to read in the verse, isn’t it? That God was comforted that he had made man on earth, and he grieved in his heart? It’s a hard read.

Adam Mintz  11:50

The hard read is not that the word וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם can mean and he was comforted. That clearly is a legitimate explanation. But how do you explain the second half of the pasuk? If he was comforted, then why was he grieved? I mean, I don’t even understand what the Metsudah Chumash, how it just it’s explaining the verse, What does it mean, he was comforted, but he was grieved. How does that work? Is that is that a progression? That initially he was comforted? And then he grieved? Is that what it’s saying?

Geoffrey Stern  12:31

You know, I guess you could make the case that when you grieve, that is part of the process of getting over one’s pain. But the question is much better than the answer. There is a commentary that is based on Rashi that I’m going to read next comes up with a little bit of an answer. They focus on the fact….  something that we’ve ignored till now. It says וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’ כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ, that God, we were translating it as regretted that he had made man on the earth. So the commentary by the Rashi Chumash says, And the Lord was comforted, that he had made man on earth, in parentheses, (and not in heaven, where he would have really made trouble. And then he thought, to go ahead and scout him. So, Rashi says that it was consolation to God that he had created man on earth, for had he been one of the heavenly beings, he would have incited them also to rebel against God. So, I don’t know if I buy into the interpretation, but I am thankful for the focusing on Haaretz; on the earth, what does it mean, even if we don’t buy this translation? And we talk about it means regret? It means sorry? What is the purpose of Haaretz; in the land? I think that’s a valid question.

Adam Mintz  14:11

I think that’s a very valid question. I think that what we see in these couple of parshiot, Bereshit and Noach is that there’s kind of this this tension between the human beings and the angelic figures. At the end of last week’s parsha, right before Noach, we have this crazy story about the B’ney Ha’Elohim the sons of gods who come and they come down and they take et banot Haaretz. They take the the girls, the women, as as wives, and it seems to be that there’s some confusion about you know, those who live in heaven and those who live on Earth. And it could be it could be that that’s a preliminary to the story of the flood, because God needed to start again, there needed to be a clearer distinction between those people who lived in heaven and those people who lived on earth. And that that might be what he’s referring to here. That might be what Rashi is referring to when he when he emphasizes B’Aretzt, because that’s playing immediately, after the story of the b’nei Ha’Elohim, which is the sons of God, and where in the world do they come from? What’s that all about?

Geoffrey Stern  15:33

So, one of the sub-texts of last week’s conversation was how earthly the Bible begins. And of course, as a Christian, I was interested in my friend Richard’s approach to that, because what he’s trying to do is bring Christianity which can be other-worldly, and talk about the pearly gates all the time and say, it’s all about Earth. And at the end of the day, man was created, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, to steward and to exert agency over the earth. So, I take a little bit of a poetic license, but what I see and wash his comment here is that the whole experiment, the whole endeavor, the whole exercise of creation, …. and we can delve into the reasons why a God would want to create this earth out of nothing. But at the end of the day, that’s what the regrets were, the regrets were that he or she had this amazing project, and the project was to create this earthly existence. And whatever God was doing before that, you know, no regrets. But this project, this so earthly project, that is all we know, God regretted it. So, from that perspective, I’m at the same time very much with Rashi. And I guess what he was comforted was in Rashi’s words, that, you know, there were other things, but in terms of this endeavor, this model of the earth, that he was a total disaster. And I think at this point, we can kind of step back for a second and say, Okay, so we’re talking about the first emotional response of God. And if we go through the long list of different ways we’ve translated it, whether it’s regret, or sorrow, or pain, or repented, or even he or she was comforted. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That this is the first exposure that we have to Gods emotions with us. And maybe the emphasis needs to be “with us”. It’s an emotional interaction with his creations, and we’re somehow linked to each other.

Adam Mintz  18:07

And God regrets it and therefore destroys his own creation. I’m going a little far afield. But I think the point is the right point. And that is that, you know, when God destroys humanity, the person who’s most negatively affected by that is God. Right? Because God made something. God created a whole world and God thought it was a mistake. Isn’t that unbelievable? Isn’t that crazy?

Geoffrey Stern  18:41

It absolutely is. I’m gonna go to one more translation that I I was I was blown away because it’s so radically different than everyone else. The first translations of the Bible were not commentaries. They were Aramaic translations. So there’s Onkolus and Targum Yonatan and both of them, I think, are trying to address the problem that you just raised, which is it’s crazy. How can God regret something that he created? And what they do is they introduce something into the regret. They say regretted in His Word וְתַב ה’ בְּמֵימְרֵהּ, they go back to the fact that God created the world with a word with language, and language again, it’s something that we can understand, right, Leshon bnai Adam. So it’s almost as though he regrets the story. He regrets the narrative. I think what they’re trying to do is to take it away from physicality and actuality and more into the level of language, (literature) and words. It’s a fascinating move. But clearly, I think that’s what lies behind what they’ve done.

Adam Mintz  20:03

I mean, there’s no question that That’s right. And וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם, God regretted it, and in a way, God regretted it. And it’s exactly the same emotion. On the flip side, that that comforted God through the figure of no luck.

Geoffrey Stern  20:24

There’s there’s two sides

Adam Mintz  20:26

It’s the same word is important, because it’s two sides of the same coin.

Geoffrey Stern  20:31

Yeah. It’s this dialectic. It’s this. There’s this ambivalence here. So, I said at the beginning, that we’re really talking about two words. And I want to move on a little bit to the second word, which is וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב. And that, as we have seen, has also been translated in multiple ways. pained, grieved… is the most normal translation. It’s an amazing word. Because if you go back to Genesis 3, when man and woman sin for the first time, and they are punished in Genesis 3: 16, it says to the woman he said, I will multiply your pain from your pregnancy, אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ. With pains shall you bear children, בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים. So twice, it uses the same word as an outcome of a bad choice. And then with Adam too it says, And cause the ground, on your account, painstaking labor, you’re gonna have to eat by the sweat of your brow, בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכְלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ . So in modern day Hebrew, if you’re sad, you’re עצוב. If you make me sad, if you annoy me, you לעצבן.

Adam Mintz  22:18

The word you’re looking for is עצוב if you’re sad, you עצוב.

Geoffrey Stern  22:24

Absolutely. And so it’s fascinating that that same word, which was used as the outcome of Adam and Eve’s first sin, is also applied to God, when He recognizes that his experiment has gone awry.  it kind of emphasizes what we were saying before, which is that God and His creations, or Her creations are linked or joined. And the pain that is suffered by man, when he falls short, is also suffered by God when he falls short. And maybe from that point of view, it’s not so strange that this is the first emotion that we find attributed to God.

Adam Mintz  23:15

It’s a reflection of falling short, and therefore God regrets creating man, God feels as if he fell short.

Geoffrey Stern  23:25

And I said at the beginning, that it was amazing that the first emotion was not love. It was not jealousy, it was not anger, it wasn’t mercy. But I have to take that back a little bit. Because mercy is רַחֵם. And that too, is related to נחם. So, there is this symbiotic relationship, where for better or worse, God has created this creation. And as the Creator, He is inextricably linked to the creation. And that’s what we find in chapter two, that God is part of this story. He’s a part of our story. And he or she can’t get out of it. And we’re in it kind of together. And that becomes kind of fascinating. And that ties in what what Onkelos and the Targum Yonatan was saying is it’s about this story. It’s about the words, I find that fascinating.

Adam Mintz  24:28

I think it’s fascinating. Now, the fact that God is a partner with human beings in the story of creation is a very troubling aspect, because it means God changes His mind and kaboom. Everything is blown up. Now, of course, that’s interesting. And that’s why this is another topic. That’s why God needs the rainbow. The reason God needs the rainbow is because God needs to promise everybody, don’t worry about it. I’m not going to ever do this again, because you better believe that they were nervous that God was going to do this again. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  24:59

So it means the story is moving forward. And there are new rules as a result, chapter three is going to be different than chapter two, there’s a progression God,

Adam Mintz  25:08

There are new rules for God. And after Noah leaves the ark, there are new rules for human beings, that you’re that human beings. They’re not going to live together with the animals, they’re going to eat the animals. But they can’t eat animals that are still alive. There are a certain set of rules, because I think that the story in last week’s parsha; creation, there weren’t quite enough rules, it was kind of a free for all. And that’s what you have the B’nai ha’Elohim you have the children of God coming down. That’s all too complicated. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Geoffrey Stern  25:49

So you know, in years past, I think I’ve said that I thought that the story of Genesis is all about choosing…. making choices, we’re going to start getting Cain Abel, we’re going to start getting we started with Noah, that Noah was chosen, that Cain and Abel, one was chosen. And then of course, our patriarchs, and I thought it was all about choosing, but I’m starting to think a little bit differently, that there’s a parallel story going on. And when you choose something, you regret a previous choice, when you have to say I put my lot, I put my chips with all of mankind. And then you have to go just with Noah, there’s the flip side of choosing is regrets. And if God begins the story with B’nei Adam… the people, the children of Adam, or the Children of the Earth, it’s universal. And then starts again with Noach. So now we’re bnai Noach. But this is the last time that we’re all part of the the right side of the choice.

Adam Mintz  27:01

Well, that changes in the Tower of Babel. Because in the Tower of Babel, you see the risk, when everybody’s together, when everybody’s together, then there’s a risk that they’re going to try to take over and be like God, so therefore after that story, we’re never united the same way.

Geoffrey Stern  27:22

And again, it’s a what I want to focus on for a second is the fact that it’s ultimately the story of God’s regrets, as much as it is the story of Gods positive choices. And if you look at modern Hebrew, the word עצוב is sad as you point out, but the word עצב means nerve. And עצבני means both sadness, as well as nervous and irritated. So, in a sense, we have a level of, I wouldn’t venture to say it’s depression. But because his creations are falling short, because he has this regret, because he has to comfort himself. There is no question that he is fear, feeling sadness, and pain. And I’m currently reading a book, I don’t know whether you’ve read it or not, it was on the bestseller list about a year ago. It’s called Genius and Anxiety How Jews change the world.

Adam Mintz  28:33

 I do know the book, I didn’t read it. But I know the book.

Geoffrey Stern  28:35

The author, Norman Lebrecht, definitely makes the argument that there were many Jews who happen to be geniuses or geniuses that happened to be Jews, it’s a little bit harder to find out what his message is about anxiety, but he tries to talk about the creativity created by anxiety. And for those of us who look at those parts of the Torah that talk about God in anthropomorphic ways, and we say that is not because God has an arm or God gets angry. But this is a reflection of ourselves. I think it becomes fascinating then, to see that the first emotion attributed to God is this sense of anxiety, this sense of depression, if you will, and if you start thinking, even in his book, he mentioned the Yisrael Salanter, who started the Mussar Movement, who five years spent his life in Germany because he was depressed, Kotzke Rebbe, Kierkegaard, these great spiritual forces, the Breslever Rebbe they all encountered deep, deep periods of depression. And I think that’s part of the story too, that you know, we talk about being godly and being in the image of God, but when you aspire that high, when you when you try to, to create a model such as this, you are opening yourself up for these feelings.

Adam Mintz  28:49

Depression, the word that comes to mind to me is disappointment. Disappointment means that you don’t reach your goal. And that’s actually how God felt God imagined that creation would be x, whatever God thought, and he was disappointed. And disappointment leads to sadness and disappointment leads to depression, like you said, I think that’s exactly the point. You see, what you’re really pointing out from the book and from Yisrael Salanter and all those people is that depression is actually a good thing.  That shows that you’re thinking that shows that you that you’re desiring of something, you want things to be great, and you’re disappointed if you can’t get there, and therefore you depress when that doesn’t happen. But ultimately, it’s a good thing to want to be great. If you don’t want to be great, you’re never going to be disappointed.

Geoffrey Stern  31:06

Yeah, I think, you know, we have to point out that we’re clearly not talking about clinical depression. And we’re not talking about medical depression.

Adam Mintz  31:12

That’s why I said it’s, it’s depression, from the sense of disappointment. From the word עצוב you’re disappointed, disappointed, therefore, you’re sad, therefore, you’re depressed in that sense. It’s a sense that you’re just disappointed. And that’s a good thing. And maybe what we learned from God is the fact that it’s good to be disappointed, we should all want to conquer the world. And therefore, when we can do it, we’ll be disappointed, but at least we were trying.

Geoffrey Stern  31:41

So when I was at the Mussar Yeshiva, with Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, and we had a Va’ad, which would meet late at night, once a week, and once he talked about regret, disappointment, and he says, you know, if you sin and you feel depressed or disappointed afterwards, I’ll turn to you and say, Well, who were you before? Were you Moshe? Rabbeinu. It’s kind of like the old Musar joke. Where all the Mussarniks say I’m nothing, I’m nothing and a new student comes in, and he’s sitting next to one of the senior students. And he goes, I’m nothing, I’m nothing. And they go, Who the hell are you to say you’re nothing. The point he’s making is we started by saying how strange it is that God could be disappointed. But if you look at that message, what it’s saying is actually, the only figure who can be disappointed, who deserves to be disappointed is God, the rest of us need to use our disappointment as a catalyst as a motivation. But we can’t let it get it down. And I think of all the, the great leaders that I mentioned, who, who, who had spouts, of depression, The Breslow Rebbi was the one who focused on joy as a result of that to get out of it.

Adam Mintz  32:59

That’s a great twist to the discussion. So we started with a hard verse about God. And we turned it around to talk about what we need to do and how we need to turn that depression into joy. I think that’s a great lesson for Parshat Noach. It’s great to be back. Enjoy parshat Noach, everybody. Geoffrey, I’m so happy to be back. I look forward to talking about Avraham and parshat Lech Lecha next week. Shabbat Shalom to everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  33:30

Shabbat shalom. Shabbat Menucha to everyone, and we’ll see you next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s podcast: Noah’s Rainbow

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Shared Beginnings

parshat bereshit – genesis 1 – 6

Join Geoffrey Stern and Dr. J. Richard Middleton recorded on October 20th 2022 on clubhouse. As we read the Torah anew we are joined by a leading Christian Hebrew Bible scholar to get fresh insight into the message of creation, the original sin and man’s creation in God’s Image. Most of all we ask a scholar who is revolutionizing Christian thought, what he sees in our Torah….. and what he can help us see as well.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today as we begin reading the Torah all over again I am thrilled to be joined by a leading Christian Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Richard Middleton.  I studied Torah with Richard at the Hadar Institute a number of years ago and I am sure that we will get a fresh insight into the message of Bereshit.  Richard is revolutionizing the way Christians read our Torah and I’m sure he will do the same for us. So crack open your Humash and join us for Shared Beginnings.


Well, welcome Richard to Madlik. And because you joined just today in order to honor us with your presence, welcome to clubhouse it’s a thrill to have you. And I am going to introduce you and give you a chance to tell us about your journey with a question. I mean, you have a PhD in theology from the Institute for Christian studies in Amsterdam. You have an MA in philosophy from the University of Guelph Graduate Studies religion at Syracuse University and a BA in theology from the Jamaica Theology seminary. But to me, your biggest yichus your biggest claim to fame, and what I was so impressed with is, as I said in the intro, four, maybe five years ago, I signed up for the executive seminar at Hadar yeshiva, the Hudson Institute in New York, where there is a extremely rigorous Torah study. And that’s where I met you. We studied B’Charuta, preparing going over a class or two. We had lunch together, we even joked around wearing different kippot. And I still think back to to those moments, but you ultimately are a student of Torah. As the Jewish people begin reading the cycle, from Bereshit, from Genesis all over again, what I like to do on Madlik, is to look at the Torah through a new lens. And it seemed to me how new of a lens how much more of a different lens could we get, then a Christian Bible scholar? So I’m going to start with the first Rashi commentary on the whole Bible. And Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzchaki, he is the soundtrack  behind Torah study for Jews. He writes a comment on every verse or two, as we’ll see in the Bible in the Talmud, the oral law, and he lived in the 12th century. So he starts as we all know, the Toa begins בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹקִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ when God began to create heaven and earth, and he asks, In the name of a Rabbi Isaac, he says, why did the Torah, which is actually a book of law, begin here? Why didn’t it begin with the first commandment? And clearly what he’s saying is from a Torah, abiding Jew who follows the 613 commandments….  What’s the need for all of this narrative? Why not just begin from Exodus where it commands us to keep the Chodesh, the month of Nisan as your first month? And in many cases, I think Rashi’s questions are even better than his answers. In past years, we’ve gotten into the answer to this question, but I think it’s a fascinating question to ask as we start reading the book of Genesis, why in God’s name, are we reading this? And so I want to turn to you, Richard, and this is your opportunity to tell us about your journey. What is a nice Christian, scholar like yourself, spending so much time in Genesis? You recently published a book about Abraham’s silence, which we’ll be studying in a few weeks, and the book that I re-read in preparation for today’s talk is a New Heaven and a New Earth reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and it’s literally all about the section that we’re dealing with; creation theology. So, Richard, what’s a nice Christian boy like you doing in a place like this?

Richard Middelton 05:00

That’s a great question. So by the way, let me let me start by saying, I’m a friend. Well, I’m a colleague of Adele Reinhartz. So, you may know her. And she’s a Jewish scholar on the Gospel of John. And she was once asked at her synagogue, what’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing studying the Gospel of John? I heard a whole lecture where she answered that question. Basically, I have found that the Torah that our Tanakh actually, is very grounding for my own faith, I’m a Christian. So, I believe in the New Testament. But for me, you cannot understand the New Testament except as a Jewish Book, it comes from the Old Testament, through the traditions of Second Temple Judaism. And so, for me, to even understand my own faith better, I had to dig deeper into this text. And I came to so love it. And I love Hebrew, much more than I love Greek. And so I decided that this is what I really wanted to study this and philosophy, those are my two primary areas of study.

Geoffrey Stern  05:59

So, I think that would be the typical answer of a Christian scholar, where you’re trying to trace the history of ideas, you’re trying to trace the past of the Christian religion, Jesus was Jewish, many of His disciples were Jewish. But as I read through your book, you go even deeper than that, you talk about the fact that the story of creation is so Earthly, is so physical, and that you talk about how Christianity over time has talked about things like a soul, as opposed to an organic body of spirit and flesh, how it’s made those distinctions, you really, at least in the in the book that I’ve just finished reading, talk about not only looking up the antecedents of Christianity, but also discovering ideas that may have been sublimated, ideas that can make you a better Christian. Talk about that for a second,

Richard Middelton 07:12

Right. So, I want to make clear that when I say I’m looking into the Tanach, as a basis for the New Testament is not defined how the New Testament is a fulfillment, or something like that. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for to understand how the scriptures of Judaism are the fundamental vision that we need to look at the world through to be able to even understand what’s going on in the New Testament, when Jesus was a rabbi, you know, so he used the kinds of language and conceptuality of the Hebrew Bible. And so, I’m interested in that because it has changed my own faith, to root me more firmly in creation, not to live in some kind of airy, fairy hyper spiritual reality, which is a problem for some Jews as well as for Christians. But it’s been, you know, I’ve struggled with this Christian tradition that has disembodied our faith, and look to heaven hereafter, whereas the trajectory of the scriptures is that God comes to earth, to live with his people, you know, in the tabernacle, the temple, journeying with Israel through the wilderness, and people see God and they wonder why they don’t die. Can you see God, but God is embodied in some way. So for me the earthiness of the scriptures, and the challenge to have one’s entire life be shaped by a vision of who God is, and what God wants to do, to make this world into a basically, you know, a place of fulfillment and shalom. To me, that’s what I believe Christianity ought to be about as well as Judaism. So the scriptures of the what we call the Old Testament, which is not a denigration for me, because I view the the older as the more venerable. And that’s the ground of my own faith. And it’s fed me spiritually, to immerse myself in these ancient texts without jumping to the New Testament too quickly.

Geoffrey Stern  09:04

Yeah. I love that I said that that many times, there are two comments of Rashi on every verse, the second comment of Rashi, on the first verse of genesis, is he focuses on the word Bereshit. In the beginning, or as he began, which includes   רֵאשִׁית, and there is a Midrashic interpretation, that the Torah is called בִּשְׁבִיל הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁנִקְרֵאת רֵאשִׁית. That wisdom is called Reishit רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה ׀ יִרְאַ֬ת ָ֗ה Wisdom we all know, is a different part of the Torah, it’s Wisdom literature. But you started in your first answer by talking about this, Jewish scholar who was a scholar in John, and we all know that in the Gospel of John, it says “In the beginning was the Logos”. And I consider that to say that there was what was called a pre-existing wisdom, a pre-existing Torah a preexisting spirit to the world. It’s really almost a fight against this concept of creation from nothing. Creation ex nihilo, or what we in Hebrew called, Yesh Me’Ayin Because at the end of the day, Richard, we might not know why a god would create a physical world, but it was a break a major disruption in the Constitution of the universe, if everything was God, if there was this pre-existing harmony, and all of a sudden, this earthly world was created. If you can’t swallow that, you start to say, well, maybe the world was created from something that already existed, I almost feel that there are parts of both of our tradition that actually have a problem with the coincidence, with the contingency of our earthly world. Am I totally off base here?

Richard Middelton 11:25

Yes, and no, it depends which theologians you’re reading and what they say, I came to grips with the contingency of the world actually, through studying philosophy. Through reading Heidegger, believe it or not, and the Nature of Being and the question of why is there something rather than nothing that Heidegger used to raise and I came to the point that I have to accept that everything in reality is contingent, nothing is necessary. And some Christian theologians, and perhaps some Jewish theologians, do want to have a kind of a theoretical structure of being that somehow is necessary and immutable. But that’s not the way I experienced the world at all. Every moment is a gift. Contingency has these two sides that on the one hand, you have to receive the world as a gift, because nothing is guaranteed. The other hand, it opens you up to the possibility of disruption, and the possibility of crisis, because nothing is guaranteed. And we live in this kind of a world. This is a kind of world, if you want to be faithful to God, it’s got to be in this kind of world, there is no other kind of world.

Geoffrey Stern  12:30

It gets messy, it gets messy when you have these contingencies. In your book, you do a wonderful job of tracing the philosophy started with Plato going to Aristotle, and ultimately to Plotinus. We all know the story of Plato, where you see kind of shadows passing the cave, and the concept you explain is that there is a physical chair. And then there is an ideal, a form of a chair. And Plato and even Aristotle, I think used it as much as a thought experiment as anything else. But by the time you got to Plotinus, he actually believed in this, I believe, and you can confirm this had a major impact on Christianity, that there actually were two parallel universes, and there was a universe of the Spirit. And then there was a very less perfect universe of this physical earth. And you talk about all the wonderful Christian hymns, where we are going to go to those pearly gates, where the objective is almost to be that pure spirit. And almost, when one passes from this world to the next, it’s almost a release. And I really believe that that is a major struggle that we find in this image of creation that we’re looking at today. Because on the one hand, you can try to impose on it some pre-existing logo, or wisdom, and say that it was really all preordained. Or you can say that it was a major break. And that here for whatever reason, the Godhead created a physical, messy, earthy world. But in the words of the great movie, it’s as good as it gets, and we have to make the best of it. Did I did I do you justice?

Richard Middelton 14:29

Yeah, I mean, Plotinus is more complicated than that. Plotinus is not a duelist. He’s a Monist. He thinks that the only true reality is immaterial. And this world is a kind of an emanation from that reality. A lot of people want to compare Plotinus with Hindu philosophy, the Upanishads because there’s similarities, but I think there’s some differences too. But the core with Plotinus is this that he gets this from Plato, that to be a proper human being needs to transcend materiality, to transcend the physical senses and the desires of the flesh. And for Plotinus also means to transcend reason to go to a mystical experience with the One that’s his term for God, to become one with the one. And so this idea that you must transcend this world for spirituality to be effective, has infected, I think not just Christianity, but some Judaism too. And I want to say is the other way around, we’re not going anywhere. But we need to embody tikkun olam, we need to be, you know, establishing this world, or affecting this world, by the way we live so that God is manifest in the world. So it’s a different, it’s not earth to heaven, it’s actually Heaven to Earth, if you want to use that kind of language. And everything changes your whole orientation in life, the whole purpose of life. But there’s a whole lot more going on than just that. But for me, that’s why I had to study philosophy, understand where these ideas came from, and then to study scripture to understand what’s a better way to read the text, without those lenses which distort the text.

Geoffrey Stern  16:03

And I totally agree with you, by the way, that this is not a discussion only to have in Christian theology. It’s also one in Judaism, I think that there’s all the mysticism all of the thought processes that tries to somehow get away from this Shamayim al Ha’aretz. It’s this heaven on earth with the focus on the earth part has to really read the chapters that we are reading this week, whether with a new lens, or a naked lens to see that God created the world. And we’re going to talk in a second about what the first thing that happened as a result of that was but it was, and it is messy, and it’s celebrated. And I think that’s the takeaway that I get not only from reading the text, but also reading some of the things that you have written about this text. You know, earlier, you said that your reason for reading the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament was not to look for the antecedent of or the, the prequel to Christianity, but to understand it well, and I think, you know, many Jews have seen those versions of the New Testament, where all of the verses that talk about anything that can be construed as the future religion of Christianity are underlined. And I think it’s very refreshing that we can move beyond that and talk as two students of the Hebrew Bible, and just see, what does it mean in the moment? And what does it mean for us, and I just feel that as we start reading the book anew, it’s wonderful to know that there are different faith groups that are reading these same texts, and reading them honestly, just to get the right message, whether it’s something that agrees with their understanding of their faith, or they’re willing to re-evaluate. So the second thing that I think most Jews would say; Torah readers would say, that differentiates our reading of these verses is Original Sin is the quote, unquote, “The Fall”, I did a Google search for original sin in the Hebrew Bible. And I maybe I didn’t spend a long enough time. But the amount of scholars in Judaism that say, There’s no such thing as original sin in Judaism is staggering. But the truth is, and in in our source notes, and this is a podcast and when you listen to the podcast, you will see a reference to the Sefaria sources. I quote, one source that talks about the beautiful custom that we have for women, who are separate Challah But the Talmud says that when a woman has a girl, she is impure for twice the amount of time as she would be for a male. And one of the commentators Rabaynu Bechaya says literally, because the she is atoning for the sin of the first woman of Chava (Eve). So I think to say and he goes on to say, and that’s why women light the candles, and that’s why women separate holla to say that Jews don’t see the first sin as something that’s impactful, I think, is being dishonest. But clearly, it is a major point of; of looking at and to say what happened as a result of that and is man evil by nature. Was it a change in degree? Was it a change in kind, how has your reading of Original Sin changed over time, as you read a scripture anew,

Richard Middelton 20:10

I’ve been influenced by both biblical scholars who pay attention to the text of Genesis 2 and 3 very carefully the garden story, but also by the tradition of John Wesley, I’m in the Wesleyan theological tradition. And Wesley was influenced by what we call the Eastern Church Fathers, the Greek reading early Christians of the first few centuries, and they did not have original sin, it was St. Augustine and the Western the Latin tradition that had Original Sin. So, there is a much more empirical understanding of how sin entered the world. So, my own interpretation as I read the text, and of course, no one reads the text with no assumptions. So, my assumptions have to do with I look at the actual world, we live in the corruption of the world, there is real corruption in the world. I look at my own life experience. And I bring that to the text. I also look at the history of hominin evolution, which I am aware of how does this relate to the development of human beings, as you know, human beings before the face of God, and the way I understand it is, this is a story that is archetypal, that tells us about what happens in every human life. But it also is, I think, we can say it’s a story of what happened to the human race somehow. But we can’t get a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols in the story, and empirical data. We don’t do that. But something happened as humans became human, as they became aware of morality, that they overstepped the bounds of their own conscience, and they corrupted themselves in some way. But that corruption is not, as Original Sin puts it, a genetic defect passed on to all people. It is, I think, a social defect, a cultural defect, as we are all socialized into corrupt ways of living. And we have to learn alternative ways of living. That’s what Torah is for, right? Or a New Testament, the sermon on the mount or the letters of Paul is to encourage people to live righteously, that we learn a new way of living to counter the social worlds that we have entered into, because there was both great good and great evil among human beings. And I think these stories tell us that humans have become corrupt in some way. I don’t think we can figure out exactly how that is, though. I am reading the manuscript of a brilliant Christian geneticist, who looks at what evolutionary theory says about how humans became moral. And he’s connecting that to Biblical stuff. And it’s really interesting, he goes beyond anything I’ve ever read before. And I’m giving him feedback on the biblical side of it. But I’m learning about the evolutionary development of morality in the human race. So I think that there is something that went wrong with the human race somehow, we’re not totally evil, but we have a tendency to evil that we have to overcome. And I That’s my summary, very quick summary.

Geoffrey Stern  23:03

I think when I tried to put together the two points, to connect the dots of where we started, and when we talk about evil, the beginning of evil. I mean, in a sense, evil is slash corruption is slash imperfection, it almost is part and parcel of having a contingent, earthly, finite, physical world. I think I heard you say that, while we all listened to the Western interpretation of Christianity about this evil and I think it was propounded by the Church Fathers, fairly late, maybe Augustine…. But but the point is, that what you were saying is it’s more of a narrative, it’s more an understanding of the human condition. And I look at the rabbinic interpretations. And this is after saying that, I do believe that there is this concept of a Fall and the birth of evil and I quoted that, that one text to prove it, I’m sure there are more, but the flip side is, it says after the world is created, and it was Tov M’od, it was very good, where every other day, it says good. At the end, it says it was very good. And Bereshit Rabbah. One of the early interpretations, says Rav Nachman said, in Rabbi Samuels name behold, it was good refers to the good desire the Yetzer Tov and behold, it was very good refers to the evil desire they Yetzer Ha’rah, now this occurs before the first sin. So there already is this sense that yes, the human condition on like, a time Where there was only the infinite, right Before the time where there was this major disruption. And for whatever reason, God created a physical world where there was no Yetzer ha’rah, when God created our world, there was the possibility of good, and there was the possibility of evil. And that was very good. And if you think of the whole narrative of the fall, as something that explains the most cataclysmic question that religion has, which is mortality, why do we die? And if you project onto the story and say, Well, it’s because we sinned. So then comes along Bereshit Rabba a few chapters earlier. And it says, In a copy of Rabbi Meir’s Torah, and behold, it was very good. And behold, death was good. It’s a little bit of a play on Me’od and Mavet. And that’s why it’s a question of whether this is a textual emendation. Or it’s a commentary. But again, this is before the sin of the tree of life of tree of knowledge. To me, it is amazing, because it does put that into a different context, it does put it into the context of; this is the human condition. And guess what? It’s good. It’s what we were given.

Richard Middelton 26:27

So you see, I would say that the possibility of going wrong is always there in a contingent world. I don’t think that the fact of going wrong is necessary, but it is certainly a significant possibility. Now, some people will say that Tov Me’od comes not after God created human beings, but after God has finished all creation, and looks over the whole thing. And notice, he never said right after the creation of humans, that it was good. It was delayed to the entire creation, because maybe humans are not, we’re not sure if they’re going to be good yet, because they have freedom. So that’s one possibility. But when you go to actually the narrative of Genesis 2, 4 through to the end of chapter 3, it’s quite clear from a close Peshat reading, that mortality is not intrinsically tied to sin, mortality precedes sin, for God makes the human being out of the dust of the ground. Dust throughout the entire Bible is a metaphor for mortality. You know, remember that he remembers that we are just dust. That’s why God is compassionate knows Psalm 103, or Psalm 22, in the lament, you know, I’ve gone down into the dust of death. And you know, dust you are into dust, you shall return. This is a metaphor for mortality, human beings are created mortal I think the way the story goes is, but they’re excluded from eating of the tree of life because of their corruption. Because to eat of the Tree of Life in a sphere of corruption, would make corruption permanent. So, the eternal life is denied access to us, because of sin. Mortality, not a consequence of the fall. It’s just a normal human condition. But in both Christianity and Judaism, the notion of resurrection says that one day, there will be a time when God will perfect the world and there’ll be no possibility of going back again. But that’s a whole different question. I don’t connect mortality to sin, as most of the Christian tradition does, starting in the Middle Ages, but the early church fathers didn’t do that, which I find interesting. They were more accurate to the text.

Geoffrey Stern  28:38

Yep. And I think that is a fascinating insight coming from a Christian because I think most of us on the outside looking in, would say knee jerk, that is the most basic assumption of Christianity. You know, there’s a book written by Harvey Cox, who was a Protestant theologian at Yale. And he ended up marrying a Jewish woman and he wrote a book called Shared blessings. And he says, the first time he ever met a Jew, he said to the Jew, he says, Oh, you’re the guys who don’t believe the Messiah has come. And of course, for most Jews, that’s not how we define Judaism. Some of us don’t even believe in the Messiah. But I would think that most of us Jews looking at Christians believe that critical to the faith is that man can only get salvation can only fix the original sin by this leap of faith. And I think what you’re saying to my ears is then becomes kind of kind of radical. And again, it gets back to this rereading of our text, as it’s not all about escaping this earth. It’s not all about escaping the human condition. It’s possibly about making it better.

Richard Middelton 29:59

Yes. I definitely think that’s the dominant trend of scripture of both Testaments. That’s not a contradiction between Christianity and Judaism in their original texts anyway. In the received tradition, it may be but not in the text itself.

Geoffrey Stern  30:13

So I want to get back to Rashi’s original question. Why are we reading this? And I think one of the biggest takeaways that I took from your book is that you focus on what is the purpose of creation? That’s what this book is all about. And that’s certainly what these chapters are all about. That would be the obvious answer to Rashi. Rashi, it’s not all about just keeping the commandments. It’s like, what are we doing on this world? What is the plan that God has for us in philosophy, you know, that’s called teleology, it means, what is the end goal? What is the thing and you focus on two verses, Genesis 1: 26, God says, Let us make humankind in our image, after Our likeness, they shall rule the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things, and God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God creating them male and female, what is that message to you?

Richard Middelton 31:24

And I back up a little and say something about why we’re reading creation and then go to the teleology?…  So the question that Rashi had, the way you articulated it was, you know, why are we reading all these narratives? Why not just get to the Torah? Because it’s the law after all right? Well, even the beginning of the 10 words, right, says, I’m the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage. There is a summary of the narrative of Exodus that ground the Torah, because the Torah is a response to the God, who was already entered into relationship with us was already acted on our behalf. And likewise, creation is really the first act of God in our behalf. Before God redeems us in any historical situation. God brings us into being and gives us a purpose in the creation accounts of the ancient world that Israel lived in. Usually, the people who are created by their god is that particular nation or that particular culture that’s who was created, in the Enuma Elish the Babylonian creation story, the gods created the black headed people.  the name for the Mesopotamians. They don’t create the other people of the world, there’s no accounting for them. The Bible says God created all peoples and gives you these complex genealogies that lead to the line of Seth, and then the line of Abraham. And then that goes to Jacob and Joseph and the people of Israel. So Israel is within the larger scope. This God is not just an ethnocentric deity, this God creates all peoples, even the people outside of the Covenant are created by God, and God has a purpose for human beings. So most of the ancient Near East viewed their temples as microcosms of the universe. And Israel also does …. you have the candelabra which is like the stars, and you have imagery from, the fruits and vines, and so on, on the doors of the temple, and it was on the tabernacle too, you have a cosmic imagery, that this is like a miniature tabernacle, and it particularly Jewish scholars, like John Levinson has made this a very important point. But one of the unusual things about the view of the world in the Israelite literature was, they didn’t just do their temples, as a microcosm of the universe. They viewed the universe as a macro cosmic temple. It doesn’t seem to any other nation did that. So God makes a world you know, there is a floor …. the earth. Ha’aretz and then there is a, a roof, you know, the rakia, and it holds back the waters and then creatures are living in this world, and God wants to make this his temple. And in the later scriptures, you find the notion that God dwells in heaven, right. And when Moses takes the elders of Israel up the mountain in Exodus 24, they see God on a throne seated upon something blue, which is the sky, God is reigning in heaven … now it’s an image. It’s a metaphor. But the idea is that God is in the Holy of Holies, of the cosmic temple, and God places in the cosmic temple, an image and every pagan temple would have an image, but this image is human. And this image is the human being who is meant to manifest to channel the presence of deity from heaven to earth, by the way they live in the ordinary processes of human life. So ruling over animals in Genesis, as many scholars will tell you refers to animal domestication. And you know, the man names the animals in Genesis too which is asserting some kind of authority or power over them, subduing the Earth ….  don’t think about modern technology destroying deforestation or something. Think about what it was like in the ancient world, for a farmer to bring the Earth into productivity, it took a huge amount of work. So animal domestication and agriculture are being spoken of in the ordinary mundane aspects of human life. Human beings are to manifest God’s presence that is defined later in Scripture in terms of what sorts of ways in which we should live. How should we use the agency and the power that we have in the world for good, not for evil, and that’s what Torah is for, to reshape Israel after the deformation, of Egyptian bondage, because once you are slaves, you are not a full human being anymore, you have become deformed, to remake them as full-fledged human beings and community that can become a royal priesthood or a kingdom of priests manifest to the other nations. Because as God says in Exodus 19, all the earth is mine, but you are going to be for me special, you will be my manifestation, primarily because narratively speaking, human beings have not been doing it, they have become corrupt. So I’m going to pick a one, peoples, and I want them to manifest what the whole human race should be, you become the model for all other peoples. And in my, one of the articles I wrote, I don’t think you read that one. I quote Martin Buber, who says, Why does God pick this one people? And in Deuteronomy in the Torah, I think it’s chapter 32. God speaks about like a mother Eagle, taking Israel on his wings, and teaching her to fly. So why is God picking this one eagle? What about all the other little eaglets in the whole world, but God wants this eagle to fly, that the others may imitate and follow her. And so the whole human race may be restored. That’s basically my summary of what the teleology of creation is all about ….. restoration. But the imaging of God in the world by righteousness in ordinary, everyday activities. And God wants to restore that, that’s what the rest of the Scripture is about.

Geoffrey Stern  37:12

That’s, that’s beautiful. I mean, one of the things that I did take away from your writings was this sense of agency and responsibility, that being in the image of God implies, but I also and I want to finish on this, the question that you ask is so simple, so obvious. But because we spend too much time reading the Rashi’s of the world, and looking at the commandments and all that, we sometimes forget to ask the question, What does God want of us, and I come from a tradition started by Robbi Yisrael Salanter in the 19 century, called the Mussar Movement. And he basically said the same thing. He said, you can spend all your life keeping all the commandments. But if you don’t ask, what am I doing here? And more importantly, in terms of that agency and responsibility, you don’t focus on what can I do to improve myself and thereby the world? You’re missing the boat? And so, I think, and I thank you for bringing your insight into rereading, which is what we all do when we begin the cycle of the Torah, rereading the holy text in the Scripture, to ask what does it mean to us? And what is really there, and I just found this conversation. So fascinating. I hope, Richard that you’ll join us again, I hope you enjoyed a fraction as much as I did, and you felt your time was worthwhile. I do want to open it up if anyone in the audience has any questions. But again, I want to thank you so much for studying with us the way we did five years ago. Thank you so much.

Richard Middelton 38:59

May just said Geoffrey, that I found our time together at Hadar wonderful. It was liberating, and I loved getting to know you. So, this is why I wanted to do this because you’re a great person. And I love your spirit. Thank you so much.

Geoffrey Stern  39:12

Thank you. Be sure to listen to this as a podcast. It will be published later on and share it with your friends and family. And we’ll see you all next week when we study Noah and the Ark and see how the story progresses. Shabbat Shalom and thank you again, Richard.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Bereshit episode: Exile and Return from the Beginning

Check out Dr. Middleton’s book: A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, 2014 by J. Richard Middleton

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


shabbat Sukkah

Join Geoffrey Stern recorded on clubhouse on October 12th 2022 for Madlik Disruptive Torah. We explore Judaism’s unique concept of holiness of place, using the Sukkot prayer that God “raise up the falling tabernacle of David” as our point of departure.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Transcript: Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. In a previous podcast called Architecture in Time we’ve discussed Judaism’s unique concept of the holiness of time. This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Sukkot so find yourself a temporary booth and join us as we explore Judaism’s unique concept of holiness of place.


Well, welcome to Madlik. Rabbi Adam is we gave him off for the Jewish holidays! So here we are broadcasting as you know, on clubhouse and it gets recorded and published as the podcast on Madlik. So if you like what you hear, feel free to share it with your friends and family. So I thought tonight, as I said in the intro, it is going to be both Shabbat and Sukkot this coming Shabbat Sukkot. I thought I would start with a story. And the story is told by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin: So, two Hasidic Rabbi’s, the Kotzker Rebbe and the Vorker Rebbe were sitting in the sukkah on Shabbat. And they started discussing what was the most important, what was the most pleasurable commandment. And the Vorker Rebby says, well, I love Sukkot, because when you’re in the sukkah, you are surrounded by the mitzvah. And the Kotzker Rebbe, who was a little bit of a cynic said, Well, that’s true. But if you walk outside of the sukkah, you are no longer in the soccer. So, my favorite Mitzvah is the Shabbat, because you can’t walk out of Shabbat. And it’s a great story. But it really focuses on the difference between the holiness of time represented by the Shabbat and the holiness of place. And I want to imagine what the Vorker Rebbe would have responded, Because I doubt that the conversation ended there. And as I made reference to in the introduction, in a previous podcast, we talked about Heschel’s, great concept of the Shabbat, is a cathedral in time. And of course, what he meant by that is that we Jews do not have an edifice complex. We don’t focus on a place of finite latitude and longitude. And by making time holy, we have a taste of eternity. But nonetheless, I think the Vorker would have said yes, but we do live on this wonderful, glorious earth of ours. And we do have finite bodies and times and senses. So my sense is that he would have put up an argument, but he would have argued, in a sense that we have a unique concept of space and place and that’s what we are going to discuss today. So when you sit in the sukkah, you make a blessing over the sukkah as you do over every other commandment, but you also add a beautiful prayer in the Birkhat Hamzon; in the grace after meals, and the prayer is very short. But I want to read it to you in the Hebrew and the English it says הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יָקִים לָֽנוּ אֶת־סֻכַּת דָּוִד הַנּוֹפָֽלֶת may the Merciful One raise up Yakim, the Fallen Tabernacle of David, the Succat David Hanofelet. And it isn’t the sukkah David She’nafal  the sukkah of David that has fallen, but it’s actually in the active present it is the fallen or the falling Tabernacle of David, the falling booth of David. And that’s why I named this episode Fallingsukkah with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater which maybe we’ll get to at the end of our podcast, but this has always intrigued me. This concept of this shaky booth, who those of us who build one in our backyard, we cringe at the idea of a strong wind or a hard rain, because we’re afraid that it’s going to fall down. I believe at MIT in the day the Jewish engineering students would go ahead and make different Sukkot all based on different very sophisticated laws of physics laws to see who could stand and who could fall. But surely part of the magic of the sukkah is it is a temporary a booth. It is transitory. And I think that is what this beautiful blessing is celebrating. But it’s always intrigued me as I said, so I wanted to use this time to find out what the source of it is. And as we did last week, every prayer that is in the prayer book comes from somewhere. And this particular prayer comes from chapter 9, in the book of Amos. And many things to do with our Sukkot, we shall see have to do with the end of days. And in this particular case, Amos says after a long liturgy of what will happen in the end of the days. He says, all the sinners of my people shall perish by the sword. Those who boast never shall the evil overtake us or come near us. In that day, I will set up again the Fallen booth of David אָקִ֛ים אֶת־סֻכַּ֥ת דָּוִ֖יד הַנֹּפֶ֑לֶת I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old, (12) So that they shall possess the rest of Edom. And then he goes on and it says I will restore my people Israel, they shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine. They shall till gardens and eat their fruits. So surely what he sees in rebuilding this booth of David that has fallen is rebuilding the temple, coming back to the land, being part of the agricultural cycle, being able to plant and reap to have vineyards and drink wine. And it is an apocalyptic vision and it’s wonderful. But it still really doesn’t get into this concept of the sukkah hanofelet, it talks about what will be in terms of making that sukkah rebuilding that sukkahr, but it still doesn’t answer my intrigue of what is this sukkah that is constantly falling. And so I think what we need to do to really understand this is to step back and say the sukkah; the booth is actually one of the most unique commandments. We’ve come across something like this once before, when in a podcast called walk like an Egyptian, we noticed that the first time that God says write these words on your arm and between your eyes. Certain commentaries said he’s not commanding us to wear the phylacteries the tefillin, he’s talking in a metaphor. And of course, we have in Jeremiah write these words on your heart, this concept of writing things on your body. But that is a small metaphor. The metaphor of the booth of the sukkah is something that is so much bigger, so much broader, so much more universal than the seven- or eight-day holiday that we’re in. So, for example, in the evening service, we say a prayer called Hashkeevenu. And it says, may God lie us down in peace our king raise us up again to life, spread over us the shelter of Your peace, וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ, this concept of a tabernacle of peace is way more than just the holiday that we’re in. It’s clear that this booth, this protective layer, this shadow and shade from the elements is by far a bigger, a much bigger metaphor. We see in the Talmud that when it talks about this nofelet to this fallen thing, it doesn’t limited only to the temple. It’s bigger than just the temple. So RAV NACHMAN said to me, Isaac, have you heard when the Fallen son will come when בר נפלי And he said, Who is the Fallen son Mashiach answered RAV NACHMAN and the Messiah you call the befalling son? And he answered, Yes, for it is written (our verse in Amos) and that day, I will rise up the tabernacle of David. So, this concept of a tabernacle is more even than just a point, a place of a shade. It is actually the human condition. It’s actually a person. When they talk about the sukkah, hanofelet. They’re talking about man stumbling as well. And so I think that even to look at it as only place and space is to constrain it too much. It’s more than that. It is literally as I said before the human condition. Another piece of the Talmud says as follows that Robbie Itzhak said to him, this is what Rabbi Yohanan said, during the generation in which the Messiah, Son of David comes Torah scholars will decrease as for the rest of the people, that eyes will go fail, and it will be a hard time. And why is that? He says, because it is a time that is fallen, he quotes our verse again. So, it’s really this, this raising up the Sukkah that that is trembling, this sukkah that is hardly standing in the wind is really a much big metaphor. And there are two sides of it. On the one side, it seems to me there is the human condition, that we are so feeble, so open to the whims of nature and of destiny. And on the other hand, there’s this sense, as we saw in the prayer in the evening prayer of something that provides a shelter, and shade. So here is kind of the interesting thing that really puts this whole sukkah into a little bit more of context, this time of year, obviously, we all make fun of and we joke about when will the Jewish holidays, finally come to an end. And that’s because in Tishrei, we start with Rosh Hashanah, then we go to Yom Kippur. And then we end with this sukkah. And you really have to almost look at them as one literary piece, one experiential piece, and there’s one psalm that we say, from the beginning of Tishrei, until the last day of Sukkot, shemini, Atzeret and Simchas Torah, and it’s Psalm 27. And in it, it says, one thing I ask of God, אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־ה’, and that is what I seek, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. It says, לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹעַם־ה’ וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵֽיכָלֽוֹ, and to frequent His Temple. So in a sense, you almost get a feeling of the high holiness, the steadfastness of the Rosh Hashanah and the Yom Kippur experience. This coming in as a stranger maybe coming in as someone who’s just visiting, and then to get access maybe, to the temple, but then it goes on, he will shelter me in his pavilion on an evil day כִּ֤י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי ׀ בְּסֻכֹּה֮ בְּי֢וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה. So we get this sense of the sukkah as the refuge the sukkah as outside and a counterpoint to the Bayit and Hechal…  to the temple. And again, you get this sense of the contrast between that sense of a cathedral, that sense of an edifice, that sense of something that is קבוע; which is permanent and Something that is ארעי that is temporary. There’s a beautiful phrase in Pirkei Avot and it says that אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע you should never make your prayers permanent.  static without dynamism, you should make them temporary full of dynamism. So, you have that conflict you have that I would say dialectic between the two concepts, the two experiences of the High Holidays which are temple based. And then the sukkah, which is not only outside of the temple, and therefore has this dynamism to it. This sense of fleeting and temporality and also very being precious and in the moment. And then one also gets the sense of the sukkah being some sort of a shelter. But as I said before the Sukkah is used in so many ways as different metaphors for different things. So when the Ibn Ezra comments is on this, and it says B’sukkah, he says it’s Jerusalem. So you almost get the sense that the sukkah is a Rorschach Test where everybody projects on to it what it is they want to be rebuilt. And he bases this on Psalm 76, which says, וַיְהִ֣י בְשָׁלֵ֣ם סֻכּ֑וֹ וּמְע֖וֹנָת֣וֹ בְצִיּֽוֹן, Salem became his abode, Zion, his den, so whether it is Jerusalem, or Israel, here, we get into this sense of the holiness of place for the Jew, the homeland, the Temple. But again, what is compared to that homeland? What is compared to that temple? It’s this lowly humble, very tenuous, Booth, this Sukkah that is constantly falling, stumbling, and picking itself up again. And I just feel that it is a fascinating concept. It’s one thing to say as Heschel that we Jews focus on time and the holiness of time. And that’s all good and well. But at the end of the day, we also do live in space. And so, the question then becomes, how do we live in space? What is our affinity with space? How do we interact with space, and I think the rabbi’s or the metaphor more than any other seems to be this sukkah. And it seems to be almost a transitional, a bridging concept. So, I was thinking about who, who would have an insight into the sukkah more than anyone else. And the one thinker who has really focused on the brilliance of the Jewish people, the genius of the Jewish people, is that we transcend space, and we transcend place is a thinker that we might have mentioned a few times before. It’s Franz Rosenzweig, a good friend of many Zionists, including Gershom Scholem, who made Aliya, who emigrated to Israel at the turn of the century in the early 20s, and 30s, and was inspired stayed behind in Germany. And in his books, Star of Redemption, he really focuses on the genius of the Jewish people has always been created in the Galut, the genius of the Jewish people is that we have not been anchored to a particular land. So it’s clear that he had a, I wouldn’t say challenges, but he was challenged by this concept of a homeland. So I wondered what he would say about Sukkah. And what he does in the Star of Redemption is he talks about the calendar, the Jewish calendar, and he tries as does the psalm that we just read to bridge between the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah experience and the sukkah experience, and he says he calls the chapter “The way back into the year”. And he says, “For after them” meaning after Yom Kippur and Rashanna “comes the Feast of Booths, which is a feast of redemption founded on the base of an unredeemed era and other people yet within the pale of history, in the common unity of man, the soul was alone with God to neutralize this foretaste of eternity. The Feast of booth reinstates the reality of time.” So as someone focused on time, Rosenzweig is focused on time on this Jewish concept of cycular time that constantly moves forward. And we are experiencing that at this very moment, because in a sense, we’re coming to the end of the year, both in the calendar, as well as the reading cycle of the Torah, we’re about to begin it all over again. And he senses that transition in the transition from Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, to coming down into the cycle of the Torah reading into the cycle of the pilgrimage holidays into the cycle of agriculture. And he sees that it reinstates the reality of time within space. He says, Thus, the Feast of Booths is not only a festival arrest for the people, but also the festival of ultimate hope. Redemption is only a hope, only something present, expected in the source of wanderings. So I take his interpretation, as again, a wonderful reflection on what nofelet means it’s this dynamic movement between eternal, eternal time and historic time, and temporal time. And we on this upcoming Shabbat will be experiencing all of that. And I find that to be again, all based on this word, nofelet which is falling in the active present. It just seems to me so dynamic, so exciting. And it takes a very, a universal metaphor of the hut, of the refuge provided by shade from the elements. When I was in synagogue last week, on Ha’azinu. The Haftorah is another great poem/song that was written, and it was written by David, and it is in Samuel II 22. And because I was already thinking about Sukkot, my ears picked up and I read something that I had never read before. He’s talking as David could only talk as the one who was hiding the one who was constantly afraid of his enemies. He says In my anguish I called on the LORD, Cried out to my God; In His Abode He heard my voice, My cry entered His ears. (8) Then the earth rocked and quaked, The foundations of heaven shook— Rocked by His indignation. (9) Smoke went up from His nostrils, From His mouth came devouring fire; Live coals blazed forth from Him. (10) He bent the sky and came down, Thick cloud beneath His feet. (11) He mounted a cherub and flew; He was seen-h on the wings of the wind. (12) He made pavilions of darkness about Him,. So here he says, וַיָּ֥שֶׁת חֹ֛שֶׁךְ סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו סֻכּ֑וֹת. So as opposed to a Sukkah that provides shade here, David seems to be living in a Sukkah that is shade. That is the darkness. And so this too gives a whole other aspect to what that Sukkat Hanofelet is; that sukkah that is constantly falling. It’s not only falling in the sense that it is potentially rising, but it’s falling in this sense that it’s going down. And here he is describing his situation where he’s hiding from his enemies. He’s hiding from despair, and he’s in the sukkah of darkness around him. So it kind of puts a different aspect on this. nofelet, but to me, it simply manifests once again how that Sukkat Hanofelt, that constantly falling sukkah is actually the human condition. And it’s the condition of both one getting up. But it’s also the condition of that person going down. It’s the condition of being protected. It’s also being the condition of being depressed and ensnared. And to me, that makes the fact that we call this holiday Simchateynu, our joy, gives it new meaning because it is the joy emanating out of the human condition that I celebrate. I started by saying that this week, we’re calling it with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright, who built a beautiful home over a waterfall called Fallingwater. And we are calling it Fallinsukkah. Because I think if anything, to say that time is fleeting, and Time moves, that’s easy. But to talk about space, place, nature, the human condition that that is constantly in flux, I think is something that becomes even more magical. And in the notes, I have a picture of Fallingwater. And if you haven’t seen it or been there, I’ve not yet been there, I definitely want to go. It gives you this sense of this combination of not so much the permanent with the temporary, but that all that is permanent, is actually the temporary. And that’s how I’d really like to end up. There was a great pre-Socratic philosopher called Heraclitus. And you know many of us have heard his adage that you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, because the river is always moving. All entities move and nothing remains still. He’s quoted as saying everything flows and nothing stays. And I think to me, the message of the Sukkah Hanofelt is that what is the most important to us what we celebrate in at the end of this month of Tishrei is the only thing that is in fact permanent. And that is change. The only thing that is permanent is growth. And I think that at the end of the day, the only thing that can’t be destroyed and certainly if there is one word that is associated with a cathedral or with a Jewish Temple, it always seems to be the word destroyed temple and the one thing that can never be destroyed permanently is that which is temporary. It is permanently temporary. It is constantly falling. And that constant flux is I think what we celebrate on Sukkot. When we sit inside of our Sukkah, hanofelet. S with that I thank you I wish you Shabbat Sukkah Samayach. Because what is sukkah about if we can’t sing a song or hear a song, I’m gonna play Shlomo Carlebach’s rendition for the prayer that we have been talking about.

Geoffrey Stern  29:45

We’ll see you all next time on Madlik Disruptive Torah.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

This is a continuation of a previous podcast: Architecture in Time

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

God Believes

parshat ha’azinu – deuteronomy 32

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on October 6th 2022. In Moses’ parting song to the Jewish people he mentions Faith (emuna) in two different ways, both of which don’t refer to man’s faith in God. We take the opportunity to explore the meaning of Faith in the Torah and latter Rabbinic thought.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. In Moses’ parting song to the Jewish people, he mentions Faith (emuna) in two different ways, both of which don’t refer to man’s faith in God. We take the opportunity to explore the meaning of Faith in the Torah and latter Rabbinic thought. So gather round you faithful Madlik listeners and join us for God Believes.


Well, I gotta say anyone who is here after being in synagogue all day and Yom Kippur, you must be Jewish addicts, or Torah addicts, because here we are, again, e just can’t get enough. And I thank you all for coming. You know, last week, I quoted a beautiful comment that that I got. And then I also said that there was the ticket lady at my synagogue who when I wanted to change my seating time said, No problem I listen to Madlik every Friday. So, this week, when I showed up to synagogue, and I saw the same lady, she goes, You know, I’m the ticket lady, and I have a name and my name is Susan. So Susan, I want to thank you, thank you for letting me into synagogue. Thank you for listening to Madlik for being one of our faithful. We also got a comment from Loren. And he said that, “The study of Torah as expanded by Commentary is indeed a remarkable yet nuanced journey. Geoffrey Stern in collaboration with Rabbi Adam Mintz each week focuses on thoughtful interpretation of the current week’s parsha and thereby bring exciting understanding and relevance to Biblical verse. There are good guides and then there are exceptional guides… Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Mintz are in the class of exceptional Torah guides. They offer credible yet creative textual foundation and in turn inspire the listener to continuing traveling roads of further study and examination. Try the podcast once…and then you too will celebrate the excitement of the gift of perspective they offer. This is a weekly study event both for the less experienced and also for the well-traveled students of Torah.” It is wonderful when we listen and we hear from our listeners, because there’s nothing worse than speaking into a vacuum. And there’s nothing better than teaching Torah and studying Torah with friends and family. So thank you, thank you all for being here. You know, Rabbi, you mentioned that next week, on Shabbat, we’re actually not going to be reading the Parsha. We’re ending the Torah but it’s not in the Sabbath cycle. Is that right?

Adam Mintz  02:59

Right. So let me just explain that since this is actually our last Thursday night of the cycle, even though there is one more parsha left. So next Shabbat, are the intermediate days of Sukkot called Hol HaMoed. And on Hol HaMoed, there’s a special Torah reading for that relates to Hol HaMoed to Sukkot and the Torah, we finish on Simchat Torah. That’s the tradition a week from Tuesday, we finish the Torah. So therefore, it’s an interesting thing. The end of the Torah is the only portion that’s actually read on a date. It’s not Shabbat. So actually, today, we’re talking about faith. Maybe we can, we can think a little bit about the fact that this is really where we’re going to end the Torah and the story of Moshe’s life,

Geoffrey Stern  03:45

And If faith means anything, at Madlik it means that we don’t have all the answers. And I want to share with all of you listeners, that we don’t have the answers of what we’re going to do next year, because for two years, we’ve been talking about the Parshat Hashavuah. And I think both Rabbi Adam and I are kind of on the same page that we maybe want to think about doing something differently. So, if any of you have any ideas, suggestions, go to And write a comment, write a comment on any of the podcast platforms, we are open-eared to any suggestions and ideas that you have. But here we are. This is our last Madlik podcast of this cycle. And we picked a very, very small trivial title. We’re going to talk about faith. It’s about time; two years. What do you say Rabbi isn’t about time to talk about faith?

Adam Mintz  04:45

I’m ready. Fantastic. I love it.

Geoffrey Stern  04:47

So we are in the parsha of Ha’Azinu and it is literally the swan song. It is a song from Moses;  God through Moses to the Jewish people and it begins in Deuteronomy 32. And we’re going to read one through four and it says הַאֲזִ֥ינוּ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם Give ear Oh, heavens, let me speak. Let the earth hear the words I uttered, may my discourse come down as the rain. My speech distill as the dew like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass, for the name of God, I proclaim, give glory to our God, the rock whose deeds are perfect, yay. All God’s ways are just. A faithful God never faults true and upright in deed. And I am going to focus on the words of faithful God El Emunah. Because the word for faith the word for belief in Judaism is a Emunah. And it is rarely as we will see tonight used in the Toa, and this is one of the primary places that it’s used. And sure enough to our surprise, it is not talking about Moses, the man of faith. It is not talking about the people of Israel or people of faith. It is talking about אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ a God of faith. And that’s why I call this episode God Believes. But before I open this up to the rabbis’ comments, I’m going to go down just a few more verses, because after Moses finishes talking about how God has given mankind every opportunity by giving His Word as dew and as light and all of that good stuff, it gets a little critical. And at 32: 20 It says, God said, I will hide my countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end, for they are a treacherous breed, children with no loyalty in them, לֹא־אֵמֻ֥ן בָּֽם the same word, no faith, you could say in them. So here we have in Oh, I don’t know, one small chapter, which is what our parsha ultimately is one small song. Faith is used twice, once to describe the God of faith. And the second time to describe a people with no loyalty in them. Rashi says לֹא־אֵמֻ֥ן בָּֽם, my training is not evident in them before I showed them the good way. And they have deviated from it. It doesn’t really smack of there are people lacking faith. There a people almost who have betrayed God’s trust. How do you take at least for the purposes of these few verses rabbi, the words Emunah and emun.

Adam Mintz  08:23

So, first of all, it’s really interesting to you know, to compare these two things, because what you see is that the word faith is not you know, you think that faith means what we have in God, that’s the one use of the word fake. And here you see that in both cases, that’s not exactly what it means. So let’s just say each El Emunah, a god we can count on. That’s a very important thing. You know, we just coming off of Yom Kippur, you need to be able to count on God. If you can’t count on God, you’re in big trouble. El Emunah. God is a trustworthy God. That’s a very important quality. We might argument we can discuss this, we might argue that it’s the most important quality of all; the fact that God we can trust God, that we know that God is going to take care of us from day to day we can trust God, but lo emun bam means they have no emunah, which means they can’t be trusted. What it means that God can trust the people. They’re not they’re not reliable. We have that term today, too. The worst thing you could say about someone who works for you is they’re not reliable, right? They’re not reliable. That’s terrible, not to be reliable. And that’s what he says about the people. They’re not reliable. So, God is reliable, and the people are not reliable.

Geoffrey Stern  09:53

You know, we haven’t done this for a while. But in modern Hebrew, an Ish Ne’eman is someone you You can count on it someone you can rely on. He’s reliable. And I think you kind of touched upon that in both of your explanations of the different permutations of emunah that we have in this pasuk. It says, A faithful God, what you your interpretation is a being that we can rely on. And when he talks about the children with no Uman in them, that you can’t rely on them. And I think that is you know, that has to be the most basic interpretation. And that has to be the most straightforward reading of the text. But because we’ve been spending so much time in synagogue, I like I said in the pregame once I decided on what we were going to discuss tonight, I started focusing on the prayers slightly differently and I said, How does this word Emunah appear in our prayers? And the most amazing thing is that when you wake up in the morning, even before you’ve washed your hands, and so therefore you cannot say God’s name befurash you can’t actually say, Hashem Adonoi. There is an amazing prayer that every child learns in cheder and it’s called the Modeh Ani. And it’s מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ I give thanks to you living and everlasting King. חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי that returned my soul to me when you wake up you’re actually the Talmud says 1/60 of coming back to life. בְּחֶמְלָה in great mercy? And then you pause and you say רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ Great is your faithfulness. So here again, we have this word Emunah. But it doesn’t say in the sense of I am faithful, great is my belief. It is God’s faith in me, that we rejoice upon. And I look at that. And I go back to the verses that we just read. And I see a faithful God as a God who believes in us and I see children with no לֹא־אֵמֻ֥ן בָּֽם the way why she says My training is not evident God is in a sense disappointed because he had faith or he or she had faith in us, and we didn’t come through, but certainly Rabbi How do you take this רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ great is your faith?

Adam Mintz  13:05

I mean, it’s a good question, but chemla raba,  means with kindness. rabba emunatecha , your faith in us isn’t that  really what it means it’s God’s faith in us. And I think there’s a very important point that the rabbi’s understood. And what the rabbi’s understood is that faith is one of those terms that’s multi-directional. If you’re going to have a relationship, you have to trust one another. By the way, that’s true about marriage also, right? If only one partner trusts the other one, but the other one doesn’t trust the first one, you’re not going to have a good marriage, the only way a marriage can work is if both trust one another. That’s a very, very important point. And here you have the same thing. If we’re going to have a relationship with God, it means that we have to trust one another.

Geoffrey Stern  14:02

I totally agree. I think you could make the argument that Raba emunatecha could be great is my faith in you, that you revived me I went to sleep, and I believed in it. But I don’t think that is the explanation. The amazing thing is like all of our prayers, it doesn’t come from nowhere. The Sanhedrin hagadola whoever wrote our prayers, took them from Scripture. And believe it or not, these two words come from Echa; Lamentations is the book that we read, on the saddest day of the year. And in lamentation chapter 3: 17. It says, And I am kind of coming in in the middle. If you look at the source notes, and you read it from the beginning of the chapter, it is just beautiful and poetic. but it is a whole litany of things of how we are bereft My life was bereft of peace. I forgot what happiness was. I thought my strength and hope had perished before the Lord, to recall my distress and my misery was wormwood and poison. Whenever I thought of them I was bowed low, but this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope. The kindness of the Lord has not ended his mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning. Ample is your grace, Raba emunatecha The Lord is my portion, chelkei Hashem, God is my Helek, The Lord is my portion, I say with full heart. Therefore, I will hope in Him talk about how haTikvah talk about hope. Here is the prophet Jeremiah, giving voice to the forlorn individual, the forlorn people of Israel, and what gives them hope, is clearly not their faith in God. But the translation I read is ample is your grace. But the word is Raba emunatecha, I don’t think you can, other than give the interpretation that we are giving, which is great is your faith, even if it’s unfounded in us.

Adam Mintz  16:31

So that’s what it is God’s trust in us. And it’s exactly what you said, you know, it’s kinda a weird idea. But the idea in Modeh Ani is that every single morning God makes a decision. The decision is whether or not to give us back our life. That at night, we’re asleep, and God decides whether or not to give us back our life. B’Hemla;  Raba Emunatecha, that God is ultimately trusting, you know, he trusts us. And that’s why he gives us back our life. If he didn’t trust us, there’d be no reason to give us back our life. If he didn’t think that we were going to be good people, it wouldn’t pay to give us back our life. Raba Emunatecha isn’t that what it means?

Geoffrey Stern  17:17

I think if you’re looking at the liturgy, to give us an answer. The answer is when the liturgy talks about faith. It’s God’s faith in us. So to give you another example, the Shemona Esrei, the silent prayer, the 18 benedictions, the core of every prayer service from the simplest mundane morning service to the Ne’ela service. The second prayer, talks about Sustainer of the living with kindness Resurrector of the dead with great mercy supportive of the fallen and then healer of the sick releaser of the imprisoned and fulfiller of his faithfulness to those who sleep in the dust אֱמוּנָתוֹ לִישֵׁנֵי עָפָר again, it’s God’s faith in us. We come from a world where other religions and I’m gonna, I’m gonna prepare you for a question I’m gonna ask later Rabbi about conversion, but certainly in other religions, when you convert to Christianity, when you convert to Islam, you have to verbalize, I believe in this, I believe in Allah and Muhammad is the prophet, I believe in Jesus. And here we are encountering in the Bible and the Torah, and in our prayers, a totally different type of faith. I think it’s radical.

Adam Mintz  19:06

I think it’s radical that is really interesting. And you know, it’s interesting, just to jump ahead to your kind of question and that is, you know, statements of faith. Judaism doesn’t quite have statements of faith do they?. Right. We don’t have for us. Now we do have Shema Yisrael Hashem Elohonu Hashem Echad. we do say that God is one. But that’s about something else. That’s about that. There is no other God. It doesn’t talk about what our relationship is with God. All it says is there’s no other God. And just to jump ahead to your question, when somebody converts, we don’t make them explain what their relationship with God is. The question we ask is, do you reject the belief in other gods, that’s the key. So that’s just interesting the way we see theology, we see theology as the rejection of other gods, that’s what’s important.

Geoffrey Stern  20:12

So, so I think that’s fascinating, because so many times and again, I’m talking to the expert here, you know, Rabbi Adam, you’ve done countless conversions, you’re on the Jewish JCC of Manhattan, you’re the head of a whole agenda to explore a conversion. And we always think of conversion in terms of, okay, a Christian comes in, they want to convert, and a Muslim comes and they want to convert. And for the first time, as I’m reading these I goes, what happens if someone says, I don’t believe in God, I’m an atheist, but I fell in love with this woman, or I fell in love with this man. Oh, I fell in love with Judaism, with the rituals. We were talking about the rituals before? Do you even ask a potential convert? If they believe in God? It just struck me as a curious question.

Adam Mintz  21:09

Yeah, it’s very good. It’s a very, very good question. And especially good. Because the answer is “no”. And that’s just because we’re worried about something else. Seems to be that you know, that the history of Judaism was actually the rejection of idolatry. Now, that goes back a long way, because there’s no real idolatry anymore. But when that was an issue, that was a huge issue. And that’s what we reflect that so we refer to,

Geoffrey Stern  21:35

you know, I don’t go on Facebook all that much. But I have one young rabbi, he was a reformed rabbi, he made Alia doing COVID. And now he works for the Jewish Agency named Joe Schwartz. And he, two days ago, posted a string about the question of faith. And somebody asked him, What does faith mean to him? And he found the question to be very odd. And then he started to question himself and saying, Why is it odd? And so it elicited a bunch of comments, but one of the comments from Noah Millman and he has very learned followers, says, “the more I think about it, the more struck I am, but the number of injunctions against faith, faith in the wrong things. It’s not just idols, we all want to have faith, and it’s also people “Al tivt’chu bin’divim, b’ven adam she’ain lo teshuah.”, that kind of thing.” And that’s kind of what you were just saying, it’s so fascinating that on the one hand we have this aspect of faith, which is a God who has faith in us. And then the other aspect is misdirected faith, believing in the wrong things.

Adam Mintz  22:51

 The wrong thing. That’s very interesting. That’s correct. It seems to be the the history of Jewish theology is the fear of believing in the wrong thing,

Geoffrey Stern  23:03

Misplaced misplaced belief. So I really want to make sure that we don’t leave any stone uncovered. I think that faith or emunah is something that is used when you need it. So there’s a very famous verse in to Tehilim; in Psalms, and it says lלְהַגִּ֣יד בַּבֹּ֣קֶר חַסְדֶּ֑ךָ וֶ֝אֱמ֥וּנָתְךָ֗ בַּלֵּילֽוֹת to proclaim your steadfast love at daybreak, Your faithfulness each night. And again, getting back to our liturgy. When we finish The Shema every day, we are sign off in the morning, different than we sign off in the evening, at in the morning, we say אֱמֶת וְיַצִּיב. And at night we say אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה. Both of them have this word truth. And of course, you know, truth is part of all this. The one aspect of Emunah that comes through in all of our prayers is a simple word. It’s a word called Amen, when we say Amen, it comes from the same root as EmuNah. And what we’re saying is it’s true, or we can concur.

Adam Mintz  24:25

We believe in.

Geoffrey Stern  24:26

We believe in it. But again, in this nuanced sort of belief that we’re talking about, we can trust on it. We can rely on it. You know, I once got onto El Al flight, and I was sitting next to an old Hasidic and it was a cold day and I don’t have a lot of Yiddish but I said s’iz zeyer kalt, it’s very cold. And he said, it’s not as cold as Siberia.

Adam Mintz  24:57

That’s what he said?

Geoffrey Stern  24:58

That’s what he said…

Adam Mintz  24:59

That’s pretty funny.

Geoffrey Stern  25:00

So that was a conversation startup. And I said, Well, were you in Siberian? And he said yes. And he pulled out his passport and it had his picture front and center. And up in the upper right hand corner, it had a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and he pointed to that, and he said, That’s why I survived in Siberia, and rabbi and listeners, if you know anything about me, you know, I’m not the one to start looking at a Rebbe and to say, oh, whatever he says is right. But I said to myself, you know, maybe in Siberia, you need a little bit of an image of somebody that you can totally believe in. So, there’s this concept of Emunah at night, Emunah in the dark times. And I think that’s kind of interesting and fascinating too.

Adam Mintz  25:52

That is really interesting. I mean, that you say that that point, I wasn’t thinking about that, but that point is really good. The וֶ֝אֱמ֥וּנָתְךָ֗ בַּלֵּילֽוֹת at night you need Emunah, and Emunah means that you trust. What you trust is that there’s going to be a tomorrow that requires trust, because that’s not based on knowledge. I don’t know that there’s going to be a tomorrow. So during the day, I don’t need Emunah because it’s already light outside. But at night, I need Emunah

Geoffrey Stern  26:23

And, you know, we got a sense of that in a Eicha; in Lamentations which certainly rates right up there with Siberia. And the word emunna was linked to the word hope; a light at the end of the tunnel. And you know, in that Facebook thread, and I quote it in my Sefira notes. This Joe Schwartz says, you know, at the end of the day, what does faith mean, to me? It ultimately means that not I believe in something that I believe that I believe it’s worth it, that I believe that there’s meaning that it’s okay. One of my friends came for the break-fast. And he said, What are you going to be talking about at Madlik this week? And I said faith. And they said, Well, how can you believe after the Holocaust? And I quoted probably something that you’ve may have all heard before, where they asked a believing Jew after the Holocaust? How can you possibly believe in God after the Holocaust? And his answer was, how can you believe in man after the Holocaust? And you know, at the end of the day, what his answer means to me is that it’s a combination of this sense of real faith is Faith in Our human predicament is faith in our human condition. It’s a faith in in our world. You know, maybe it is that we believe in a God who believes in us. But at the end of the day, it’s not faith in it’s just, it’s just faith.

Adam Mintz  28:15

 Yeah. So that’s also interesting. Faith in do you need faith in and what you’re arguing is by definition, faith is not the best kind of faith, because faith needs to be even without the faith just needs to be faith.

Geoffrey Stern  28:32

Faith that there’s a better day ahead faith that it’s worthwhile to get up in the morning. That’s what Raba Emunatecha means to me. So the other the other things that I left in this a few notes is a real discussion about faith and dogma. I mean, it wasn’t until Maimonides came and gave 13, a list of 13 things that Jews have to believe in. And the first was ani Ma’amin and it’s in the siddur. That God exists. And not not surprising for those of you who listen to Madlik on a regular basis. There are rabbis who argue with him, he claims that one of the 613 commandments is one of them. The first one is to believe in God. And the Ramban says Not at all. And of course, whether he says not at all because it’s the basis of everything, because it’s the assumption of anything, or whether we moderns can interpolate from that, that it is besides the fact or because it cannot be commanded, who knows? But it’s fascinating to know how late it was before we Jews got this sense of a dogma and things that we had to believe in. And for those of you who enjoy singing, Yigdal Elohim Chai, it’s really a musical version of Maiminides 13 attributes. But again, it’s fascinating to look at something so basic as faith, and to wonder what you know what it really means to us.

Adam Mintz  30:26

I just want to say that as we conclude this round of this cycle of the Torah readings, it’s amazing to end on the idea of faith because you know, it’s the idea that is at the foundation of everything of the Torah, but it’s something that really doesn’t come up all that often. And it’s interesting that now the last week that we kind of think about what Faith means and you know how it applies to our lives. So, thank you Geoffrey, for choosing an amazing topic. I want to wish everybody a Hag Sameyach, and enjoy this week’s Parsha Ha’zinu ve’zot Habracha. And we know that when we finish the Torah we say three words. Hazak Hazak Ve’nitchzek, which means let us be strong, let us be strong, let us strengthen one another. And I think Geoffrey, what we’ve tried to do over the past two years in clubhouse is to strengthen ourselves and to strengthen one another. And we look forward after a little break of coming back with new ideas for you and to continue to Hazak Hazak Venitchazek Shabbat Shalom, everybody. Hag Sameach

Geoffrey Stern  31:25

Hag Sameyach Rabbi, I thank you for every week for joining us on this conversation. And full disclosure, today is my birthday. And I couldn’t celebrate my birthday in a better way than with all of you here on clubhouse and on our podcast, if any of you have any suggestions or ideas of what we should do in the year ahead. Don’t be shy, let us know. But in the meantime, enjoy the end of the Torah. Enjoy Sukkot and we’ll see you all in the year ahead. Shabbat Shalom.

Adam Mintz  32:01

Shabbat Shalom be Well, bye bye.

Geoffrey Stern  32:04

And if anyone has any comments or suggestions, come on down. We are open.

Mathew Landau  32:12

Hey, Geoff, great presentation Happy Birthday. What I wanted to say was having read Ha’azinu many times, although not this coming Shabbat that I thought that the rest of lines. So the Emunah Word Appears in line four. And it says אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל         צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא And then five and six, or at least five certainly, I thought it explains what emunah means because it says basically a faithful God. Without injustice, he is righteous and upright. And then in five when he says, he says destruction is not his is it is his children’s defect. You crooked and twisted generation. So, it’s very interesting right there. He’s really explaining what, what it means to God for being faithful. And it further goes into like, what do you means when humans aren’t? That’s all.

Geoffrey Stern  33:22

Yeah, I mean, I think the most basic straightforward explanation of faithful is reliable, consistent, more than that ….elevated, it’s someone who does the right thing. And God, as you say, in those following verses, is the one who you can count on. He does all the right things, and then the verses very quickly go down on to, by contrast into the children of Israel, who …. are not so much. And so it’s really interesting, that the translation of faith and belief, to emunah, is probably a misleading because it has nothing to do with faith or belief. It has to do with trust. And even if, you know, there were times where it talks about the Jewish people, or the Israelites are crooked, God is straight. So that’s the most interesting thing. And if you do that, and if you follow that to its end, and you say, okay, so emunah does not mean faith and belief. Do we have a word for faith and belief? And that also becomes kind of interesting, but there’s no question that in Exodus when Moses is at the burning bush, and he says to God, you know, It’s great that you’re appearing to me. But that they may believe in God. He wants to know what will it take to have the Israelites believe in him. And then when he talks later about convincing Pharaoh and the Egyptians, he uses the word emunah. So that’s where I think it gets this nuance and only in respect to others. Only in respect, I wouldn’t say necessarily to polemics, but in the sense of interaction with other people, were the word emunah becomes believing it does have that aspect to it. But certainly, in our, in the verses in Deuteronomy Devarim that we’re reading now, it’s very far afield from faith in the way that we’ve grown up to believe. But I made I made reference to Joe Schwartz and his Facebook thing, he ended up by saying, and this I find this amazing, “I assume faith is the opposite of יאוש, which is despair. Giving up. Faith, I suppose, is an attitude toward all things of this world that resists the impulse towards nihilism. ….  So, I think that at the end of the day, whether it’s being able to rely on somebody, you know, that’s that, ultimately, at the end of the day, whether you’re in a concentration camp, or you’re in Ukraine, or wherever you are, you want to know that somebody cares, that there’s somebody else out there, that cares about you that hears you. And I think that at the end of the day, and that’s, I think, what my takeaway was, that when I was saying, it’s not faith in it’s just faith, that there’s something beyond you that matters, I don’t know. And I think that at the end of the day, those of us who get up in the morning and just, you know, go about our business, at the end of the day, we’ve got to have some sort of faith, especially in this crazy world that we live in.

Mathew Landau  37:21

Well, I had two other comments. One is, the comment about radicalism was about not believing in you know, that you don’t believe in God was it was in the context of Christianity and Islam. But they came much later. So actually, it’s radical because of what came before it?

Geoffrey Stern  37:43

We don’t rehearse. And I know that the rabbi does many conversions. And I was fascinated by the question that literally just popped into my head. That was…. we all assume everybody is converting from something. But what happens if somebody shows up and say, you know, literally, I am not a believer. I’m not a religious person. But I just love Shabbat, and I love the community. And I love all that. And it was fascinating. And I kind of knew the answer, but I was fascinated to hear him say it, because you never hear of a rabbi who’s involved with that kind of thing. Who says, Well, do you believe in this? And do you believe in that? It’s, you know, are you are you on the one hand? Or what are you not going to Do? You know, can you give up your other faith options? But more importantly, do you embrace Jewish tradition in Jewish action and ritual? And do you want to join the community? And I just, it was fascinating to hear him say that, but I enjoyed asking the question.

Mathew Landau  38:52

Yeah, I remembered my last comment. I agree with everything you said. My last comment was, I think that Rabbi said, at one point, well, idolatry doesn’t really exist anymore, or something to that effect. And he may be right in the traditional sense if you’re looking for a traditional opinion, but there are many others who say for people who don’t believe in God, which we’re not seeing as a requirement anyway, that if they don’t, they generally fill it with some other belief whether it’s capitalism, communism, some ism in their lives that really, you know, motivates them, but in a way, these are all false idols. No?

Geoffrey Stern  39:30

Look, I’m a big believer in why we start cold Nidrei by saying any vows that I have are neutralized. Ultimately, at the end of the day. There’s a lot about Judaism which is saying, we don’t know what we can say yes to but we know we need to say no to we need to clean the slate. We need to clean our mind to open ourselves up and I think that’s a fascinating aspect of what faith is. It’s not misplaced faith more than what you believe in and opening one selves up. Anyway, it’s a fascinating discussion. And especially, you know, we can say, Oh, this these discussions only came up after the rise of Christianity and Islam. But again, that gives us a wonderful mirror to look at our own religion and to say, well, how different is it? So, anyway, that’s what we need to celebrate. So thank you. And if you have any ideas of what we want to do in the year ahead, let me know.

Mathew Landau  40:43

Okay, excellent.

Geoffrey Stern  40:45

Okay, Shabbat shalom, everybody. Bye bye.

Sefera Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s podcast: Blame it on Dad

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, prayer, Religion, Torah

Free at Last

parshat vayeilech – deuteronomy 31

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on September 29th 2022. As so often happens, the weekly parsha becomes particularly topical this year as we end the year of the Shmitah (Sabbatical Year). As the life of Moses comes to an end, he provides his last instructions which relate to the blowing of the Shofar on Yom Kippur and the public reading by the King of the Book or Deuteronomy on Sukkot.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern, and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. In this week’s parsha Vayeilech the life of Moses is coming to an end, and so is our year. Moses provides his last instructions. So join us as we draw lessons for the new year ahead. Free at Last.


Well, the year is growing to an end. And I have come to be a firm believer that somehow the parsha always relates to what we’re going through and this week is definitely no exception. But before we begin, as you all know, Madlik is a podcast and we are published on all of the popular platforms are Apple and Spotify and all of the other podcasting platforms. And I always say if you like what you hear, share it, give us a star and give us a nice comment. And last week we got an amazing comment from Hava.  Hava wrote: “Dear Rabbi Mintz Dear Mr.  Stern. I have never liked cooking and found Friday somehow stressful until I discovered Madlik. I do listen to the late Rabbi Sacks his comments and we still discuss them with great joy at the Shabbos table. I follow JTS Torah commentary and often cringe. But Fridays are now my Madlik days. Thank you so much for this inspiring podcast. Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom”, and boy did that warm my heart. There’s a woman at my synagogue Judy, who says that she also listens to the podcast religiously, every week when she cooks for the Shabbat. And I came to the my synagogue, The Community Synagogue of Westport, TCS. And I had switched the times that I was supposed to arrive, and I was about to apologize. And the lady who was in charge of the tickets as you don’t have to apologize, I listen to the Madlik podcast. So we might Rabbi, we might not be famous, but when it counts, there are faithful people who listened to it. And that puts the pressure on us. We gotta keep it up, I guess.

Adam Mintz  02:51

Fantastic. That’s really nice. That note was so beautiful. And it’s so nice that people listen to us, and that we share a little bit of the parsha each and every week.

Geoffrey Stern  03:01

Agreed. And those of you are listening, don’t be shy, give us a little support, you know. So, as I said, we are in parshat Vayeilech. I think last week, you said it was the shortest posture. And as I said, it’s really about the end of anera. And we’ll see it’s not only the end of Moses on the passing of the baton, but it also talks about exactly the moment that we are in right now, the end of the year, and to be very precise, the end of the Shmita year, the seventh year. So that’s the tease. Let’s begin Deuteronomy 31: 7 says, Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, be strong and resolute, חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒ for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that God swore to their fathers to give them and it is you who shall apportion it to them, and it is indeed God who will go before you, God will be with you and will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not, and be not dismayed. Moses wrote down this teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levy, who carry the ark of God’s covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses instructed them as follows every seventh year, the year set for remission (Shmita) at the feasts of booths, (Sukkot), when all Israel comes to appear before your God in the place that God will choose, you shall read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people, men, women, children and the strangers in your communities that they may hear and so learn to revere your God and to observe faithfully every word of his teaching. Their children who have not had the experience shall hear and learn to revere your God, as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess, and have a literary point that has that {פ} in asterisks, we know this is the end of a literary segment. So as I said, we start with God telling Moses, it’s going to be Joshua, and he says “you” just a few times, and Rashi, picks up on this. And he says, there can be but one leader for a generation, and not two leaders for a generation (Sanhedrin 8a) quoting Sanhedrin. And so really, you know, we talked a few weeks ago when the Queen died, that it was God bless the Queen, Long Live the King.  You have that moment kind of here and that recognition that there cannot be more than one leader.

Adam Mintz  06:09

Good. It’s so great, because so many things that we’ve talked about revolved around the Queen dying and King Charles and you know, that was so smooth. There was nobody who said someone else should be the king, because everybody knew, right? That was the deal, that Charles was going to become the king. But when it came to Moshe, that wasn’t so clear. Nobody knew who the next leader was going to be. If anything, you would probably have guessed that it would have been Moshe’s sons, because Aaron is sons inherited the position of being the Cohen. So, you probably would have thought that Moshe sons would have inherited. The moment that it’s not Moshe’s sons, it literally is up for grabs.

Geoffrey Stern  07:02

What I’m kind of struck by reading it anew, as I do every year, is this tight weaving between on the one hand, Moses, dying and passing the leadership on to Joshua. And as I said, in the same breath, it says at the end of every seven years, the Shmitah, you should go ahead and renew you should go ahead and read publicly the Torah. And the rabbi’s and Rabbinic Judaism in general, really focus on three words here מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים, the end of the seven years. So we just went through a Rosh Hashanah. And you would think that the end of the year would be on the first of Tishrei, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. And yesterday, which was the beginning of the new year would be the beginning of the new year. But in fact, it’s not quite as squeaky clean. Rashi says this means in the first year of the new Shmita year, in other words, the eighth year. So here we shall see that Yom Kippur, which comes 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, which we’re going to celebrate next week. And even beyond that. The Sukkot holiday is part of this dance between the end of the year and the beginning of a new year. It’s not quite so easy to make that transition. Am I putting too much into here or is there a question? I mean, the Ibn Ezra says  תחלת השנה, he’s saying it’s not the end of the year…. You know, how they have at the end of these wedding videos, where it says it’s not the end, it’s the beginning, we have kind of that moment here.

Adam Mintz  09:11

So the point you made is an interesting point. And that is that we actually have a ritual at the end of Shmita. That’s kind of odd, because we don’t usually have rituals at the end of holidays. Usually the rituals at the beginning, take Pesach for a minute, the ritual the Seder is at the beginning, right? It’s not the ritual is not wait till the end. But when it comes to Shmita, the ritual is at the end, which is Ha’kel. Why is that exactly? Why don’t we make the ritual at the beginning of Shmita?

Geoffrey Stern  09:46

That’s a great question. The other part of it is that you know, we do have Havdalah we make Havdalah at the end of Shabbat. So I think that might be the exception to the rule. Next week when we do Yom Kippur, we’re going to make a big deal out of Kol Nidrei. But we’re also going to make a big deal of Ne’ela. But what strikes me is that the end really encroaches on to the beginning, it almost, you know, reminds me of the custom to not make Havdalah not end the Shabbat immediately at sunset. But to have that third meal, let that melave malka spill over into the new week and stretch it out, stretch out that taste, you have a little bit of that here. Because somehow there’s this connection between not only the definitive end of Shmita, which happens on the first of the year. But then there’s ….. we’ll see in a second, Yom Kippur, which has a blast of a shofar, which becomes important for indentured servants. And then we have Sukkot which becomes important because of this Ha’kel, this gathering of all the people to hear the Toa once again, and you know, then we even call the last day of Sukkot Atzeret, which means “stop”. It’s finally an end to the end of the beginning, so to speak, but there is no question that it’s unique here, in the sense that it’s a drawn-out ending, but not simply an ending that kind of peters out or fades out in a very slow and regulated fashion. You have these peaks, you have the shofar blowing on Yom Kippur, you have this Ha’kel, this gathering reading the Torah, I think it makes it kind of interesting. And getting back to how we started about the end of Moses in the beginning of Joshua, I can’t help but make the parallel to to the end of an era in the beginning of a new one.

Adam Mintz  12:06

That got really good. I mean, and of course, this is the third to last parsha in the Torah, which is also actually the third to last chapter in the Torah. These last portions are very short. I’ll just explain that for a second. It’s a tangent, but it’s an interesting tangent, you know, last week’s portion, this week’s portion, next week’s portion, and they’re all very, very short. The reason for that is because we kind of ran out of parshas, right … there aren’t quite enough parshas for the cycle of the year. And we need to take it right Simchat Torah. So we kind of shorten the portions in the last few weeks to make sure that we lead into Simchat Torah, this is just one week. But that idea that this is the end, and it’s also the beginning and how you define the end and the beginning. And it’s the end of the Shmita. But it’s the beginning of Ha’kel and it’s the end of Moshe, but it’s the beginning of Joshua. Is it the beginning or is it the end?

Geoffrey Stern  13:08

Yup. And you know, this word, the Rabeinu Bechaya, one of the commentaries that I brings, he talks about this word Miketz. And he gives instances where it literally does mean at the end. And there were other instances where it means after the end, but he quotes the first time that the verse is used in Genesis, and it says, God said to Noah, I have decided to put an end to all flesh, קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ it’s really Key’tz is the ultimate end its mortality. And you really do even in the choice of language and the references that the commentaries are making, somehow and of course, we cannot help but feel it. You know, the beautiful thing about the Jewish holidays is they are so linked to the change in season. The secular New Year is in the middle of the winter. You’d never have a Jewish holiday in the middle of something. On a daily basis, you have Shabbat come at dusk, it ends when when the sun sets, you have Passover in the spring, you have the Rosh Hashanah, at the end of the year, meaning the fall where you get that sense of mortality, you get that sense of the end of the cycle of life. Many times there were people that say that the three pilgrimage holidays the Shalosh Reaglim..  it’s almost one cycle and then you have this Rosh Hashanah which begins very not characteristically of do Which holidays on the first day of the month, as opposed to the middle of the month when the moon is bright. I think that somehow the Torah is actually mixing the two together in a very nuanced and a beautiful way. And you kind of make the transition from the first of Tishrei to Sukkot, which is one of those pilgrimage festivals. I just feel it for the first time reading these verses.

Adam Mintz  15:31

That’s good. What do you make about the fact that Joshua pops up here again, even though we haven’t heard from him in a long time?

Geoffrey Stern  15:40

Well, I mean, I do think, again, the emphasis is not on Joshua. But I think he almost becomes a foil. Joshua is the next one. And if anything, the Bible is emphasizing more the “you” in Joshua, we all have commented before that Deuteronomy is written in a different voice. But as Rashi picks up on it says, twice, you shall apportion it to them, You shall go with them. It’s you, I think, to exclude Moses, it really is the fall, the winter of Moses’, his life. And it’s all about transition here, which I find so, so fascinating.

Adam Mintz  16:32

And how kale is true, is transition, because that’s how you transition back to the six normal years.

Geoffrey Stern  16:39

I think so. And you know, the last verse, In this literary piece that we read, is the ultimate transition. Not only do you gather the people, the men and the children, but their children too, who have not had the experience shall hear and learn to deliver your God, as long as they live in the land. This is talking into the future as well. It’s a kind of a gift of this transition. But it definitely seems to me to be a very profound sense of transitioning from generation to generation, from time, from life to death to life again, all at the same time in the midst of seven odd verses.

Adam Mintz  17:27

I think that’s right. I think that’s great. I mean, in this little chapter you have you have all about transition. And let’s just talk for a minute. What do you think it was like for Moshe, this transition? I mean, this is an unfulfilled dream promotion, for us to say transition. What about if you’re the one who doesn’t go into the the promised land?

Geoffrey Stern  17:50

Yeah. And of course, we’ve, we’ve discussed this before, you know, we quote Perkei Avot that says, It’s not yours to finish לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, and all of that good stuff, no question. It is something that is a bittersweet moment for him. And I say bittersweet, because a successful leader creates a new generation of leadership. And that has to be satisfying to him, it has to be satisfying to him, that the God that, worked with him was going to work with the generation ahead. So I do think if anything, comes through in these verses, its ambiguity. There’s, gotta be this sense of continuity, and there’s got to be this sense of disruption of happiness and sadness, sweetness, and in bitterness.

Adam Mintz  18:50

I mean, I think that’s right. And I think that that’s really a nice way to look at it from your perspective, to say that this is a transition and at least if I’m not going to do it, but the guy who’s doing it is a good guy, right? Is someone who like trust.

Geoffrey Stern  19:10

Yep. So what I’d like to do is to get a little more tactile and really get a sense of what we’re talking about what happened. So, the Mishnah in a Sotah describes that what happened was on the first day of Tabernacles, of the eighth year, after the seven-year sabbatical, immediately after the closing of the seventh, a wooden stand would be erected in his sanctuary, where upon the king would sit, and the officer of the congregation would take a holy scroll, we’re talking about a scroll. Now we’re not talking about tablets. You know, we talked when we started Deuteronomy, that it was this scroll of Deuteronomy that was taken and discovered in one of the times that the Temple was not destroyed, but in Ill repair and found, and it gives this amazing, amazing talk about bit of sweet story about a certain King Agrippa, who was, I believe King Herod’s grandson. And even King Herod wasn’t totally Jewish. So it says, King Agrippa was accustomed to accept it while standing, and he would also read it while standing. And the rabbi’s praised him for this act. And when he would reach the passage and Deuteronomy 17: 15, thou mayest not set over thee a stranger, who is not thy brother, tears would roll down from his eyes. The Rabbi’s then said Do not be afraid king Agrippa, thou art our brother, thou art our brother, then he would read from the beginning of Deuteronomy up until chapter six. So you even have this bittersweet moment of the king of that moment, who was a good king, you can look him up on Wikipedia, fascinating story, a good friend of Caligula, but he did good by the Jews. And you have this moment of looking in the mirror when you read the ancient texts, and you get to evaluate how you stand up to it. But this literally would be happening in the next few weeks. We are literally at the end of the seven-year cycle. There were fields that are in Israel that have not been plowed or tended to for this past year. And now in this eighth year, we would be having this amazing ceremony. So it really brings the moment of the Jewish calendar that we’re in right now to a whole new light, I think

Adam Mintz  21:56

it’s great. I mean, you know, it’s by chance that we read this portion now, because of course, the idea that we have some has to really finish the Torah on, you know, this time of year is only …. there were two traditions there was an annual cycle. We finished it every year, and there was a triennial cycle. We finished it once every three years. In Israel, they had a triennial cycle. So they were they didn’t get to this until once every three years. But the fact that now that we have that this week and this transition, because it doesn’t talk about Yom Kippur, but let’s just let’s just segue to Yom Kippur for a minute. If you want to know what the theme of Yom Kippur is, in a lot of ways it is transition, you know, just to share a little thought, and that is on Yom Kippur, we say Yizkor. That’s a funny thing to say on Yom Kippur, you know, Yom Kippur is all about us, right? We ask for forgiveness. And us and us and us and we say we’re sorry, and all that kind of stuff. Now, all of a sudden, we then we have Yizkur right in the middle. And the rabbis say that, you know, in the Torah, the day is not called, Yom Kippur, in the Torah, the day is called Yom Hakipurim in the plural, it says it’s a day of forgiveness for the living. And for those who have died already, in a way, Yom Kippur is a transition. We’re supposed to take everything we learned from our parents, and we’re supposed to transmit it to our generation, and to the next generation. And of course, like you said, transition is complicated, and transition is hard. And we don’t know what you know, we don’t know what we’re supposed to transmit and what we transmit, we don’t know if we’re doing such a good job. So, transmission is hard, but transmission is the real thing. So I think that also is very relevant to what we’re doing now.

Geoffrey Stern  23:36

Well, I love that you you bought in Yom Kippur, because that’s exactly my next source. There’s the seven year cycle. And then there’s the seven times seven-year cycle, which is the Jubilee the Yoval. And it says on the Jubilee years, on the 10th of Tishrei, it says, Thou shalt you cause the shofar to sound on the 10th day of the seventh month on Yom Kippur shall you sound the shofar, and the Gomorrah asks in accordance with whose opinion is this. It is the opinion of the Mishna teaches: The first of Tishrei is also the New Year for Jubilee Years. The Gemara answers: In accordance with whose opinion is this Mishna? It is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka, as it is taught in a Baraita: What is the meaning when the verse states: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year”? Since it is stated that the shofar is blown “on Yom Kippur,” one might have thought that the year is sanctified only from Yom Kippur and onward. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year,” which teaches that the year is sanctified from its beginning onward, from the first of Tishrei, when the year begins.  Again from the first of Tishrei we have this ambiguity ambivalence between the first or the last but here’s what’s fascinating. From here, Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka, said: From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur of the Jubilee Year, Hebrew slaves were not released to their homes because the shofar had not yet been sounded. And they were also not enslaved to their masters, as the Jubilee Year had already begun.  Rather, they would eat, drink, and rejoice, and they would wear their crowns on their heads like free people. Once Yom Kippur arrived, the court would sound the shofar, slaves would be released to their houses, and fields that were sold would be returned to their original owners. So we have one verse that’s says that the indentured servants go free on the first of Tishrei. But on the other hand, it says that you shall blow the shofar and shout freedom, the words that we have on the Liberty Bell. So it says and they were also not enslaved to their masters. So, you have these indentured slaves who neither here nor there. They are no longer slaves, yet they are not yet free. Rather, they would eat, drink and rejoice, and they would wear their crowns on their heads like free people for the whole 10 days. We call it the Aseret y’may teshuvah (The Ten Days of Repentance) the indentured servants were feasting, and drinking and rejoicing. Once Yom Kippur arrived, the court would sound the shofar, slaves would be released to their houses and fields that they were sold would be returned to their original owner. So really, you know, you talk about what Yom Kippur what the 10 days of repentance mean to us, this image of slaves going through the transition, the process of becoming free. My take away is that as we get rid of our sins, what we’re really doing is possibly getting rid of our dependencies, getting rid of those things that do enslave us, and that shofar that blows we’re all in a sense, kind of indentured servants who are being freed. But it really fits into the narrative of those people that rejoice us at the end of Yom Kippur that this is the most happiest day of the year. It really resonates to me.

Adam Mintz  26:44

You know, it’s such a striking Gemora because it really gives you the sense that you’re in prison between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. מֵרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה עַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים לֹא הָיוּ עֲבָדִים נִפְטָרִין לְבָתֵּיהֶן וְלֹא מִשְׁתַּעְבְּדִין לַאֲדוֹנֵיהֶם אֶלָּא אוֹכְלִין וְשׁוֹתִין וּשְׂמֵחִין וְעַטְרוֹתֵיהֶן בְּרָאשֵׁיהֶן כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים תָּקְעוּ בֵּית דִּין בְּשׁוֹפָר נִפְטְרוּ עֲבָדִים לְבָתֵּיהֶן וְשָׂדוֹת חוֹזְרוֹת לְבַעְלֵיהֶן means they prepared for Yom Kippur. But they weren’t free yet? Isn’t that a weird thing? They celebrated the fact that they knew that they were going to be free.

Geoffrey Stern  27:20

Yeah, yeah… You know, you talk about different models, different metaphors, different ways of looking at what we’re doing now. And I think to look at it from the perspective of these engendered slaves servants, both from their eyes from their masters eyes is this becomes fascinating, and I could not but help notice that the word for them becoming free is נִפְטְרוּ…. It’s the same word that we talk about when somebody passes away, that he’s niftar. And I talked about this in an earlier segment when we talked about this concept of צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים and I have to say that tonight’s learning is dedicated to a cousin of mine, a pillar of the Jewish community Sandy Gottesman, who passed away last night. And I think and this is so his Neshama can have an aliyah, but it’s also very similar in you can help us with this rabbi, that the time period between when somebody dies, to when they are buried to the Shiva, it’s all these transitions. And this the word for niftar, which can be will released if you’re a if you’re an indentured servant, but also released from the shackles the boundaries of the physical is is fascinating to me.

Adam Mintz  28:54

It’s fascinating. First of all, let me just say that, you know that we’re sorry about Sandy. Sometimes you say someone lived an amazing life. And you know, he, he valued every second of that life, and he made a difference every second of that life. And that’s a nice thing to say about somebody something that you know, you don’t say that about everybody. So we remember him as someone who made an unbelievable difference right? In the Jewish world in the New York World in the Israel world. He just made a tremendous difference. And you know, niftar, he is released to the world to come. Everything’s about transition. We go from being Onanim, where we don’t daven, we don’t put on tefillin, to being mourners where we put on tefillin. But we sit on the floor, then at the end of Shiva, the best transition ever. We walk around the block, and why do we walk around the block because it’s hard to go out after Shiva. Shiva is very comforting and when people come to visit you, you don’t have to go anywhere. It’s hard to go out. So they force you to go outside because that’s part of the transition. And I think that’s right. It’s all about transition. This is a week of transition. And the Torah Portion really says in the Torah portion, I think the Torah Portion better than any of these things highlight the fact that transitions are complicated. And I think that’s really what you’re supposed to remember around Yom Kippur is the transitions are really complicated.

Geoffrey Stern  30:21

Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I can’t think of these released slaves without also thinking. And we’ve talked about this verse before, about the slave who decides he wants to stay with his master. And the custom is that he gets taken to the doorpost, and his ear is pierced with an awl. And the Talmud in Kedushin says, The Holy One, bless it be he said, this ear heard my voice on Mount Sinai when I said, For to me the children of Israel are slaves, which indicates that they should not be slaves to slaves, כי לי בני ישראל עבדים ולא עבדים לעבדים. And yet this man went and willingly acquired a master for himself, therefore let his ear be pierced. So as we watch these slaves, and maybe as we put ourselves into the shoes of these slaves, even though we’re not talking about Passover, but this radical sense of freedom when you through the process of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hakel, Sukkot, the end of Shmita, realize that you are not a slave to any other slave when you get rid of all those dependencies. That is true, true freedom. It’s so amazing to me that I’m the Liberty Bell is exactly this word that you shall ring freedom throughout the land. You know, as Americans, we can really get this too. But of course, we have to remember that it wasn’t a bell. It was a shofar, and that’s what I’ll be thinking of on on Yom Kippur

Adam Mintz  32:05

And of course that’s why we blow shofar at the end of Yom Kippur not because of the shofar of Rosh HaShana, but because of the shofar of Yovel; of that transition from one thing to the next. So that really is the perfect conclusion to this whole discussion. And we wish everybody Shabbat Shalom, you should have a meaningful and an easy fast. And next week we look forward Thursday night, we will talk about Ha’Azinu, the last poem in the Torah. Shabbat Shalom, Gamar Hatima Tova,  an easy fast everybody. Be well.

Geoffrey Stern  32:36

Same to you Rabbi same to all you listeners. Gamar hatima Tovah…. a sweet, healthy, prosperous year. Let us all make all the transitions that we have to and we’ll see you all again next week. Shabbat shalom.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s vayeilech podcast: The Aleph Bet Revolution


Filed under Bible, Hebrew

Steal This Book

parshat nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on September 22nd 2022. The Book of Deuteronomy, also known as Mishna Torah, or the second; Reviewed Torah is drawing to an end and provides us with an opportunity to review some of the Rabbinic Principles that have guided us in the reading of the Five Books of Moses. Starting with the iconic statement that “The Torah is not in Heaven” we realize how the Rabbis began a process of humanizing, maybe even secularizing the Torah in a very radical way…. Almost as though they took the Torah from Heaven. With no apologies to Abbie Hoffman, join us for – Steal this Book.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. The Book of Deuteronomy, also known as Mishna Torah, or the Reviewed Torah is drawing to an end and provides us with an opportunity to review some of the Rabbinic Principles that have guided us over the past few years in our reading of the Five Books of Moses. Starting with the iconic statement that “The Torah is not in Heaven” we realize how the Rabbis began a process of humanizing, maybe even secularizing the Torah in a very radical way…. Almost as though they took the Torah from Heaven. With no apologies to Abbie Hoffman, join us for – Steal this Book.


Well, welcome back to Madlik, and it’s great to have you as the year comes to an end, which means that our cycle of reading the parshiot comes to an end as well. And as I said, we are now in Deuteronomy 30. And I look because we’ve been doing this so long at what we talked about in previous years. And last year, we spent a lot of time on this amazing piece of Talmud, where the punch line was, you can’t listen to voices that come down from heaven. Because guess what it says in our Parsha, the Torah is not in the heavens. And so, it’s very rare that we talk about the same verse two years in a row, but we are going to go as I said, in the intro in a totally different direction, we’re going to take a que from Mishnah Torah, which is a review of the whole Torah. And we’re going to kind of review how we at Madlik actually study the Torah what principles guide us and maybe what the rabbis taught us about how we should learn torah. So, let’s dive right in Deuteronomy 30: 11 says, surely this instruction, which I enjoy knew this day is not too baffling for you, nor it is beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא that you should say, Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us That we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea, and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it? No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart to observe it. So this sense that we read, and if we read it in context, Rabbi, I think you gotta believe that when it says it’s not in the heavens, it’s not in the heavens in the same way that it’s not far away in the sea. It’s almost a physical, it’s not too far away. It’s not physically beyond reach. You know, I once had a child who met with his guidance counselor at at high school. And every time he mentioned the school he wanted to go to, she said, Nah, that would be a reach. What we’re saying is that the Torah is within reach. Isn’t that the simple meaning of the text here?

Adam Mintz  03:35

That is the simple meeting. And that’s a good meaning. By the way, that’s a nice meaning that Torah is within reach. Now what that we have to figure out what that means? What does it mean that tau is within reach? Right? What’s the significance of it be within reach? Why would we think it’s not within reach? Is that mean that the laws are within reach? Does that mean that the moral lessons are within reach? What would we think and I think what we might think is that Torah is divine, the Torah is heavenly man can’t live up to the Torah…. the answer’s no, we can live up to the total. That’s a good message, I think, is a really good message for the end of the Torah.

Geoffrey Stern  04:15

I think it’s a great message. I think the verse itself, and this is before we’re gonna go to the commentaries, because trust me, the commentaries go in many other different metaphorical directions. But it ends by saying, בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ, it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it. It’s almost saying that the spirituality, the religiosity, the moral the ethics of the Torah are not some sort of natural law. It’s almost ingrained within us. That would be if I read the verses in context, I would also say not only is it not physically far from us, but it’s not an artificial edifice, it’s not something imposed on us. It’s something that is ingrained in us whether because we’re Jews and we went through this history and therefore eating matzah is very natural for us, or as human beings, that what I’m asking you to do is to be true to yourselves.

Adam Mintz  05:21

Yeah, I mean, that is really interesting, that it’s not artificial. It’s, it’s accessible. It’s real. And therefore, we have to take it seriously. That maybe there’s an inclination to look at the Torah as kind of a fable. The whole thing is a fable. It tells stories, it talks about a people who observe the law, but it’s not real. And what the Torah is saying is no, it’s real, you’ll like that, that makes good sense. I like that.

Geoffrey Stern  05:53

I do like that. So we always go to Rashi first, Rashi says it is not in heaven, for where it in heaven, it would still be your duty to go up after it and to learn it. It’s not a metaphor for Rashi but it’s like, it’s it’s so easy. It’s like you’ve been fed it with silver spoon. There were other people that to get this message would have to convert, they would have to move from far away. But talking to the Jewish people, Moses saying, My God, you’ve been given this great gift. It’s right there sitting in your lap. I think that’s his kind of message.

Adam Mintz  06:39

Yeah, good. I think that’s right. I think that and that’s nice. I mean, and kind of that’s what the text means. It’s not it’s an it’s not a straw. It’s not what we would call it stretch. And that’s always a Rashi does.

Geoffrey Stern  06:50

Yep. So, in Eruvin it says Raba says “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in someone who raises his mind over it, like the heavens, i.e., he thinks his mind is above the Torah and he does not need a teacher; nor is it to be found in someone who expands his mind over it, like the sea, i.e., he thinks he knows everything there is to know about the topic, so you know, he’s talking different types of intellectuals. There are some intellectuals that will look at it and look down upon it. There were others that are generalists, maybe interesting that he says it interesting that he feels he needs to say it Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in the haughty, those who raise their self-image as though they were in heaven. “Nor is it beyond the sea” means that it is not to be found among merchants or traders, of course sea was the highway was the railroad was the channel of commerce in the old world. It’s interesting how everyone needs to find a kind of a metaphorical explanation for this,

Adam Mintz  07:52

Because it is itself a metaphor. לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא is not literal. Because the Torah is not in heaven. The Torah is written on the scroll that we read in shul every single Shabbat morning. So, it begs for a metaphoric kind of explanation, doesn’t it?

Geoffrey Stern  08:13

Well, it does. But I think you raise an interesting point. Because I would argue that Shamayim, in the Bible that we’re going to start all over again, in about a month, is you know, and on whatever day it was God created the heavens and the earth. And Shamaya means the what NASA is involved with, you know, and Mayim is what the Navy is involved with. There is no theological implications, I believe when the Bible, if you take it at face value talks about the heavens, you know, maybe the Torah was given from the heavens, because there was lightning and thunder, and it was given from above. But I think almost I wouldn’t say it’s a modern concept of this heaven, in terms of the firmament in terms of the sky. But I would say that the simple reading of the text doesn’t even imply we’re Shamayim is this kind of Western concept or later concept of a heaven? A spiritual, other worldly abode? Do you think I have a leg to stand on here?

Adam Mintz  09:32

That’s interesting, what Shamayim means Loba Shamayim, you need to just take your comment a step back, and really לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא. Where else could it be? It’s not in heaven. It’s not in you know, it’s not it’s it’s not far away. Why did they say it’s not in heaven? Why don’t they just say it’s not far away? That’s really the question you’re trying to answer.

Geoffrey Stern  09:56

Well, they do say it. It says it’s not in heaven. It’s not beyond the other side of the sea,

Adam Mintz  10:04

Why is it so dramatic? Why does it just say it’s not far?

Geoffrey Stern  10:08

Got it? Okay, so So you’re saying that this whole metaphor, love fest is created by the fact that it could have been much more straightforward. It’s not far away from you, it’s right in your lap. So you have no excuses, do it, something like that, something like that. So, the Rabeynu Bachya says as follows It is not in heaven. It is possible that the reason Moses made this point is because prior to bringing the Torah to the people, it had indeed resided in the heaven. And we have quoted arguments offered by the angels opposing its descent to Earth. So those of you who are listeners of Madlik. And I actually went on another clubhouse this week, and we got into a whole discussion, we remembered the Midrash that said, when the angels saw Moses getting the Torah, they said, Why is he getting the Torah? We should have it. And Moses replied, Do you have to provide for your family that you might steal something? Do you have to engage in commerce that you have to make sure that your scales are probably calibrated? This concept, which is what Robeynu Bahaya is referring to, is this kind of sense of man somehow taking this other worldly Torah, and not something that was without controversy? I mean, you know, I said, I call this podcast, Steal this Book. And you there was a radical at Columbia, part of the Weathermen called Abbie Hoffman. And when he finally wrote a book about his stuff, and put it up for sale for $7.95, the title was steal this book. In other words, don’t pay for it, steal it, he was so against the authorities. But, you know, I’m thinking of the Greek myth of Prometheus, for instance, Prometheus is best known for defying the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity in the form of technology, knowledge. He’s generally seen as the author of the human arts and sciences, in other theologies, in mythologies, there is this concept that somehow mankind got access to a higher intelligence. And I think that Midrash that the Rabaynu Bachya is referring to is as close as we get maybe, you know, others we are, maybe we didn’t steal the book. But we certainly somehow convinced God to give us this Torah, that the angels wanted to keep for themselves. And there is this sense when it says לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא that you guys got it. Mankind has gotten the Torah.

Adam Mintz  12:58

 I mean, this, you know, this is famous that God went to all the other nations and offered the Torah, that somehow the angels wanted the Torah, this idea that there was a competition for the Torah, and the Jews won, it is a Midrashic concept. Now, I think it’s fair to ask what it means, what its significance is, I think that’s a fair question. But that is something that we’re familiar with. So, let’s take each one of them separately. One is that the Jews got it and the other nations didn’t get it. It’s a sense that they had their chance, and they gave it up. Don’t let they can complain later. To say that you know, that well, you know, why didn’t we get a chance to have the toe where you had a chance, but you know, you couldn’t you couldn’t handle do not commit murder, or you couldn’t handle do not commit adultery. So therefore, we got Torah but the angels is something else. The angels is about what the Torah is, it’s kind of related to לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, the Torah is not for angels. the Torah is for human beings. the Torah appreciates human beings and understands what human beings are. And it’s written for human beings. It’s not written for angels.

Geoffrey Stern  14:12

So now, of course, we segue into what we discussed last year, which is this iconic piece of Talmud, which rabbis are having an argument and one rabbi named Robbie Yehoshua is saying I’m right..  let the walls of the study hall prove it. And the walls of the study hall move and the river prove it and the river goes backwards and finally says, Let the heavens prove it. And a bat kol a voice comes down from heaven and says, What do you want from Rabbi Yehoshua, he’s right!, and Rabbi Yirmia says  says the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai. We do not regard a divine voice. So, he first quotes our verse, he says שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני. And then he quotes a verse in Exodus, which says, After the majority we incline. So there are four rabbis against you. We don’t listen to voices from heaven, because the Torah has been given to men. And we go after the majority. So, what I said in the introduction is what I’d like to pursue a little bit now, this concept of the Torah was given to Man… whether we stole it with like Prometheus, or we convinced the angels and God that it was, ultimately this Torah, by the way the rabbis interpreted this verse was given to man, and it might very well be that they reinterpreted the verse that that was not the initial meaning. But that’s what Rabbinic Judaism gave to us. And then they quote, a second principle that guides us when we study Torah, and that is, after the majority we incline, which is אחרי רבים להטות. But what’s fascinating about that verse is, they might have reinterpreted the verse לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, it’s not in the heavens, but in the case of after the majority, you shall go, they didn’t reinterpret it. They went against the actual meaning of the verse, In Exodus 32. It says, You shall neither side with the mighty to do one, you shall not give perverse testimony to prove for read it. you should not go after the majority for bad and here the rabbi’s take it as you shall go after the majority. And so they prove their own point, they prove the point that the Torah is no longer in heaven, and that we have been given the authority, you can say also the responsibility to interpret it. Is that radical or not?

Adam Mintz  17:12

No, I think that’s great. And I think the most important thing to remember here is and it’s always gets a little tricky. The Torah is the divine Torah. But the interpretation is the rabbinic interpretation. And the rabbis were very sophisticated. So what the rabbis do is they interpret the Torah so it will support their authority. That’s what the story about the walls of the Beit Midrash falling are about. It’s about rabbinic authority. לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא means I don’t care what the heavenly voice says, we have to follow the majority לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, God doesn’t determine things. Now obviously, that’s an exaggeration of what the phrase means because we don’t usually have heavenly voices. But that is the perfect example of the rabbi’s interpreting the Torah to support the rabbis, you see how that works. That works forward and backwards.

Geoffrey Stern  18:11

It does, but you can’t get away from the democratization of the Torah. When the Rabbi say you follow the majority, you can say it’s a majority of rabbis, you can say it’s a majority of the people.

Adam Mintz  18:25

Thats the rabbinic interpretation. The Rabbinic interpretation is you follow the majority against God, you have to say that last piece; against God.

Geoffrey Stern  18:36

Well, you’re the rabbi, you said it!

Adam Mintz  18:38

Against God, what’s interesting, what I’m so excited about is that that’s not explicit in the Torah. … strange or interesting, whatever you want to call

Geoffrey Stern  18:52

Yeah. And radical, I’d say it’s radical. Right is a very radical piece of Talmud. But you know, it does find its place. It’s not only the majority of the rabbis, there is a concept of טירחא דציבורא that if the rabbi’s make a decree that is too tough on the people. You know, what the people wןn. So democratization is to me, the second rule if we’re kind of making a list of rules of interpretation, and the first one is that the Torah was given to man, and it’s our obligation and responsibility, privilege and liberty to reinterpret. The second is that we’re all in this together. It is a democratic aspect of it, and it could be our elected leaders. It could be our rabbis, and it could be all of us. The next law that I would like to say that has guided us as we’re reviewing these rules, is in Deuteronomy, 4: 6. It says observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples who on hearing all of these laws will say, surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people. כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים I owe R. Ethan Tucker, thanks for teaching this verse. It was from a rabbi called Rav Shmuel Glasner, the Dor Reve’ee. And he basically argued that our ethics and our morality have to stand up to the rules and the laws of critical analysis, because if not, we will not be somebody who was admired by the nation’s I went to a yeshiva once on Mitzpe Ramon, Mitzpe Ramon is as close to the Grand Canyon in Israel as you will get. And the rabbi first met me in his office and he said, Now let’s go to our real office. And he took me to the edge of Mitzpeh Ramon, this Grand Canyon, and there were some yeshiva students, black hats, white shirts, sits is flowing. He said, ask them how this canyon was created. And I went to them and I said, How was it created and they start talking about millions of the years, there were plates in the earth and my mind like dulled and I’m walking away with the rabbi. And I said, What’s with the plates and the Million years this is a yeshiva , what happened to six days seven days of creation, and he basically told me כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים, that God not only created a world, but he created our minds. And if we do not listen to our minds, we are breaking the law as much as any other law written in the Torah. And that just blew my mind. But It does talk to the fact that the rabbi’s absorbed and simulated rules of logic. If if you read an orthodox Siddur every morning, after you say the blessing on studying Torah, you discuss Rabbi Yishmoel’s 13 principles of hermeneutics. And he has these rules of interpreting the Torah. And Saul Lieberman says he probably got this concept of you need rules to decipher and parse a literary text from the Greeks or for the Romans. But here it was these rabbis who have never, absolutely never put their heads in the soil and disregarded scientific knowledge, I would consider that my my third rule.

Adam Mintz  22:39

I think that’s good. I like that a lot. I mean, first of all, let’s just take it back. That’s a good story. It’s a good story that a Yeshiva Bachur, you know, embraces science, and it’s sometimes they have to recognize that science is not against the Torah. Now, that’s an interesting discussion whenever we have it, and that is, you know, how can it be? How can it be that science doesn’t contradict the Torah? How could it be that these plates, you know, separated and created Mitzpei Ramon, and, you know, and that be right, and the story of creation also be right, that’s all interesting. But God created our ability to embrace both of those traditions as being true.

Geoffrey Stern  23:27

Agreed, agreed there shouldn’t be a conflict. So again, this is a review session of the rules that guide us as we study the Torah. The fourth rule, I would say, and we have quoted this many times, is אֵין מוּקְדָּם וּמְאוּחָר בַּתּוֹרָה, that there is no early or late in the Torah, which means that there is no chronology. This is not a book of history. We’ve talked and we talked about Zachor and Yosef Haim Yirushalmi saying that if Herodotus invented history, Jews invented meaning in history. And again, it’s understanding what the rabbis what the tau itself was looking to do. It wasn’t to record history as it was, it was recording history as a lesson. And that has to be a rule when we study the Torah that we got from our rabbis.

Adam Mintz  24:24

Good. So that that is another important rule. The fact that the Torah is not a history book, it doesn’t mean that the Torah doesn’t have history. By the way, every religion has a book of its history. It has to because if not, you don’t know where it comes from. You know, Christianity is an interesting religion. We’ll just talk about this for one second. Christianity is an interesting religion, because Christianity needs the Torah…. It needs the Old Testament, because if there’s no Old Testament, then you can’t explain where Jesus came from because Jesus was a Jew. Right? The Christians believe that the Jews killed Jesus. But the Christians don’t wipe out the Jews. You know why they don’t wipe out the Jews? Because if there are no Jews, then you can’t explain where Christianity came from. If there were no Jews, what’s the story of the Christians, the Christians need the Jews. So everybody needs a book that tells their story. So, it’s not a history book that’s bound by chronology. It’s not a history book, but it’s a book of memory, like Yoseph, Chaim Yirushalmi said, but it does tell our story. And that’s a very important story, just to relate it to Rosh Hashanah because we have to pull everything back for the holiday. You know, it’s interesting when it comes to Rosh Hashanah is not does not commemorate a historical event in the Torah. In tradition, we say the Rosh Hashanah is the day of creation. But the Torah doesn’t say that. Most holidays commemorate a historical event. Pesach commemorates the Exodus and Shavuot to commemorates the day of the Torah and Sukkot commemorate the 40 years in the desert. Every holiday commemorates a historical event. So, it’s not a book of history. But the history part of it is significant.

Geoffrey Stern  26:17

Absolutely any anyone who’s seen these New Testaments that every verse that kind of shows a prophecy from the Old Testament highlighted in red. I understand that. It’s a great segue to the next rule, which is a kind of a parallel to the rule I just mentioned, which is כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, which is the stories of our forefathers most of the time it’s referred to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But I would suggest it really refers to all of the history in the Bible is a סימן. Coming from the word symbolism is a symbol for us, so the rabbis themselves. This is not a modern concept. We’re the first to say that the book of the Bible is there to learn lessons from to draw ethical and moral teachings to guide us in making decisions going forward. But it’s not necessarily a book of history. We’re running out of time, and I don’t want to miss all the rules as we’re reviewing in this Mishnah Torah type of modality. The next one is דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם that the Torah speaks in the language of men. And it’s interesting that Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book in Hebrew. Most of his books were written in English, his book in Hebrew was תורה מן השמים באספקלריה של הדורות, it was translated by Gordon Tucker called Heavenly Torah – As Refracted through the Generations. And if you have time to read a 600 page book, this is a great place to go. But Gordon Tucker points out that whereas other books on Judaism begin with God. Not only is his title basically, a play on our verse, it’s תורה מן השמים, the heavenly Torah, in the view of the generations, it’s really a commentary, a 600-page commentary on the verse that we started. But his second chapter begins not with talking about God, but talking about the language of the Torah is in human language, it’s written for us as humans, whether it was written by humans inspired by God, whether it was written by God, we are entitled to look at it, to decipher it, to study it, and to learn from it as כִלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם, and I think that last rule almost completes the circle of saying that the Torah is not in heaven. All of these rules relate to how the Torah is ours. And I think for my lesson that relates to the High Holidays, by claiming that God is King, that ה’ מֶלֶךְ ה’ מָלָךְ ה’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. What we are saying is a radical concept, that there are no earthly kings, there are no powers that control us. And we’re also saying that the obligation is that the world was created for us that our Torah was given for us. That’s where the obligation comes from, that God gave us this torah. And it’s for us in this world. It’s for us to make and remake and interpret and empower us. So, I think that’s kind of an amazing way to look at the way over the past two, three years we’ve kind of looked at the Torah and what it means for us.

Adam Mintz  29:46

It’s a great way to end before Rosh Hashanah, wishing everybody a Shabbat Shalom, a Shana Tova a Hag Samayach, and we look forward to seeing you all next week, where we will talk about VaYelech the shortest parsha In the Torah, Shabbat Shalom Shana Tova Geoffrey

Geoffrey Stern  30:03

Shana Tova rabbi, thanks as always for being a part of this discussion. And thank you all for joining.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Nitzavim podcast: Not in Heaven


Filed under Uncategorized

First Fruits – First Prayers

parshat ki tavo – Deuteronomy 26

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on September 15th 2022. As we approach the high prayer season we trace the evolution of the oldest prayer preserved in the Torah. The First Fruits Declaration, a once iconic prayer made by a farmer on Shavuot; the Harvest Festival. We see how this prayer was censored, repurposed and reinterpreted up until today and wonder what license it provides to us.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. As we approach the high prayer season, we trace the evolution of one of the oldest prayers preserved in the Torah. The Bikurim or First-Fruits Declaration, made by a farmer on Shavuot; the Harvest Festival. We explore how this prayer was censored, re-purposed and re-interpreted and wonder what license it provides to us. So grab a bowl of fruit and a siddur and join us for First Fruits – First Prayers.


Well, welcome back another week. And as we said, in the pre-show, the High Holidays are coming, they’re coming. They’re coming. They’re not waiting for us. And that’s what I meant when I referred to the “prayer season”, because isn’t that actually what it is, I mean, there’s no time of year that we pray more, that we are engaged with our liturgy. And before we get to the exact text from our parsha, that I want to discuss, and the Parsha is Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, it just seems to me, Rabbi that Deuteronomy is the source of many prayers, much of our liturgy, I mean, the most famous Shema Yisrael is in Deuteronomy 6: 4. Last week, while not liturgy, we talked about the paragraph that says that you have to remember what Amalek did to you. And I referenced that there is a whole Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor, that we focused just on saying that little chapter in public, and some say, that’s one of the rare occasions that literally by Torah law, we have to make that declaration. So am I wrong here? There’s little avoid liturgy comes from the Chumash, The Five Books of Moses itself, but that that does, there’s a lot in Deuteronomy.

Adam Mintz  02:34

So you’re absolutely right. And the fact that Shema, not only the paragraph of Shema. But the second paragraph of the Shema Vehaya Im Shemoa  וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ also comes from the book of Deuteronomy (11: 13), I think the reason is probably a simple reason. And that is Deuteronomy is the kind of the summary, the review of the Torah. So, it has paragraphs that have a lot of different ideas all together. Like in the paragraph of Shema, you have belief in God, you have study Torah, you have Tefillin and you have Mezuzah. Yeah, you have all these things, you have reward and punishment. It’s all there in one paragraph, you don’t have that in the rest of Torah. So actually, in terms of prayers, and in terms of kind of covering all the bases, Deuteronomy is a great place to get prayers from.

Geoffrey Stern  03:22

And you know, I would kind of add, and I’ve said this before, that, modern scholarship believes that Deuteronomy was probably written closer to when Ezra came back from the exile, we’re talking about a period where there was maybe no temple anymore, the synagogues were starting to be formed. But even if you don’t buy into higher criticism the whole angst of Deuteronomy is when you come into the land. And certainly, coming into the land, the central Mishkan was over. And there was this beginning of what we could see as decentralized Judaism. And certainly, it had a prophetic sense of there would be a time where Jews would need to pray and our religion would change. So, I think from all different perspectives, there is no question that Deuteronomy is a great source for later liturgy. I think we’re on the same page there.

Adam Mintz  04:28

Good. I think that’s 100%. Right. And I think you know, that just makes the point stronger, but you know, whatever the explanation is just making the point is interesting, right, just realizing that so much of our prayer service and the Shema itself comes from Deuteronomy is a super interesting point.

Geoffrey Stern  04:46

Great. So, we’re going to start with one of the most iconic little prayers; declarations if you will, certainly something that we’ll see ended up in our liturgy by way of the Haggadah. It is a farmer’s declaration of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the temple. And it starts in Deuteronomy 26: 3 it says, You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, I acknowledge this day before your God that I have entered the land that God swore to our fathers to assign us. The priest shall take the basket from your hand, and set it down in the front of the altar of your God. You shall then recite as follows before your god, my father was a fugitive Aramean he went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there. But there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us they imposed heavy labor upon us. If this sounds familiar to any of us, it’s because it is quoted in the Haggadah. And what the Hagaddah does is literally take every one of the words that I just said, … when it says the Egyptians dealt harshly with us. When it says that we became לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב when it says they oppressed us וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ it has a standing commentary, which actually becomes the most fundamental core part of the whole Haggadah-Seder moment. And it says, We cried to God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our plea. God heard our plea. You’ll see in the Passover Haggadah, it says, When God heard our plea, he understood what they were doing to us. Maybe he was separating men from women. It goes into this running commentary in the Haggadah, he saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, you remember in the Haggadah talks about what does it mean by בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ by an outstretched arm וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה and awesome powers and by signs and portents…. So, this is as far as the Haggadah goes, but the literary piece the parsha of Bikkurim continues, bringing us to this place, וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of soil which you God have given me, you shall leave it before your God and bow low before your God, and you shall enjoy together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, and all the bounty that your God has bestowed upon you and your household. And then if you were looking at this text in a Sefer Torah, there is an end of literary piece, the end of Parashat Bikkurim, we have finished. So this clearly is a very old piece. It is in a sense quoted, you are literally quoting what the farmer says in front of the Cohen. So Rabbi, how many prayers like this do we have that are verbatim? And what does it mean to you?

Adam Mintz  08:48

Well, you said a mouthful here. The first interesting thing is that this is probably the earliest prayer that we have, which means that this was said as a prayer. In the time of the Torah, when they brought the first fruits, they recited this as a prayer. We just a minute ago, talked about Shema. Now Shema in the Torah is not written as a prayer, meaning that Moshe tells the people to believe in God and to put on tefillin and to put up a mezuzah, but he doesn’t say recite this every day. It wasn’t a prayer. We took it to become a prayer. But this actually was a prayer. And that’s really interesting. It’s interesting because what you see is that we have prayers, from the very beginning of time we have prayers, there are very few prayers in the Torah. There’s one another example of a prayer when Miriam, Moshe’s sister is sick. So Moshe says to God וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־הֹ’ לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕-ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ (Numbers 12: 13) , God, please cure her. It’s the shortest prayer in history. But that’s an example of a prayer and here we have another prayer. So, it’s interesting that the Torah recognizes the value of prayers, and even gives us some prayers that we actually recite.

Geoffrey Stern  10:10

You know, you saying that reminds me of the key prayers of the High Holidays? הֹ’ ׀ הֹ’ אֵ֥-ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת. This is something we’re going to start saying Selichot on Saturday night. These prayers are not only old, but because they’re old. They almost seem to have power, don’t they? If you really can count on your fingers, whether their prayers like this one, or whether like the Shema we’re quoting verses, I mean, some of the other ones that come to mind is with Ballam מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב (Numbers 24: 5). We start our service every day with that we quote, How goodly are the tents of Jacob”, it’s maybe written over the ark. We have the prayer that maybe parents say on their children on Friday night, יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה (Genesis 48: 20) which is what Joseph said. But you’re absolutely right. This is, along with רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ which is with Miriam is one of the few places where, at least in the Chumash, The Five Books of Moses, you have actually texts of prayers.

Adam Mintz  11:27

Yeah, that is interesting in the history of prayer. That’s interesting that prayer is biblical. That’s not the prayers we say. The prayers we say are basically rabbinic. The Amidah that we recite is not found in the Torah, the Amidah that we recite the rabbi’s made up. So, we generally think of prayer as being rabbinic. But the truth is a prayer is biblical. There is a biblical source for prayer.

Geoffrey Stern  11:51

I mean, I think if you look at for instance, the Shemoneh Esrey, the Eighteen Benedictions, the Amidah, the Silent Prayer, a lot of stuff is taken from Psalms, Psalms is a rich source of if not prayers, but at least phrases or expressions; ways of talking about the, you know, healing people or making them stand up straight or reviving them in the morning. But here, actually, it’s very few times that in our liturgy, we have stuff directly from the Five Books of Moses. But there are a few cases. And this is a very, very old prayer, no question about it.

Adam Mintz  12:36

Right that so so that’s, that’s the beginning of what’s interesting here. Now, the text of the prayer is also interesting, because what the prayer is, is it’s kind of a review of Jewish history, to allow us to be grateful to God, recognizing not only that God gave us new fruits, but that God gave us everything beginning with taking us out of Egypt.

Geoffrey Stern  13:00

I mean, isn’t it amazing if you step back for a second, and the two prayers that we’ve identified as biblical and old, one had to do with healing, and the other one had to do with thanks and gratitude.  And what more can you talk about thanks Then the harvest? You know, I think of he who sows in tears reaps in joy הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ (Psalms 26: 5), There is nothing more primal than the thankfulness and it comes all the way to the Puritans and the Thanksgiving festival and Sukkot that we’re going to have. You can almost track the three major festivals, the pilgrimage festivals, all around agriculture, which ultimately becomes that we are dependent on the earth we’re dependent on rain, we’re dependent on God. And the flip side of that is we are so thankful when we have a basket of fruit that we can we can bring to God to thank Him or Her.

Adam Mintz  14:09

Right. I think all that all that is exactly right. I think that’s, that’s wonderful here, and then the use of this prayer in the Seder also needs to be discussed. Why do we choose this verse? To make the question better? Let me ask it like this. The Seder on Passover, remembers the Exodus from Egypt. If we’re going to choose verses that talk about the Exodus from Egypt, why don’t we take verses from the book of Exodus that talk about the Exodus from Egypt? It seems kind of ridiculous that we choose verses from the book of Deuteronomy that talk about the Exodus from Egypt. We might as well choose to have the original story I might as well you know if I’m if I’m reading the story, I don’t know what your story the story of of the you know, of the I have the respect that they’re paying to the Queen. I might as well read it as it’s happening now. I’m not interested 10 years from now and they write a book about it, they IV the story in the moment is actually more accurate and more reflective of the way people are thinking later on, you kind of just have a perspective. So why do we choose the verses from Devarim? from Deuteronomy? And not the verses from Exodus?

Geoffrey Stern  15:24

So that is an amazing question. And I think that also will give us an insight into some prayers of the High Holidays. So, one of the commentaries on the Haggadah, that that I love, he claims he says that the Mishna wanted that …. and by the way, the Mishna in Pesachim actually dictates that these verses are said in Pesachim 10: 4 it says that, when teaching his son about the Exodus, he begins with the Jewish people’s disgrace, and concludes with their glory, מַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת וּמְסַיֵּם בְּשֶׁבַח, וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי,  and he expounds from the passage an Aramean tried to destroy my father, which is our verse with a new translation we’ll find out in a second, the declaration one was cites when presenting his first foods at the temple. And here the Mishnah says until he concludes explaining the entire section. So the Mishna says you have to read it, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ. The Mishna, in fact says to answer your question, not why, but that you have to say this whole section about bringing the first fruits on the night of the Seder from beginning to end. But the commentaries and modern scholarship, argue that the Mishna wanted to find a text and integrated commentary that was well known to the Jewish masses. And when we say well known to the Jewish masses, remember, there were many centuries, generations of Jews who did not even speak Hebrew, they spoke Aramaic, they spoke other languages. Because this prayer of giving the Bikkurim was so iconic, these scholars argue, we pick the one that people knew they not only knew the words in Hebrew, but they also kind of knew in a singsong way, the commentary on it. So, there was a great scholar named David Tzvi. Hoffman, who wrote a book called The First Mishna. And he actually uses the Haggadah and the way it goes from וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, and it gives an explanation, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה and gives an explanation. He says, this is a prime example of Midrash Halacha, and the earliest use of reading the written law and adding ongoing explanatory Midrash and interpretations. So, his answer to your question is, there are many other verses that talk about the exodus of Egypt, that might do it in a more poetic way, in a more discursive way, but the rabbi’s of the Mishna picked these because as we started by saying, it was an old prayer that everybody knew. And clearly, this is a prayer unlike the Shema that is not household to every Jew nowadays. But there was a time …. you knew The Bikkurim, and that we could we could talk about…

Adam Mintz  18:50

Well, everybody had first fruits, everybody had a harvest. We don’t we don’t live in agricultural life anymore. But if everybody lived in agricultural life, you would all have it.

Geoffrey Stern  19:00

so so again, I think that it’s fascinating that when we look at prayers, and some prayers are so well known, and we don’t even remember the reason that we know them. I mean, I think, and I’d love your take on this. We come to services on the night of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the holiest day of the year. And this service is named after a prayer that we all sing in the same tune, and we probably all get choked up over; it’s called Kol Nidrei. And it is basically a prayer that has to do with a legal formula for canceling your oaths that you made. And we might not even know the meaning of the words we might not know the meanings of a lot of words of prayers, but this one has lived way beyond its expiration date, but it still has all the power and the meaning. And that’s a fascinating insight, I think into prayer.

Adam Mintz  20:00

Yeah, that is an interesting point, the power of the prayer and you raise the power of the tune of Kol Nidrei. You know exactly what its history is not clear. The key is that everybody has been doing it. Right. And everybody sings the same tune. And that’s what’s so powerful.

Geoffrey Stern  20:22

Do you know if the Sefardim, the Mizrachim also have the same tune?

Adam Mintz  20:26

I don’t know if they have Kol Nidre, I think Kol Nidrei is an Ashkenazim thing?

Geoffrey Stern  20:31

Well, it’s certainly for the for the Ashkenazi him. And again, it’s a little bit like the beginning of the Seder, where we sing the Seder itself. It’s like singing the table of contents of a book. You’re right, it is the music. But I think the rabbis and the scholars who say that the reason Bikkurim was bought into the Haggadah are touching upon this aspect of some of our prayers, that a prayer can be more than the words that are written in it becomes like a mantra, it becomes something that we share with each other. And it goes beyond the meaning of the words or the original context. And I think that if we stopped right here, that would be a fascinating lesson about the power of prayer, or how prayer is used, or what its power on us is, don’t you think?

Adam Mintz  21:28

I think that that that really is a very interesting point. Now, I’ll just compare for a minute Kol Nidrei. And this prayer for the first fruit, you know, this prayer for the first fruit is biblical Kol. Nidrei is actually in Aramaic, right? I mean, it’s not even in Hebrew. So, some of the power is and you know, Aramaic is like English. That was the language that people spoke. So, you know, sometimes prayer in the vernacular is what’s so powerful. And obviously, we have that, especially in the kind of in the more liberal movements that you know, prayer in the vernacular has a certain power to it.

Geoffrey Stern  22:12

Yeah. And so there’s definitely this issue of lack of language. And those, those scholars who say that Bikkurim was something that people who didn’t speak Hebrew and Aramaic was their language, still new because it was so popular. That’s one message and what you said a second ago, which is to walk into a synagogue, where most of the services for the rest of the day are going to be in Hebrew, and you see something you hear something that’s in Aramaic is welcoming the codices in Aramaic. So the language is an important part. So I said in the beginning, that this was going to be a history of the censorship, and the reinterpretation of a prayer. So when I read the verses in in Deuteronomy itself, and I said, אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י. The translation was my father was a fugitive, Aramean. Oved is typically translated as someone who is lost and we’ll get a little bit into it for a second. In the Haggadah, however, it introduces before we get into this first fruits declaration, it says as follows and those of you who have been at a Seder will remember וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ, and this is what stood for our ancestors for us, since it is not only one person that has stood against us to destroy us, but rather each generation they stand against us to destroy us. But the וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם, God rescues us. So that’s the introduction to this prayer of the farmer. And then lo and behold, it changes the meaning. And in the Haggadah, it says, An Aramean was destroying my father Avood. I guess, when Esther was about to go in front of Achashveros when she wasn’t beckoned. She says וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי (Esther 4: 16), Avood definitely can also mean, not lost, but lost in the sense of my life is in danger. And the rabbis in a sense, re interpreted this, this whole Parshat Bikkurim, this whole declaration of the first fruits in a different way. Do you agree? Before I asked that question Rashi in his interpretation on the Chumash actually goes out of his way to bring the Haggadah’s as interpretation, but if you look at the source sheet, most of the classical commentary say it’s clear that what he was talking about is we were wandering, landless people. And here I am a farmer living in my land, bringing my crop. So how do you account for this change of interpretation?

Adam Mintz  25:20

I mean, that that’s easy, because the change the interpretation, because the new interpretation works out better within the Haggadah,

Geoffrey Stern  25:30

Especially after that introduction,  Right, meaning the simple explanation, which is that we were wandering and now we’re in the land of Israel, and now we have our own fruits etc.  and all that kind of stuff. That makes a lot of sense, given the context of the Chumash, but that’s not relevant to the Seder. The Seder wants the big picture, which is that Laban tried to destroy us אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, the word Avad, means from the word … tried to make us disappear, and therefore tried to get rid of I think, and we’ll see this comes up in another aspect of what the rabbi’s did. That there was a an evolution in the Haggadah itself. There is the Haggadah that was written and used in the land of Israel. And then when the Jews were exiled, it almost became a Haggadah of the exile. And so, the commentary that I have in the source sheet, it’s a by Joseph Tabori, he says as follows. He says while the temple existed, they understood the whole passage as truly representing their radical change in status. Remember, you’re in the land of Israel, you’re talking about the Exodus from Egypt, you actually parallel that farmer in a very profound way. The people had started out as fugitives, wandering nomads, and now they stood in their permanent home. But he says, After the destruction of the temple, there was no longer any parallelism between the lowly beginnings as nomads and their present status as people saved from persecution. And therefore, they talk about oppression rather than landlessness. So what he is saying and you can either buy it or not, is that the prayer itself evolved based on the needs of the time, and that when the mission of might have said say these verses of the first fruits, it might have been talking to people that their patriarchs, their ancestors had been in Egypt. Now they were in the land. They were spot on, like that farmer and the Seder was a question of being thankful just like the farmer, but when they were exiled, that message almost missed its mark, and therefore the rabbi’s put this introduction about how in every generation, they come to kill us, and it changed the interpretation of the verse. What do you think of Tabor’s theory?

Adam Mintz  26:12

That I love the idea that the that the interpretation of the verse evolves, and being grateful for it to having our own first fruit may not make sense if we don’t have our own land. I liked that a lot. That’s a really good explanation. Thank you.

Geoffrey Stern  28:37

So that explanation explained something else that I mentioned when I read the verses from our parsah, which is that in the Haggadah, it quotes are from our verses, but it doesn’t follow the advice of the Mishnah. It doesn’t read it till the end. It stops at verse 8. Verse 8 says, God freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand you will remember, that’s where the Haggadah says, What’s a mighty hand by an outstretched arm by awesome Power by signs and portents? There’s at least two pages in the Haggadah that talks about each one of these words, but get to verse 9, it says bringing us to this place. וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה no interpretation, giving us this land, no interpretation a land flowing with milk and honey, no interpretation, all the way till the end. And I’ve spoken about this before the last verse, it says, And you shall enjoy together with the Levite the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God gave you. So, in the introduction, I talked about censorship, in a sense and Tabori goes on to say this for people that were once more in exile. You It would be almost too much to pretend that they weren’t, it would be almost too much to talk about coming into the land, a land of milk and honey, and therefore the Haggadah decided not to quote those verses, and not to provide this singsong commentary about it. And if we step back and we look at prayers, that means that the prayers do evolve based on our condition where we are. But it’s also an open question. And I would say an invitation, is it not?

Adam Mintz  30:36

I think that that’s 100%. right. I mean, I really liked to Tabori’s explanation, I think he got it right. It also is good for us. Because what it does is it links the Torah portion to the Haggadah. Usually, the Haggadah just borrows these verses, but they’re not really relevant. And what he does is he really connects one to the other. So, I like that also.

Geoffrey Stern  31:01

So at the end of my source sheet, I quote just one, one section from a whole Google Doc, which comes out of Israel from young scholars in Israel. But literally, there is a revival in the Haggadah today, where they continue and they say וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ who brought us in, and they say then is now as it is said, How I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to me in the same kind of tradition, this singsong thing they quote another verse, and אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה this place refers to the temple, and it comes from Rabbi David Mishlove, supplement for Seders in Israel. So here we have an example of a prayer that starts in the Five Books of Moses in Deuteronomy, that was changed, maybe censored out of sensitivity to people living in exile, and is today being rewritten, and re-positioned for a new generation of Jews who are in the land. And I just find that to be so. So fascinating.

Adam Mintz  32:14

I think that’s great. I think this was really the sources I give you credit, Geoffrey, because the sources tonight were really, really good.

Geoffrey Stern  32:20

Well, and I think it’s an invitation to all of us as we, as we begin this prayer season, as I call it. There are different ways to approach the prayers. You know, many of us just focus on what does this prayer mean. But I think tonight, we’ve really seen that there were so many other reflective and reflections that can have meaning to us beyond just the simple meaning of the words, and we’re gonna be in synagogue for so many hours. We need all the tools we can get.

Adam Mintz  32:50

Fantastic. And we still got one more next week. So well, Shabbat Shalom, everybody, and we’ll see you next Thursday. Looking forward. Be Well, everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  32:57

Shabbat shalom. Thank you, as always, Rabbi. And for any of you who have a comment. Oh, Miriam, I’m going to invite you on

Miriam Gonczarska  33:08

I posted something a little comment that we have another prayer in our siddurs from the Torah. Not from Deuteronomy but from Numbers and its יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ (Numbers 6: 24)

Geoffrey Stern  33:32

Of course, the Priestly Blessing, the Cohen’s benediction. That’s, that’s perfect. We did miss that.

Miriam Gonczarska  33:39

Yeah, and I wanted to add that because I think it’s fascinating, although it’s not from sefer Devarim. But the beautiful part is it’s about Cohanim. It’s about temple, temple rituals.  And we say it every day, every morning, but this is a beautiful, beautiful player.

Geoffrey Stern  34:07

Thank you for that. It is fascinating how few of our prayers come from the Torah itself, the rabbi kind of mentioned that. But those that do obviously have great power. And again, you look at Bikkurim It’s a prayer of a farmer being thankful with a historical memory. You look at the priestly blessing that you just mentioned, you know, it doesn’t talk about ritual, it talks about that God should bless you and keep you and shine his light upon you and give you peace. I mean, they’re just powerful.


Yes. And what is very interesting that apparently, archeologists in Israel found this prayer on a very early materials and there is this concept of biblical criticism, which we might like or not like, but they say that this is one of the oldest texts in   the five books of Moses. It’s beautiful words, and that the entire idea that Hashem should bless you and keep you and turn his face and shine upon you and be graceful into you. I mean, there’s different translations, and there’s so much in this play of words, because it’s the וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ, you can translate it as chinuch (education), and Hanukkah, and there’s just so much written here plays so much, so much in this prayer. And again, it’s not from first book of Moses, it’s that from the fourth one. But the observation that you write I really liked that is that most of our prayers are from the sefer Devarim. That’s a fascinating observation and, and there is something very deep about it. Even if I found to be prayer here, taken from Bamidbar (Numbers)

Geoffrey Stern  36:05

So Miriam, if I remember you are a graduate, you got smicha Maharat, is that correct?

Miriam Gonczarska  36:10

Yes. And Rabbi Mintz is my teacher. I took all his classes.

Geoffrey Stern  36:15

And you serve the Polish community, if I remember correctly. So, what do you do during the High Holidays? Are you conducting services?

Miriam Gonczarska  36:26

No, it’s kind of public knowledge. So I can tell you I’m struggling right now with cancer. So I am in New York, but I am not able to be insured in a long you know, for long periods of time. So, I’m undergoing chemo right now. So, I’m laying low on the days themselves, but I teach online before I’m preparing my class, and I actually I want to teach this material to my students. So, I was so excited I need the source Sheet. I want to teach them in Polish. I’m going to translate parts of what you taught and teach it in Polish

Geoffrey Stern  37:07

Amazing!  I wish you a life and vibrance and Refuah Shelema and all those good things that were included in Miriam’s Refa Na La

Miriam Gonczarska  37:23

So actually, definitely means knows about my illness, and it was extremely moving when he actually said it knowing that I’m in the audience and my name is Miriam. And I love this moment and it’s like, it’s my teacher, but it’s like this this you know, I was warm and fuzzy.

Geoffrey Stern  37:41

As you should have been.

Miriam Gonczarska  37:43

Yeah. It might be just accidental, but I love that type of accidents.

Geoffrey Stern  37:47

Yeah, there are no accidents. Right? Anyway, Shana Tova, Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for joining us. Thanks  Miriam for coming on.

Miriam Gonczarska  37:56

And it was fantastic. Fantastic to talk to you and thank you for all the Torah that you’re sharing with Rabbi Mintz this is this a beautiful class and I’m so happy that there such a zchut for clubhouse to have such a high level Torah on this platform.

Geoffrey Stern  38:14

Thank you so much. Shabbat Shalom Thank you. Bye bye.

Miriam Gonczarska  38:17

Bye bye.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Ki Tavo Podcast: Chosen:

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, haggadah, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Passover, prayer, Religion, Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashannah, shavuot, social commentary, Torah, yom kippur