Category Archives: 21st Century P’shat

21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah

Noach

  1. Hashem’s policy of ‘encouraging through forgiveness’ ends in Parshat Bereshit. We have now entered another stage – ‘encouragement through threat.’ The story of the flood is the baseline of this threat – like a paddle hanging on the wall of an old-fashioned school house. Recording the measurements and capturing the dates of this event serve to make it seem more realistic and frightening.
  2. Noach builds the ark and he ‘makes come the animals’ as Hashem commanded him. But Noach doesn’t close the ark. Hashem does. Noach does the act of saving; his command and covenant are to be a life preserver. But the act of closing out the world condemns it. If Noach did it, it would ruin whatever part of Noach Hashem sees as worth preserving. Perhaps this is why the Ark has no side-facing windows – Noach can’t witness mass death.
    1. There are five dates mentioned in this story. Although all appear to be relative to Noach’s age, the next time a precise date is mentioned is in the taking of the Pesach lamb. Why are dates so important? This story takes only one year and ten days in the life of a man who lives to be 950 years old. Perhaps it is a reminder that our reaction to the day-to-day realities of brief crises can define us forever.
  3. We know not everything was killed in the flood. There are scientific reasons for this (no massive cross-species genetic narrowing, animals aren’t common across the world etc…) and Torah reasons. For example, earlier in Bereshit we call Yaval and his brothers the fathers of three different lifestyles – why not just call them the first if they’ll all be mingled with Noach? We do know there was a massive flood – the stories are global. So what happened? There are three verses of actual destruction – 7:21-23. The first verse uses gavah for death – but it is a precursor of death – Avraham gavah and then died. Jacob gavah and then was gathered etc…. It might mean physically give out. The second verse uses mait for death – but only for those creatures which have nishmat ruach chaim; a living soul gifted by G-d. The last verse uses the root macha for blotting out all established things. It is something that happens after death and refers to ‘erasing the legacy’. For example, it is used for a wife who must marry her husband’s brother so he isn’t macha. Perhaps the flood describes totally crushing hardship, the death of those with G-dly souls and the erasure of all legacies.
    1. Hashem zachors Noach. Zachor is used as a verb by Hashem in cases where there is a covenant that won’t be kept unless Hashem zachors. It has nothing to do with the zachoree’s own merit. Hashem has a brit with Noach to preserve the animals. If he doesn’t zachor him and get him off the ark, it will be necessary to start eating animals and the covenant won’t stand. The same pattern exists with Yishmael and, on multiple occasions, the Jewish people. Perhaps this sort of desperation underpins why we read the story of Yishmael on Rosh Hashana and (as Rabbi Fischer of Portland Oregon points out) use Noach as the first Zachor used in the Yom Kippur davening.
  4. Why were non-human creatures hit in the first place? Here it says ‘your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts…’ But in Bereshit (1:26) it says ‘you will rule over the fish….’ We sometimes read that as a prophecy or command – but what if it was a fact? What if we commanded the animals directly; which is why Noach could be commanded to make them come. If so, it explains how we corrupted them. After the flood, we do not have control. We only cause fear and dread. The animals’ are no longer culpable for our acts.
    1. Noah’s offering triggers a second covenant from Hashem. It says that the earth will not be cursed because of man and Hashem won’t hit every living thing – but it implies that wrath can be reserved for man. The only protection is that seed time and harvest will not cease. That is very limited protection indeed.
    2. Why would a burnt offering trigger this covenant? Perhaps the smoke carries with it the soul (nefesh, not nishmat) of the animal and makes clear the animal is not responsible for the corruption. This might be why this covenant is with Hashem himself and does not include Noach.
    3. Cain was protected, but now murder must be responded to and the job is outsourced to man. Having the responsibility for law raises man.
  5. The third covenant of this parsha promises that there will be no more earth-destroying floods. But the promise is very limited. It only promises that water won’t be used for this, not that the destruction of man can’t occur through another path. This is like a father saying to a child “I was really mad and I took away that toy. I’ll never take that toy away again.”  This promise continues the theme of ‘encouragement through threat.’
  6. This reading mentions, before the tower of Bavel, that people were dispersed and their languages split. This seems to be a natural process that breaks down by family and nation – not a G-d-imposed process of confusion. What is going on here? They key is the word used for language – lashon.
  7. The tower story never uses the word lashon. Instead, the word translated as language is safah. Safah  indicates a border, edge or distinction. It more naturally refers to social lines than linguistic. And the first sentence could have combined things and distinctions as a qualifier of all the land – only some people were involved. Perhaps the p’shat story of Bavel actually reads: “All of the earth that shared a common distinction and had united things settled in a valley and decided to undertake a massive project out of human-made products to keep their society unified and declare their importance. Hashem sees and he realizes they will build a G-dless society that will achieve whatever it wants and become dominant. So he confuses the differences within the group so that one man will not listen to the next and scatters them worldwide, confusing group distinctions everywhere and ensuring such a movement won’t happen again.”
    1. Hashem doesn’t kill the people of the tower. Why? Because it isn’t necessary. The people don’t have a relationship with G-d but that can be fixed easily by weakening their relationships with their all-powerful society.

Bereshit

  1. There is a critical line: “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.  “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.” Hashem hallowed the seventh day by resting from his work. Holiness requires two things – creative work and divine rest. This is why Adam’s job is to work and guard the garden.
    1. The first word of the Torah is “In the Beginning.” Countless books have reflected on this in many ways. Implied in the word is that there is a beginning to time. There is a start. Time, in other words, is created. This one concept separates our world fundamentally from Hashem’s. Why not say time was created? Any phrase describing the creation of time would be senseless. Perhaps this is why there is a word vo’u that has no context and no other uses. It suggests incomprehensibility.
  2. There are two creations – a source of endless Bible criticism. Let’s look at the dual creations of plant life. In English, they seem identical – but the words for vegetation don’t match up in Hebrew. The first has deshand eisev mazriah and eitz pri. Roughly translated these are sprouted vegetation, seeded grasses and fruit trees that make fruit of their own kind. They are reproducing plants. The second has siach hasadeh and asev hasadeh. What is different? Hasadeh – a field, nominally one for human needs and a place for human creation. The second set of vegetation has a purpose beyond itself and its own reproduction. It waits for man to work it. Now let’s look at man. The first creation has man in the likeness of G-d. And man is commanded to rule the earth and eat from it and reproduce. Rest is not included, the seventh day hasn’t happened yet. And, bundled with everything else, man is very good. He fits. But the second man is different. It is the second creation that sees spirit blown into man and an animal with soul created. Like the vegetation, this human has a purpose beyond himself and his own reproduction. The importance of spirit is emphasized by his humble physical roots from the dust of the ground. Looked at evolutionary – perhaps there was man without soul before homo soulus builds upon him.
  3. Adam and Chava are not creators. They aren’t living up to the role of soulful beings in the image of Hashem – creators who rest with the divine. Instead, they are all Kadosh rest and no creative good. Just like a spoiled kid needs to experience difficulty to start creating with his/her life, they need to evil to be driven to do the good. The snake is the catalyst for this.
    1. One opinion argues the fruit is the etrog. No amazing characteristics are required for this to be true. Chava judges good with her eyes and expected taste. She is not a creator of the good like Hashem. She sees the fruit and to her long-range sensors (eyes and nose) it would seem good – even wonderful. But when she eats it, she will realize it is not good at all. She will know evil. And with it she will recognize that her perception of the good was limited. Hearing – hearing the voice of Hashem – is the way to true goodness.
    2. Midrashim argue the snake had the appearance of a man. Then it lost its arms and legs as described in the text. Perhaps the snake was that prior man – man without soul.
  4. It is fascinating that Hashem doesn’t seem to punish Cain. He marks him, but for protection not death. Why? The answer comes earlier. Hashem says “you can improve… you can rule over [longing for sin].” Hashem is trying to give Cain a chance to improve himself. This is like our governments giving Iran or North Korea another chance after they commit an atrocity. We want punishment to be unnecessary and so does Hashem.
  5. We have three brothers. And they progress down a path. First is Yaval who was the first to live in tents and herd cattle. yaval means income.Herders are pushed from the best land and make use of large amounts of inferior land – but they aren’t nomads who follow their flocks. They separate themselves in order to make an income. Next is Yuval who grasps the harp and ugav (a shoresh that implies promiscuity as well as a flute). The form of yuval implies more urgent income – perhaps income based on entertainment involving sex and music. The third brother is Tuval Kain. It could be translated as “you acquire acquisitions” – the strongest of the three. This family relies on sharpened blades.
  6. At the beginning of this reading, lemech takes Hashem’s gesture towards Cain and totally misunderstands it. He sees reward for murder. I’m reminded of my triplets – give one a pass and the next will totally take advantage of it. Perhaps in response to this trend, Adam gets a second line Shait. This son makes it common to call to Hashem and by the end of the reading his descendant Enoch is walking with G-d.
  7. But the swordsmen of Tuval Kain are still there. Perhaps they are powerful. And perhaps their sons are those who take ‘good’ daughters from the mass of people. These sons who didn’t even create their own power steal the good rather than creating it. In a way, these men are living in an Eden and taking the good. But instead of pursuing knowledge or life, they take the good for reproductive urges. Going back, these seem like pre-soul men; programmed to conquer and reproduce. Hashem’s response is to say His soul will not yadon (from the root dinan) in man forever because he is flesh. He stops the approach he took with Cain and drops the limitless hope and forgiveness. His soul can not stay in these people. This is the only use of the root dinan  in Torah. It seems to mean ‘encouraging through forgiveness’. In the run up to the flood, this sort of encouragement is gone. It is a phase change from a world where evil exists to encourage the good to one where suffering can also exist because not punishing evildoers produces more evildoers.

Shavuot (second day)/Pesach (eighth day)/Shemini Atzeret

  1. We have the deer and hart included because it teaches us a core lesson of Kedusha. You can’t offer a blemished animal because it has evil in it (loss of potential). And you can’t offer a deer or hart because Kedusha is about converting creation into holiness. But if you don’t create something you can’t convert it. It is equivalent to offering a blemished animal.
  2. We see the bread of affliction being tied to haste. Why? Because the only reason the Jews had to make food in haste was because they couldn’t plan and take the initiative. The haste is a representation of their affliction and so is the Matza.
  3. Why does it say the time for departure was evening or late afternoon. We know if isn’t from the previous reading. It was nightfall or perhaps early morning in that reading. The reason this is the time is because, with the Pesach offering the Jews marked their doors as non-Egyptian. They did it in the evening. While they had not physically left Egypt, they had taken the first step to leave Egypt in the spiritual sense.
  4. We read here that Shavuot has the widow, orphan and stranger among you but not within your gates. They weren’t within the gates from a farming perspective because they weren’t land owners (Leviim were because of maas). But we make a special point of including them despite the fact that they are outside the gates. This is why in Parshat Emor we include the commandment to leave the corners of fields (even for strangers who are not necessarily poor) right after the commandment to keep Shavuot. Perhaps this is why we read Ruth on this holiday.
  5. Sukkot (here) is about the threshing floor, wine vat, produce and work of the hands. Because all can clearly and directly participate in this, all are within the gates when the people are listed. We see a clear contrast with Shavuot.

V’zot Ha’beracha

  1. Rabbi Twerski of Portland Oregon asked me how it could say Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaacov “Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” if Moshe is speaking. If we go back to the beginning of the Parsha, Moshe is called “the man of G-d” for the first and only time. When his blessing starts, it says vayomer Elohim misinai bahThis is translated as “He said, Hashem came from Sinai…” but it could just as easily be translated as “Hashem said, from Sinai came…” In other words, at this point Moshe is a man of G-d. And G-d and Moshe are speaking together. When did Moshe command G-d? After the Golden Calf, Moshe uses his favor in G-d’s eye to defend the people. It is his greatest moment of leadership and when – according to the pshat of the Torah – he changes G-d’s mind. Perhaps this is why the very next verse of this parsha says v’yehi veshurun melech, “there will be a King in Yeshurun (Israel)”.
    1. May Reuben live and not die, and not have his number die. We number names, number zachar, number circles & number animals. What does a number miss? Vs. Pekudim. It denies personal potential – or even group potential beyond bulk. Being without number is to rise above these statistical measures. But to have your number die is to fail to realize even them. It is the lowest measure.
  2. What army? Only military action by Leviim is internal – they aren’t in the army. But they strike the loins – literally gifts. Why? It points to a distinct army – one that might strike the offspring with its teaching so that those who rebel won’t recover. It is often more effective than killing.
  3. Mimeged comes up 5 times and these are the only places it shows up in Chumash and I don’t have it in my shoresh dictionaries. So what is it doing here? Let’s look at the first three: mimeged of heaven is dew, mimeged of sun is grain, mimeged of moon is garish – thrust out. Does heaven produce dew? No, it produces rain – dew is a result of temperature and condensation. Does the sun produce grain? No, it helps but it is just an ingredient. Does the moon produce that which is thrust out (I presume, children)? No, it is correlated. These are all indirect or related blessings, nothing direct. This is like Joseph – whose separation led to the survival of the brothers. It is in his character to bless indirectly and be blessed indirectly.
  4. Why does Zebulun rejoice in departure? They are sea people, fisherman and traders. Don’t sailors rejoice at return? This rejoicing speaks to a fundamental confidence in the success of their ventures. It is the best blessing for sailors.
  5. We come to the end of the tribes, but Shimon is unmentioned. Why? We are seeing the impact of human choices. The tribes aren’t blobs or groups – they have individual names. They go above Mispar and beyond Pekudim into real personalities and potentials. Moshe is blessing them – he is loving them far more clearly than Jacob whose ‘blessings’ were far more mixed. But things have happened in the intervening years. Levi was cursed with Shimon – but Levi changed paths and converted his curse to a blessing. Shimon did not. Levi rose, but Shimon – already – has lost the capacity to be blessed.
  6. “Fortunate are you, O Israel! Who is like you, O people whose salvation is through the Lord.” What is salvation? It is almost defined here as the magen (shield) and sword of Hashem. The most famous shield is the magen Avraham in the Amidah. But as Rabbi Bick of Yeshivat Har Etzion points out, that magen is promised to Avraham after his war. Avraham was fearful – but after the fight. Perhaps we see this today in those who suffer from PTSD. Hashem is his magen – his psychological shield against terror and fear. On Sukkot, when we perform Hoshanot (prayers for salvation), we live in Sukkot. We recognize, by living in Sukkot, that Hashem is our shield.
  7. The final words of Torah: Moshe is the greatest prophet. Why? Because of the evidence. We are, at bottom, a real-world religion. The p’shat is, in our lives, the truth. Our challenge is to take what we’ve been given and create a Loving relationship with Hashem – as our forefathers and Moshe had.

Shabbat Chol Hamoed (Pesach and Sukkot)

  1. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, there is a phrase repeated three times in this short reading in various variations – matzati chain be-einecha, I find favor in your eyesIt is a common turn of phrase – but never this common. Christians might translate it as ‘grace’. It is not exclusive to G-d. Jacob says it to Esav. It first comes up with Noach – Hashem finds favor in his eyes. Moshe distinguishes himself by taking this favor and sharing it with the undeserving people. This is the sign of a great leader.
  2. “I will make all my goodness pass across your face.” What is all the goodness of the Lord? I think this is the only mention of the goodness of the Lord. His actions and creations and gifts are credited with goodness – but Hashem’s goodness doesn’t appear. What is this? If goodness is the actualization of creative potential then what Moshe is seeing is the total actualization of Hashem’s creativity in this world. If so, it is an amazing concept and something beyond the appreciation of any man. Perhaps this is why it simply ‘passes’ by even Moshe.
  3. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, there is a weird concept of seeing G-d’s back, but not his front. When we read the text, Hashem seems to be saying ‘you’ll see all my goodness’ which is his back. If we go back to Bereshit, goodness follows Hashem’s acts of creation. Hashem hides himself with his hand – the body part of action. Perhaps Hashem’s actions actually hide him – but once the actions are removed, Moshe can see where Hashem has been and the goodness he has done. What Moshe can’t see – what no man can see – is where Hashem is going. There could be many many reasons for this. Not the least of these might be complexity – we can perceive one past. But with free will, there might be infinite futures (all within a divine plan) – and a man could be destroyed by that perception.
  4. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, Moshe has to carve out the second set of tablets? Perhaps because he plays a new leadership role. Hashem made the first set to welcome the Jewish people. The second set required Moshe’s argument. It is a gift not just from Hashem, but from Moshe. Hashem puts the words there – he creates the content. But Moshe enables the context.
  5. There is this concept of kindness to the thousandth generation but hatred only to the third or fourth. There are many takes on this – but one is simple. It says in Devarim that the forefathers loved Hashem. They got a brit or covenant as a result. This brit results in a long-term promise of kindness. But in the intervening time, the Jewish people rebel. For this, we suffer terribly – for three or four generations. It is our challenge to rejoin the long-term track. Note that there is a brit here, but a short-term one.
  6. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, note that the commandment of Maseicha has (for the first time) been added to the list of inappropriate worships. This is perhaps a reaction to the egel. Not only shouldn’t you make other gods, but you shouldn’t worship your own peoplehood. As if you needed me to tell you that.
  7. Why break the donkey’s neck if it is not redeemed? Does this somehow gift it to Hashem? It just seems like a waste of a working animal. The first born are tied back to the death of the first born in Egypt. The survival of our first born is a testament to this miracle and our connection to Hashem. Perhaps, it is a reminder that when our productive efforts are divorced from our relationship to Hashem, then the fruit of those efforts are as worthless as a donkey with a broken neck.

Sukkot (first two days)/Pesach (second day)

  1. “On the same day it shall be eaten; ye shall leave none of it until the morning.” After this command there is a litany of emphasis on it. Why is it so important? If Kedusha is maximizing the conversion of spiritual potential into reality then it becomes clear. If you sacrifice an animal in Kedusha you maximize its potential. But if you waste its meat – if you let it rot – then that is a slap in its face. It is a waste of potential and that is unholy.
  2. We read in this read, “These are the appointed seasons of Hashem, you shall proclaim them to be holy proclamations.” Why repeat proclamation? Why is proclamation part of the definition of the day? Perhaps it is because the human element is critical. Hashem can have them as his seasons, but our proclamation in inherent to their importance. It is a meeting of the will of Hashem and of his people.
  3. As previously pointed out, why do converts need the corners of the fields and why mention it here? They aren’t necessarily poor and if they are, they can be counted in the poor group. I believe the reason is tied into the placement of this command with Shavuot. Shavuot is p’shat, a harvest festival. We give the poor and converts the corners of the fields to indicate that even though they aren’t inheritors/owners of land, they are still a part of this festival. They own the corners.
  4. Yom Kippur is a day of impoverishing the soul. We can compare the Sukkah to a Chuppah (wedding canopy) for our marriage to Hashem. Sukkot is a renewal of an old relationship. In this context, the soul impoverishment of Yom Kippur could be likened to love sickness. We insure that our hearts yearn for Hashem so that our remarriage will truly be one of joy.
  5. Only the native born are commanded to live in Sukkot. Why? On Sukkot, you take yourself out of your normal roof and settle for the risk and challenge of living under Hashem’s canopy. But a convert doesn’t need to do this. His very act of conversion is a lifelong act of Sukkot. He has given up his normal roof for a marriage to Hashem and his people.

Yom Kippur

  1. The Holy of Holies is referenced as being within the Parochet/curtains or the House of Parochet/Curtains. The woven curtains cross between the outside world and the holiness of the Mishkan and the Holy places and the Holy of Holies. The inner curtains are a point of crossover between the timeless and the point of conversion of creative energy. Yom Kippur is about crossing that divide – about crossing over to a timeless world we cannot exist in.
  2. Of all the items of clothing, the coat is singled out for special consideration as individually holy. The word used for coat is ketonet. It is not beged, which implies deception. When we approach Hashem we cover our raw nakedness – but we do not clothe ourselves in untruth.
  3. Azazel seems like another being – a boogieman in the uninhabited desert. We assign one goat to Hashem and one to Azazel. The name for Hashem used is the word of timelessness – not elokim which identifies power. Something that goes to Hashem is timelessly preserved. Az-Azael literally means goat of disappearance. Things that go to Azazel vanish from time – as if they never existed. It is null – like the disappearance of an undeveloped soul.
  4. To protect ourselves from the anan or cloud of Hashem we create our own anan from incense. It covers the witness (the word used for the Aron). But how can we cover the witness with incense? Why would this work? Why isn’t this deceptive? The key is that the incense is Hashem’s recipeBy using His tools we earn a covering of our sins. It is part of his mercy that he allows us to do this. Yom Kippur is such a tool.
  5. The blood (or spirit) of the offerings is used for a particular act – purifying the altar. These offerings repair our connection to Hashem. Only after that connection is repaired do we have the ability to make our sins vanish from this world.
    1. My brother Isaiah points out that the bull may atone for the golden calf (Aaron’s sin) while the goats atone for Yisrael (Yaacov) using goats to deceive his father.
  6. We are commanded to afflict ourselves. The literal word means impoverish. As mentioned in a previous dvar, you are impoverished when you feel a lack of something. To impoverish your soul is to make yourself aware that there is a gap that needs filling – and enabling Hashem to fill it.
  7. In this final reading we see that the Yom Kippur role is not tied to individuals, but to the position of the Kohen Gadol. We can perform an impoverishment within ourselves – but repairing the powerful connection to the divine represented by the mizbeach (altar) is the act of a nation.

Haazinu

  1. In the first pesukim of this reading, we have three forms of water supporting vegetation. But in the middle of these three forms, we see storm winds attacking it. The storm winds stick out. Rashi says they help vegetation grow and be strong – but they don’t really do this. Rashi was a vinter (a wine maker). As vinters know, harsh conditions improve the wine even as they may damage the bush. The harsh conditions of the Jewish people, described later in the parsha, might perform the same duty.
    1. The text talks of corruption. For law to work, it has to be accepted in the main by the population. Corruption undermines this acceptance. If the law of the Torah is the basis of our relationship to Hashem, then corruption undermines that relationship. This has devastating consequences.
  2. The second reading talks of the borders of the nations being set by the mispar of the Jewish people. We often interpret this as the nations being dependent on our numbers. But when we count Jews in Chumash we normally use the word pekudim  – reckonings (excepting counting of impersonal things like names rather than people). mispar is a much less personal word – like a phone number. The only time the concepts of mispar and world-wide borders being rewritten coexist is in World War II. Empires fell, countries were split – the entire map was rewritten. Perhaps that rewriting was based on the testimony of the mispar (numbers) of the Jewish people – tattooed on their wrists. Those who refused us entry, those who actively killed us, those who fought even when they didn’t need to  – they were all treated differently because of their relationship to our mispar.
  3. The third reading makes reference to the ‘blood of grapes.’ Blood is associated with spirit. We spill out the blood of animals because we have no right to their spirits. Itis fascinating to me that grapes have spirit we can consume. Perhaps this is why we use wine for sacramental reasons. We are imbibing spirit to connect to Hashem.
  4. The fourth reading speaks of our persecutors having aspects of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities represent great wealth creation without any peace or charity or rest. We are brought low by tremendously powerful and wealthy nations that lack any divine spark.
  5. The Torah promises just as followed a non-god, we will be persecuted by a non-people. But the Torah refers to other gods as being gods – just false gods of wood and stone. Again, looking at history, we can see few cases of an entire nation following a belief system entirely dedicated to materialism. But there is one – the USSR. Communism, in its pure form, raises the material above all else and seeks to eradicate the divine. Perhaps, due to our participation in this, this was our non-god.
  6. The word kaper (from the same root as Yom Kippur) shows up here. It refers to Hashem kapering His earth and nation by punishing those who punish us. What does this mean? I’d suggest it is repairing His reputation and place. But the translation makes this parsha’s storyline become very unattractive. Hashem seems like an abusively jealous husband. He sees us with other men, he lets criminals beat us to within an inch of our lives and then he shoots the criminals because – after all – we’re his wife. Is this really what the parsha is suggesting?
  7. In the final reading, we get an answer. “Set your hearts to all of the words which I bear witness for you this day… For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life…” What separates Hashem from the jealous husband is that we were created for the purpose of having a relationship with him. Angels know too much to have a relationship rather than total obedience. In the Torah, all the goodness of creative acts and Kedusha of timeless acts are building blocks of a relationship with G-d. But if there is no relationship, there is no purpose in having a Jewish (or other) people. While acts of Tov and Kedusha are key to establishing the foundations of that relationship, it is prayer that makes it real. Just as Hashem gave us spirit through His breath, we establish a bridge to that spiritual source through ours.

Rosh Hashana Day Two

  1. Avraham splits the wood before leaving. On the one hand this shows a tremendous level of conscientiousness. He seems to be making sure the offering faces no hickups. On the other, surely there will be wood closer to mountain. Why doesn’t he just bring Yitzchak, a knife, some fire and an ax and hop on a horse? Perhaps Avraham, unable to square Hashem’s request, is slowing things down while ensuring he can carry out the command. He is not wasting time – just doing things as thoroughly as possible.
  2. Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rav Bick points out that Avraham travels three days and the mountain is still far away. In essence, he tries to square Hashem’s command, but it is still distant. He can’t make sense of it. I’m always interested in the word used for knife – it literally means eater. It is a brutal blade.
  3. Yeshivat Har Etzion talks about the trait of fear of Hashem being developed through this story – this is why Hashem sees it in Avraham. What fear though? Of losing his son and his future? He’s giving that up. I think the correct translation is awe – acceptance of the appropriateness and truth of even that we don’t understand. Amazingly, Hashem doesn’t just learn about Avraham, Avraham sees Hashem. What does he see? Perhaps he understands that Hashem wants to develop our souls – and while that sometimes that requires pain and confusion for even the greatest of people, pain and confusion are not the goal or even the reality.
  4. Why are we compared to the sand on the lip sfat (literally language or lip) of the sea and the stars in heaven? Why not the sand in the desert. Last week’s parsha might have an answer. It says the Torah is not in Heaven or across the seas but in our hearts and in our mouths. Perhaps in our role as stars we pull the Torah of the heavens into our hearts and as sand on the lip of the sea we draw the Torah of the world’s creation into our mouths (lips).
  5. In this reading, Avraham learns his brother is far ahead of him in offspring. But we know how this turns out – Nachor is not a major character. Perhaps it is a lesson to us – we should trust in Hashem to maximize our reality and not concern ourselves with immediate comparisons to our brothers or friends.

Addendum

The Mussaf Amidah has a progression of Shofar blowing. There is Malchiut (Kingship). We blow for each other and to coronate Hashem by indicating our joy in serving him. The tone should be powerful, confident and regal which is why I blew the Kudo Shofar.

There is Zichronote. When Hashem Zochers in Chumash he is rescuing those in dire need about whom there is a brit (covenant). There is not necessarily any merit in the rescuee – just a brit that obligates Hashem to save. Noach and the animals needed Zichron when they ran out of food (Noach would have needed to eat the animals who were supposed to survive). FYI, Tzvi Fischer pointed out the Noach connection. Yishmael needed Zichron when he was near death from dehydration. He was saved by the covenant with Avraham which promised he would be a great nation. The Jewish people were remembered in the same way when they risked being like other slaves, no longer having children. And so on. I think the most recent Zichron was the creation of the State of Israel after the desperation caused by the Holocaust. The Zichron blowing is one of the Jewish people to Hashem. It is a blowing of desperation. I used the small and tinny shofar for these brief notes.

Then there is Shofarote. In Chumash, the shofar is the sound of revelation. It is the sound of redemption – either by us recognizing Hashem’s Kingship or by us being in desperate straits. In either case, Shofarote is the voice of Hashem to the Jewish people. It is the Shofar heard round the world. It is strong. And so for these notes I again blew the Kudo.

 

Rosh Hashana Day One

  1. There are many paths through the Days of Awe. In the first verse of this reading, we see Sarah providing the ultimate example of being held to account. In the first verse of this reading. Hashem pakads Sarah. This is often translated as ‘remembered,’ but it is closer to being selected or accounted for. Sarah was so great that when special attention was paid to her, it resulted in a positive miracle rather than a danger. This is the highest level we can achieve during Rosh Hashana – to be blessed because we deserve it.
  2. I’ve always had a hard time understanding this laughter – until this year. I heard a beautiful and funny story on the Moth podcast. The storyteller was explaining that her mother had died and she was adrift and got into writing fiction. She published over 10 books and is rather well known for her mystery series. After recounting this, she mentions that she wrote her first book when she was 80. The audience laughed, I laughed. And then she said, in a deadpan, “There’s hope for you all.” I think this is the lesson of those who laugh at Yitzchak’s birth. Through Hashem, there’s hope for us all.
  3. At the end of the second reading, we see Ishmael is fated to survive. But then Hashem hears his cry and rescues him from death. If he was promised life, why would the cry matter? This matters to the Jewish people – we’ve been promised life. But we are remembered when we cry. We see this first in Egypt. This cry is not a normal cry or a whine. It is a cry that says “we can go on no longer.” In Egypt the risk was that the Jewish people would stop having children – here it is that Yishmael will die from lack of water. We don’t want to fall so far that our rescue must come by way of this sort of cry. It is far better to return to Hashem and be pakad long before we give the cry of total desperation.
  4. One might ask why we should have this last bit about Abimelech tacked on to the reading. In fact, the Yitzchak and Yishmael story is stuck in the middle of the greater Abimelech interaction. Abimelech has a lesson for us. Initially, he makes amends to Avraham for his initial sin. But here, he recognizes that it isn’t about him – it is about future generations. We should approach Hashem the same way – we should repair the short-term. Ultimately, though, teshuva is about our children and grandchildren.
  5. This final reading is loaded with significance. There is a brit (covenant), eidah (witnesses) and sheva (oath) between Abimelech and Avraham concerning wells. The Jewish people have a brit with Hashem, as last week’s parsha discussed we have witnesses to that brit. But in the meantime we have a year-to-year and far more mundane relationship with Hashem. The sheva is about these – sheva is the basic unit of Jewish time (a week). On Rosh Hashana we are part of the long-term brit – but we also must remember to establish the foundation for our year-to-year relationship to Hashem.

Addendum:

Rosh Hashana kicks off with the concept of Kingship. This is not power (Saddam had power, Elizabeth doesn’t, but the 2nd is a monarch). I didn’t understand kingship until my wedding. I was king for a day. What did it mean? It meant it was better for me to ask somebody else to get my jacket than to get it myself. It was ajoy for them to do it. A King is one who it is a joy to serve. In making Hashem King, we must serve serve with joy. Otherwise he is simply a tyrant. We can see what occurs in the progression of musaf – from Kingship to Rememberance to the Shofar’s revelation. Perhaps this is why the Torah reading starts with the birth of a boy whose very name means mirth.