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Posted By The Stash

The story of the Jewish people rightly begins near the end of this parasha, and not—as many suppose—when G-d first speaks to Avram at the beginning of next week’s Torah reading of Parashat Lech Lecha. In fact, our text clearly indicates that it was Avram’s father, family patriarch Terach, who made the decision to leave the ancient city of Ur Kasdim in order to journey to the Land of Canaan. He was too old to complete the journey, passing away en route in the city of Haran.

Commentaries struggle to find a justification for this familial journey. Oft-quoted midrashim suggest Avram discovered G-d in Ur and was forced to flee by the ruler after Avram’s life was miraculously saved. More strikingly, others suggest that Terach was an idol maker who only began to believe in G-d after Avram famously proved that idols had no power. These midrash writers see Avram as the catalyst behind his father’s actions. On the other hand, the Maharal of Prague credits Terach with the desire to go to Canaan, but he lacked the spiritual stature to complete the journey. After all, argues the Maharal, G-d only speaks to Avram after Terach’s death.

But one could just as easily argue that Terach knew what to do without direct Divine assistance while Avram only continued after he was assured that he would be blessed, become a great nation and be given possession of Canaan. Did not Avram immediately leave Canaan after famine struck—for which Ramban chastises him—how deep was his faith? Was it as great as his father’s? Can we ever find the answers to these vital questions in the textual subtleties of these narratives—possibly not.

And that may well be their purpose. After all, the Haggada states bluntly “our ancestors were idol worshippers”. It was only later, says this text, “that the Holy One brought us closer to G-d’s service.” In other words: G-d was waiting to be discovered and the journeys of Terach and Avram represent key steps in that journey. And so it is with us—we all wish to be close to G-d but the journey is both personal and arduous. The way is not always clear and the reasons for our journey often change as we grow. But, as the text teaches, both Terach and Avram are credited for together completing a journey greater than either could do on their own. And this is our constant journey to and within Judaism. We must continue to grow in our knowledge, in our observance, and in our understanding of the text. Let us pray that we shall continue to find the time and the will to do so.

Posted By The Stash

“And Cain said to Abel his brother, and when they were in the field, and Cain attacked Abel and killed him.” Not only does the first parasha of our annual Torah reading cycle narrate the creation of the world in all its glory, it describes the moral descent of humans so soon after they had been created b’tzelem Elokim, in the “Divine Image”. But there is more to notice in this vital opening narrative. We are told that Cain spoke to his brother shortly before the altercation that killed one-quarter of humanity, but we are not told what was said. To use Rashi’s language—albeit about a different verse—“this verse cries out for interpretation”.

Welcome again to another cycle of weekly Torah readings. We have been freshly cleansed by the holy days of Tishrei, prayed a great variety of prayers that are often recited but once a year, and now it is back to the “regular shabbatot”. But the snippets I have cited from Parashat Bereishit may well be the Torah’s way of welcoming us back by telling the story of real people who do great and dastardly things in the space of a single narrative. It’s almost too painfully human. And in order to understand their motives, we need to decode the text—which often tells us all too little just when we need to know a great deal. Or sometimes, as in the case of building the Tabernacle, engages in what appears to be needless repetition.

In short, Parashat Bereishit offers a paradigm of why we find Torah so challenging, intellectually attractive, and vital. The text is sacred not because of its authorship—which is disputed—but because of the myriads who look to it for hints about how to engage in the enterprise of self-improvement. You may wonder what Bereishit has to say about this. Consider the verse before the one I cited at the beginning of this commentary, where G-d warned Cain that he had behavioural choices to make: “if you try, then there is uplift, but if not—sin crouches at the door, its desire is towards you—but you can conquer it.” Here then is the Torah’s moral invitation to us: to renew Creation daily by doing the best we can in terms of mitzvoth, and being the best person we can be. Indeed, Rabbi Donniel Hartman has argued that Judaism condemns the status quo and that “merely remaining where you are morally is accounted a regression.”

So for us, a congregation proud to devote weekly time to deep learning, we have time for a pat on the back. Yashar Koach to all. And now back to work: we are Israel because our predecessor Jacob struggled. In order to remain Israel we must struggle to move forward, to grow, to learn, and to never have the idea “here we go again, same old all over.” If we adopt the former attitude, which we all display and keep it up, then we will indeed fulfill the words we recite every Shabbat about the Torah: “it is a tree of life for all who hold on to it.”

Posted By The Stash

Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, has written a pithy and powerful comment about Sukkot that is well worth sharing. Let me first give you his words and then comment briefly on them.

“Succot is a complex set of variations on the theme of life: life stripped of all illusions of security. It tells us that home, like immortality, is in how we live, not where or for how long. It is a festival of a people who have known more starkly than any other that the canopy of faith is the only shelter we have. And it is no small testimony that we can gather beneath its shade, and sing."

Rabbi Sack’s powerful insight is corroborated by our siddur. On the Sabbath and Festivals the last blessing of the Evening Shma closes “Blessed are you O L-rd who spreads the sukkah of peace on us, and on all Israel, and on Jerusalem.” Though many translate “sukkah” in the original Hebrew as “canopy”—Rabbi Sach’s comment makes it clear why the word sukkah is such a powerful choice of metaphor. Our people learned that peace was fleeting, flimsy, transparent, but magnificent while it lasted. Throughout our national wanderings we learned that peace, like the sukkah, was sometimes transportable. In some areas of what is now Germany in the Middle Ages, Jews often found peace by simply leaving a town from which they had been expelled and travelling a few short kilometers to an independent town that welcomed them. Thus did they resemble the Israelites who carried their sukkot, their temporary shelters with them, to escape the desert sun. But there was a striking difference: G-d led the Israelites through the desert, but the Medieval Jew had to make their own way, and sometimes was not fortunate enough to find a refuge.

Later in European history many nations proved only temporary shelters (sukkot) for Jews, and conditions could and did change in the blink of an eye. Some historians estimate that over 200,000 of the Jews who fled Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1939 were exterminated because, like Anne Frank’s family, they fled to “sukkah” countries that later fell to the Nazis. Truly the sukkah of peace has earned its metaphor.

Yet, the lure of the sukkah, as Sacks attests, is so irresistible while it lasts. And how much does this mirror life? Our job is to sing while we live under the shelter of G-d’s protection and enjoy life, family, relationships, and Judaism to their fullest. It is this very fragility that adds spice to life.




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