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Abraham is the first Jew, and our parasha describes how he and his sons Yishmael and Yitzchak were circumcised. Abraham at 99 years of age, Yishmael at 13, and Isaac at the tender age of eight days. The text informs the reader that the circumcision is not an operation, it is an “ot brit”—“the sign of a covenant” between G-d and this first Hebrew family. But why is this sign not in a more public place? It would be logical that such an important symbol of the link between the Abrahamitic family and the Almighty, a symbol of the promise of the land of Israel and of special blessings, be as visible as a banner advertising this spiritual pre-eminence.

Maimonides argues that the brit milah is ideally located. First, its location in a place that is deemed private is eminently logical. People often assume that they can act differently in their private realm. The mark—the ot brit so to speak—of the truly observant person—is that, as the Rabbis put it so nicely in Brachot, ‘their outside matches their inside”. A truly observant person is not a hypocrite; they treat all people in a manner that reflects their love of all G-d’s creatures. Maimonides also argues that the brit’s location reminds one that marital relations are a private matter. The Gemara in Massechet Megillah famously remarks that “even the wicked Achasverosh confined his many sexual acts to the night, and for that he deserves praise.” In an age where everything is far too public and hypocrisy and narcissism are the watchword of many, Maimonides’ words certainly feel fresh.

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Our parasha begins by informing us that “Noah was a righteous man in his generations, Noah walked with G-d.” The famous commentator Rashi observes: “Noah was only righteous in his generations; if he had lived at the time of Abraham he would not have been considered righteous.” On the face of this, Rashi is simply contrasting the language the Torah uses to describe these two great men. Noah “walked with G-d”—he needed assistance. “But Abraham “walked before G-d”—independently and unaided. Noah saved himself and his family from the Flood, doing exactly what G-d had commanded, but no more. Abraham, when told that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed and that his nephew Lot would be saved, confronted G-d, demanding to know: “Will you destroy the innocent along with the guilty? Will the Judge of all the earth not execute proper judgement?” Noah was a great monotheist, Abraham was the first Hebrew.

Even though parallelism of language supports Rashi’s argument, I have long been bothered by it. It seems unfair to judge Noah so harshly. History teaches that it is harder to be righteous in a world full of evil than it is to be righteous in an age of a few supporters. We know that Malchizedek, the King of Shalem, was “a priest of the Lord” and he believed in G-d just as Abraham did. There may have been other monotheists alive in Abraham’s time. But Noah is told “only you have I found to be righteous in this generation.” What then is Rashi’s point in quoting this midrash that points negatively at Noah?

Perhaps we should look elsewhere in the narrative. After the Flood abates, Noah builds an altar and brings offerings to God to indicate his gratitude for his salvation. But immediately after he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and lies naked in his tent, with terrible effects. But is Abraham’s behavior different? Fleeing famine in Canaan, Abraham steps from the frying pan into the fire when Pharoah decides that he wants to marry Sarah. Abraham tells Pharoah that Sarah is his sister, ostensibly to preserve his life. This might be acceptable, but when he receives expensive gifts of livestock because Pharoah believes that he is Sarah’s protector, and bribery will best convince Abraham to agree to his sister’s marriage. Abraham remains silent. Even after Pharoah discovers the truth and expels Abraham and family, he does not offer to return the gifts. This behavior will be repeated a few years later after Abraham returns to Canaan.

It would seem that, contrary to Rashi’s analysis, both men’s behavior is equally tarnished. Yet the text affirms that both were also “righteous”. Not only that, but they were the best men of their time. Perhaps, their righteousness lay in their ability, despite their many flaws and errors of omission and commission, to stand out from their generations in their desire to serve G-d and seek out the Divine presence. Amidst considerable adversity, each man caught G-d’s attention. Noah, for merely being better than others who were not very moral, and Abraham, for journeying far from hearth and home in search of a G-d who had appeared to him. Rashi evidently regards the geographic and spiritual journey as more “righteous” than staying in one place and maintaining morality in the face of immorality. I am not so sure. Perhaps their greatness, their “righteousness” lies in their ability, despite being all too human, to transcendently catch the “eye of the Divine” enough to alter history. We, too, can be Noahs and Abrahams—we, too, can be altruistic upstanders who do not fall to the tides of evil and peer pressure. The average human is capable of positively impacting history—those who rise above their weakness to achieve even a moment of transcendent greatness are the true ‘’tzadikkim”—righteous people of this world.

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The dark black letters of the Torah glisten in the glow of the bimah potlights. As I stand and savour the honour of being called up as Chatan Torah, so many thoughts wash through me. I have read these words so many times, but they never seem tired. But today, on Simchat Torah, they are even fresher. When my son’s voice calls me up and I actually read the conclusion of the Torah’s narrative for myself, there is a special feeling that flows through me, blending a love of the text, family, and shul community. I feel grateful for once again being privileged to read the entire Torah, blessed for being called up by one son and standing under the tallit of another, warmed by the warm feelings of the congregation, and anticipatory of the scotch I will receive as soon as the aliya is over.

Then Mikael Swayze is called up by his son to be the Chatan Bereishit, and my love for the text and community swell further. Once again text, holy place, and family combine with the hand written text to create a unique bond. And then I can appreciate in a new way the power of Simchat Torah, and how we mark the cycle of learning and reading by ending and beginning the Torah on consecutive aliyot. Let me share an insight that came to me as I read these two aliyot.

The last letter of the Torah is Lamed, the tallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It towers above the text, as though we have all been elevated not just by the majesty of Moses’ life and passing, but by the experience of listening to the words of our ancient text being kept alive through our choosing to assemble on Shabbat to listen to its reading. We have elevated the Torah by agreeing to be the next generation of its teachers and learners, and, in turn, have been elevated by our participation.

But the first letter of the Torah is a Bet, a very enigmatic letter. It is the second letter of the alphabet, which is appropriate since Aleph connotes Elohim (G-d) who is THE ONE, the first, the pre-existing One before time. In a sense, thus, Bereishit is the beginning of time as we humans know it. But the shape of the letter is discouraging. Hebrew reads from right to left, and the Bet is closed on the right and looks like an inverted “C”. It seems to say: “beginning me is not that simple a task” or perhaps “one cannot simply vault into the reading”. In either interpretation, I find the letter sending me a caution: this book is not like any other you have read or will read. You will have to explore it, grapple with it, and struggle with it to find meaning. But then, once you are in the text, it will be well worth your while—for the enclosed Bet is open on the left and points straight into the text.

I thus see moving back to the beginning of the Torah cycle as a humbling experience, moving from the heights of the Lamed to the challenges of the Bet. This is not a case of “familiarity breeding contempt” in which the more I have read the Torah, the better I know it and the more superficially I can glance over it. From my perspective, every year brings fresh life experience to our reading. We must challenge ourselves always to find meaning and relevance. Given our commitment to learning, I pray that this year will be another of personal and collective growth in Torah study and learning and Jewish practice.

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The commandment to use the 4 species on Sukkot is a wonderful example of how close analysis of a text and bringing the lens of maturity to a well-known midrash can yield deeply important insights to Intelligent Jews. The Torah commands “and on the first day you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches and boughs of myrtle and willows of the brook...”

Note that the “fruit of a beautiful tree” is not connected grammatically to the other three components, all of which are linked by the word “and”. The Sages used this to conclude that the etrog is not bound together with the other three species but is left on its own. So the arrangement of the Etrog and Lulav is certainly not haphazard.

We can now add another layer to our text study. Many of us learned a famous midrash in which the etrog, which has both taste and smell, symbolizes Jews who both learn Torah and do the mitzvot. The palm which has taste but no smell and the myrtle, which has smell but no taste, symbolize Jews who either don’t apply their knowledge of Torah or those who know exactly what to do but not why. At the bottom is the willow, which lacks both taste and smell. It symbolizes those Jews who are Jews by ethnicity only, who do not practice nor know anything about their heritage.

Let’s now take the analogies of this midrash and apply it to the arrangement of the 4 species. We could say that the etrog is on its own because it symbolizes the type of Jew who needs to educate all the other three types. All of them are united, “tied together” if you will, by their common lack of knowledge about Judaism whether in theory or practice. And the “Etrog Jews”, those who practice knowledgeably and completely are separate from their fellow Jews. Nowadays, there are many Jews in this category who believe that they are separate from their fellow Jews, and they are better than them. They believe that their separateness reflects superiority. They choose not merely to stand aloof but to asperse other Jews for their lack of knowledge about “real Torah Judaism”.

These people should be careful. Despite their boasting of their etrog-like perfection, they are useless without the help of their fellow Jews. An etrog on its own is useless, except as jam or havdala spice. Without being connected to the other three species, to its fellow Jews, it cannot be used for the blessing of “al netilat lulav”. We learn a great lesson from the fact that only all the four species together, taken together, merit the blessing “al netilat lulav” marking the successful accomplishment of one of the central mitzvot of Sukkot.

Indeed, on close analysis, the “lowly” willow proves the most important of all. Its name in Hebrew is “aravah”, whose root letters of ayin, resh, and bet are identical to the root connoting “responsibility”. This is most familiarly used in the quotation: “kol Yisrael areivim zeh-la-zeh”—“All Jews are responsible for one another.” It is the willow of the brook, which lacks both taste and smell, which is nonetheless responsible for agreeing to be “bound” to the other three species, all of which are superior to it in knowledge or practice, and thus allowing the mitzva of Sukkot to be fulfilled. A powerful analogy: we cannot truly experience a holy day centred on G-d’s presence among us unless we include all Jews in its observance without judging their relative value based on their knowledge or their practice. The symbolism of these holy days reminds us that each Jew, as long as they recall their origins, is special and sacred. If we truly wish to attract more Jews to active involvement in Judaism , we need to stop judging, stop pointing fingers, and instead extend hands to our fellow Jews who like us are searching for identity in an abruptly and rapidly changing world. It is far better for us to remind each other, rather than have our enemies do so, that “we are all responsible for each other.”




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