Noah the Quirky Biologist – Noah 5780

I was blessed to be able to go on a short vacation this week to Hawaii.  We stayed on the island of Maui. The most memorable activity was hiking in the crater on top of Mount Haleakala, which stands at just over 10,000 feet above sea level.  Its extreme isolation, combined with its height, results in a unique ecosystem.  The terrain looks like Mars, and is almost as barren, except for one remarkable plant that grows only on Mount Haleakala.  It is called argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum, otherwise known as the Haleakala Silversword.

Haleakala Silversword

The Haleakala Silversword grows only above 6,900 feet.  The plant is spherical.  It is comprised of spiny greenish, silvery leaves that are specially adapted to collect moisture and reflect sunlight to its base.  It grows in volcanic rock, and tolerates the freezing temperatures and high winds that buffet it.  

Haleakala Silversword after flowering

Here is the remarkable thing.  The Silversword grows very slowly, taking up to 50 years to reach its full size of 1.6 feet in diameter.  Then, in a period of just a few weeks, it sends a stalk of  hundreds of flowers shooting up to as high as 6.6 feet.  The flowers are pollinated by insects between June and September.  Then, having achieved its reproductive purpose, the plant withers and dies.

Isn’t nature amazing?  Good job God.

But then humans came along.  Climbers used to pick the plants so that they could bring down proof of having climbed to the summit.  Goats and cows, introduced to Hawaii by humans, were also eating up the slow-growing plant.  By the 1920’s, the Haleakala Silversword was nearly extinct.  

It was then that the National Park Service took over.  They fenced out the goats and cows and prohibited digging up the plants.  Through careful stewardship, Haleakala Silversword populations rebounded.  The Silversword can now be seen in abundance on the one place on earth that offers the perfect growing conditions.

In this morning’s Torah portion, God assigns a similar task to Noah. God tells Noah, “Noah, I’ve got a job for you.  Humanity has lost its way.  I wish I had never made them.  But what are you gonna do?  I’m sending a flood to destroy all life and give it a second shot.  I need you to build an ark.  Make it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.  Give it three decks.  Put in a skylight.  Then, I want you, your wife, and your sons and their wives to gather a male and female of every species of animal that lives on land or in the air and bring them on board.  Don’t forget to pack food.  “

So Noah gets to work.

A cubit is about a foot and a half.  That means there was approximately 101,250 square feet of living space, which is just over 2.3 acres.  Eight people had to live there with all of those animals for a full 12 months. It must have really stunk.

Although the Torah does not describe it, imagine what life on the ark must have been like.  The Rabbis did. Numerous midrashim emphasize how attentive Noah was to the needs of all the animals.  He knew exactly what food each species required, and exactly when and how it needed to be fed.

He is like a quirky biologist who feels more at peace among the four legged, the furry, the scaled and the feathered than he does among his own kind.  Noah “gets” animals.  It is people with whom he cannot relate.  

One Rabbi claims that Noah, in addition to preserving animals, brings seed samples and saplings to ensure the survival of plant species.

Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes Noah as being righteous in his generation, and walking with God.  He, alone among humanity, has compassion for other creatures.

This is the kind of person that God needs right now.  God, who cares for all creatures, requires a servant who emulates this quality.  Noah is a kind of naturalist-conservationist.  He is the perfect man for the job.

One Talmudic Sage imagines a conversation between Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, and Shem, Noah’s eldest son.  (BT Sanhedrin 108b)  Eliezer asks Shem, “What was it like for you on the ark?”

“Oy, so much trouble we had.  Some animals like to eat in the daytime, so we had to feed them in the daytime.  Some animals eat at night, so we had to feed them at night.  And there was one animal, the chameleon—dad didn’t even know what it ate.  One day, he is sitting and cutting up a pomegranate.  Suddenly, a worm wriggles out.  The chameleon’s tongue shoots out of its mouth and the worm is gone.  Chameleons eat worms.  Who knew?  After that day, we would mash up bran and leave it out on the counter.  When it became wormy, the chameleons feasted…”

In another midrash (Tanhuma Noah 9), Noah and his family are so busy taking care of all the animals that they do not get a wink of sleep for the entire twelve month cruise.  One time, Noah is late bringing food to the lions.  (A mistake he made exactly once) One of the lions is not too happy about having to wait for lunch, so it bites him in the leg, leaving Noah with a limp.

These legends show Noah and his family neglecting their own needs, foregoing their own comfort, even risking their lives, to take care of the animals with which they have been entrusted.  It is the task for which they are chosen, for without them, the creatures on the ark will not survive.

The parallels to our current situation should be obvious.  Habitat destruction, climate change, trash in the oceans, pollution in the air.  

From Noah, we learn that compassion for other living creatures will require us to sacrifice comfort, forego luxuries, and take risks.  If our efforts to consume less don’t result in a material change to our standard of living, it probably means that our efforts are superficial and we are not doing enough.

As I say this, I am cognizant of my own complicity.  I opened this d’rash describing my trip to Hawaii, which included a round trip flight for which the carbon footprint equalled more than half a metric ton.

Noah stood out from his generation in some way.  Maybe it was this: he was the one willing to put his money where his mouth is.

The Lesson of the Tower of Babel: Unity with Humility – Noach 5777

The bulk of this morning’s Torah portion describes the flood.  Humanity has become so corrupt that God regrets having created the earth, and decides to wipe out almost all life.  Representative samples of each species are gathered together and entrusted to Noah, who builds the famous ark to serve as a shelter during the deluge.

After the waters subside, life emerges from the ark and begins anew.  Hopefully, humanity has learned a lesson from the experience.

Several generations pass.  Humans multiply, and eventually find themselves living in Mesopotamia, where they embark on a scheme which nearly results in a calamity as serious for humanity as the flood: the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The entire passage is described in just nine eloquently-crafted verses.  (Gen. 11:1-9)  We learn that all of humanity has settled in a valley in the land of Shinar, also known as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Iraq.  Everyone speaks the same language.  Together, they decide to make bricks, with which to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

At first glance, it sounds like a pretty good idea.  Everybody gets along.  They are united in a shared vision.  There do not seem to be any major disputes.  Many people might wish things were a bit more like this today.

Yet, there seems to be a problem with this giant public-works project.  God comes down to look at the tower that the humans are building and reacts with disapproval.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  (11:6)

God confounds their speech so that the humans do not understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth.  The project grinds to a halt.  The story ends by explaining that the city is called Bavel, or Babel, because it is where the Lord “babbled” the speech of the whole earth.

That is the basic story as it appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  Our inclination might be to sympathize with humanity.  After all, has there ever in history been a time during which everyone agreed?

But the Torah is very deliberate.  If it tells us that there is something wrong with what these humans are doing, then there is something wrong with what these humans are doing.  The reason is not easily apparent, and so it is up to us to dig deep to figure it out.

Jewish tradition is in agreement that the generation of the Dispersion, Dor Haflagah, as that generation is called, was in the wrong.  The Mishnah, from the second century, declares that members of that generation do not have a place in the World to Come.  The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 109a) concur, but have trouble agreeing on the specifics.

The school of Rabbi Shilah, located in Babylonia not too far from where the Tower of Babel once stood, offers a novel explanation.  In the ancient world, people believed that the world as we know it was surrounded by water, both below the earth, and above the sky.  The humans wanted to build a tower that was high enough that they could cut holes in the firmament, presumably to have access to water.  The Talmud reports that when this theory made its way to the West, that is to say, to the land of Israel, the scholars laughed and made fun of it, suggesting that if that was their intent, it might have made more sense to have built the tower on top of a mountain, rather than at the bottom of a valley.

Rabbi Natan suggests that they built the tower as an expression of some sort of idolatrous belief and practice.

Rabbi Jeremiah claims that the people of Bavel were not quite as united as the Torah makes it seem.  One third of them want to build a city and tower in which to live, perhaps to escape a future flood.  Their punishment is to be scattered across the land.  A second third wants to build the tower to worship idols.  They are the ones whose tongues are confounded by God.  The final third intends to use the tower to wage war against Heaven.  They are transformed into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons.  Ouch!

But what of the tower itself?  After all, significant progress is made before God takes notice.  The tower is quite substantial.  Rabbi Yochanan says that the bottom third sunk into the ground, The top third burnt up, but the middle third is still standing.

Other midrashim add colorful details to the legends.  Genesis Rabbah describes how those who wanted to rebel against God planned to place a giant statue on top of the tower with a sword in its hand pointing a challenge directed at the Heavens.  I imagine it looking kind of like the Titan of Braavos, for you Game of Thrones fans.

I’ll mention one final midrash.  Someone made some calculations and determined that the flood occurred 1,656 years after creation.  The people of Babel come to the conclusion that this is a built in feature of the firmament, the giant expanse of water suspended over the sky.  Once every 1,656 years, the firmament totters, and the waters of chaos above break free and inundate the world.  To prevent it from happening again, they decide to build four giant pillars to support the heavens – one in each of the cardinal directions.  The Tower of Babel is supposed to be the pillar of the East.

This final midrash sounds appealing, actually.  All of humanity becomes aware of an impending natural disaster that will have catastrophic effects for life on earth, albeit not for one thousand years.  So they join together to invest massive resources into a technological solution to prevent the deluge.  We are in desperate need of that kind of long-range planning.

The problem, from the midrash’s perspective, is that the people have removed God from the equation.  The periodic flooding of the earth happens on its own, and is not the result of God’s actions.  In fact, just a few chapters earlier, we read of God’s promise, symbolized by the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by flood again.  Their sin, therefore, is a lack of faith.  They have placed nature above God rather than God above nature.

So what was the sin of the Tower of Babel that provoked God so greatly?  We have just heard numerous suggestions, and believe me, we have only scratched the surface.  Whenever the Rabbis offer this many explanations for something, it means that they have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

But to me, all of these “sins” share a basic feature.  “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” they declare.  Humanity, collectively sees no limits on itself.  Whether the people want to overthrow God, build a monument to themselves, or reverse the forces of nature – they lack basic humility about their place in creation.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is: God is God, and we are not.

There is still something appealing, however, about the unity that exists at the outset of the story.  Is cooperation and a universally shared vision inherently problematic?  I cannot believe that the story of the Tower of Babel is disparaging the idea of humanity collectively working together.

I would like to think that we, as a species, have it within us to both have some humble respect for our place amidst creation, as well as come together to solve problems and challenges that affect us all.  Some of those problems are of our own making.  Others are external.  But we all make our homes on the same planet, and we eventually have to pay the cost of our collective hubris.

We face numerous challenges that can only be solved through joined effort: challenges of inequality and oppression, environmental destruction, climate change, and on and on.  We live in a scattered world, in which we do not all speak the same language.  Even when we share a vocabulary, we often are not speaking the same language.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel can inspire us to, humbly, find a way to come together.

Bereishit 5777 – The Four Sins of Bereishit and the Expansion of the Human Ego

I have been feeling a bit addicted to technology lately, so I resolved to do something that I have not done in about two decades.  I wrote a sermon completely by hand, without using anything whatsoever with a screen for ideas or research.  I scanned it and am sharing the results below (I get the irony).  Sorry if you can’t read my handwriting.
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Who Will Set Up The Mishkan? – Pekudei 5776

Parashat Pekudei is the final portion in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It describes the final touches put on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the uniforms of the Priests who serve in it.  The Israelites have done a marvelous job.  They stayed within their budget.  They finished on time.  Nobody fought.  The time has now come for them to put it up.  But for this they need Moses.  The Torah describes the scene.  And please forgive me. I am going to read the entire passage for dramatic effect.

Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses, with the Tent and all its furnishings: its clasps, its planks, its poles, its posts, and its sockets; the covering of tanned ram skins, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen; the Ark of the Pact and its poles, and the cover; the table and all its utensils, and the bread of display; the pure lampstand, its lamps—lamps in due order—and all its fittings, and the oil for lighting; the altar of gold, the oil for anointing, the aromatic incense, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent; the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the hangings of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, the screen for the gate of the enclosure, its cords and its pegs—all the furnishings for the service of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest, and the vestments of his sons for priestly service. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39:33-41)

A midrash describes what really happened.  (Tanhuma, Pekudei 11)

When they had completed all of the work of building the parts of the Mishkan, they sat down and wondered when the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, would come and align upon it.  (You see, they had all of the parts, they just had not put them together yet.)  So they went to some of the craftspeople, and said to them.  “Why are you just sitting around?!  Set up the Mishkan so that the Shekhinah can dwell among us!”

[The craftspeople] investigated how to set it up, but they did not know how and they could not do it.  And when they tried to do it anyways, it fell down.

So they went to Betzalel and Aholiav, (the Chief Builders) and said to them, “You come and set up the Mishkan whose construction you have directed.  Maybe it will stand up for you.”  They immediately began to set it up, but they were unable.

Then everyone began to mumble and complain, saying, “Look what the son of Amram has done to us!  He spent all of our money on this Mishkan and put us to all of this trouble, promising us that the Holy One would come down from the Upper Worlds and reside inside a goat skin tent!”

Why were they unable to set it up?  Because Moses was bothered that he had not had the opportunity to take part with them in the work of the Mishkan.  The donations were brought by the Israelites, and the work was done by Betzalel, Aholiav, and the craftsmen.  (Moses had thought that they would not bring enough donations, but they actually brought too much and he had to tell them to stop.  And then he thought that they would be lazy and that he would have to finish the work, but they were eager from start to finish.  What a disappointing bunch!)  But because Moses was troubled, the Holy One left [the Israelites] and they were unable to set it up.

Since they had tried all other options and were unable to set it up, all of Israel appeared before Moses and said, “Moshe Rabeinu, We did everything you told us.  All that you commanded us to donate and bring, we gave.  All of the work is before you.  Perhaps we missed something or we neglected a task that you assigned us.  Look, it is all before you!”

And then they [started] showed him all of the items.  They said to him, “Did you not tell us to do such and such?”

He said to them, “Yes.”

And so on for each and every item.

[When they got through the entire list,] they said to him, “If so, then why does it not stand up?  Betzalel and Aholiav and all of the craftsmen tried to set it up but they failed.”

Moses was very concerned about this matter.  But then the Holy One said to him, “Because you were troubled that you did not get to do any work or participate in any of the labor of the Mishkan, that is why these wise men were not able to set it up.  For you.  So that all of Israel would know, that if it does not stand up for you, then it will never stand up.  I will not give credit in writing for the setting up of the Mishkan to anyone but you.”

Moses said, “But, Ribono shel Olam!  Ruler of the Universe!  I don’t know how to set it up!”

God said to him, “Move your hands about, and it will look like you are setting it up, but really, it will stand up by itself.  And I will write about you that you set it up.”

On a technical level, this midrash explains some peculiar details in the Parashah.  First of all, it says that the Israelites bring the Mishkan to Moses, and then it lists all of the parts individually.  That is what I read earlier.  Later, on two occasion, the Torah indicates that Moses sets up the Mishkan – in the singular (Exodus 40:2,18).  A third passage passage describes it passively, “the Mishkan was set up.”  (Exodus 40:17)

Weaving all of these elements together, Midrash Tanhuma imagines the Mishkan as a kind of Ikea project for which the instructions have been lost.  Nobody knows where all of the pieces go.  They bring in the experts, who give it their best shot, but it just collapses.  Finally, they lay out all of the pieces neatly on the ground and ask Moses.  He doesn’t know how to put it together either, so God tells him, “Just look like you’re busy, I’ll take care of it.”

I love it.

In this midrash, everyone has a distinct motivation.  The Israelites are eager to have God’s Presence among them.  If you think back to the episode of the Golden Calf, this makes perfect sense.

Moses wishes that he had been able to take part in the construction.  Sometimes it is nice to get your hands dirty, rather than just give instructions all day long.  He sees great honor in being able to physically take part in building the mishkan.

God has a different priority.  God wants everyone to know that this structure is unlike any other structure in history.  After everybody tries and fails to put it up, Moses, God’s chosen prophet, is the only one who appears to succeed.  Thanks to the midrash, we know the truth.  Not even Moses is capable of setting up this building, which serves as the nexus where the Upper and Lower worlds come together.  A similar midrash says that Solomon’s Temple was set up by God.  It is also said that the Third Temple will descend miraculously from above in the days of the Mashiach.

Moses in this story reminds me of our Executive Director, Joelle.  As a leader, she is a fantastic recruiter of talent to strengthen and grow our community.  An impressively large proportion of our membership gets involved in putting together the many programs and activities that take place at Sinai.  This is so important for us.  Not only because we need volunteers to get things done, but perhaps more importantly because people find great meaning in working on behalf of the community.  The Israelites approached the project of building the Mishkan with such excitement because it was meaningful to them.  That is why Moses was jealous.  We have long lists of people who are thanked in every edition of the monthly Voice.  What is not printed is that most of them were recruited by Joelle.

Joelle, like Moses, is also a good fundraiser.  I cannot put a precise number on it (although she probably could), but I can state with certainty that Sinai is significantly better off financially because of her.

And finally, like Moses, Joelle is not content to just be the Executive Director.  She is part of our community in a very special way.  Fortunately for her, there is plenty of work that the rest of us are not able to accomplish, so she gets lots of opportunities to find meaning by getting her hands dirty.

Joelle, you and your family have been part of our community for almost eight years.  You are a very special person, and you and I both know that our relationship as Rabbi and Executive Director is not a typical one, and I am very grateful for that.  I feel so blessed to have you as a partner.  We are blessed to have you in our community.  On behalf of all of us, Todah Rabbah.

Jacob and Pharaoh – Vayigash 5776

Something that I have tried to emphasize about the Book of Genesis is the moral ambivalence of its narrator.  The text rarely passes judgment on its characters.  Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves, without judgment.  It is one of things I love about the book.

In the various troubled relationships between siblings, parents, neighbors, enemies, and even God, the text never tells us that one of them is right and the other wrong.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – the Torah lets their actions, their words, sometimes even their inner thoughts, speak for themselves.

We bring our own predilections to the text.  It is important for us, as readers, to recognize our biases.  We might have a tendency to favor the underdog, to always suspect the motives of the winner, or to favor the “heroes” and whitewash their mistakes.

Traditional religious biases lead many, but not all, of our commentaries to see Jacob, for example, as pious, morally justified, and honorable.  On the other hand, biases of moral indignancy lead many contemporary readers to view Jacob as a lying, cheating manipulator.  But the Book of Genesis does not present him either way.  It is non-judgmental.  He is a flawed protagonist certainly, but a hero nonetheless.  That is what makes him so human, and makes our emotional reactions to him so strong.  After all, he is the father of the Jewish people.

When we have strong emotional responses to biblical characters, it should prompt us to ask ourselves why we are reacting with such intensity.  The stories can be seen as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, with our reactions telling us who we are and what concerns us.

In Parashat Vayigash, Jacob our Patriarch nears the end of his life.  It offers a natural opportunity to conduct a grand analysis of his life.  But rather than projecting ourselves into the text, this morning let us instead allow Jacob to speak in his own words.  First, let’s set the scene.

Upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph invites them to bring the entire family down to Egypt.  After many years apart, Jacob is finally reunited with his beloved son.  Joseph helps the family get settled in the land of Goshen, where they will be able to pasture their flocks in peace and prosperity.  Finally, Joseph arranges to have his father meet his boss.

Imagine, for a moment, what that meeting must have been like for each of them.

Pharaoh is about to meet the father of his Viceroy Joseph.  I bet Pharaoh felt a certain degree of awe towards Joseph – a foreigner, brought out from prison.  He has strange and powerful abilities to interpret dreams which are supplied by his equally strange God.  Not only that, but he has single-handedly predicted and solved a famine that would have otherwise been catastrophic and could possibly have led to Pharaoh’s ouster.  And now, Pharaoh is about to meet this guy’s father.  When Jacob walks into the room, Pharaoh is immediately struck by the extreme age of the old man.  He has never seen someone so old.  What unnatural powers must he have?!

How about from Jacob’s perspective?  He is about to meet the most powerful man in the world.  This man has taken in his favorite son, long-presumed dead, and made him his second in command.  Jacob could be feeling grateful, or perhaps he is jealous and resentful.  Has Pharaoh replaced Jacob as Joseph’s father?

Now listen to the Torah’s description of their meeting.

And Joseph brought Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”  And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.  (Genesis 47:7-10, translation by Robert Alter)

Jacob’s blessings of Pharaoh bookend a single question and answer exchange between these two figures.  And it is a strange exchange which prompts many subsequent questions.

First of all, what are these “blessings” which Jacob bestows upon Pharaoh?

Rashi, along with several other commentators, suggests that in this context, the word va-y’varekh does not mean “then he blessed”, but rather “then he greeted” – she-ilat shalom, “inquiring into well-being,” as he calls it.

Ramban disagrees, claiming that it is improper to greet a king.  Rather, he argues, it is customary for elderly and pious people to bless kings with wealth, property, glory, and the advancement of their reign.  Upon departing from Pharaoh’s presence, Jacob blesses him as well.  According to the Midrash, Jacob prays that “the Nile should rise up to his feet.”  (Tanhuma, Naso 26)

The central part of their interaction is comprised of Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer.  “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  Pharaoh asks.

According to Ramban, Pharaoh is immediately struck by Jacob’s appearance.  He has never seen someone so old in all the years of his rule.  Nahum Sarna explains that the ideal lifespan in Egypt at that time was 110 years, which turns out to be the length of Joseph’s life.  Jacob appears much older, prompting Pharaoh’s question.  It sounds almost like he is blurting it out.  He can’t help himself.  Consider, is this the question that we would expect Pharaoh to ask of the man who raised his Viceroy, the person responsible for saving Egypt?  How old are you?!

Jacob’s response is equally surprising.  “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”

Jacob’s response sounds so bitter and angry.  He is filled with regret and disappointment.

The commentator Ramban throws his hands up in bewilderment:  “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words,” he admits.   “For what reason would he complain to the king?”

Jacob compares himself to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.  He is currently 130 years old, and already is convinced that he will not live as long as his predecessors.  Radak explains that he has experienced so much suffering that it has weakened him and he can feel death creeping up.  How he knows this is a mystery.  He is not exactly on death’s door.  After all, he does live another seventeen years.

Our commentators read Jacob’s response closely and unpack it.  “Few and evil – me-at v’ra-im – have been the days of the years of my life.”  Rashbam explains that Jacob appears even older than he is because of all of the suffering he has been through.  It has caused him to age prematurely.  (Although how someone who is 130 old could be prematurely aged is something of a mystery.)  In describing himself as a sojourner, Jacob is claiming to be a stranger.  Everywhere he has lived, he has been unsettled, dwelling as an alien amidst local populations.  Sforno adds that Jacob claims that his father and grandfather did not have to deal with the same tzuris, troubles, that he had, which is why they lived longer.

The 13th century French commentator, Hizkuni, has a more critical take on Jacob.  Essentially, he calls him ungrateful.  He notes that Jacob’s final lifespan of 147 is 33 years short of Isaac’s 180.  Why 33?

God notes that: “I saved you from Lavan, and Esau, and Shechem, and I restored Dinah and Joseph to you, and you [have the gall to] say ‘few and evil’ your life has been.  By your life, I will take from you the number of words that you have spoken.”  By this, Hizkuni means the number of words in verses 8 and 9, which constitute the verbal exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob – the former’s question and the latter’s answer.

I love Hizkuni’s insight.  Jacob is a bitter man, and God does not let him off the hook.  Looking back on his life, Jacob sees only disappointment and regret.  He is blind to the fact that he has survived all this time, that his children are all alive, and with him.  He has managed to acquire everything he ever set his mind to: the birthright, the blessing, his beloved Rachel, he’s gotten Joseph back.  He has become wealthy, and now finds himself in Egypt with a household numbering 70 souls, not including the wives!  This is a man who has been supremely blessed in life.

But when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?  Struggle, going all the way back to his uterine striving with his brother Esau.  His success at acquiring the birthright and blessing has been accompanied by fear of retribution and probably guilt.  He gets his beloved Rachel, but at the “expense” of being first tricked into marrying Leah.  He builds a large household, but one that has been mired in scheming, distrust, and discord.  He receives a new name, Israel, but walks away with a limp to serve as a reminder for the rest of his life.  He has twelve sons and one daughter, but has to grieve for 22 years over the presumed death of his favorite, knowing that his playing favorites makes him at least partially responsible.

While everything, in the end, has worked out to Jacob’s advantage, the road, from Jacob’s perspective, has been torturous, and that is all that he is able to see.

What do we see when we look at Jacob?  Each of us has to answer that on our own.  But I would urge us to remember that we are our own worst – and potentially best – critics.  And what we see in Jacob probably ought to tell us something about ourselves.

Know the Genre – Bereishit 5776

Imagine a space alien landing on earth and reading the headline of an article that I saw posted on Facebook earlier this week.  “Texas: 14-Year Old Virgin Falls Pregnant After Flu Shot.”  Our alien visitor, reading this article in an official sounding publication called World News Daily Report, might take it as accurate news reporting rather than satire.  A bit of digging would hopefully lead the alien to the truth.

One of the most important aspects that a reader must understand about what he or she is reading is its genre.  Usually, we understand genre inherently without needing to spend any time consciously considering the type of literature that we are reading.

If I open the front section of the newspaper, I know that I am reading current events articles about something going on right now in the world.  If I open up a book written by John Grisham, I know that I am probably reading a fictional novel that is in the sub-genre of legal thriller.  We run into trouble with genre sometimes online with fake news articles that are forwarded or posted on Facebook.  If I peruse an article published by the Onion, for example, hopefully I know that I am reading satire.  Otherwise, I could get into trouble.

Generally speaking, our brains know how to classify the various kinds of writing that we encounter on a daily basis.  We do this by comparing what we read to what is already familiar.

When we read literature from far away places and long ago times, however, we are at a similar, if not even a greater, disadvantage as our alien friend.

In high school, I had opportunity to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.  To properly understand these masterpieces, it is essential to be aware of their genre.  In the case of Thucydides, his book is one of the earliest examples of historical writing.  A political philosopher and general, he writes of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE.  He takes great effort to stick to facts, and his explanations do not include maneuverings and interventions by the gods in human affairs.  Someone who wants to learn about military history, or study that time period, must read this classic first-hand description.

In contrast, Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus are not historical accounts.  Rather, human beings are mere tools manipulated by the gods in their grand feuds and struggles.  The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems containing myth and legend.  One should not read them to find out “what happened,” but one should look to them to understand the beliefs and values of Ancient Greece, to understand something about the human condition, as well as enjoy two of the most beautiful epic poems ever written.

Which author’s works are more “true” – Thucydides are Homer?  It is an absurd question.  Both are true, but in different ways.  Understanding genre is essential for knowing this.

The same is true when we read our Sacred Texts.  Today, we begin our annual cycle of weekly Torah reading and study.  Parashat Bereishit – the beginning.  The beginning of what?  Let’s leave that question aside for now and say simply that it is the beginning of the Torah.

So let’s talk about genre.  Our Bible, the Tanakh, is a huge, composite book composed over a span of about one thousand years by many people, with different life experiences, values, and concerns.  Within the Bible, and within the Torah specifically, there are many genres and sub-genres represented.  Let us name a few:

Law codes.  History.  Legend.  Satire.  Prophecy.  Poetry.  Prayer.  Theology.  Wisdom literature.  Mythology.  Propaganda.

If we are going to begin to understand our Bible, we have got to make an effort to understand what kind of literature it is that we are reading.

As our Sacred Scripture, we consider the text to be universal and timeless.  That does not mean that we can ignore the central questions about what the text is, or that we can ignore the cultural context in which it first appeared.

The first three chapters of the Torah tell the story of creation.  How does the Torah itself want us to read these stories?  How would someone living in the land of Israel nearly three thousand years ago have understood them?

A close reading of these three chapters reveals inconsistencies.  Chapter one through chapter two, verse 4a seems to tell one version of the creation story.  Chapter two, verse 4b through chapter three tells a different version.  The language in each version is different.  The character of God, as well as the nature of humanity and order of creation are also contradictory.  God even has a different name in these two narrativez.

Version one tells the story of six days of creation.  It is highly structured and organized.  God, referred to as Elohim, creates each element of the world at a specific time.  Human beings are created last, in the image of God, both male and female.  Then God rests on the seventh day.

In version two, God, referred to as Adonai Elohim, creates a man named Adam and then places him in the Garden of Eden.  Eventually, after lonely Adam cannot find a suitable companion amongst the animals, God removes one of Adam’s ribs and makes a woman.  Then, we read the story of the woman, the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The story results in humans being banished from the Garden of Eden and being forced to wander the earth, earning their living and bearing children through hard work and struggle.

Our interpretive tradition is typically uncomfortable with contradictions in the Sacred Text.  So it tries to find ways to settle those contradictions.  To explain what, on the surface, seems like alternative versions of creation, it describes the events in the Garden of Eden described in chapters two and three as all taking place on the sixth day.  But these explanations ignore many of the details.

In the twenty first century, many of us get stuck on what seems, on the surface, to be an incompatibility between Torah and science.  We are trained to be skeptical readers, to question the historical accuracy of what we hear, and to demand evidence and facts before we accept a proposition.

This comes up a lot for children, sometimes as early as second or third grade.  How do we respond to our kids when they say to us: “I don’t think that ever happened,” which sometimes leads to “I don’t want to be Jewish”?

First of all, I have no argument with someone who says that the Earth cannot have been created in six days.  I agree.  By the way, I do have an argument with someone who tries to fit the latest scientific theories of evolution or the Big Bang into the words of the Torah.  The Torah is not a science book.  We should not be tempted to turn it into one.

Just because it did not happen that way does not mean it is not true.  An answer, I believe, comes down to understanding the concept of genre.

This is not simply a postmodern approach to our Sacred Texts.  Although they used different terms, some of our greatest scholars understood the importance of recognizing genre and accepting the limitations of what the text is able to tell us.

The great thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, was a great Torah scholar, philosopher, legalist, and kabbalist.  He wrote a commentary on the Torah.  In his opening comment, he explains that the process of creation is a deep mystery that cannot be understood from the verses, and it can only be known through the oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it from God on Mt. Sinai.  Then he adds that those who know it are obligated to keep it secret.

Nachmanides goes on to explain that all of the descriptions of creation: day one, day two etc., as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the accounts of the generations leading up to the flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on – none of these events can actually be understood from the verses in the Torah.  Basically, he is saying that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not reporting historical facts.

What, therefore, is the Torah’s purpose in describing the six days of creation?  Nachmanides offers the same answer as Rashi, which is based on a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2).  According to the midrash, the Torah’s description of creation establishes the entire earth as belonging to God, its Creator.  Thus, God has the authority to grant land to one people, and then subsequently take it away and give it to another.

In reading Nachmanides’ commentary, we need to understand that he himself is writing in a particular time and place, with his own unique perspectives, assumptions, and interests.  His worldview does not necessarily align with our own, seven hundred years later.

What we call “science” today was not familiar to Nachmanides.  He did not know about the Big Bang Theory, evolution, or radio carbon dating.  We can only speculate how he would have reacted to those concepts, and how that knowledge might have affected his commentaries.  As someone who studied medicine and philosophy, he might have been open to science.  On the other hand, he opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides that downplayed the Torah’s descriptions of miracles by explaining them as metaphors, and he was a practicing kabbalist who accepted many of our tradition’s supernatural stories as historically true.

I find it reassuring to know that Nachmanides acknowledged that the Torah’s account of Creation is not science.  For him, the purpose is theological and political.  It justifies Israel’s claim to the land of Israel and counters charges by other nations that the Jews stole it unjustly.  (Sound familiar?)

While the secrets of how God actually created the universe are known to some, that knowledge is in the realm of mysticism, and is not intended for popular dissemination.  The concepts are either too esoteric, or difficult, or perhaps even dangerous to share with the general public, and so the Torah tells us nothing about how creation historically took place.

So let us take a step back and look at these stories with new eyes.  Or rather, let us try to look at them through the eyes of an Israelite nearly three thousand years ago.

What is the genre?  Both stories speak about origins.  The origin of the earth and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, plants and trees, sea and land animals, birds, insects, and humans.

In today’s terms, what would we call a text that speaks about the origins of these things?  We would call it science.  So there is an inclination when we read the Torah to think that we are reading a scientific, historical account of how the world and life came into existence.

But that is an incorrect reading.  In science, when there are contradictions in the evidence, it generally means that there is something wrong with the theory.  The problem with reading the Torah as science or even history is that the text is not internally consistent, and it is often not consistent with what we know from extrenal sources.  As science, and often as history, the Bible is terrible literature.

But the Torah is neither a science nor a history book.  Science and history, as we know them, did not even exist when the Torah was written.  That is the wrong genre.

A better term to describe these stories is “myth.”  Confusingly, “myth” has two main definitions which are diametrically opposed to one another.

For decades, a book has been published every few years called Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I do not bring it up to talk about politics, but to illustrate how, colloquially, the word “myth” means the opposite of facts.  If something is a myth, it is not true, and might even be a deliberate lie.

But that is not the definition of myth that is used by anthropologists and sociologists.  Quite the opposite, a myth conveys something that is of ultimate truth, even if it is not historically accurate.  One classicist writes that myth is “a traditional tale with […] reference to something of collective importance.”  (Walter Burkett, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, as quoted in Marc Zvi Bressler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, p. 39.)  Myths reveal the core beliefs of a people and help to explain the human condition.  Most cultures have a creation myth that explains how the world came into existence and how human beings fit into that existence.

Both of the Torah’s creation narratives fit that definition, although they convey different messages.

The first version is about God’s taming of the forces of chaos and evil.  In systematic fashion, God pushes aside the already-existing primordial waters to separate earth from sky, and land from water.  Each creative act of order is declared to be “good,” with humans, the final creation, described by God as “very good.”  Holding the forces of chaos at bay has been God’s preoccupation ever since.  The narrative ends with God observing Shabbat on the seventh day.

The second story has a different focus.  It is a far more anthropocentric story.  God first creates Adam and then makes the Garden of Eden, introducing plants and animals to serve the human.  As an origin story, it tells of the loss of human immortality and the gaining of sexual knowledge.  It describes the roles of men and women vis a vis each other in the ancient world.  It explains why it is so hard to earn a living, and why childbirth is so painful and dangerous.  Then, and now, these are some of the central aspects of human existence.

So while God did not create the earth in six days, and while two people named Adam and Eve never walked around naked in the Garden of Eden, each of these creation stories is true in a profound way.  Understanding how they are true makes them relevant and alive for us.

As we begin a new year of Torah study, let us come to these texts with open eyes and open hearts, with the presumption that Torah has something profound to teach us.  It is our task, through engaging with Torah, to discover what it is.

Saying Kaddish Reluctantly – Ha’azinu 5776

One of the most uncomfortable things that I do as a Rabbi is to lead the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, during services.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is one of several variations on this ancient prayer.  There is also the Chatzi Kaddish – the Half Kaddish, the Kaddish Shalem – The Full Kaddish, the Kaddish D’Rabbanan – Rabbis’ Kaddish, and the less familiar Kaddish D’Itchadeta – Kaddish of the Unification of the Divine Name, which is recited at funerals and at a siyyum marking the completion of study of a Tractate of Talmud.

While these variations developed over many hundreds of years, the core section of the Kaddish is one of the most ancient non-biblical prayers in our liturgy.  It has its origins in the Second Temple, before the prayer service as we know it took shape.

In numerous places, the Talmud heaps praises on the person or community that responds appropriately and with kavanah – spiritual intention – with the words: Amen.  Y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah – “Amen.  May [God’s] great name be praised for ever and ever and ever.”  It does not specify the words that prompt this response, but it most likely resembles what we know today as the Chatzi Kaddish.

The central line is quite simple.  It proclaims the sanctity of the Divine name for all Eternity.  It is a simple statement of faith.

It is not clear in which contexts Jews would recite the Kaddish.  Most likely, it was recited after Torah lessons.  The teacher would proclaim God’s holiness, and the assembled would respond appropriately.  Thus, the Kaddish was a kind of prayer of dismissal.

The Kaddish is in Aramaic, which was the language that Jews spoke in their daily interactions.  This means that whoever instituted this prayer wanted to be sure that people understood what they were saying.

A midrash collection on Deuteoronomy called Sifrei Devarim connects this congregational response to a verse in this morning’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu.  (Sifrei Devarim 306)  In his poem to the Israelites, Moshe exclaims: Ki shem Adonai ekra,” – For the name of the Lord do I call.  Havu godel l’eloheinu – “Hail greatness for our God.”  (Deuteronomy 32:3)  When we hear someone extolling the Divine Name, we must affirm it with the appropriate response, according to the midrash.

The Talmud considers it extremely meritorious for us to do so.  One Rabbi declares that a person who responds with the words: y’hei sh’mei raba…  is assured of a place in the World to Come.  Another Rabbi claims that the evil decree against such a person is canceled.  A third Rabbi says that one should interrupt whatever one is doing in order to respond Y’hei sh’mei… – even if one is in the middle of praying the silent Amidah.  A story in the Talmud describes how pleased and honored God feels whenever the words of a congregation reciting Y’hei sh;mei raba… the Heavenly court.

But nowhere in the Talmud or in other writings of the era is there a single reference to the Kaddish as a mourners’ prayer.

The earliest oblique mention appears in a story from a text called Masekhet Kallah, “Tractate Bride.”  It is part of what are known as the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, which were actually composed several centuries afterwards but eventually came to be published together.  Masekhet Kallah, from the seventh or eighth century in Babylonia, deals with rules for brides and for conjugal relations.  It contains the earliest known version of the following story:

Rabbi Akiva was once in a cemetery where he came upon a “man” (actually, a ghost) who was carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders and was having difficulty walking.  He was crying and sighing.  [Akiva] said to him: “What did you do?”

He said to him: “There was not a single prohibition that I did not violate in this world.  Now there are guards set upon me who do not leave me alone for a single sigh.”

Rabbi Akiva asked him:  “Did you leave behind a son?”

He said to him: “Don’t ask me.  I am afraid of the angels who are whipping me with lashes of fire and demanding me ‘Why don’t you walk faster?’  Don’t tell me ‘you should rest!'”

[But Rabbi Akiva insisted, so] he said to him: “I left behind a pregnant wife.”

Rabbi Akiva went to that land.  He asked [the locals], “Where is the son of so-and-so?”

They said to him: “May the memory be uprooted of that one who deserves for his bones to be ground up!”

He said to them: “Why?”

They said to him:  “That robber stole from people and caused many to suffer, and furthermore, he had relations with a girl who was betrothed to another on Yom Kippur.”

[Rabbi Akiva] went to [the man’s] home and found his pregnant wife.  He stayed with her until she gave birth.  Then he circumcised [the baby boy].  When [the lad] grew up, [Akiva] brought him to the synagogue to recite the blessing before the congregation.

After some time, Rabbi Akiva went back to [the cemetery].  He saw [the spirit of the wicked man] which said [to Akiva]: “May your mind be at ease for you have set my mind at ease.”  (Masekhet Kallah 2:9)

The story reveals several important beliefs and practices: first, the concept that the soul of a sinner is doomed to punishment; second, that the son of a sinner can do something to earn merit for his deceased father’s soul, thereby saving him from such punishments; and third, that those merits can be earned by leading a community in prayer.

Later versions in subsequent centuries expand the story and specify that the son recited bar’khu and y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah.  

It seems that, over time, the recitation of the Kaddish came to be associated with mourning.  At first, it was recited at the end of the seven days of shiva that was observed for a Torah scholar.  On the seventh day, a learned discourse would take place in the home of the deceased.  This learning would culminate with a recitation of the Kaddish.

Apparently, some people felt left out.  Maybe there was someone whose family thought he was more of a Torah scholar than he actually was.  Maybe there was an outcry from the non-scholars who wanted equal treatment.  It is hard to tell, but the practice gradually expanded to include all deceased.

Similarly, a practice developed for sons who were mourning the loss of a parent to lead evening services on Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat.  I can only imagine the disputes that arose: opposing mourners fight over the right to lead, those who do not have the skill to lead but still want the opportunity to earn merits for their parents’ souls.  The need arose to provide more opportunities.

These various beliefs and practices eventually came together.  Instead of leading the entire service, a mourner could just recite the Kaddish at the end of the service, and it would be “as if” he had led the entire thing.  Plus, multiple mourners could have the opportunity to recite the Kaddish.  Finally, the practice spread from just the Saturday night service to every service.

In many traditional synagogues today, mourners do not all recite the Kaddish in unison.  Rather, each individual mourner stands up and says the words independently from his or her seat.  Other congregants respond with Y’hei sh’mei rabah… to the person who is closest to them.  The result is a cacophony of voices reciting these ancient words at different volumes and speeds.

The standard Jewish belief about what happens when we die goes like this:

The soul of a person who lived a totally righteous life goes straight to the Garden of Eden/the World to Come/God.  The soul of a person who lived a totally wicked life goes to hell/Sheol/non-existence.  For the in-between souls – which is pretty much all of us – our souls go to Gei Hinnom, or Gehenna.  This is what Christians refer to as Purgatory or Limbo.  It is assumed that our souls will have the residue of at least some sins still clinging to them.  This residue is removed while in Gehenna over the course of up to a year, and the soul is cleansed.  Then, it can move on to wherever it is that souls go.

Mourners recite the Kaddish as a way to earn merits on behalf of the soul of the deceased, shortening its period of purification before it returns to its Source.  That was the initial motivation for reciting Kaddish on behalf of one’s parent.  There are other things that we do to help our loved ones’ souls move on.  People learn Torah, give tzedakah, and perform other mitzvot with this specific intention.  It is a way of saying that our loved ones’ positive attributes are still alive and making an impact in this world.

The Kaddish has gained added significance as a way to ritually mark a person’s period of mourning, to offer the mourner something to do in the supportive presence of the community, and to identify the mourner to the community so that it can come to offer comfort.  People who recite Kaddish for a loved one often find it to be a deeply cathartic activity which helps them move through the stages of grieving at a time when their loss is still raw.

According to Jewish law, children recite Kaddish for a parent for eleven months.  Why eleven, and not twelve?  It is a mark of respect, a way of saying, “even though it can take up to a full year to purify a person’s soul, my parent only needed eleven months.”  Someone who has lost a spouse, sibling, or child recites Kaddish for thirty days.

Kaddish is then recited on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of the death of an immediate family member.  Those who are not in their periods of mourning or observing yarzheit, generally speaking, should not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish.

I am blessed to have both of my parents living and in good health.  Many of you have met them, as they visit our community several times a year.  They were just here for Rosh Hashanah.

While it is pretty standard in Conservative synagogues for the Rabbi to lead the Mourners’ Kaddish, every time I do, I feel a powerful dissonance between the words I am saying and the reality that it is not the time for me personally to be saying them.

As a Rabbi, I have justified saying the Kaddish for two reasons.  1. It is important for someone to provide leadership so that numerous mourners in the congregation can recite the words together at the same pace.  2. Some people find it difficult to recite the words of the Kaddish.  The Aramaic can be very difficult.  It is much easier when there is a leader reciting them loudly and at a steady pace.

I feel that the time has come for an adjustment to the way that we recite the Mourners’ Kaddish at Congregation Sinai so that I no longer have to say it.  Some communities invite all mourners to assemble at the front of the sanctuary to recite the Kaddish together.  If someone prefers to remain at his/her seat, it is, of course, perfectly acceptable for them to do so.  Other communities invite an individual mourner to step up to the podium to set the pace for all those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit.  These are both possibilities for us.  I will be engaging the Ritual Committee to identify a solution that works for Congregation Sinai and helps me to feel more comfortable.

This adjustment might feel awkward at first, but I believe it will ultimately strengthen the bonds between those who are in mourning and the rest of our community.  I appreciate that Sinai is a community that is open to change.  It means a lot to me to be the Rabbi of a community whose members are always supporting each other’s efforts to increase in our knowledge of Torah and our commitment to Judaism.