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Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak: And Reason Shall Not Prevail

Rembrandt: Balaam and the Ass

“In all things, reason should prevail,” wrote William Penn. Yet in quite a few things, we have lost reason altogether.
In this week’s portion, Balak, the pagan king of the Moabites, is desperately trying to protect his commonwealth. Israel has just routed Moab’s neighbors—the Bashonites and Amorites—and Balak knows that his nation may very well be next.  So he engages the services of a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, whose task is to get the God of Israel to curse the Jewish people.  
In terms of military history, praying to one’s personal deity for victory is hardly remarkable. That’s what prayer is for. No more surprising is hiring a cleric to pray on one’s behalf, that’s what clerics are for. What is surprising is that Balaam is not asked to appeal to Moab’s gods for assistance but to enlist the enemy’s God—the Redeemer of Israel—instead.  
By way of an imperfect analogy, imagine if in the Middle Ages a Catholic general were to ask the Pope to invoke Muhammad as a way to curry advantage against an invading Moslem army. The idea abounds with absurdity. Even if Muhammad had any say in the matter, why should he forsake devotees of the Koran for a people who entirely reject the Word of Allah?
Yet, this is Balak and Balaam’s very strategy. ‘Make the God of Israel abandon his flock of monotheists and embrace the pagans of Moab.’ As to be expected, the plan fails miserably; Balaam is compelled by God to bless Israel instead of cursing them. Which begs the question, why was the plan even attempted?
Rashi brings down an insightful teaching on the verse: “And Balaam awoke in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Num. 22.21) He writes, “From here we learn that hatred destroys common sense.” Balaam had numerous servants that could have done all his packing, yet in his zeal to curse Israel, he saddled the donkey himself. The stubborn mule of passion stamped out the cool stoicism of reason. Balaam’s heart brimmed with so much hatred there was little room left for good sense.
This aspect of Balaam’s personality is alluded to in the conclusion of the story, after Balaam has unwillingly blessed Israel for a fourth and final time: “Balaam arose and went and returned to his place; and also Balak returned to his way” (24:25). Perhaps the larger sense of the verse is that the repeated interventions of God left no lasting impression in the hearts of both men. Each returns to his old habits and prejudices. The truly stubborn never learn.
Bertrand Russell once quipped: ‘Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.” The book of Joshua records that Israel eventually ‘put Balaam to the sword.’ (13.22) Balaam simply could not stay home indefinitely, he had to try again, and his compulsion to harm Israel eventually lead to his own demise.   
It is testament to Jewish tradition that in every generation, students and scholars expound and derive new meaning from our beloved texts, and yet somehow, there always remains some new idea to add to the halls of Jewish learning. I fear, however, that what this week’s thought does not add but detract.
For in recent years, when I imagine the face of Balaam, it tends to resemble a certain type of villain that has become the fodder of daily news.  Two weeks ago, Balaam resembled a young white man who walked into a Black church study group and with a single pistol turned nine parishioners into martyrs at an African-Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.. Last Friday, Balaam’s face bore a liking to that of the ISIS terrorists who blew up a Shi’ite Mosque in Kuwait. Intermittently, it is the face of the Ayatollahs in Iran or the Imams of Hamas. As for the latter, no amount of bloodshed and war has diminished their faith in Israel’s inevitable destruction. Such is their stubborn hatred.
Readers are often struck by the absurdity of Balaam’s talking donkey.  Like the talking serpent in Eden, the narrative beckons for an allegorical interpretation instead of a historical or scientific explanation. What ought to be noted, however, is that well before this she-ass (supposedly) spoke, the Torah records three times that she “saw the messenger of the Lord” blocking her path. –All while Balaam saw naught.  Seeing must always precede speaking. Balaam “the prophet,” may have spoken God’s words, but he did so without seeing any godliness on his own.  

One lesson perhaps: We, who pursue tolerance, may reach out to those who cling to racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance. We long to start a dialogue. But if the Balaams of the world, do not first see, of what is there to speak?

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

And Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: For he had married a Cushite woman”(Numbers 12:1).
Of the one woman, we know much; of the other, we know very little. 
Of Miriam, the prophetess, we are familiar with her deeds in Egypt and her song by the sea. We know her parents, Yocheved and Amram, and her brothers, Moses our teacher, and Aaron the High Priest. Of their likeness in Jewish history, none compare.
In the wilderness, no family was held in higher regard, and to the best of our knowledge, no woman was held in higher esteem. Upon Miriam’s death, we are told that the Congregation immediately thirsted for water (Numbers 20:1-2). The Talmud remarks that it was on account of Miriam’s righteousness that water flowed from the rock all those years in the wilderness (Taanith 9a).
In contrast, who is this other, “Cushite,” woman Moses reportedly has taken for a wife? She has no name, no family, no back story. However does she find herself in the camp of Israel and married to Moses, of all men? 
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, perhaps to impress his Roman audience, records in his “Antiquities of the Jews” that in Moses’ younger years — as Prince of Egypt — he led a military campaign through the land of Ethiopia, and there took an Ethiopian princess, Tharbis, as his first wife. But if such a tradition about Moses existed in Israel’s collective memory — passed on orally outside the biblical canon — it likely would have found its way into early rabbinic texts such as the Midrash or Targum. No such text exists, making Josephus’ claim highly suspect. 
Slightly less implausible is an attempt to identify this Cushite woman with Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzippora, daughter of Yitro (see Rashi). But this raises difficulties. The Torah states twice in one verse (in case we doubted it) that Moses married a “Cushite woman.” Cush in the Bible begins in Ethiopia (below Egypt) and continues southward into Africa, quite a distance from the Midianite settlements in the Jordan-Arabia region. Imagine mistaking Sacramento for San Diego, or a Londoner for a Parisian.    
The simplest explanation, and the most credible, is that Moses took a second wife. We do not know the why or the when; and of the woman herself, we know little beyond her nationality. But perhaps half the lesson may be derived from the impoverished description of her personality, for it lays bare a stark difference in status and power between herself and Miriam.
How much more awful is the slander when a great woman such as Miriam, esteemed for her accomplishments and privileged by her familial bonds, criticizes a seeming “nobody,” an unnamed outsider from a distant and foreign land. With no blood ties to the Jewish people, or known accomplishments, her importance is derived from her husband. Without intrinsic worth, she is flippantly dismissed as Moses’ Cushite wife. 
The Torah does not detail what Miriam, and to some lesser extent Aaron, found bothersome about Moses and his wife. Perhaps Moses was neglecting his husbandly duties of intimacy with his beloved, or so claims Rashi. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron thought Moses’ Cushite wife to be unattractive; so writes Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. More likely, Miriam thought it wrong that Moses should marry a foreigner instead of taking an Israelite wife. That Tzippora had been a foreigner could be forgiven, for at the time, Moses was living far from his brethren in Egypt when he took her as his wife. But later in the wilderness, among the Children of Israel, certainly Moses could have found a more fitting Israelite bride (Shadal).
Far more remarkable is what Miriam’s punishment says about her crime, for the Bible always metes out justice measure for measure. Miriam is publicly humiliated. First, Miriam’s skin turns flaky white by her having contracted tza’arat, the biblical skin disease. Second, she is shut outside the Israelite camp for seven days. In the Torah’s words, her personal shame was like that of a daughter whose “father spits before her face” in disgust (Numbers 12:14).
But how does this reprimand fit her offense? 
Conceivably, if Miriam used the term “Cushite” as a racial slur referring to skin color, it may be thought quite just that Miriam’s skin turned a sickly white color in rebuke. Additionally, if “Cushite” was used to convey the foreignness of Moses’ wife, it is fitting that Miriam is in turn made to feel the outsider as she is set apart outside the camp.  
Thus, in an instant, Miriam, an insider, comes to know the difficult predicament of being an alien — a predicament she should never have forgotten considering Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. 
What an apt lesson for minding the social divide between privileged and underprivileged, between those in the center and those on the fringes. After all, what an Israelite can suffer in Egypt, an Ethiopian can suffer in Israel. In God’s eyes, she who was superior today can become subordinate tomorrow, and vice versa. If Miriam can succumb to forgetfulness and pride, prejudice and xenophobia, we’d do well to doubly guard our words and deeds.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Shabbat Hagadol: A Question of Race

It has been a particularly troubling year for race relations in America. Places like Ferguson, Missouri have become emblematic of a deep and enduring frustration among many people of color: why is it so difficult to communicate to the vast majority of whites just what it feels like to be brown or black?

What is it to be refused a taxi, or shadowed by a clerk in a high-end boutique, what is it to be pulled off the highway, or refused an apartment or a job - all for being black - White women and men have been spared, by accident of birth, from such demeaning experiences.

As we enter Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, the Jewish soul sets out on a journey to rediscover its past. Toward this end, with all that has happened this year, it seemed appropriate to compare Israel's experience of servitude in Egypt with the African-American experience of slavery in this country's lands.

Today's Jew has no immediate memory of the sting of the lash. Yet each Passover, the Children of Israel are commanded to imagine life beneath the fist of Pharaoh. In fact, each day, in our liturgy, we revisit slavery and Exodus during the recitation of Shema. All this may suggest that while the physical wounds of slavery healed long ago, as evidenced by our collective consciousness and a host of memorializing rituals, some scars are ineffaceable.

It is perhaps these ineffaceable scars that have made Jews empathic to the cause of Civil Rightsand great activists for social equality throughout the world. However, to believe that every minority suffers (or suffered) the same sort of oppression is itself a form of oppression. Against this end, I would like to suggest that in many ways African-American slaves suffered far more than the Hebrews did in Egypt.

It is true that both African-Americans and Israelites were enslaved for many years. Dr. King was fond of reminding his listeners that the first slave ship arrived on American shores in 1616, several years before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. His goal was to remind black Americans that they had as much right to the bounty of America as any of the white men and women whose ancestors had set sail from European ports. The length of Israel's enslavement is matter of some debate, one Biblical verse refers to a period of "four generations," another verse speaks of "400 hundred years" and yet another of "430 years." (Gen 15:13,16; Ex. 6; 12:40) However, Israel arrived in Egypt in a manner that was altogether different from African slaves who, stolen from their homes and packed like sardines in slave-ships, many did not survive the trek across the Atlantic. In contrast, Jacob and his clan of seventy souls arrived on royal wagons and were greeted, quite literally, with a King's welcome. (Gen. 46) At Joseph and Pharaoh's behest, they settled in Goshen, a fertile land, and were immediately charged with raising Pharaoh's herds. (Gen. 47)

If African-American slaves had no memory of their ancestors being free in America, the Children of Israel - through Joseph - were immediately integrated into the elite of Egyptian society. Restoring what is lost is a different battle than gaining what one never had.

Another difference. According to the American 'Slaves Codes,' black slaves could not own property, nor were their marriages accepted by many whites. The latter made it easier for white slave owners to break up families. Other plantation owners encouraged marriage so black men would not flee on account of their families. But black adults and children were chattel in every sense of the word. On the other hand, a close reading of the book of Exodus indicates that Israelites were left to marry whomever they liked: Of Moses' parents we read that "a Levite man went forth and took (in marriage) a Levite woman" (Ex. 2.1). It is also quite clear that the Israelites kept many personal possessions. Moses and Pharaoh negotiate at length about Israel's flocks and herds (Ex. 9:4; 10:9,24). Each family had its paschal lamb and a home in which to smear the blood of the Paschal Lamb.

This brings to mind another difference, Pharaoh, was little troubled by the fact that Israel's faith differed from the natives. Even the use of the sacred ram as a sacrifice could be mitigated and permitted if Israel travelled a three-day distance away from Egypt's population centers. (Ex. 8.23) In contrast, Africans slaves were forced to abandon their native religion and compelled to convert to Christianity.

In the years following the U.S. Civil War, the United States offered white pioneers acres upon acres of land to settle in the West. Despite the years of forced servitude, suffering and depravation, black citizens were given nothing in the way of restitution, nor were they even offered the same opportunities given to white pioneers in the late 19th century who went west in droves. In contrast, according to Jewish tradition, Israel plundered Egypt with gusto, taking gold, silver, and cloth. (Ex. 12.35)

A final difference. One can leave to the imagination to what extent the Semitic Israelites differed in appearance from the North-African Egyptians. It would hardly matter because whatever bigotries and prejudices existed among the Egyptians, all of that was left behind during the Exodus. Yet African-Americans had no such Exodus nor were they brought to any Promised Land. After the Civil War they may have been free from slavery, but they were never free from the racism and bigotries of their white neighbors. Left in destitute poverty and illiteracy, African-Americans hardly had the means to better their circumstances.

I will conclude with one common theme. We Americans love to idolize mythologies of self-made men and women. So beholden are we to "bootstrap" movies and books, we tend to forget the old truth that there is no redemption without intervention. The Passover Haggada is emphatic on this point, had it not been for God's outstretched hand, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh. Slavery would have never ended in this country without a President such as Lincoln, who was willing to endure the costs of hundreds of thousands of American lives.

With all the tragedies witnessed this year, perhaps I might suggest a fifth question during this year's seder: what is it like to be black in America? It is the sort of question Pharaoh's daughter most likely asked before she stretched her hand upon the Nile and rescued a little boy.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Parashat Teruma: Fair and Square

From the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

A cube is a geometric shape comprised of six identical squares. If the cube is hollow, these squares create an inner space, identical in length, width and height, equal in every dimension.

Too often, we think of architecture in pure utilitarian terms. What is this structure’s use? How does it function? How many occupants can it contain? But a hyper focus on content may obscure a greater meaning elicited by form.  

So, if one may ask, what is the message of a cube?

The Tabernacle’s design and architecture, described at length in this week’s Torah portion, were meant to express a monotheistic theology in three-dimensional form.  Much work was done exploring this theology in the last century by Jewish scholars such as rabbis Umberto Cassuto, Benno Jacob, and Jacob Milgrom.

For example, they point out that within the Holy of Holies — where the ark stood as a symbolic footstool or throne for God — one does not find a table for food, vessels for libations, a menorah for light or altars of any kind. Instead, a large curtain (parochet) separated the inner sanctum from the rest of the objects in the Tent of Meeting, e.g. the showbread table, incense altar and candelabrum. The copper altar for animal sacrifices was in a courtyard, entirely outside the Tent of Meeting.

The religious message was as emphatic as it was unequivocal. Israel might worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth with sacrifices and libations — akin to its pagan neighbors — but the Lord had no need for any of it, not food, drink, or light. This is one message of the Holy of Holies.

However, the architecture of the Holy of Holies expressed something else as well, because if one does the math, one realizes that its acacia wood walls formed a perfect 10-by-10-by10 cube. These dimensions suggest a type of theological equality. Indeed the Sanctuary was a place where God and Israel might meet, but more importantly, it was a space where all of Israel’s laity, young and old, men and women alike, could worship equally.

How so? For one, the large active courtyard where animal slaughter took place was mix-gendered. The book of Exodus describes groups of women who “assembled” in the courtyard “in front of the door Tent of Meeting” to pray (Exodus 38:8. Cf. Ibn-Ezra, Onkelos). If they desired or were required to bring sacrifices, women could slaughter the animal themselves, just like their male coreligionists.

A number of commentators point out that Leviticus begins with the inclusive phrase, “a person (adam) who brings an offering to the Lord … .” “Adam” is the generic term used in the Torah for “human being.” In Leviticus, it can also include non-Israelites, as well as Israelite women.

Maimonides, in his great Code of Law, states emphatically “men, women, and slaves bring sacrifices” in the Temple (Laws of Offerings 3:2), and the Medieval Scholars of Ashkenaz were of the same mind.

Perhaps because I am an Orthodox rabbi, I find that each year, as we read the latter half of the book of Exodus and make our way into Leviticus, I come face-to-face with the question of just what happened to this very old (yet revolutionary) egalitarian “cube”? In the Tabernacle, Hannah brought prayers and sacrifices to the very gate of the Tent of Meeting. In the late Second Temple period (42 CE), Queen Helene became a nazarite, and when her vow elapsed, she brought the obligatory pigeons to the altar. Her example led so many women to emulate her piety that sacrificial pigeon prices soared.  

Yet somehow, after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue became a place where mainly men assembled, and women’s participation fell away. It is something of a historical mystery how the barrier — mechitzah — evolved separating the genders. Though indeed it is a very old custom, one finds no statute relegating the separation of men and women in a synagogue in the entirety of the Talmud or the great Codes of Law written by Maimonides or the Shulchan Aruch. In one letter, the brilliant Talmudist and founder of a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., Rav Aharon Kotler, freely admitted to this lacuna: “The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s gallery.”

While there are good reasons for why the Orthodox community has preserved the mechitzah, even as other denominations have long ago integrated women and men in synagogue worship, an honest analysis of the past is troubling. Women had a far more active and integrated role in the Temple and Tabernacle than they currently do in the contemporary Orthodox synagogue.

And here, if I may say something to my Orthodox fellows — something which is obvious to everyone but ourselves: Like it or not, the shape of our synagogue is not equal of measure.  

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is the Conversion Process Abusive? Part I

Is the Conversion Process Abusive? Part I
Rabbi Freundel, the RCA, and GPS

I am no therapist, nor do I serve on any court that performs conversions. Someone with both qualifications would be better suited to this task. But perhaps a few ‘inexpert’ observations, ‘circling the target’ as it were, will lead to expert ones that ‘hit the mark.'

I know a lot of converts. Also, being happily married to a convert, I am quite partial to the view that conversion is good for the Jews. However if there is one thing that I am also certain of, it is that Jews have not been good to converts. I know this because converts tell me so. Stories of lengthy and indefinite wait times, overbearing rabbis or excessively demanding rabbinic courts, unwelcoming communities, the challenge of finding a shidduch after conversion, and the constant anxiety that one’s conversion will be questioned or rejected…have caused a great many tears to flow.  Rarely do converts’ experiences of harassment, abuse, or discrimination come to public light. But there has been quite an exception recently.

Since late October 2014, allegations of ‘mikvah voyeurism’ by Rabbi Barry Freundel have garnered a great deal of media attention. If even half the stories are true of hidden video cameras and ‘practice mikvah dunks,’ the matter is truly shocking. However, in the aftermath of Freundel’s arrest by D.C. police, a host of additional accusations surfaced among Freundel’s female converts that they were conscripted into secretarial duties, as well as contentions that Freundel conducted less than appropriate financial dealings with his converts.

Most strange was the piece of news that in 2012 some women reported Rabbi Freundel to the Rabbinical Council of America. They brought forward their contentions about being compelled to perform clerical work and claimed that R. Freundel was soliciting them for suspiciously large donations to his conversion court. The RCA investigated Freundel, confronted him, and apparently settled the matter satisfactorily, at least in their own minds.

What is so remarkable about this event is the fact that R. Freundel served on the executive committee of the RCA at the time and continued to do so afterward. (He was only suspended recently.) And while I am aware of no evidence that the RCA acted dishonorably, if it is assumed that the investigation was conducted by close colleagues and friends, one does wonder at the impartiality of the process. Can one rabbinic court truly be trusted with overseeing the workings of another (friendly) rabbinic court? What if it is really just the same court or system of courts?

One must consider Rabbi Freundel’s central role on the RCA’s conversion committee. In 2007, the RCA set about to completely standardize and restructure on a national level its policies and procedures for conversion. The system, still in place, was titled “Gerus Policies and Standards,” or “GPS.” The Chairman of the GPS committee and its presumptive chief architect was none other than Rabbi Barry Freundel himself. In his role, Rabbi Freundel defended GPS against criticism from rabbis such as Marc Angel and Avraham Weiss. It behooves us to ask how diligently the RCA’s executive committee or conversion committee investigated its own chairman of GPS?

One of GPS’s stated aims is “avoiding unnecessary confusion and anguish” but what is there to say or do when one of its key draftsman is found, then and now, to be a central cause for “confusion and anguish” among converts?

And here I would like to suggest a much bigger question. Perhaps there is something awry about the entire conversion process. Perhaps the ordeal of the conversion lends itself to exploitation and abuse. Most rabbis are decent and honest, and many, may they be blessed, are a lot better than decent and honest, so it is easy therefore to dismiss the small minority who twist the upright path. But the pursuit of sin can only occur when there is ample opportunity.

I wonder if the creation of GPS implemented a system conducive to exploitation by the devious or deviant? And here is the thrust of my contention, perhaps Rabbi Freundel should be held responsible, along with those who assisted him, for crafting a system that puts converts in just the sort of nebulous position where they can easily be manipulated, preyed upon, and abused.

To be continued in a day or two….

Friday, November 7, 2014

Parashat Vayera: Living with Pardon

Sodom and Gomorroh - John Martin (1852)

A genocide here, a massacre there. Somewhere a theocrat falls, elsewhere a despot rises. Tent cities spring up like grass. Shantytowns and refugee camps sprout forth like fields of wheat.  
Who by poison gas, who by machete, who by bullets and who by bombs? Who shall expire quickly, whose soul will languish in a dark cell of hell? How terrifying was this week’s news of men cut down like weeds, women and children butchered like sheep? But was last week’s news less cruel? In Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East, the bloodshed is endless.
“And the Lord said, the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, their sin grave indeed” (Genesis 18:20). 
Great evil is nothing new under the sun. Before the flood we read, “The Lord saw how great was man’s evil upon earth” (Genesis 6:5).  And there is nothing novel about a victim’s cry either, as God said to Cain, ‘Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’ ” (Genesis 4:10). 
When murder and massacre are as commonplace as sunshine and rain, the essential question is: How are we allowed to remain? Why are more cities not overturned like Sodom? Why is the earth not drowned as it was in Noah’s day?
The prophet Ezekiel’s writings about evil complicate matters even further: “This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had power, an abundance of food and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).  

A remarkable description, as it casts a wide net of blame. God judges those who perpetrate death and destruction, as well as those who have the power to stop the violence and cruelty yet fail to lift a hand. We are told that it was only in Abraham’s merit that Lot and his daughters were saved by angels from Sodom’s fate (Genesis 19:29). Perhaps the fact that we still stand here indicates that we, too, have been gifted with divine grace. 
Two stories in Parashat Vayera that speak to this idea are remarkably similar in substance and plot. The first is the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and the second is the binding of Isaac. 
To review briefly, on the day Hagar and her son were driven away, we read that “Abraham awoke early in the morning” (Genesis 21:14). He placed food, a skin of water and the boy on her back and sent them off. Hagar wanders in the wilderness till the water runs out. Out of despair, she throws the boy beneath one of the bushes. 
Throughout, Ishmael is repeatedly referred to as “the boy” or “the lad.”  Eventually, mother and child are saved by an angelic messenger of the Lord, who hears “the cry of the lad where he lies” (Genesis 21:17). As Hagar lifts Ishmael up, she sees beside him a watering hole. (Fascinatingly, medieval Rabbi David Kimchi points out that these green bushes where Ishmael had been lying all along were themselves an indication of water.) Afterward, “The boy grew and became a bowman” (Genesis 21:20). He settles in Paran, and his mother finds him a wife. 
The binding of Isaac follows a similar pattern. “Abraham awoke early in the morning” (Genesis 22:3). He saddles his donkey with provisions as he had earlier “saddled” Hagar. A few verses later, he saddles Isaac with wood for sacrifice. Like Ishmael, Isaac is repeatedly referred to as “the lad.” Here, too, an angel cries out from heaven, saving Isaac and promising Abraham that his seed shall number as the stars, a promise similar to that made to Hagar and her son. Shrubbery also has a role in Isaac’s rescue: “And Abraham lifted his eyes and afterward saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket” (Genesis 22:13). The ram’s neck was substituted for Isaac. A short time later, Abraham tasks his steward to find a wife for his son.
As both lads were saved from near death by divine intervention in a strikingly similar fashion, one must look to places of divergence for a parting lesson. The most salient difference between the sparing of Ishmael and the sparing of Isaac is in what they do afterward, who these children become. Ishmael becomes an archer, he settles in the area of Paran, which is a pun on perah adam — “a wild-ass of a man” — an earlier prophetic description of Ishmael (Rashbam citing Genesis 16:12). In contrast, the next time we observe Isaac, he is “meditating in the field,” having returned from a godly place named “The Well-of-the-Living-One-Who-Sees-Me” (Genesis 24:62). Ishmael turns to the sword, Isaac to a contemplative life of the spirit. 
I have always found it fitting that the story of Ishmael and Hagar is read on Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah, while the story of Isaac and Abraham is read on Day 2. Undoubtedly, the two lads were hardly deserving of death. But on the Day of Judgment, a day in which the entire world is judged, we wonder aloud if this has been another year in which humanity has been spared its due judgment. 
There is so much hate and so much violence, and far too much averting of our eyes. These readings suggest that it is only by the mercy of God that we are spared the flood of Noah or the fire of Sodom. Perhaps the real lesson is that we are always being pardoned, and the true test of character is in what we do with this knowledge. 

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parashat Lech Lecha: In a Dark Time

Abraham Sees Sodom in Flames - James Tissot

 And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.’ -Genesis 2:7

He was a mound of mud. Just another fold of earth indistinguishable from his surroundings. From the earth he was taken, and to earth he would return. But now he lay there, his back pressed against the soil. If this were the grave, his face would have been cold and ashen, his eyelids sealed forever. But here was a man awoken. Here was a beating heart. Here was a beginning not an end.

Adam opened his eyes: open, shut, open. Night faded. Morning drew away dawn’s breath. The mist departed. No longer was this a mound of mud, but a man alive. On his back, Adam gazed skyward. Imagine his first glimpse as the vault of heaven filled his eyes…. What a testament to human nature! Between the first kicks in the womb and the repose of the grave — the sky is the limit. Half beast half seraph, Adam lay there between sleeping and flying.

A favorite poet, Theodore Roethke once wrote: “What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”[1] In all the Bible, there is perhaps no soul more noble than that of Abraham our father. His every action is at odds with circumstance, his very faith at odds with an entire world. Every friend became a doubter. ‘Where are you going Abraham? You leave your country, your birthplace, you dare abandon your father’s home! This is madness, Abraham. Who is this unheard-of-God that you claim to hear? What God says “go to some place which I will show you?” If He can make heaven and earth, why does this place not have a name?’ Where are you Abraham? Where?’

“A man goes far to find out what he is—,” wrote Roethke. In Abraham’s case, very far indeed. From the great plains of Mesopotamia, westward to Assyria, south to Canaan than down to Egypt and back again. “Traveling continually...,” the Torah records, but always “to the place that I will show thee.”

It was a dark world, few were kind to strangers. Not the Pharaoh of Egypt who kidnapped Sarah, or the Philistines on the coast, who did the same. His nephew Lot departs after a dispute over flocks and pasturage. An unspoken rebuke. Abraham abandoned family once, now family abandons him.

We have heard this story more than once. The people of Sodom were neither kind nor generous. Yet when a near fist of kings sacks their city taking property and people alike (including Lot), Abraham plots a rescue. His audacity is foolish. His courage military folly. 318 men against the might of four kings. But Abraham is successful. He wages war, his enemy retreats. When offered spoil, he takes not a ‘shoelace’ for himself. (14.23) People and property are returned to the king of Sodom. An altruistic war, fought purely on behalf of others. And think of these others, Sodom, who denied guest-right to guests, who later sought to humiliate Lot and his household for treating strangers with dignity and respect. The city’s evil rises up before the Lord, which God overturns in brimstone and fire. Yet Abraham’s compassion extends even to wrongdoers, enemies of the very way of life he holds dear. Was this nobility or madness?

Which I is I? Roethke asks. Even Abraham has doubts. He and Sarah are advanced in age, without natural heir. “Shall Eliezer of Damascus inherit me?” asks Abraham of God. How long can a man live in clouds which never rain?

“In a dark time the eye begins to see,” wrote Roethke. Out of the depths, a voice emerges. “Then the Lord’s word came to Abraham in a vision, ‘Be not afraid Abram…your reward is exceedingly great.’” ‘Come outside Abraham. “Pray look toward the heavens and count the stars, can you count them?”’ (Gen. 15.5)

Rabbi Judah opined in the Talmud that when Adam was first created his body stretched from one end of the earth to the other. (Sanhedrin 38b) No earthly power could contain him. It was only after his disobedience that man was shrunk to his present size. But in Abraham, God found something of the Adam He had first conceived; A man who saw the infinite in the imminent: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (Gen. 22.4) Here stood a man who thought not of scaling the mountain, but of scaling the clouds above. (Rashi ibid) “Can you count the stars? So shall your seed be.” 

We know nothing till we try. Every heart has its doubts. We dream dreams but then tell ourselves: 'It is too much, it is too late.'  Another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, lamented: “Everything is far / and long gone by.” But there is still time. Rilke writes: I would like to step out of my heart / and go walking beneath the enormous sky [2] 

Such was Adam when he first gazed above. Such was Abraham, a noble madman, who one desert night stepped outside his heart and walked with God beneath the sky, who listened to the stars whisper and heard in them the voices of a nation that would number as the sand.