Thursday, November 23, 2017

Following in Leah's Footsteps

“When morning came, it was Leah!” (Genesis 29:25) Leah’s immediate response is not recorded, and we do not know if she had agreed to the switch in advance but through the explanations she gives for the names of her sons, we can see that Leah did love Jacob and desired his love in return.  Four sons, in four verses (Genesis 29:32-35), bear names that testify to their mother’s emotions and internal development. Their father is conspicuous in his absence. After the birth of her eldest son, Rueben, Leah does not hide that she considers him a path to the heart of Jacob: “Now my husband will love me,” she declares with hope. Unfounded hope. When Shimon is born Leah is still waiting for attention from Jacob, “This is because the Eternal heard that I was unloved.” After Levi’s birth, Leah again feels a glimmer of hope “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.”                                                                                                                                                           

Only when Leah’s fourth son is born do we see a major change: “’This time I will praise the Lord.’ Therefore she named him Yehuda-Judah” (derived from a root meaning “thank”). Although she is still unloved, Leah now expresses gratitude for what she does have. As Jews, descendants of Leah and Judah, we are called on to follow in her footsteps and be thankful for what we have without denying what we lack. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sukkot, Simḥat Torah and "After the Holidays"

Sukkot 5778
On Yom Kippur, we were like angels or the dead; neither eating or drinking, and wearing white that resembles shrouds. We contemplate: Who will live? Who will die? Who in good time? Who too soon? We faced our weaknesses and the fragility of our lives.
Then, a moment before the gate slammed shut, a long Shofar blast released us back into the world of action: a satisfying meal and a flurry of construction. But what have we built? Something fragile and temporary, with flimsy walls and a “roof” that with more shadow than sun, but also rain-permeable. I am not ashamed to say that when the roof in my kitchen leaks, it is not “the time of my joy.” How can we rejoice in the harvest festival, when despite the produce filling the barn, our walls sway in the wind? I don’t know, so I will quote my teacher Rabbi Shai Held:
“The spiritual life takes place in the space between the difficult and the impossible.[1]
With or without a leaky roof, most of life takes place within routine, and Sukkot is also a holiday that celebrates routine. There are halakhic discussions about where to eat, where to sleep – the most basic things in life – even about how many meals must be eaten in the sukkah and in what kind of weather. The details are not important at the moment, just the fact of their existence. Sukkot does not commemorate a climatic moment like the Exodus or the giving of the Torah, but rather daily life in wilderness. It’s easy to celebrate grand events; but routine is difficult even to sustain.[2] The temptation to break it is strong. Therefore, I pray with the poet Orah Ilan:
My God
Teach me to bear
The contentment of time
Which passes not to return.
Teach me to bear
The burden of routine
That gives up so easily.[3]
Following the impulse to work quickly, we build fragile shacks. Sturdy construction requires perseverance and discipline. We all know that. This is how we built and continue building our private homes, and how we built and continue building our communal home.
A stable building also requires a solid foundation.
The foundation of the community and the entire nation is Torah, which connects us to generations past and to the Land. The question is: Will the Torah connect us to future generations?
In Parashat Vayelech we read:
Every seventh year, in the Sabbatical year, during Sukkot… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people–men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities–that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching (Deut. 31:10-12).
In a regular cycle all the people gather to hear and learn the Torah. The choice of Sukkot is not random: after the harvest and before the strong rains, this was a quiet period in ancient Israeli society based on subsistence agriculture, and the release of slaves in the Sabbatical year ensured that all people, regardless of status, [4]  gender or age, were free to participate.
Our world is not their world. Our attention-span is short and the number of stimuli flooding us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is overwhelming. A concentrated seminar once every seven years would not be sufficient to teach Torah to future generations. Hakahel remains a state ceremony, and we have Simḥat Torah.
On Simḥat Torah, we sing and dance in synagogue. If Shavuot recalls the marriage ceremony between God and Israel, with the Torah as the marriage contract, Simḥat Torah is the party in which we celebrate the bond that has been forged.
After the party, comes... routine.
Routine is a burden, a routine that knows how to give up. But we have to accept the burden, to learn and to teach, taking Torah seriously in order to preserve the wisdom of the generations, to expand it, and bequeath it as a legacy for future generations.
On Simḥat Torah, we read: “Moses commanded us the Torah, the inheritance (מורשהmorasha) for the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) states: “Do not speak of ‘an inheritance,’ but of an ‘betrothed’ (מאורסהma’orasa”).
In the middle of the twentieth century, Rabbi Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg explained:
Many people honor the Torah but regard it as an antique. They do not ask the Torah how to handle the questions of life. This is why the Sages wrote that we should not call the Torah an inheritance, but rather a partner who is loved and significant, who is consulted and whose opinion is consulted and considered.[5]
On Simḥat Torah, let us celebrate the Torah we have inherited.
After the celebration, the routine will come. If we also future generations to rejoice in the Torah after us, we must bring it into the routine of our lives, not only as a heritage but as our beloved, that we learn, teach and engage, For it is our life and the length of our days.
Kehillat Hod VeHadar

[1] Shai Held, recorded lecture: Between the Difficult and the Impossible
[3] In Hillel Weiss, Va-ani Tefilathi: Prayer Poems by Contemporary Israeli Poets (1990) p. 94 [Heb.]. The poem continues, “Teach me to bear the pain of  concession without license” [trans. SMZ].
[5] I first learned this text from Rabbi Lionel Levy. The original source is from a letter of approbation for Ribner, Raza D’oraita.

סוכות, שמחת תורה ו-"אחרי החגים"

סוכות תשע"ח
ביום כיפור חיינו כמלאכים וכמתים: לא אכלנו, לא שתינו ולבשנו לבן הדומה לתכריכים. הרהרנו ב-"מי יחיה ומי ימות, מי קצו ומי לא בקיצו?" עמדנו מול חולשותינו ומול שבריריות חיינו.
ואז, שניה לפני שהשער נטרק תקיעה גדולה שחררה אותנו חזרה אל עולם העשייה: ארוחה משביעה וסערה של בנייה. אבל מה בנינו? דבר שברירי וארעי, עם דפנות דקיקות ו-"גג" שצלו מרובה מחמתו, וגם מכניס גשמים. אינני מתביישת לומר כי כאשר הגג במטבח שלי דולף זה לא זמן שמחתי. איך נוכל לשמוח בחג האסיף, ביבול הממלא את אסמנו כאשר הקירות רועדים ברוח? לי אין תשובה ולכן אצטט את מורי הרב ש"י הלד:
"עבודת ה' מתרחש במרחב בין הקשה ובין הבלתי אפשרי."[1]
עם גג דולף וגם בלעדיו, עיקר החיים מתרחש בתוך שגרה, וסוכות הוא חג שמרומם את השגרה.[2] ישנן סוגיות הלכתיות על איפה אוכלים, איפה ישנים -- הדברים הבסיסיים ביותר בחיים -- ואפילו על כמה ארוחות חייבים לאכול בסוכה באיזה תנאי מזג-אוויר. הפרטים לא חשובים כרגע אלא עצם קיומם. חג סוכות אינו מזכיר רגעי שיא כמו יציאת מצריים או מתן תורה אלא את חיי היום-יום הלא פשוטים של המדבר. קל לחגוג שיאים. אבל שגרה קשה אפילו לקיים. הפיתוי לשבור אותה חזק. לכן ואני מתפללת עם המשוררת אורה אילן:
למדני לשאת את
אָשְׁרוֹ של הזמן
החולף ואינו חוזר.
למדני לשאת את
עֻלהּ של שיגרה
היודעת כל כך לוותר
בדחף לבנות מהר בונים סוכות שבירות, בניה איתנה דורשת התמדה ומשמעת. כולנו יודעים את זה. כך בנינו ובונים את בתינו הפרטיים וכך בינינו ובונים את ביתנו הקהילתי.
לבניין יציב דרוש גם מסד מוצק.
המסד בבסיס הקהילה והעם כולו הוא תורה, המקשרת אותנו לדורות עברו ולארץ. השאלה היא: האם התורה תחבר אותנו לדורות הבאים?
בפרשת וילך קראנו:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת... תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ (דברים לא:י-יב).
במחזוריות קבועה כל העם מתכנס לשמוע וללמוד את התורה. המועד אינו אקראי: חג הסוכות, אחרי האסיף ולפני הגשמים החזקים, הייתה תקופה שקטה בחברה הישראלית הקדומה המבוססת על חקלאות קיומית, ושחרור העבדים בשנת השמיטה הבטיח שכל העםללא הבדל מעמד[4], מגדר או גיל, היו בני חורין להשתתף.
עולמנו אינו עולמם. הקשב שלנו קצר ומספר הגירויים שאנחנו וילדינו, נכדינו ונינינו, נחשפים אליהם אדיר. סמינר מרוכז פעם בשבע שנים לא יספיק להנחיל תורה לדורות הבאים. זכר להקהל נשאר כטקס ממלכתי, ולנו יש שמחת תורה.
בשמחת תורה יהיו בבתי הכנסת שירים וריקודים. אם חג השבועות משחזר את טקס החופה בו עם ישראל קודש לה' עם התורה ככתובה, שמחת תורה היא המסיבה שבה אנחנו חוגגים את הקשר שנרקם.
אחרי המסיבה, באההשגרה.
שגרה שהיא עול, שגרה שיודעת לוותר. אבל אנחנו צריכים לקבל את העול, ללמוד וללמד, להתיחס לתורה ברצינות כדי לשמור את חכמת הדורות, להרחיב אותה ולהנחיל מורשת לדורות הבאים.
בשמחת תורה נקרא: "תורה ציווה לנו משה מורשה קהילת יעקב" (דברים לג:ד) עליו נאמר בתלמוד: "אל תקרי מורשה, אלא מאורסה" (פסחים מט ע"ב).
באמצע המאה העשרים, ר' יחיאל יעקב ויינברג הסביר:
רבים האנשים המכבדים את התורה, אך יש בהם המתייחסים אליה כאל אוצר נחמד, דבר עתיק ויקר ערך, אולם הם אינם שואלים את התורה כיצד יש לנהוג בשאלות החיים... אל תתייחסו אל תורה כאל ירושה עתיקה אלא כאל "מאורסה", כדבר אהוב וחשוב, שמתייעצים עמה ומתחשבים בדעתה.[5]
בשמחת תורה, בואו לחגוג את התורה, את המורשת.
אחרי החגיגה תבוא השגרה. אם אנחנו רוצים גם להעמיד לעצמנו דורות המשך שישמחו גם הם בתורה, עלינו להביא אותה אל תוך השגרת חיינו, לא רק כמורשה אלא כ-"מאורסה" מרכיב חשוב, ללמוד וללמד
כי היא חיינו ואורך ימינו.                                                                                                     
שושנה מיכאל צוקר, הוד והדר

[1] ר' ש"י הלד: הרצאה מוקלטת: Between the Difficult and the Impossible [אנגלית].
[2] לפרטים: ר' יצחק גרינברג The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (1988), chapter 4[אנגלית].
[3] ב-הלל ויס (עורך) ואני תפילתי: שירת התפילה של משוררים בני זמננו (1988), ע' 94.  השיר ממשיך " למדני לשאת את כאב הותור שאין לו היתר."
[4] ר' ש"י הלד: Returning To Sinai Every Seventh Year [אנגלית]. וגם בספרו
 The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, vol. 2. (2017) Philadelphia: JPS.
[5] למדתי את הטקסט מר' ליונל לוי .הוא מופיע גם כאן: מקורו כנראה בהקדמת הספר רזא דאורייתא, מאת הרב ז"א רבינר.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Isaac’s Shofar

“Happy are the people that knows the shofar’s sound, they walk in God’s light.”
What does it mean to “know the shofar’s sound? How can we walk in God’s light? What is a worthy life?  These are among the questions we face today.
In rabbinic literature, the sounds of the shofar and today’s Torah reading are connected to each other in two, nearly opposite ways.  The best known connection is that of Abraham:
 Abraham said: “Yesterday, you told me that ‘Isaac will be your seed.’ Now you are telling me ‘Sacrifice him on one of the mountains.’  I conquered my natural desires and did what You said.  Now, when Isaac’s descendants sin or get into trouble, I want you to remember the binding of Isaac, forgive their sins and save them from trouble.” 
God replied: “You have said your piece and now I will say mine. In the future, when Isaac’s descendants sin, I will judge them on Rosh Hashanah, unless they ask that I credit them by remembering the binding of Isaac when they blow on the shofar.”  (Midrash Tanhuma)
This midrash emphasizes the strength of Abraham who conquered his desires and knows how to negotiate with God in order to get a good “deal” for his descendents.  It corresponds to the “tekiah” sound of the shofar  - long and steady - symbolizing the hope inherent in repentance and all new beginnings.
The less well-know connection between the shofar and this morning’s reading is from Sarah’s side.  Although she does not appear actively in the story, Sarah is very involved in the Binding of Isaac:
Know that this is true.  When Isaac returned to his mother, she asked him where he had been.  He replied, “Father took me up mountains and down valleys.  Up on one of the mountains, he built an altar, arranged the wood and took the knife to slaughter me.  If an angel had not come to stop him, I would have been slaughtered.”
Sarah asked, “Oy! Do you mean that if hadn’t been for the angel, you would already have been slaughtered?”  Isaac, “Yes.”
At that Sarah screamed six times, paralleling the six tekiah sounds.  There are those who say that before she finished, she died.  (V’yikra Rabbah)
In other version, Sarah’s screams are compared to a “teruah” sound.  Indeed, Maimonides compares the teruah to a “wail” or “groan.”
Here there is no power, no hope, no new beginning; there is weakness, despair and death.

I have been contemplating the Binding of Isaac and the messages that are delivered by the choice to read this passage on Rosh Hashanah.  If this chapter is read in isolation, the messages are almost unbearable.  Abraham is willing to surrender his beloved son, the fulfillment of the covenant and his independent sense of justice.  Isaac is willing to surrender his life and Sarah collapses in the face of all this surrender and her loss of control over Isaac. 

However, there is no reason to read the chapter in isolation.  It is part of a much larger context in which our ancestors do provide varied and positive examples that are relevant to our lives.  There is so much material that I cannot consider it all today.  Therefore, I have selected a few examples from the lives of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac that can still guide us on our way today.

From the life of Abraham, I have selected two examples that relate to the inescapable necessity to choose, not only between good and bad but also between good and good, in those situations where limited resources or other conditions make it impossible to choose both. 

In Genesis 18, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent and God appears to him for no apparent reason.  From the juxtaposition of texts, the Rabbis learned and taught that God has come to visit the sick, three days after Abraham’s circumcision.  “Sick,” hurting and hot, Abraham merits a special spiritual experience.  Suddenly, he sees three “men” in the distance.  He gets up and runs to them.  Nothing, good or bad, can prevent him from personally extending hospitality to them.

This story emphasizes the importance deeds of loving-kindness.  God visits the sick and Abraham overcomes obstacles and gives up personal pleasure, in order to welcome guests. 

  • An important element in a worthy life is giving to others and being attentive to their needs.
Another situation in which Abraham must make a decision is at the end of the Binding of Isaac.  At the beginning of the chapter, God commands him to sacrifice his son.  Later, an angel commands him “Do not touch the boy.”  The free, human Abraham must make an independent decision.   He makes the choice that must seem to him to be more humane and more just.  He sacrifices the ram instead of his son.  By doing this, Rabbi Michael Graetz teaches that he “establishes an autonomous realm of righteousness by which God’s commands can be judged.  Commands, which offend the autonomous realm of righteousness, can be turned into symbolic ones. “

  • Additional important elements in a worthy life are human standards and independent moral judgment.
In the Torah, Sarah does not have the same close connection with God that Abraham does but her life is effected by his connections, the covenant and God’s promises.  But Sarah does not trust in promises.  She takes initiative in order to ensure that Abraham has offspring and the covenant can be fulfilled.  Unlike Abraham who was apparently so certain that everything would turn out okay that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah lives in a world of reality, If she cannot have children, she looks for an alternative solution.  The unfortunate part is that she does not anticipate the outcome of her initiative and does not handle them well.  Instead she treats Hagar most unfairly.

Even Sarah’s famous laugh is rooted in her clear vision of reality.  Sarah knows that she is too old to give birth; miracles simply are not part of her plan.  Even when Isaac is born, she does everything in her power to protect him, even at the price of further injustice to Hagar and Ishmael.

In the end, Sarah will pay with her own life for her deep involvement in Isaac’s life.  Even in the above version of the midrash, where Isaac himself returns alive and tells his mother what has happened, the shocking news has a fatal affect.  How much more so in the version in which Satan comes alone and never gets to the “happy” end of the story.

  • From Sarah’s life we can learn about the importance of a clear understanding of reality and the need for human initiative.  Her example also warns of the need to anticipate the results of our actions and to distinguish between those things which we can control and those which we cannot.
Isaac is often portrayed as passive, an essential but boring link between Abraham and Jacob.  However, a close reading of Genesis 36 reveals a totally different personality.  Despite the fact that he is not a colorful, charismatic figure, Isaac’s example is very important for anyone who was born Jewish since he was the first born into Abraham’s covenant and the first to continue the tradition, despite the trauma of his youth.
During a famine in Israel, God appears to Isaac and commands him “Do not go down to Egypt.  Stay in this land and I will be with you.”  Like his father, Isaac listens and obeys.  Like his mother, he takes initiative in order to ensure success – he plants a crop.  God keeps his promise through the agency of Isaac’s initiative: Isaac is blessed with a record-breaking crop.

  • It is also important for us to understand that God’s blessing do not just “fall out of the sky.”  They come in response to human initiative and in accordance with the laws of nature.
During the conflict with Avimelech regarding the wells, Isaac also takes action to ensure himself adequate water and living space.  His success and the blessing that follows impress Avimelech who offers a peace agreement.  Isaac is hesitant but accepts, thereby ensuring tranquility.

The Torah does not tell us about Isaac coming down the mountain and the midrash does not add much. In my mind’s eye, I see him coming down the mountain with the ram’s horn as a reminder.  Just a ram’s horn, not a shofar.  He keeps the horn until the end of the year of mourning for his mother.  The he makes a shofar out of it.  He takes the raw material of his life and creates a useful tool.  Isaac’s sound is the “sh’varim” broken pieces that together equal the “tekiah” in value,

Isaac blows: “Tekiah, sh’varim, teruah, tekiah.”
Tekiah: In honor of his father Abraham: his strong faith and his contributions to others.
Sh’varim: To remind himself that even the ordinary initiatives of daily life can bring blessing.
Teruah:  In memory of his mother, her initiative and clear vision.
Another Tekiah, a long one: to encourage future generations to continue, to continue in the path of their ancestors.

Congregation Hod v’Hadar, 2000