Drops of Torah from our members
We all have the capacity to share our wisdom and reflections about the Torah texts we read each week. The Congregation Beth Israel Drops of Torah project provides an opportunity for people to share a brief reflection or short insight about the week's Torah portion. These short pieces are written by our members with support from our rabbis (as needed). Consider signing up for a drop of Torah. For more information, contact Rabbi Nathan Martin (email@example.com).
- Beresheit by Linda Cohen
- Noah by the Sibley Horwitz family
- Lekh lekha by Lynn Cashell
- Vayera by Larry and Marion Hamermesh
- Hayyei Sarah by Sharon Kleban
- Toledot by Jeff Jarvis
- Vayetze by Michael Fishkow
- Vayishlach by Julie Mayer
- Miketz by Hadassah Weinmartin and her dad
- Vayigash by R. Helen Plotkin
- Vayehi by Benjamin Alouf
- Shemot by Sharon Boyd
- Va-era by Anita Weber
- Bo by Ronnie Good
And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice: O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me. And a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold. Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold (4:23-24).”
You could call this machismo. Or you could call it psychopathy. Here is a man who believes that it’s acceptable to kill people for wounding or even bruising him (and a lad, at that). And then he brags that he will avenge wrongs seventy-seven fold, even more brutally than his ancestor, Cain. He is a tyrant, with no sense of compassion or justice. What could we possible learn from this, besides how not to be?
My take-away is twofold. Unfortunately, brutal men still exist today, some as rulers of countries. Anyone with such an egotistical need for vengeance is a threat to justice and humanity. We must use our resources to reduce the power of such men. Secondly, we all get angry and need constructive ways to channel this emotion. We need to notice and attend to any traces of our own inner Lamech, stirrings of anger which call out for violence or revenge. If we are wronged we deserve to seek justice, and we may need to set firm boundaries, but vengeance to wound those who hurt us is not a route to inner peace or greater humanity. (Return to top.)
In the Tower of Babel story, the peoples of the Earth united to build a very tall Tower of brick and bitumen, but God stopped its construction--claiming it was an example of humans’ pride. “Nothing will be out of their reach,” God harrumphed, seeing the tower as representing an arrogant wish to approach heavenly majesty.
Dante, too, agreed that the Tower of Babel was an example of human pride--and thus, sinful--and in his Purgatorio, he chose a Mountain with different stages of sinful behavior to represent Purgatory, the first Terrace of which he called Pride...
As a result of God’s reactive response to the Tower in Genesis, scattering the people to winds, they developed different languages, different cultures, and could no longer unify in the same way to make such a tower, not for many centuries.
Perhaps this was also God’s attempt to create many different peoples so there would be one, Jewish people that God could “choose”--? (That is, until Mordecai Kaplan decided we didn’t need that particular qualifier.) Or was it the attempt by human authorities to keep subject peoples from challenging them by being too ambitious? Citing God’s potential wrath might be an effective way to keep people submissive..
We now have under construction the Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia--the first building that will be 1 kilometer (more than 3200 feet) tall. An American architect has built it--and is making efforts to ensure that those on the top stories don’t get seasick on windy days..
So we have a number of different ways to understand this passage. An example of the harm of human pride; unnecessary destruction by an over-reactive God, amplified by authoritarian leaders; a desire for human diversity of cultures; a challenge for humans to learn to work together without rancor. (Return to top.)
In Genesis 16:1-17:6 we are confronted with Sarai’s conflict with Hagar, her maidservant. Since Abram and Sarai have no children, Hagar is offered to Abram as his concubine and becomes pregnant. While Sarai initiated this relationship, she treats Hagar harshly, becomes jealous, and Hagar runs away.
Both of these women faced difficult situations. Sarai turned to Abram who told her to deal with it herself and Hagar fled. When we face difficult situations, we often turn to the people in our lives whom we trust and respect for guidance. Sometimes we choose not to share our problems and run away. In this piece, Sarai shared her concern, yet was rebuked, so her anger escalated. Hagar fled, yet was met by an angel of God who told her to return and face her difficulty and she would be rewarded.
When we seek answers from those in our lives, we are faced with the decision to accept or reject them. Often, we are not seeking advice or counsel, yet it comes to us. In both cases, we have the choice to listen to the voices around us and decide how to move forward. (Return to top.)
Abraham's casting out Hagar and Ishmael raises an interesting question about words and deeds. G!d tells Abraham to support Sarah's desire to disinherit Ishmael and continue Abraham's line through Isaac, raising Isaac above his half-brother. Yet G!d acknowledges that Ishmael is Abraham's seed and promises to make a nation of him. In the end is Ishmael's fate really that different from his brother's?
At Abraham's death, just as Sarah demanded, Isaac is Abraham's sole heir. Yet, Ishmael, along with the other sons of Abraham's concubines, had received "gifts" from his father before his death. In the end, is Ishmael's fate really that different from his brother's?
The language and social construct of offspring continuing the line is different from that of being made a nation. Yet Isaac and Ishmael, both of whom are Abraham's seed, produce nations which are both descended from Abraham.
The language and social construct of inheritance is different from that of gifts received from someone still alive. Yet Isaac and Ishmael both receive material wealth from their father.
Abraham learned an interesting lesson from G!d about holding two truths simultaneously. Your words can satisfy the expectations of the received tradition without actually privileging one person or group over another.
On the one hand, this parshah begins to establish the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the line of our Israelite nation. On the other hand, G!d hears and responds to Ishmael's cries in the wilderness. Isaac and Ishmael, once forcibly estranged, come together as brothers to bury their father. In the end, Isaac and Ishmael must both be seen as children of G!d. (Return to top.)
The parsha Chayei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and introduces Rebecca. I see Rebecca's story as the next Lech Lecha in Genesis. However, God does not tell her to leave her homeland as God told Abraham, nor does her employer tell her to leave her home as Abraham told Hagar. Instead, Rebecca's mother and brother try to keep her home longer and Rebecca chooses to leave with Abraham's servant Eliezer right away in order to marry Isaac whom she does not know. It reminds me of Abraham going into the wilderness to find a place God would show him. Rebecca is introduced with a demonstration of her kindness, not a general statement of her goodness. Is this an ancient hint that women have to do twice as much for half the recognition? Rebecca is a person of independence and action and is able to make tough decisions. Traditional rabbis considered Isaac the weakest of the patriarchs, but perhaps that is because he had the strongest and most pro-active wife. (Return to top.)
When I read this section of Torah I was remind of how we sometimes get so tied into what we want that we never really open our eyes to the reality of a situation. Within a very short time frame everyone in this story knows that a deception has occurred. How often do we find ourselves in a place where we are surprised by peoples responses when we could have easily predicted it had we simply opened our eyes and looked around. (Return to top.)
In Genesis 31: 1-24, Jacob decides to flee after laboring 20 years under difficult and ever-changing terms imposed by Laban. Recall that Jacob labored for seven years so that he could marry Rachel. Then, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, so Jacob had to labor another seven years to finally marry Rachel. Jacob then labored another six years for the flock, during which Laban changed his wages time and again.
What does it take to finally trigger the decision to extract ourselves from a difficult situation such as a toxic job or bad relationship? For Jacob it was easy -- Then the LORD told Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you”.
Interestingly, when Jacob confers with Leah and Rachel, he doesn’t use the “God told me to go” as the rationale for his decision. Instead he recounts how he worked hard and dealt with Laban in good faith despite Laban’s trickery. As if to underscore the uncertainty of the decision, Jacob tells his wives that he had a dream where it was revealed that God was aware of Laban’s deceptions and had intervened to make Jacob wealthy. Rachel and Leah told Jacob they supported his decision and acknowledged they were unlikely to realize an inheritance from Laban which may have been a concern.
In order to extract ourselves from challenging situations, perhaps we need not only respond to our inner intuition (our God voice?) but we also need to hear ourselves explain our rationale to those close to us and get their assessment of associated impacts. In that way we become more comfortable with our decision. While there will always be uncertainty, we move forward with hope that acting in good faith will be reciprocated. (Return to top.)
This week’s Torah section which includes a description of Isaac’s death and an accounting of Jacob’s children and the coming holiday season bring up how important to our identities throughout our lives it is to be part of a family (as well as a community). This time of year, we may feel grateful to have our parents, siblings and children gathered around us for the holidays. We might also feel stressed by high expectations, eagerness to connect and worries about people getting along with one another. It’s also a time when we tend to keenly miss those family members who are no longer with us or those who are far away and cannot join us. Being with family can also bring up painful experiences such as old inequities and competitions long gone. May we all remember to bring mindful compassion with us as we navigate our family (and community) interactions. And may we lovingly reflect on both our losses and the ways in which we are fortunate. (Return to top.)
One might say that this week’s portion is the culmination of the book of Genesis. After creating the world, God checks out. It does not go well. There is fratricide, rebellion, violence, and depravity. God figures out that there needs to be a relationship with the inhabitants of the earth. So God makes friends with one guy: Abraham. In the next generation, God picks one brother and makes friends with him: Isaac. In the next generation, God picks one of Isaac’s two sons: Jacob, aka Israel. In the next generation, it looks like it’s going to go the same way: Joseph is the favorite of his father, and of God. But then, in the first sentence of our portion, “Va-yigash Y’hudah - Judah approached” his brother Joseph. What follows is a reconciliation of brothers that results in a new concept: all the “children of Israel/Jacob” are going to be part of the covenant with God. Now the stage is set for the book of Exodus, in which the Children of Israel will grow from a family to a nation. (Return to top.)
Jacob came to Egypt as a group of 70 persons, a notably “small group”. The initial reason was due to famine in Canaan and the finding that Joseph was alive and living in Egypt where thanks to his foresight, food was stored and available during this famine. Had there not been a famine, had Joseph not had the premonition and become a prominent member of Pharaoh’s court, the move may never have occurred.
It would seem as if Jacob found himself in some fortuitous circumstances. Beneath that surface, one has to see it in the context of initially living a life where to the best of his knowledge, his eldest son, Joseph, was no longer alive. He is also a refugee from his land, which has become inhospitable, arriving by caravan while being welcomed and greeted with open arms.
People moving away from their homeland frequently do it out of necessity. Economic prosperity, greater personal opportunities or opportunities for dependents, the need to feel safe and free from persecution. The assumptions are frequently made that such migrations are done without remorse, without a sense of nostalgia and with a strong sense of good riddance. But from personal experience, and from shared experience of other migrants, even from some quite oppressive conditions, there is a longing for home if one defines it as a place of origin. Indeed for immigrants who call their adopted countries home, they are frequently jeered at to go home. For them, the place of origin is home but they are also adapting to their new home. It is a complex and conflicting relationship they have. Some assimilate successfully; some remain isolated and seclude themselves with a tightknit community that leaves little exposure and adaptability to their new home. They never feel connected, they never feel at home.
Jacob requested to return and be buried with his family and loved ones in Canaan, his place of origin, and his home. For him, as is true for so many millions of people, home was defined by the circumstances he was in. In Egypt, where his people can be safe and prosper, it was home. At his death, home became his place of origin. Neither is paramount to the other or necessarily takes precedence. It is conditional and situational. Like for so many of us that migrate from country to country, city to city, school to school, job to job, thriving and succeeding are predicated on being able to appreciate the portability of what is home and adapt to where we are at the moment without ever forgetting where we came from. (Return to top.)
In this parsha, Zipporah, her husband Moses and their family are following G-d’s command and journeying to Egypt, where Moses is instructed to demand that Pharoah release the Israelites. Even before the hardships of the conflict with Pharaoh, there was some trouble along the way for Moses and his family. During their journey, G-d sought to kill either Moses or one of his sons. (The pronouns that are used in the parsha leave G-d's intended victim up for interpretation.) Moses’ wife Zipporah, aware that her firstborn son had not been circumcised, took matters into her own hands and hastily performed the act, using the only available instrument- a sharp rock. This act appeased G-d.
Zipporah intuited that the motivation behind G-d's murderous intent was to show that His covenant of circumcision with the Israelites was NON-optional. Zipporah trusted her judgment and acted upon her own counsel, which may be considered extraordinary, given the extremity of the circumstances. Zipporah and Moses set a brave example in which they had to be cruel to be kind. G-d as a parent to Moshe and Zipporah makes them do something that is difficult, that they are not sure is the right answer, and that will make themselves and their sons temporarily very unhappy. Why? It seems that G-d likes backing people up against a wall to test their mettle. Does it over and over again. Not the easiest parent to deal with. But also because we have to trust that G-d is wiser and has our best interests at heart, despite our own misgivings. Similarly, as our own children get older, we sometimes have to act in ways that run counter to our nurturing instincts in order to best prepare them for their eventual independence, even if it means allowing them to experience harsh, even preventable, consequences.
With any luck, our life encounters will not necessitate us having to grab the nearest sharp rock in order to perform an ad hoc circumcision on a grown child! Yet, may we have the wisdom and strength to meet the challenges that arise as we face the uncertainty and discomfort of actively encouraging our own children’s emancipation from the protective shelter of our homes and influence. (Return to top.)
If we think about the plagues as a whole the narrative has three overarching themes: increasing intensity from first to last, spreading out to include the entire land and death in every family, and the powerlessness of the Pharaoh. The sixth plague (boils) shows this same pattern: (1) it affects every human and beast (more intense than previous plagues), (2) it spreads to strike the Egyptians, (3) the powerlessness of Pharaoh.
For the first time in the story God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12) - an extraordinary statement! The ruler of the strongest country in the civilized world, a god to his subjects, is a tool in God’s hand. But even as Pharaoh is powerless to change, other Egyptians are persuaded as the plagues progress -- the magicians, some of the courtiers, and finally, after the tenth plague, all of the courtiers and all of the people.
There are at least three audiences of the contest between God and Pharaoh: First are the courtiers and people of Egypt who tell the Israelites to go, and even finance their journey! Second are the Israelites, who are still unfamiliar with El Shaddai, the mountain god from somewhere in the Sinai who, under a new name, is sending Moses and Aaron and them from slavery, and who can stand up and overcome the Egyptian deities. The third audience, outside the story, is perhaps the most important. It includes the Israelites of the southern and northern Kingdoms who told the story of the Exodus every year at Passover. It includes the Jews of the Diaspora who wrote the story down in the Torah. And finally it includes the Christians and Muslims around the world who, along with the Jews, read and reread the story as their own. The exodus story can be thus understood as the introduction of ethical monotheism to the world stage. (Return to top.)
This week’s Torah reading describes the final plague of the ten plagues - the killing of the firstborn - and Israel’s subsequent rapid Exodus from Egypt. Many in history have puzzled around the seeming unfairness of this plague (and the plagues in general); it seems like collective punishment as a response to Pharaoh’s stubbornness. I’m not sure that I have a good answer to this issue, but I did hear a quote on a radio show the other day that said "Jews may not believe in God but reserve the right to be mad at God.” While we may not ever know the full reason why about the ten plagues, we do know that innocents today are constantly affected by violence and natural disasters that plague our world. May we use some of our anger - at God or at the world - to motivate us to act for peace, healing, and restoration and not become stuck in cynicism. (Return to top.)