Vayera: The Care of Visitors

"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon
“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.

 

All of You: Netzavim

U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv, 9/3/2012

Today you are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your chieftains, your tribes, your leaders and your officers — all the men of Israel,  along with your little ones, your women and your resident aliens here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. – Deuteronomy 20:9-10

When Moses officiated at the solemn ceremony of the covenant between God and Israel described in Deuteronomy he began with this preamble. The verb netzavim has a special meaning that mere “standing” doesn’t fully convey. The people are officially present to make a sacred promise. The closest usage of “stand” in English is “to take a stand.” The People of Israel are not just hanging out; they are ritually and officially present to take action.

In case “all of you” might be mistaken for “just the guys,” Moses made it clear that he meant everyone from the heads of the clans to the lowest hanger-on. He makes it specific: all the men, plus children, women, and foreigners, including day laborers. This vow was not to be taken by proxy: no one “stood in” for anyone else.

In other words, everyone mattered. The covenant is both communal and personal, and no one is left out. There are no second-class Jews in the eyes of God.

 

On 9/11: Reflections on Amalek

9/11
U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! Deuterononmy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must remember: to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

What is Shabbat Nachamu?

"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael
“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.

Who was the Prophetess Huldah?

deuteronomy-scroll
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to do the right thing. He was aware that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, its ten tribes scattered to the four winds. Judah was smaller and weaker. The king believed its best hope for survival lay in its covenant with God.

So he ordered that his officials would audit the funds at the Temple, and then use them to put everything there into perfect order. It had fallen into serious disarray over the 300 years since his ancestor Solomon built it. Hilkiah, the High Priest, was in charge of the work.

Hilkiah found a scroll stashed away in the Temple. He read the scroll, and realized immediately that it might be important. He gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, who took to King Josiah and read it to him.

Josiah was horrified by what he heard in the scroll. He stood, and tore his clothing, and ordered Shaphan to take the scroll immediately to the prophetess Huldah to see if she thought it was genuine. If it was indeed the scroll of the law, the kingdom was in worse trouble than he had known. They were doing everything wrong. Shaphan and Hilkiah took it to her, and this is what she said:

This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’  Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.  Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.”

So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22: 15-20)

Scholars today believe that that scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah used it for a blueprint for his reforms, and the Kingdom of Judah survived for the rest of his reign. Unfortunately his heirs were not good kings. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried the best and the brightest of the people off to exile.
The Temples are long gone, but the Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, is with us to this day. When we read it, let’s remember Huldah: prophet, scholar, and advisor to a king.

Joshua and His Trees

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.