“The Place That I Will Show You”

Image: Arial view of the Temple Mount in 2007. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons)

Parashat Vayera is dense with rich narrative.  The portion is packed with famous stories: Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s laughter, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s Wife, the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. We may think we know the stories, but every year there is something to surprise us.

One item caught my eye this year. After Abraham “lifts up his eyes” at the behest of the heavenly voice, he names the place Adonai yireh, “God will see.” Rashi informs us that:

Its real meaning is as the Targum renders it: The Lord will choose and select for Himself this place to make His Shechinah reside in it and for sacrifices to be offered there.

At the beginning of the Abraham narrative, God tells Abraham to go to a place that God would show him. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, again, God says “Go to the place I will show you.” Then, when Abraham has finally reached that place, the high point of his story, literally the “high place” of the narrative, Abraham names the place  “God will see.” This marks the centrality of this spot for Abraham’s descendants. This is the mount where the Temple will be built. This is the spot towards which we face for prayer even today.

God will show Abraham the place, then Abraham sees it.

Abraham lifts up his eyes, and “God will see.”

What does God show us, and what do we see?

Is our seeing entwined with God seeing?

Let’s see what our online darshanim have to say about Parashat Vayera:

Mother of Two – Rabbi Eve Posen

How Does God Appear in the World? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Rush of Resilience; Loving More than Yourself– Rabbi David Evon Markus

Harnessing Holiness – Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

The Story of Isaac, in memory of Leonard Cohen z”l – Rabbi Dan Fink

The Miracle of a Child – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Care of Visitors – Rabbi Ruth Adar

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Abraham & Sarah in the Court of Pharaoh

Image: “Sarai is taken to the court of Pharaoh” by James Tissot. Public Domain.

This week’s portion is Lech Lecha, and it is the beginning of Abraham’s story in the Tanakh.  It tells us many things about Abram, soon to be Abraham, some very impressive, some less admirable. The same man who bargained with God for the lives of people he didn’t even know, who was willing to go on a great adventure with God, was also the man who handed his wife Sarai over to be the concubine of Pharaoh because he was afraid.

We are none of us flawless, even Father Abraham. Each of us can recall things we’ve done that we hope no one ever finds out.

We don’t know what Abram said when Pharaoh rebuked him for lying about Sarai’s status; it isn’t recorded in the text. We don’t know how Sarai felt about this, or what if anything she said to Abram. We don’t know how Abram answered her, if she confronted him. All the text says is that Pharaoh assigned guards to march Abram and his household out of Egypt, and that they went north to the Negev.

While there are more famous stories in the text, I think this narrative is most evocative of our present moment. Women accuse famous, powerful men of treating women like property. One comes forward; she is ignored and reviled. More come forward – and if some of them are white and almost as famous as the man, perhaps we pay attention. Perhaps the press takes note. Perhaps (but rarely) law enforcement takes note. Then the famous man lashes back in a whine: Why are these terrible women after me? And in the end, while there may have been some intermediate consequences, he goes on being powerful and famous and the women disappear from the news.

Another example: there is apparently nothing more horrible anyone can do to a white American than to say that their behavior was racist. “What? Who me? I did nothing! You are playing the race card! You are the racist!” Defensiveness rises like a fog, and people take their usual sides in the matter. Nothing really happens.

We can change this conversation. We can change it by handling it differently when someone says to us, “That behavior was sexist” or “That behavior was racist.” Instead of defensiveness, a better reply would be “Tell me more, please.” If the behavior was a mistake, fix it: apologize and learn better. If it was deliberate, we can apologize and take our medicine.

I am white. I grew up in the United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. I was taught racist ideas and behavior and I will spend the rest of my life learning better. There is no shame in it, unless I refuse to learn better. I can, I must, listen to what people of color have to say to me. Racism in America will only get better when white people like me close our mouths and listen.

I am a woman. I was born in the United States in the 1950’s and I’m still around in the 2010’s. I live in a sexist environment, whatever other advantages I may have. I can give sexist people the benefit of the doubt, assume that they were taught that behavior, but I do not have to put up with it. I can complain, and they should listen to what I have to say. Not talk. Not defend. Not argue. Listen.

We don’t know what went on as Abram and Sarai left Egypt. Here is my fantasy, because we are talking about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, here:

Sarai: Abram, how could you use me that way? Are you my husband or my pimp?

Abram: Sarai, Pharaoh might have killed us!

Sarai: (Glares silently at him)

Abram: Sarai, I was scared.

Sarai: How do you think I felt?

Abram: (Sighs. Swallows.) Why don’t you tell me how you felt?

And then he listened.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. It contains two famous stories: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. It might be tempting to think, “Oh, I know those!” and skip right over, but it would be a mistake.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: after weeks of weird weather, hurricanes, and wildfires, it seems eerily close.

We have seen the great city of Houston underwater. We have seen what wind and water will do to little islands in the path of a storm. Several counties here in California were consumed by firestorm; entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, CA are simply gone.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

Noah, the raven, and the dove – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

Rabbi 360 Podcast: Noach – Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Time to Break the Silence and Speak Out #metoo – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

 

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

End Violence and Stop Maelstrom Flooding – Rabbi Nina Mizrachi

And God Created Diversity, And God Saw That It Was Good! – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Nitzavim-Vayeilech

We are very close to the end of the Torah this week. Nitzavim-Vayeilech is one of the combined parshiot; it runs from Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30. You may notice, if you attend Shabbat morning services, that the hagbihah, the person who lifts the scroll for hagbah, is even more careful than usual because one tree of the scroll is extremely heavy while the other side is light. (For more about lifting and dressing the Torah, including a video, see Hagbah and Gelilah Explained from MyJewishLearning.com.)

Moses has only a few more things to tell his people. He begins Nitzavim (“You are standing,” using a special word for standing) by speaking to all the people, specifying that he is talking to the men, women, children, strangers and servants. He even includes “those who are not standing here today” a mysterious phrase that will provide endless debate in future times. All will enter the covenant, which is a very solemn matter.

He foretells the exile from the Land: that at a future time, they will chase after false gods and they will be cast out of the Land of Israel. Then later their enemies will be cast low, and they will return to the Land. He ends with an admonition to “Choose life!” and a call to heaven and earth to witness his words.

Parashat Vayeilech is one of the shortest parashiot in the Torah, containing only 30 verses. Moses announces his age, which is 120, and gives Joshua his commission as the next leader of the people.

Here are some of the drashot on Nitzavim-Vayelech available online:

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper – The Value of Lip Service

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild – We are our own matzevah, a sign of a covenant we cannot fully understand

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs – The Best Possible Choice

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat – Returning in Love

Leah Houseman – Nitzavim-Vayelech

Maggidah Melissa Carpenter – Secret Idolatry

Rabbi Ruth Adar – Not Beyond Reac

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tavo

Image: An open Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

First fruits, blessings and curses – that’s a quick summary of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. It’s timely, coming as it does just before the High Holy Days, when we are asking ourselves:

  • What are the “first fruits” of my labor?
  • What do I share with the world and my community?
  • Which mitzvot do I keep?
  • Which mitzvot do I fail to keep?
  • What curses do I bring down upon myself and others by my behavior?

That last question isn’t very modern sounding at first blush, but it has modern implications. I do not expect a lightning bolt to strike every person on earth who does wrong. However, most mitzvot have consequences both for keeping them and for failing to keep them:

  • If I tell lies, I spread confusion in the world.
  • If I injure other people, they hurt.
  • If I fail to speak up for the underdog, the world will be a worse place.
  • If I do not pay my employees properly, they will go hungry.
  • If I use the environment carelessly, the world will be depleted and full of poison.

… and so on.

Mitzvot have consequences.

This week’s divrei Torah:

For Entering a New Phase of Life by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

An Appropriate Response to Trump’s Cruelty is Compassion by Rabbi John Rosove

Entering Israel and Entering Elul by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Maimonides on Conversion by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Two Minutes of Torah – Ki Tavo by Rabbi Eleanor Steinman [VIDEO]

You Are What You Wear, Part 2 by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

Ki Tavo Commentary by Leah Houseman

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to demand impossible acts.

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner. If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of discarded ticket stubs, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! Here are five divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

Whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behavior to others by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1 by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

Over Troubled Water by Rabbi Eve Posen

Getting Married is Half the Battle by Hannah Perlberger

Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression? by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Shabbat Shalom! – Shoftim

Image: Scales, law books, a gavel. (BillionPhotos/Shutterstock)

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim [“Judges”.] It is a fascinating portion because it describes an entire idealized societal structure for the Israelites. It also contains the oft-quoted line, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” [Justice, Justice you must pursue.”]

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild – Authority cannot be taken it must be given so stop the bullies and stand up for diversity in the Jewish world

Maggidah Melissa Carpenter – No Goddesses Allowed

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman – The Problem of Prayer

From the What’s P’shat? blog at Yeshiva University – Urban Planning

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs – Let’s Put the “Eye for an Eye” Verses to Bed Once and For All!

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat – Pursue Justice So That You May Truly Live

Rabbi Ruth Adar – Justice & Idolatry: What’s the Connection?