Toldot & Thanksgiving

by Alison C. Brown, Executive Director

Fear not, while it currently feels as though some of our world leaders have purposefully severed our ancestral roots, I suspect every generation feels that way.

Parashah Toldot is a Jewish narrative about our ancestral roots and serves as another installment in the guide to being fully human. Together with the many Jewish texts redacted and commented upon over the millennia, there is no misconstruing the values that bind us.

Our ancestors live within us. We connect with and build upon the consciousness of previous generations. To borrow an image from science, we need only connect to the stardust of which we are all made. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught a general principle that wherever we go, we go to our roots. Pull the camera out to include contemporary times: we may move or change jobs, but our roots accompany us. To access our roots for decision making we need b’hirut hasaichel, clarity of reason. Through prayer, meditation and mindfully being in the present moment we experience an unchanging awareness and clarity of reason that is divine. We can practice and learn to experience rehovot, spaciousness. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that, “The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.”

Not to get off topic, but the Buddhists are right, life is suffering. The human story includes dark depths. Some of them stem from severed roots. We find our way back through the breath and faith. In Psalms 150, verse 6, our ancestors teach, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer adds, “The action of breathing in and breathing out indicates the continuous Presence of God in our life.” In the Jewish narrative darkness is balanced by the light. Hallelujah!

In the ancestral narrative of Toldot, “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water.” The well symbolizes, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, “the great well of personality and being that beckons us to access what we might learn from its depths.” My well of being is sometimes muddy. I feel weighed down by tons of earth. I have so many things I want to do and need to do. When I move the stone to access the living waters I am distracted by thoughts of list-making and judgement. To escape this suffering of my own making, I must begin my day practicing rehovot, spaciousness. A well of clear living waters can later reveal b’hirut hasaichel if we make time to intentionally be in the present. In the flowing, the breath and the stardust we coexist with our ancestors and the divine.

Our ancestral roots offer fundamental beliefs to guide our behavior. Judaism also invites us to question these beliefs. “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt”, wrote renowned therapist Dr. Rollo May. “To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis. Truth is thus a never-dying process.” When we live or legislate with severed roots, truth dies. James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In my interpretation, consciousness is forever evolving within each of us and the smithy of my soul coexists with my ancestors and the Divine. Welcome, O life!

In 2017, we encounter the ancestors of Toldot just before Thanksgiving. This American holiday makes me think of the Amidah. During the Amidah, we bow before and after Avot, the blessing of the Patriarchs, and before and after the berachah of Hoda’ah, a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Rav Kook wrote that bowing our head, “signals an attitude of deference and humility.” In bowing, as in breathing, we acknowledge and give thanks to God and our ancestors.

And let us together pray privately:

Talmud Berakhot 17a

By Lawrence Kushner (translator)

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.

Mindful Remembering

Shelach Lecha

By Student Rabbi Dr. Roberta Glick

The Torah portion this week begins with the story of the spies. It ends with the third paragraph of the Shema, perhaps our most well-known prayer. It is this paragraph I am going to focus on because I believe it frames the essence of Judaism: zakar – mindful remembering. This drash was inspired by several teachers, especially Jordan Bendat-Appell. But first as a lead into the third paragraph, I want to say a few words about the first and second paragraphs.

The first paragraph of the shema speaks to us as individuals. It’s an intimate love story. Abraham Joshua Heschel says words of prayer are a commitment. This paragraph is also an important reminder for right speech and right thought. S’fat Emet (a Hasidic master) says it is written that “we should speak of “them”, and not idle talk. To me this means, we must think and speak of ‘these’ words, words of Torah, words of lovingkindness, gratitude, justice, compassion chesed and emet. And not ‘those’ words, especially today: words of politics, fear, gossip, and intolerance. This is not Torah. I’m trying to stay in a G-d consciousness in a crazy world.

Regarding the second paragraph, as Jonathan Sacks says, it’s about us as a people, accepting the covenant and commandments. And I read it as an awareness that our actions have consequences. “If” we don’t treat each other, and the earth with kindness respect, with words and actions of Torah, “then” indeed the world and all humankind will be destroyed — by us. One of my teachers Norm Fischer says: “the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other,” and I add, the earth.

Now let’s focus on the third paragraph. Why is this one so important: it’s about reminders and memory: zakar.   From Norm Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion, he says that perhaps we are not always as loving and compassionate as we want to be. We are too busy, we are worried about family and health and jobs, and/or anxieties of the real world. We feel overwhelmed at times. He suggests that we have to train our hearts and minds to be more open, more kind, more compassionate, just as we train our bodies at the gym. We can do this by meditation, and other practices, and by right intention, kavanah: mindfulness.

For me, meditation is one of the tools in the tool box of improving my life as a human being. Other tools may include yoga, tai chi, prayer, music, art, and poetry. Each are unique.

Meditation consists of techniques for training your mind, just as you go to the gym to train your body, you train by focusing the mind, calming the mind, mastering your thoughts, creating a sense of spaciousness and expansiveness of mind. These qualities enable you to see more clearly, to be more awake and aware in your present experience, to be able to hold and observe your thoughts and feelings, and opening your heart and mind. These qualities of mind don’t result in your being a ‘great meditator’, but in your being able to respond to, not react to, life and the world as it presents itself with emet and chesed. These qualities result in your responding more rationally, and with more kindness, compassion, connection and gratitude to others and ourselves. Jeff Roth offers a snow globe analogy: when you shake it, you cannot see what is there because of the snow flakes. These are your thoughts flying all over the place. But once they settle you can see more clearly — life as it really is. That’s it. No magic or enlightenment, just practical stuff like being awake in the present moment. “Present moment. Wonderful moment” says Tichct Nhat Hahn a Buddhist master. And it’s Hineni in Judaism. And again, why do we need to train in compassion? Because the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other.

But we constantly need re-minders: to re-center, re-turn, (tsheuvah). In Christianity, there is the cross. In Buddhism, there is the bell and the mantra: “when I hear the sound of the bell, I return to my true self”. In Judaism, some of our reminders are mezuzah (first paragraph) and Tzitzit (third paragraph) of the shema.

Talmud Bavli, Menachot 43b tells us, “Look at it and be aware, and observe them.” Looking leads to awareness, awareness leads to doing. This is the essence of Jewish mindfulness, zakar, memory. Mindful remembering which is the opposite of forgetfulness and we find it in the third paragraph of the Shema, Numbers 15:37-41. As you read it, Focus on the words raitam, zacartam, and asitam: You shall see them, and remember them, and do them. Words, thoughts and actions of Torah: Commandments. All leading to a good life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

37 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: לזוַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
38 Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. לחדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹֽרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת:
that they shall make for themselves fringes: Heb. צִיצִת, [so named] because of the threads suspended from it, as in,“he took me by a lock of (בְּצִיצִת) my hair (lit., by the fringes of my head)” (Ezek. 8:3) (Men. 42a). Another interpretation: [It is called] צִיצִת because of the [command], “you shall see it” (verse 39), as in,“peering (מֵצִיץ) from the lattices” (Song 2:9). ועשו להם ציצת: על שם הפתילים התלוים בה, כמו (יחזקאל ח, ג) ויקחני בציצית ראשי. דבר אחר ציצית על שם וראיתם אותו, כמו (שה”ש ב, ט) מציץ מן החרכים:
blue: The green-blue dye obtained from the chillazon [See Aruch Hashalem under חִלָּזוֹן, Yehudah Feliks, Nature & Man in the Bible (New York: Soncino Press, 1981, pp. 18-20]. תכלת: צבע ירוק של חלזון:
39This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. לטוְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֘ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת יְהֹוָ֔ה וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם:
you will remember all the commandments of the Lord: because the numerical value of the word צִיצִית is six hundred (צ = 90, י = 10, צ = 90, י = 10, ת = 400). [Add to this the] eight threads and five knots, and we have [a total of] six hundred and thirteen [the number of commandments in the Torah]. – [Num. Rabbah 18:21] וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’: שמנין גימטריא של ציצית שש מאות, ושמונה חוטים וחמשה קשרים הרי תרי”ג:
and you shall not wander after your hearts: Heb. וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ, like“from scouting (מִּתּוּר) the Land” (13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression. – [Mid. Tanchuma 15] ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם: כמו (לעיל יג כה) מתור הארץ. הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף ומסרסרים לו את העבירות, העין רואה והלב חומד והגוף עושה את העבירות:
40So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. מלְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְו‍ֹתָ֑י וִֽהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
41I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God. מאאֲנִ֞י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִֽהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
I am the Lord: Faithful to pay reward. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אני ה’: נאמן לשלם שכר:
your God: Faithful to exact punishment. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אלהיכם: נאמן ליפרע:
Who took you out: I redeemed you on condition you accept My decrees upon yourselves. – [Sifrei Shelach 73] אשר הוצאתי אתכם: על מנת כן פדיתי אתכם שתקבלו עליכם גזרותי:
I am the Lord, your God: Why is this repeated? So that the Israelites should not say, “Why did the Omnipresent say this? Was it not so that we should perform [the commandments] and receive reward? We will not perform [them] and not receive reward!” [Therefore, God says,] “I am your King, even against your will.” Similarly, it says, “[As I live, says the Lord God,] surely with a strong hand…will I reign over you” (Ezek. 20:33). Another interpretation: Why is the exodus from Egypt mentioned? It was I who distinguished between the drop [of sperm] of a firstborn and of that which was not of a firstborn. So in future will I distinguish and punish those who attach indigo-dyed [fringes, which is extracted from a vegetable] to their garments, claiming that it is sky-blue [dye extracted from the chillazon]. – [B.M. 61b] From the commentary of R. Moshe Hadarshan [the preacher] I transcribed [the following:] Why is the passage of the wood gatherer juxtaposed with the passage addressing idolatry? To inform [you] that one who desecrates the Sabbath is regarded as one who worships idols, for it [namely the Sabbath] too [just like the prohibition against idolatry] is as important as [the sum of] all the commandments. So Scripture says in Ezra (Neh. 9:13-14, which is strictly part of Ezra. See Rashi on Neh. 1:1), “You descended upon Mount Sinai… and you gave Your people the Law and the commandments (sic). And Your holy Sabbath You made known to them.” Likewise, the passage of fringes; why is it juxtaposed with these two [passages]? Since it too is equally important as [the sum of] all the commandments, as it states, “and perform all My commandments.” אני ה’ אלהיכם: עוד למה נאמר, כדי שלא יאמרו ישראל מפני מה אמר המקום, לא שנעשה ונטול שכר, אנו לא עושים ולא נוטלים שכר, על כרחכם אני מלככם. וכן הוא אומר (יחזקאל כ, לג) אם לא ביד חזקה וגו’ אמלוך עליכם. דבר אחר למה נאמר יציאת מצרים, אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לשאינה של בכור, אני הוא עתיד להבחין ולהפרע מן התולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא. ומיסודו של רבי משה הדרשן העתקתי למה נסמכה פרשת מקושש לפרשת עבודה זרה, לומר שהמחלל את השבת כעובד עבודה זרה, שאף היא שקולה ככל המצות, וכן הוא אומר בעזרא (נחמי’ ט, יג – טו) ועל הר סיני ירדת ותתן לעמך תורה ומצות ואת שבת קדשך הודעת להם, ואף פרשת ציצית לכך נסמכה לאלו לפי שאף היא שקולה כנגד כל המצות, שנאמר ועשיתם את כל מצותי:
on the corners of their garments: Corresponding to [the verse said in connection with the exodus from Egypt]“I carried you on the wings (כַּנְפֵי) of eagles” (Exod. 19:4). On the four corners, but not on a garment of three or five [corners]. [This] corresponds to the four expressions of redemption that were said in Egypt:“I will take you out…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you” (Exod. 6:6-7). – [Mid. Aggadah] על כנפי בגדיהם: כנגד (שמות יט, ד) ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים. על ארבע כנפות ולא בעלת שלש ולא בעלת חמש, כנגד ארבע לשונות של גאולה שנאמר במצרים (שמות ו, ו – ז) והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי:
a thread of sky-blue [wool]: Heb. פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, so called because of the bereavement [suffered by the Egyptians] over the loss of their firstborn. The Aramaic translation of שִׁכּוּל, bereavement, is תִּכְלָא [a word similar to תְּכֵלֶת]. Moreover, the plague struck them at night, and the color of תְּכֵלֶת is similar to the color of the sky, which blackens at dusk; its eight threads symbolize the eight days that Israel waited from when they left Egypt until they sang the song at the [Red] Sea. – [Mid. Aggadah] פתיל תכלת: על שם שכול בכורות. תרגומו של שכול תכלא. ומכתם היתה בלילה וכן צבע התכלת דומה לצבע רקיע המשחיר לעת ערב. ושמונה חוטים שבה, כנגד שמונה ימים ששהו ישראל משיצאו ממצרים עד שאמרו שירה על הים:

 

Be Mindful of Miracles – They Are Accessible in Every Time and Every Place and by Every Person!

By Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

The great Hassidic rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that the miracles that happen in the Torah did not happen only once in time and space. He states that Hashem’s miracles are accessible to be experienced in every time and every place and by every person.

I believe we need just to be open and aware that a Biblical miracle is not unique to the Bible in time and space, but it can happen with the same power today as it happened in Biblical times. All we need to do is to be mindful of where we are and what we see, and how we respond.

There is a wonderful meditative practice that is connected to mindfulness. This is called “Gazing.”  Gazing teaches that all things are inseparably connected, and we are never alone.  We are never separate from God.  When we think and feel this way, we enjoy an extraordinary spiritual experience known as Presence.  In physics, the idea of Presence is expressed in the theology of Energy. This means the entire universe is composed of the presence of Energy in various forms. Each cell in our body is a function of Energy. Every breath, every step, every movement, every relationship is an expression of Energy. We can’t separate ourselves from the source of Energy.

Imagine if we had miracle eyeglasses, that when worn, only allowed Energy to be seen. What we normally see as the specific miracle in the Bible could now, with these eyeglasses be seen as raw Energy.  And instead of seeing the Biblical miracle, we would put on these unique eyeglasses, and through a unique form of Gazing, we could be mindful of the Oneness of it all, and recognize that the fundaments element of the universe is love.

Imagine that a person who looks through the glasses recognizes that the glasses themselves are the same as what is being seen. It is all Energy. This is not too farfetched. Remember what Aristotle taught – God Is Thought Thinking Itself. And so, in our Torah, when we see a miracle, through mindful practice called Gazing, we can also recognize that we are all one.  Our Torah and its many miracles can be seen as appearing in a different form of Energy. Perhaps Rabbi Simcha Bunim is teaching there are miracles all around us, and they never clash because our Torah is not a historical narrative of our people, but a textbook of Spiritual Physics.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.