Va-neitzei, and We Left

On November 8th, we left home base as we each knew it. We left with a variety of feelings as Republicans and Democrats, just as Jacob left all that he knew in Be’er Sheva. Jacob was on the border of his future, just as we are today, fearfully or gleefully. Jacob was accompanied by angels. We are bombarded by social media and newscasts (they are, by the way distinct, if not mutually exclusive, sources of information) that agitates some and overwhelms others.

At the threshold between his past and future, Jacob fell asleep. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the angels found Jacob, “sleeping in the very place that was meant to awaken within him a higher awareness of his mission…” As you recall, Jacob’s social reality was very complicated. It feels to me as though our social reality is at best very complicated. There is no sleeping for any of us right now. As Jim Kenney, Executive Director of Common Ground in Deerfield, Illinois writes, “The time of evolutionary crossing – and choice – has, for better and for worse, arrived. Chaotic change and vanishing certainties have produced identity crises and challenges to existing power structures. Various forms of extremism, pseudo-populism, neo-nationalism, and demagoguery are clearly emerging. And, to be sure, they will make the crossing even more turbulent.”

Rebbe Nachman reminds us that we have the spiritual task of interacting with this world as potential possibilities that make up a whole. The whole precedes and contains all possibilities. The whole is God. Today we stand at a place that requires a higher awareness of our mission. Our mission is to participate in the writing of a new American story. Like the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, we need to anchor our new story in the old one. For 240 years, we Americans have agreed, for example, that all our countryman have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We all champion this story. In the telling of this our colonial story, our countryman were motivated by a myriad of blended needs, hopes and dreams.

Our new 21st century story continues to be about your family, my family and the blended breath of all American families. The blend of narrations is perhaps broader today and more faceted. This broader blend of needs, hopes and dreams brings with it greater innovation, greater strength and awareness. We live in a world where the “butterfly effect” is a harder truth than its lovely image suggests. If I only look out for myself, or my people, it will effect how the world (and indeed the earth) supports and welcomes me.

Following Jacob’s spiritual encounter bamakom, “he lifted up his feet” (Gen. 29:1). Rav Hirsch wrote, “Instead of saying ‘And he left’, it now says ‘Ya’akov lifted up his feet.’ A person is not led by his feet, the body does not lift the spirit; rather, the person lifts up his feet, the living soul in the person lifts and bears his body. With such an attitude, Ya’akov goes forth to meet his future.” So too, we go forth to meet our future, knowing that we are at an evolutionary crossing. Together, today we lift up our feet.

 

Speak Out Boldly and Strongly

From the Pen of Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

“Then God said to Noah:  leave the Ark…then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:15, 20)

The Sitrei Torah is a text that is part of the Zohar.  It asks how did Noah feel when he emerged from the Ark after the flood? And why does he offer sacrifices after he emerges from the Ark? Is he giving thanks that he has been saved? How did God respond to Noah when he had left the Ark, saw the world destroyed and began to cry?  Noah said, “Ruler of the Universe, You are called merciful.  Why were You not merciful to Your creatures?”

God responded, “Foolish shepherd!  Now you say this! Why didn’t you say this when I said to you, ‘For I have seen that you are righteous before me.’ (Genesis 7:1) Or again, when I said, ‘Look, I am bringing a flood of water.’ (Genesis 6:17)  Or when I said, ‘Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.’ (Genesis 6:14)  At any point I could have delayed and said to you, ‘I will refrain because you asked for mercy for the whole world.’  And as a result of this decision, the world could have been saved by your repentance, but it never occurred to you to ask for mercy for the entire world.  If you did so, I would have saved the world, but now that the world is destroyed, you complain and you weep.”

When Noah perceived this, he brought sacrifices and burnt offerings.  “Then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

In this passage, Noah’s anger is once again directed toward God. I often see anger directed toward God – for example, at God’s alleged indifference to the Holocaust. How could God allow such evil to occur? The answer is clear – why didn’t Noah take responsibility for his world.  That might have averted the catastrophe.  Why didn’t the nations of the world fight to admit Jews into their countries? Why didn’t we work harder to save our fellow Jews around the world? Noah’s anger and our anger is misplaced.  It should have been directed against himself and ourselves. The sacrifices Noah offers are intended to assuage the guilt he bears for his failures. The task of the righteous is not merely to pray or to yell at God, after things go wrong. It is our responsibility to do as Noah should have – to speak out boldly and strongly and to recognize that hundreds of thousands of people being displaced from their homes is highly immoral and cannot continue, with our indifference.  We are facing an ecological catastrophe, potentially every bit as dangerous as the flood Noah faces in the Torah. We would do well to bear this in mind.

 

The Midrashim of Our Mothers

I recently met with faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible.

In 2005, you completed your thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  What is midrash and what did you learn in your research that might inspire us to read midrashim?

The word midrash comes from the Hebrew root drash, which means to seek, study, and inquire.  Our midrashic literature seeks to help us understand the reasons behind the actions of our ancestors and in so doing brings them more fully to life for us.

I learned in my research that there are so many midrashim that can enrich our Jewish life, as well as help us relate to and connect with our heritage.  For example, many of the woman of Genesis are unnamed.  They are only referred to as eishet or “wife of”, but these women do have names and significant roles to play in our history.  Women, in a basic reading of the Torah, are often portrayed in a negative light.  The midrashim redeems them by examining the circumstances of their lives and why they did what they did.  A perfect example of this is Lot’s wife, whose name according to midrash is Eidit, meaning witness.  Eidit in the bible is portrayed as a woman whose curiosity leads to her ultimate demise because she did not obey, but instead turned back to see the destruction of the city.  This story is seen as a warning to women to do what they are told.  But through midrash we learn that the reason she looked back, was not out of curiosity, but out of motherly love.  She was searching for her two older daughters who remained in the city.

As you studied the women of the midrashim you were seeking ways to better understand and portray Genesis’ female characters to young readers.  What did you discover as you did your own translations of the Hebrew texts?

I discovered that these women were to be admired; that Eve, in particular, got bad press!  Through the midrash you realize that she was not entirely to blame for her actions in the garden.  One of my favorite midrashim regarding this says that God did not create Eve until Adam asked him to, because God knew that the first time something went wrong, Adam would blame him for creating the woman.  Which is exactly what Adam did, saying, “The woman you gave me….”

Another midrash portrays Adam as having no faith in Eve.  He told her not to touch the tree, but God never said that.  Adam thought saying that would keep her away from it, but ultimately that embellishment becomes a convincing lie for the snake, who used it to demonstrate for Eve that just as there is no dying from touching the tree, there is no dying from eating from it.  To illustrate his point, the snake pushed Eve into the tree.

If you look at the Hebrew in Genesis 3:6, when it talks about Eve giving Adam the fruit of the tree, it uses the word “she gave it to the man with her.”  Ayinmemhey with a dagesh in it.  The original Hebrew says that Adam was with Eve while the snake was deceiving her and thus Adam tacitly approved of her eating the fruit, as he did not stop her.  Most translations, by excluding the word “with her”, make it appear as though Adam came upon Eve eating the fruit and then he ate of it unknowingly, but Adam was with her the whole time.  According to most translations, Eve was responsible for the transgression, not the two of them together.

 

Navigating Life Via the Torah Teachings of Justice and Compassion

Sefer Assiyah, Hebrew Seminary’s e-newsletter recently included an interview with faculty member Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis.  We asked:

What Torah teaching can you share with us that might help us navigate life in America today?

Recently, when I was asked to speak at the 15,000 strong convention of Muslims in American, the question that was posed was: “what is it within your tradition that compels you to do interfaith work?” My speech included the following:

“As a professor at a rabbinical seminary, I teach that Judaism was not formed in isolation from other religions and cultures. For centuries, Judaism’s most influential scholars were Arab Jews. Most famously, nine hundred years ago, Moussa Ibn Maimoun, known as Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi since Moses our Teacher, studied Greek philosophy – Aristotle and Plato  – in their Arabic translation. Ibn Maimoun wrote his pre-eminent philosophical and religious works in Arabic.

“As far back as the Bible and throughout 3,000 years of Judaism, Jews have lived alongside other faiths and peoples. Judaism teaches how to be in the world that we share with so many other faiths.

“My Mother was born in Vienna, Austria not long before the Nazis came to power.  Quakers working with Jews brought her to England, thus escaping the Holocaust. Some 9,000 other young Jews and more were saved in this manner.  I would not be here today if not for this blessed collaboration between Christians and Jews. That is interfaith in action.”

“For much of our history, Jews were a “minority”. A minority in numbers of course, but more importantly a minority with regard to our legal rights.  The Bible teaches us: “remember that you were once slaves.”  Therefore, we must seek justice for other and treat others with compassion. We are called to stand in solidarity with others.”

About Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis

Michael Davis was born in England, received his Judaic training in yeshivot Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trained with Hazzan Naftali Herstick of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and received his cantorial ordination from Hebrew Union College.  Michael joined the Hebrew Seminary faculty in 2009.