Sof Drash Archive

Vayera: Inquiry or Seeking

November 29, 2020

A Drash by Carolann Biederman

Woman walking into the desertMy drash is dedicated to the enthusiastic members of our Sof Book Group, who offer insights, inspiration, opinions, reflections and their personal stories, related to the discussion of the book at hand. Everyone has a voice and the space to express it. Together we’ve read 115 books, so far. The group, which I’m privileged to moderate, was founded in 2005, and it’s still going strong on Zoom. In another time, we would have a Shabbat book exchange during the oneg – but maybe next year. Thank you all and thank you to everyone who helped me prepare for the drash. It’s also Jewish Book Month sponsored by The Jewish Book Council. The Council is the longest-running organization devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature. Book Month is a reminder of the vast array of amazing stories waiting to be discovered. Our Book Group selections and, our “first book,” the Torah, offer readers meaningful themes, lessons, actions and their consequences. We are challenged to discover our own insights through words, situations, and choices of the characters.

Vayera וירא is the fourth chapter of Genesis. The title comes from ראה – (rah ah) to see. It’s one of the most dramatic, action-packed portions, and includes seven heavenly / human interactions. The main characters are:

  • The Lord, in direct dialogue with Abraham, and with other men and women through angels, dreams and visions.
  • The three heavenly messengers.
  • Abraham and Sarah, and later, Isaac.
  • Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family.
  • Assorted Kings of the fertile Jordan Plain.

Today’s reading, Genesis בראשית 19:1 – 20:18 is sandwiched between Sarah’s laughter regarding her motherhood, Abraham’s negotiations with the Lord and two Kings, the birth of Isaac, and the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. There is a LOT going on. This parashah reminds us of the Lord’s power to destroy what he’s created, and instructions about kindness to others, morality and immorality, using Abraham, Lot and the Sodomites as examples. My focus is on Lot and his family, to highlight hospitality and generosity as guiding principles – the mitzvah of welcoming strangers – within the Jewish mandate to repair the world. The theme is echoed in today’s haftarah. But I won’t ignore behaviors that led to the catastrophic destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the other cities of the plain.

Eilat Hills

Prior to this portion, Lot is portrayed in relation to his uncle Abraham. Lot has benefited from this relationship and grown wealthy, and his path parallel’s Abraham’s, but not completely, and with very different results. The word Lot לוֹט can be translated as “to wrap, to cover, to conceal,” which hints that his ability to see clearly is compromised. How does this square with what Lot sees in Genesis 13:10, Lekh L’kha? This earlier information reminds us of the lushness of the Jordan plain, the richness of the land, and the wealth and comfort in which Lot was thriving. “And Lot raised his eyes, and he saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was entirely watered; before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Zoar.” This passage helped me to visualize the depth of the destruction to come, which turned a land akin to Eden into one of barrenness and desolation. Let’s assume Lot learned by observing Abraham: which actions lead to a righteous life. Yet, when they go their separate ways, Lot chooses to move his tents closer to Sodom, on the plain, and then into a home in the city.

There is a physical and symbolic distancing between Lot and Abraham. Abraham has vision: his hospitality to the “men” (אנשים – anashim) starts the parashah. Abraham hears of the Lord’s plan for destruction, pleads the case for Sodom, and bargains down to spare it for the sake of ten righteous people. Lot has vision: he is able to see the “men,” though we see the word used as messengers/angels מלאכים – malachim who arrive at the gate in Sodom. He invites the “men” then strongly insists that they come to his home and rest. (And the text returns to (אנשים – anashim).

Eilat Hills in Mist

Lot’s mitzvah of offering hospitality to the strangers is mixed up with a confusing message that comes next, about sexual and moral practices. This is the situation: Genesis 19:5, “And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us and let us be intimate with them.” Is this the Sodomite custom of hospitality – gang rape? Lot offers his daughters as sexual substitutes, and the angels intervene and stun the Sodomites with blinding light. They offer Lot and his family a path to flee before the destruction begins. And yet… Lot’s sons-in-law and two married daughters like it just fine in Sodom. Lot hesitates, as do his wife and the two unmarried daughters. They must be taken by the hand to get them moving out of the city to safety.

This is the result: Genesis 19:29, “And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and He sent Lot out of the midst of the destruction when He overturned the cities in which Lot had dwelt.” Does this imply that instead of ten good men, there was only one good man – Lot? Or is Lot saved only because of his relationship with Abraham? There is certainly harsh judgment for Lot’s nameless wife who pauses to look back. Instead, can we see her showing compassion for those left behind, longing for her family, friends, and the life she’s leaving? Thinking about Genesis 19:33-38, how about the nameless daughters, sole survivors in a cave with Lot, who connive to have sex with their father to continue their own line – that resulted in the birth of Moab (meaning “from father”) — “he is the father of the Moabites” and Ben-ammi (meaning, “son of my kin”) — “he is the father of the Ammonites.”

Judaean Desert

I have no answers and choose not to judge. On the surface, the Sodomites’ failings seem to be: initiating violent attacks on strangers, being eager and ready for their normal custom of gang rape, and expressing indignation that Lot, a new resident but now shunned as a stranger, attempts to impose his morals on their behavior. There’s another insight, revealed later in Ezekiel 16:49, “Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” What stays with me is the practice of hospitality and kindness to strangers, the poor, and needy, with Abraham as an exemplary role model.

These stories are frequently repeated in the Torah. From the mistakes of the people of Sodom, we can learn the essential character traits that allow one to live in balance with the Creator and creation. What’s the takeaway? Lot is portrayed as both a solid citizen and a flawed human being. Every day, like Abraham and Sarah and Lot, we are faced with myriad choices and make decisions; do we see clearly how to live a good life and come closer to Ha Shem; or do we slip, shift, stumble, fall — and then, try again. I’m inspired to strive every day to find balance and draw closer to Ha Shem with joyful gratitude for the gift of life. Wishing the same for you.

A Biological Perspective on Parshat Noah

November 3, 2020

By David Haymer

The story of the flood and its aftermath in Parshah Noah represents, in many respects, another creation event. The flood wiped out much of the life existing at that time. From a biological perspective, this was a mass extinction event, and we know that such events have occurred in history. Millions of years ago, for example, the Permian extinction wiped out most of the life on earth. Each of these events is, however, always followed by a flourishing of new life. This too is reflected In Parshat Noah in that immediately after the flood, God again tells us to be “fruitful and multiply”, and that there will animals, birds and fish on the earth. For us in particular, this commandment is fulfilled through a lineage from Noah’s son Shem that goes all the way to Terah, the father of Abram (later Abraham). Finally, in what first may seem like an interruption, we are also told here, through the Tower of Babel story, how our lineages will spread throughout the world into new habitats created by the subsiding of the flood.

Another of the important biological lessons to be gleaned from the Noah story is that we can prepare for mass extinction events by preserving either whole individuals, or at least material from them, in order to reestablish life after an environmental catastrophe. Noah did this by building an ark to bring his wife, their sons, and their sons’ wives, along with males and females of other living things to repopulate the world. For animals, Noah was told specifically to bring one pair of the “unclean” animals and seven pairs of the “clean” animals (Genesis 7:2) to help maintain a diverse collection of living things in the world to come. In part because of this description, Noah’s ark has been thought of as something akin to a zoo. But this analogy is weak in that zoos are primarily designed to exhibit animals, and they have had only limited success in saving or replenishing forms of living things threatened by extinction. Perhaps a better way to think of this part of the Noah story is that it inspired us to create modern versions of the ark in the form of repositories designed to preserve the “germplasm” or genetic material of different organisms. Such germplasm repositories have been built around the world. They store frozen sperm, eggs, cells, and whole embryos of different living things with the idea that in the event of environmental catastrophes, this material can be used to reestablish these forms of life for the future.

The rainbow is another important element of the flood story. A rainbow is a beautiful thing to behold, and it is described as the promise of God that such a catastrophic flood will not occur again.  But the rainbow also contains material for biological lessons. What do you need to form a rainbow?  At a minimum it requires light and water, both of which are essential for life. The water comes in the form of rain. This is important because although vast oceans on our planet may be the crucible where life began, its waters must be cleansed through rain cycles to provide for our continued sustenance. The other essential ingredient, the light, comes from the sun. This light warms the earth and drives photosynthesis, the biological process that is the basis for most of the food chains on our planet. Finally, when we look up and see a rainbow, we also see projected in the sky an incredible spectrum of colors contained within the sunlight. This effect is produced by filtering the sunlight through rainwater droplets in the same way that a prism separates visible light into different wavelengths. Many of the diverse plants and other living things we have on our planet utilize these differing wavelengths of sunlight to maximize photosynthesis. In these ways, the rainbow can also serve as a reminder that we will continue to have what is needed for life to flourish.


November 3, 2020

A drash by Robert J. Littman

Torah scroll with yad

This week we begin again the annual reading of the Five Books of Moses in synagogues the world over with Bereshit. We hear about the creation of the earth, sky, and land, the creation of man and woman and the Garden of Eden and the expulsion from it. The Hebrew Bible stands as a history of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham. The Five Books of Moses tells us the story of Abraham from the middle of the second millennium BCE, down to the death of Moses in the 13th century BCE. It is more than a narrative history; it is a sacred history–sacred in that it is story of the encounter of our ancestors with God, and their interaction with Him. It is also a tribal history. The ancient Israelites organized themselves into patrilineal kinship groups. They divided their societies into tribes and clans. Membership in those groups was measured from a common male ancestor. The Five Books of Moses tells the history of those kinship groups. Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac Jacob and Jacob 12 sons. Those children became the eponymous founders of the 12 tribes of Israel. All Israelites knew what tribe they belonged to and so all Israelites could trace their origins back to Abraham. Patrilineal kinship groups also take in new members. From whom do these new people descend? We get a clue when we give a Hebrew name to a convert to Judaism. The convert chooses a Jewish name, which exists in the form , ___son (daughter) of _____. Since there is no Jewish father, all converts become the son (daughter) of Abraham avenu-“Abraham our father” and are adopted into the lineage so that they have the honored place of being direct descendants of Abraham.

We as human beings are curious and want to know our origins-and so we want to know from whom Abraham is descended. So the first section of Genesis is added to this genealogical sacred history. Abraham’s patrilineal ancestors are traced back to the first man, Adam. God created Adam, and then Eve from Adam’s rib. Thence the male descendants of Adam are listed, generation to generation, down to Noah. After Noah and the flood, the descendants of Noah are listed down to Abraham. Thus it is a simple exercise create a family tree through the male from Abraham back to Adam. Since we as Jews can trace our descent from Abraham, we too now can trace our descent all the way back to the first man. When I was a young schoolboy and began the studies of other non-Western cultures, I learned their origin stories were not set in the Middle East. Polynesians see the origin of man in Polynesia, not somewhere at the opposite side of the world. We know from science that man originated in Africa, not in the Middle East. Then how can we regard the origin myths of the Garden of Eden, which Genesis locates in present day Iraq, bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers? Once we understand that our ancestors were Semites, who originated in the Near East, the answer becomes clear–that is the only part of the world that they knew.

The text of Genesis itself says Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees (an anachronism since Chaldees did not exist at the time of Abraham). “Ur” is a Babylonian word for “City.” Many Babylonian cities bear the name of Ur. Abraham came from one of these, perhaps in Syria or in Babylon. The origin stories are permeated with Babylonian culture and religion. Babylonian religion was polytheistic. Early Israelite religion was henotheistic – the belief that there was one god for the Israelites. The religion becomes monotheistic in the first millennium BCE. In incorporating Babylonian polytheistic beliefs into the creation stories, the polytheistic elements were removed. Genesis calls Eve “the Mother of All Living Things.” Her name itself means “life.” Eve looks like a demoted mother goddess. Mother goddesses in Babylon and the Near East were also often depicted with a serpent consort or aid. Thus the Babylonian images are clearly present.

The Garden of Eden becomes a story of the creation of human consciousness – the woman/mother goddess Eve makes an insentient race into “mankind” by giving him knowledge. But man cannot both possess immortality and knowledge because he would be god. So God, to prevent other gods, takes away man’s immortality by expelling him from the Garden. The allegorical nature of the story also can be seen in the name of Adam. Sometimes he is called “Adam” and sometimes “The Adam.” Clearly Adam stands for more than just a name. Perhaps we should translate his name as “Earthling” to capture the Hebrew “adamah” earth. So how do we as Jews today see the story of creation and Garden of Eden? Perhaps it is best to regard it as our ancestors’ attempt to understand the origins of man through their incomplete understanding of science and the universe. It is not a mistaken explanation, but rather an explanation filtered through their eyes at that time. New knowledge lets us react in new ways to the interaction of God and men in new language. Besides, our ancestors may have gotten some things right – we believe in the Big Bang, and they wrote “God said: Let there be light.”

Inviting the Presence: A Drasha for Rosh HaShanah 5781

October 2, 2020

By Reb Daniel Lev

The cover of the ZoharIn Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it says: “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us hear it, that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it? But the word is very close to you, it’s in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” If the word of G-d is so close, how come I can’t usually hear it or feel it? First, let me ask: Who or what is G-d?…..What a question!. I want to point to one way of understanding spirituality. Some of you know that we’ve had many Jewish views of what G-d is. Since I’m going to be talking about G-d, who is and is not a He or a She, I will avoid the binary by referring to G-d as both He and She, so don’t get confused – I also will at times refer to G-d by the traditional Hebrew name, HaShem – which means “the name. Let’s briefly look at how the Zohar, a powerful mystical commentary on the Torah, interprets the first line in Genesis. Traditionally, the first line is translated as: breisheet bara elohim, “in the beginning G-d created.”

The symbol of Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, is nested here in sacred geometry, the ancient Flower of Life matrix.

However, in creative rabbinic fashion, the Zohar reads this differently: “With beginning He created G-d.” I have to ask: “Who is the He that created G-d?” The word bara can mean “he created or it created.” The Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, would answer that it was the eyn sof who created G-d. Eyn Sof means the “Never-ending One,” referring to the Source of the Universe…a neutral name beyond words and images. To the mystics, this is what G-d is all about. Since this teaching from the Jewish mystical tradition – the Kabbala – calls into question our usual understandings of G-d I’ve had to consider another definition.


Here it is: HaShem, G-d, is our capacity to bring sacred Presence into the world, or at least to develop our awareness of the Presence. To illustrate this, I want to take an example from paganism. My blessed, departed teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (alav ve-shalom), told astory of about the great 19th-century Hindu saint, Ramakrishna. One day he was standing before a statue of the goddess Kali and he knew that he was only standing before a stone statue – the goddess was not there. Then Ramakrishna began to pray to Kali and open up his heart to her as the god-essence he wished to be close to – and in no time the statue filled with the spirit of Kali. Now I know that’s a hell-of-a thing for a Jewish rabbi on Rosh HaShanah to talk about! However, there is a deep truth in it.  From a Jewish spiritual perspective, one can say that HaShem is everywhere and in everything. But we are not always on the level to be aware of Her Presence that stands before us. For that to happen, we must invite HaShem to fill our life in each moment. As it says in Psalm 16:8, “Shviti HaShem lenegdi tamid,” “I will place HaShem before me always.” We must use our natural capacity to bring up into our awareness the sacred Presence. We can do this at home, or in nature, or even here in our service with a zoom screen in front of us, like we’re watching “Temple TV” or we just turned to the “Rosh HaShanah Channel.”

Even here we can bring our attention to focus on our intention that the Eyn Sof, the Infinite Presence is before us: Right here, right now. Like the Hindu saint, we can invite the Spirit of the Holy One into this prayer moment, filling everything with His presence. And, as Jews, we don’t need a statue to do that.

Recently I was very ill with a non-Covid flu. That didn’t make it any less miserable to endure the month it lasted. On the one hand, I could have just rolled around and felt sorry for myself, which I did on occasion, and then eventually it would be over and I’d say “glad that’s over” and “let me get back to life, damn it! “ On the other hand, being kind of a religious guy, I directed my prayer toward HaShem and invited Her to join me in the middle of my pain and suffering. In time, just like the statue of Kali filling with her spirit, my body started to fill with a feeling of The Presence of HaShem. I’m bringing this up today because we are all afflicted by the pandemic and its negative outcomes. It is hitting us in our kishkas – in our guts. So the question is: “How do we get through this?” What can we do beyond following all the safety measures? Well, speaking as a spiritual kind of guy I’d encourage all of us to take a chance and open ourselves to the Presence of HaShem – however you may think of her: maybe as a classic Deity, or Lover and Friend, or Nature, or the Eyn Sof, or the Force, or even as the fabled Cosmic Muffin. Invite Him in, however you conceive of Him. Because as you do this, you can receive the healing and renewal you need during these challenging times. Times that challenge our health, our politics, our livelihoods and our loved ones.

As you invite in the Presence today, now, in any way you choose, you’ll eventually feel lifted up during the service and this, among other experiences, can help you enter the New Year in a new strong way of your own. By opening up to something larger than our daily ego we can enter the Holy, raising our consciousness to a higher level than it was last year. In part that’s what Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all about. So I want to bless you – and please bless me back – that this Rosh Hashanah, during any of the Marathon services, while the Hebrew prayers are flying fast and furious, that you take a moment, with your eyes open or closed, to stop from time to time and allow yourself to open up to the Source of the Universe, for even 5-minutes, to invite her to fill you up, or to bless you with a deep awareness of Her Presence. I bless you that you allow yourself become mindful of of the Presence….and even if you think you’re just imagining things, that you act “as if” it’s real, if that gets you through. And I bless you that as you do this, you’ll become pleasantly surprised at what beautiful things you can discover on this Rosh HaShanah.

Shanah Tovah!

Rosh HaShanah Drash: 9.20.2020

October 2, 2020

By Avi Soifer

In a time of crisis: “Don’t just stand there, do something!”—A response, I think from Truah: Don’t just do something, stand there. I think of the ancient religions of Mesopotamia: “[T]he sign of the god or goddess is the capacity to raise the hand to the ear and hear what another is saying.” I think of Rabbi Heschel and the need to be attuned to hear “the silent sigh.” George Hudes, in a drash several years ago, compared hearing to seeing—to George, hearing as “the most intimate and powerful language of hope.” And there is the old philosopher’s chestnut: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” Sadly, we know that even if it didn’t make a sound, that tree and countless others may very well make a raging forest fire.

Listening and Standing Up:

Take your time to stand there and listen, and do so with care and attention to nuance, and then act. And grasp the obligation to be an upstander, rather than a bystander. Do something, even if it is out of the ordinary, even if it is not neutral. Still, do it with care for others: with kindness.

Sof Ma’arav coalesces important little things, and Rabbi Rosalind fits right in. Sof Maʻarav coalesces summer camp and the Dali Lama, differences, but with group spirit, with Sandy as the ultimate camp counselor. I think of Sid’s recent drash: stories and memory equal identity; and we are a nation of storytellers, often with a humorous twist, even if it is bittersweet.

Zoom and a pandemic, or a pundemic, for example:

  1. Tell a quarantine joke, but you’ll have to wait 2 weeks to get it—and there will be a test.
  2. Only inside jokes.
  3. Quaranteens in 2033.
Alyssa Masor

Alyssa Masor

There are Neo-Hasidic tales— Alyssa Masor, wrote a Columbia University PhD thesis about “Neo-Hasidic Tales” in 2013. Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz wrote “And Maybe Even Higher” 120 years ago, while Peretz was imprisoned for three months for giving an unauthorized talk to workers.

I.L. Peretz Portrait in black and white

I.L. Peretz

Then we have the Nemirover Rebbe, who would disappear every year during the Yomim Noraim, the High Holidays. His followers were sure he went to heaven to battle Satan over all their sins. But then a dubious Litvak came to town. Litvaks were thought to cram their heads full of Talmud and explicit text, leaving people with their mouths open, but they were said to lack appreciation for ethics. Just after ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah, this Litvak sneaks into the Rebbe’s house and lies under his bed. Towards morning, as the household gradually awakens, the Rebbe lies in bed and groans for over an hour: “To hear the Rebbe’s groan would dissolve you in pity. But a Litvak’s heart is made of iron.” So he lies there, and finally the Rebbe arises, washes and prays, and gets out a bundle of peasants’ clothes. The Rebbe puts on the clothes, with a big rope in the pocket of the coat, and he grabs an axe on the way out of the kitchen. You can guess what follows: He chops down a tree, cuts up the wood so it is small enough to fit in a stove, and goes to the broken-down house of a lonely widow. He claims to be selling wood, but she has no money. The Rebbe speaks in peasant dialect, says his name is Vasil, and that she need not pay him immediately because he knows she will be good for the six groshen. She doubts, but he says, “What?  I have faith in you for the six groshen, but you don’t have enough faith in God that He will arrange?” He sets the fire and says the correct penitential prayers, with a groan. And the wise-guy Litvak stays and becomes a Nemirover Hasid himself. One of the Hasidim tells others that when the Rebbe disappears each morning on the Yomim Noraim, he goes to heaven. The Litvak says, quietly, “And maybe even higher.”

I. L. Peretz illustrated image on the cover of PaknTreger Magazine

I. L. Peretz, Cover of PaknTreger

Thinking about this story:

It reminds us of the critique of Hasidim at the time: that they had too much faith in the Rebbe, in miracles, in dynastic succession, that there was too much drinking, and oppression of women. This is reminiscent of the Protestant attack on the Catholic Church during the Reformation.

Lessons here?

Trust in the Rebbe, even if he is not doing what the rules say—social justice is trump (and I use that phrase with care). There is no magical realism here as there is in Sid’s great stories in his new book. After all, Walter O’Malley really was the Satan, for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn.

Cover ot Avi Soifer's book, The Company We Keep

Cover ot Avi Soifer’s book

I reflect on Justice Ginsburg here, and about my book, Law and the Company We Keep, and concerns for the community from 25 years ago. When is a community not a cult, or an oppressive multinational corporation? As Frederic Maitland says: “[C]ollectively… is the smudgiest word in the English language.” And, in Bob Goldman’s second book, lovingly and posthumously published by Judy last year, Bob emphasizes a “richer sense of self” of the sort that one could find in Ancient Israel, one that tethers a person to the group’s future. Bob in turn connected this to Albert Einstein’s theory of time, and in timely fashion to the Jewish concept of olam. 

Franz Kafka wearing a bowler hat

Franz Kafka

Within Jewish communities, of course, there have traditionally been arguments, schisms, and worse. Often they involved personalities; sometimes they revolved around core arguments such as whether redemption could or could not be hastened through human agency. Bob Goldman quoted Kafka, however, noting that “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.” And Einstein believed that “We cannot stand aside and let God do it.” We are lucky, fortunate, blessed to have some room and some protection for our own little, eccentric, and beloved community. On remembrance: I think of the Baal Shem Tov’s words about redemption. But Kafka says, “Even the past has to be earned.” Heschel says, in “On Linking the Generations:” “The authentic individual is neither an end nor a beginning but a link between ages, both memory and expectations….To us, recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us Jews, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.” Yet there is a wonderful Midrash: God had to issue a recall for the world to return to his shop, because he forgot to include the ability to forget.

Thinking of MJB and our own crucial intangibles:

How wonderful it has always been to see Sandy’s welcome to newcomers; Hefcibah and Matt helping Marv to his seat when he arrives; the give and take while setting up the kiddush; gossip, but my mother’s “character analysis;” the personalized shabbat shalom; the minuet of cars waiting or not in the parking lot and the conversations en route. But, undaunted, we persevere via Zoom (Golly, Golly): Just since July 4th, for example, we have enjoyed talks by Hefcibah and Naomi about leadership, zealousness, and the problematic role of Ha’shem. Malka moved everyone present—even via Zoom—with her thanks to our community in the context of her crossing of thresholds, and Beah underscored simple caring as a storied basic distinction between heaven, and the less appealing destination. Marc Flitter and Dan Lev illustrated the intriguing intersection of the brain and the psyche, respectively aided, by Greggele’s brilliant teaching of Talmudic reasoning and Dan’s inspiring introduction of mystical thought. And Sid recently made what many of us thought to be a profound connection between storytelling and memory to help create Jewish identity.

Portrait of Leonard J. (Liebel) Fein in black and white

Leonard J. (Liebel) Fein

Leibel Fein says: “We are the tribe that discovered the universal God, but chose to remain a tribe.” We live “where particularism and universalism intersect.” And Leibel characteristically went on to say, “Never again is, after all, an insufficient slogan. It tells us what to avoid, but not what to embrace.” But here is what Leibel wrote in response to the ending of U’ntaneh Tokef: “I am moved by this prayer perhaps more than by any other, but I will not accept its concluding words. Yes, the grass withers and yes the flowers fade and yes the cloud dissolves … but that dream does not vanish. What it comes down to is intentionality, to remain what we have always been, a stiff-necked people that despite the mayhem, dares to speak truth to power, to preserve the capacity for indignation. Not to allow the dream to vanish, but to breathe life into it, to nurture it and to make sure that new seed has been planted, new dreamers have been raised up.” Stella and Shmulik and hope, for example. “And along the way,” Leibel added, “to make sure to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved, to dispense justice in the gates of the city, to be gracious to the stranger in our midst, and always to seek peace; to repair the breach. These are all that we have …that will perhaps defeat the evil decree.” In Isaiah 51:7, we read, Not a book, but “a voice, a Torah within the heart.” And Yehuda Amichai tells us, “I assert with absolute faith that prayers preceded God. / Prayers created God. / God created humans. / Humans create prayers that create God who creates humanity.”

On the Paradox Of Paradise

In 1948, Rabbi Goldfarb identified the core challenge to be: “Can we attain a healthy, mature outlook on religion? The answer depends on the use of our eyes to behold the affirmation of God in the world of nature and to hearken to the divine reverberations within our own soul.” Goldfarb says: “Not I/Thou but We/Thou”—collective consciousness, after Heschel.

Sally Morgan reminded us of the commandment against group hate in her parshah: “Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” She mentioned, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that Jews have been subjected to racism more and longer than any other people.

That’s Sof—and that’s The Sof.

L’Shana Tovah ticatevuh v’tichateymuh!

Shelach Lecha

July 9, 2020

A Drash by Fran Margulies

Rabbi Goldfarb used to say, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. Makes sense. Sometimes, the ground shifts under you; you lose your balance and you can’t steady yourself. I think our world is at such a moment. Covid-19 has shaken our ground. How to keep going? Open your shops for business for income? No! People will spread the virus. Keep them closed? What to do?

Our Parsha occurs in another unstable time. The Hebrews are poised at the base of the mountain range. On the other side is the land that God promised. Almost home! But not quite yet. Still, for weeks now, shvitzing in the desert, their way forward has not been clear, even with God leading them. We even read that Moses begged his father-in-law to camp with them and guide them. Perhaps sensing his uncertainty, God directs Moses to reconnoiter. Shelach Lecha! Send for yourself, scouts to go ahead, see the lay of the land and report back. So Moses does. He sends off a distinguished contingent of tribal leaders with encouraging words: “Vehitchazachtem!” Be strong and of good cheer! Bring us back samples. Maybe some native fruits? The scouts disappear over the mountain and do not reappear for the proverbial forty days. The people wait, worried, on edge. They mill around and fend off wild animals. The scouts return and oh Lordy! Their reports conflict. Yes a good land IS over the mountain. It is rich and fertile, but other tribes have settled in that valley already; those other tribes are dug in and fortified.

Uh Oh! The people look at each other. They shuffle their feet and start murmuring. Caleb, one of the scouts and prince of the tribe of Judah, steps in. “No worries!” he says, “Nothing we can’t handle! We are fighters!” But the other scouts disagree. Could they have been genuinely afraid? Perhaps so. But their motive is unclear to me. Yet the Torah is clear. They were seeing with prejudiced eyes. And reporting with malice. These scouts were spreading “dibat;” slander and deliberate lies. Their rhetoric revved up, it got wilder and more purple. “This land devours its settlers; its people are monsters and giants! Just looking at them made us shrivel. We felt small as grasshoppers-surely we looked like that to them!” Now the people really panic. The ground has shifted beneath them! No way forward! That census was a waste of time! Shall we go back now? What to do? Slavery in Egypt was better than being food for monsters! In their confusion and fear, they forget their covenant. They forget God’s promises to them. They forget their promise to HIM at Sinai. Moses and Aaron have no words to say. They fall on their faces. Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes in mourning. They try and save the mission. “Don’t be afraid God is with us! We will win! Those valley people are toast.”

It doesn’t work. Thoroughly panicked, the people pick up stones to throw at Joshua and Caleb. And the Glory of the Lord appears to stop them. In full sight of all of his people, his luminous cloud descends, and he enters the tabernacle to have a talk with Moses and Aaron. But it is not just talk. “I’ve HAD IT with these people! Forget it! Let’s start over with another people.” “No!” cries Moses, speaking boldly to God, as he had done after the golden calf and, as Abraham had done before Sodom. He appeals to God’s pride. Think of your reputation. What will the Goyim say? That you weren’t strong enough to finish the job, to bring Israel home. You yourself said you were slow to anger and kind and forgiving.

The speech is a rhetorical success. God calms down and says “Salachti!” I forgive. But not completely. He WILL show his stern and punishing side as well. “Those who doubted, those who slandered me and misled my people about the land….they will NEVER get there!” He immediately zaps the slanderous scouts and pronounces sentence on all of the people except Joshua and Caleb. The Hebrews will wander for forty years in the desert before getting another chance at the promised land. And don’t you dare forget what you’ve learned here! The contradictory, inflammatory reports of the scouts! Being led by their lies and fears — and yours! Steady yourselves by thinking of my power and providence. Trust me. Tie fringes, tzitzit on your garments. Let your eyes look at them and you will remember me and follow my mitzvot. It’s a steadying thought for our own, unstable time. True, there is a spreading disease for which we do not yet have a vaccine. But we can trust, as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs remind us, that God who is the author of the disease, is also the author of the cure. We will find it.

So I say to all of you, my fellow Sofers, in the words of Moses “Vehitchazachtem!” Be strong and of good cheer!

Drash: Naso 14 Sivan 5780

July 8, 2020

By Naomi Olstein

With thanks to Rabbi Sacks for his inspiration and to Rabbi Goldfarb for his education.

Once again, I am amazed and impressed by how the weekly parsha of the Torah is relevant to current events. For example, the Israelites are preparing for a census as are we in the United States this year. The parsha of Naso seems to be a collection of utterly unrelated items. First there is the account of the Levitical families of Gershon and Merari and their tasks in carrying parts of the tabernacle when the Isrealites jouneyed. Then, after two brief laws about removing unclean people from the camp and about restitution, there comes the strange ordeal of the Sotah, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery.

Next comes the Law of the Nazirite, the person who, voluntarily and usually for a fixed period of time, took on himself (or herself) special holiness restrictions, among them renunciation of wine and grape products, of haircuts and of defilement by contact with a dead body. This is followed, again seemingly with no connection, by one of the oldest prayers in the world still in continuous use: the Priestly blessings. Then, with inexplicable repetitiousness, comes the account of the gifts brought by the princes of each tribe at the dedication of the tabernacle; a series of long paragraphs repeated no less than twelve times, since each prince brought an identical offering.

Why does the Torah spend so much time describing an event that could have been stated far more briefly by naming the princes and then simply telling that each one brought a silver dish, a silver basin and so on? The question that overshadows all the others though, is: what is the logic of this apparently disconnected series? The answer lies in the last word of the priestly blessing: Shalom, peace. In a long analysis, the 15th century Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama explains that Shalom “does not mean merely absence of war or strife. It means completeness, perfection, the harmonious working of a complex system, integrated diversity, a state in which everything is in its proper place and all is at one with the physical and ethical laws governing the universe.” Peace is the thread of grace issuing from Him (der aybershteh– meaning the highest one in Yiddish) stringing together all beings, supernal, intermediate, and lower. It underlies and sustains the reality and unique existence of each. Isaac Abrabanel writes: “That is why G-d is called Peace, because it is He who binds the world together and orders all things according to their particular character and posture; for when things are in their proper order, peace will reign.

This is a concept of peace heavily dependent on the vision of Genesis 1, in which G-d brings order out of “תהו ובהו ” (tohu va-vohu–chaos), creating a world in which each object and life form has its place. Peace exists where each element in the system is valued as a vital part of the system as a whole and where there is no discord between them. The various provisions of parsha Naso are all about bringing peace in this sense. The most obvious case is that of the Sotah, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery. What struck the sages most forcefully about the ritual of the Sotah is the fact that it involved obliterating the name of G-d, something strictly forbidden under other circumstances. The officiating priest recited a curse including G-d’s name, wrote it on a parchment scroll, and then dissolved the writing into specially prepared water. The sages inferred from this that G-d was willing to renounce his own honor, allowing His name to be effaced “in order to make peace between husband and wife” by clearing an innocent woman from suspicion. Though the ordeal was eventually abolished by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the second Temple, the law served as a reminder as to how important peace is in the Jewish scale of values.

The passage relating to the Levitical families of Gershon and Merari signals that they were given a role of honor in transporting items of the tabernacle during the people’s journeys through the wilderness. Evidently they were satisfied with the honor, unlike the family of Kehat, detailed at the end of last week’s parsha, one of whose number, Korach, eventually instigated a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Likewise, the long account of the offerings of the princes of the twelve tribes is a dramatic way of indicating that each was considered important enough to merit its own passage in the Torah. People will do destructive things if they feel slighted, and not given their due role and recognition. Again the case of Korach and his allies is the proof of this. By giving the Levitical families and the princes of the tribes their share of honor and attention, the Torah is telling us how important it is to preserve the harmony of the nation by honoring all.

The case of the Nazirite is in some ways the most interesting. There is an internal conflict within Judaism between, on the one hand, a strong emphasis on the equal dignity of everyone in the eyes of G-d, and the existence of a religious elite in the form of the tribe of Levi in general and the Cohanim in particular. It seems that the Law of the Nazirite was a way of opening up the possibility to non-Cohanim of a special sanctity close to, though not precisely identical with, that of the Cohanim themselves. This too is a way of avoiding the damaging resentments that can occur when people find themselves excluded by birth from certain forms of status within the community.

If this analysis is correct, then a single theme binds the laws and narrative of this parsha: the theme of making special efforts to preserve or restore peace between people. Peace is easily damaged and hard to repair. Much of the rest of the book of Bamidbar is a set of variations on the theme of internal dissension and strife. Naso requires us to go the extra mile in bringing peace between husband and wife, between leaders of the community and among laypeople who aspire to a more-than-usual state of sanctity. It is no accident therefore that the priestly blessings end, as do the vast majority of Jewish prayers, with a prayer for peace. Peace, said the Rabbis is one of the names of G-d Himself, and Maimonides writes that the whole Torah was given to make peace in the world. Naso is a series of practical lessons in how to ensure, as far as possible, that everyone feels recognized and respected. We must all work for peace, not just pray for it. Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Tzav: A Drash

May 4, 2020

By Sid Goldstein

A haggadah with a blue hamsa

“Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination and the sacrifice of well-being which the Lord charged Moses on Mount Sinai.”

–  Leviticus 8.37

One of the delights of the Book of Leviticus is the constant barrage of sacrificial details: dead animals, splattered blood, roasted entrails, and eventually, the leftovers — the bones, the rendered fat, and the mounds of ash.

For those not discouraged by such graphic details, the process-minded among us might wonder: at the end of a day of sacrifice, who was in charge of cleaning up?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us an answer: The charred remains of roasted animals and their entrails were left not to a sacrificial janitorial team, not to the Israelites or Levites, but to the priests themselves – even to Aaron the High Priest.

An open pomegranate

For it was commanded in the Torah, “He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments and carry the ashes the outside the camp.“

Rashi helps capture this scene in even greater detail, explaining that due to the huge amount of sacrificial ash and rendered fat, the High Priest would take off his sacred garb and don dirty clothes in order to handle the ashes. The spiritual leader, the intermediary between the people and God, ended each day by cleaning ritual refuse while dressed in rags.

Imagine for a moment the President of the United States taking the Oval Office garbage out to the curb every evening. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates regularly cleaning out the corporate bathroom after a day of making billions. Here we have even Aaron the High Priest commanded to shovel ash in a shmata. This is what it means to be ‘The Chosen People.’ Let us take a moment to remember Fiddler on the Roof’s burdened milkman Tevye who wisely said, “Couldn’t you have chosen someone else?” But let’s look at the notion of sacrifice – for Parsha Tzav is the most prescriptive discussion of sacrifice in the Torah.

One of the most difficult elements of Torah and the way of life it describes is the phenomenon of animal sacrifice. Modern Judaism has survived without it for almost two thousand years. Virtually all the prophets were critical of animal sacrifice, not least Jeremiah in this week’s haftarah. While none of the prophets sought to abolish sacrifices, they were suspicious of those who offered them. What disturbed the prophets most was that many of the ancient Israelites thought of sacrifice as a kind of bribe: ‘If we make a generous enough gift to God then He may overlook our crimes and misdemeanors.’ Which raises the spiritual question, “is it possible to make God an offer he can’t refuse?”

A person wearing tefillin

What, then, is the idea of sacrifice in Judaism and why does it remain important, even today? The simplest answer is this: We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for. That is why, when they were a nation of farmers and shepherds, the Israelites demonstrated their love of God by bringing Him a symbolic gift from their flocks and herds or, their grain and their fruit; that is, a bit of their livelihood. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs wrote: “To love is to thank. To love is to want to bring an offering to the Beloved. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.” This is true in many aspects of life. A happily married couple is constantly making sacrifices for one another. Parents make huge sacrifices for their children. People drawn to a calling – to heal the sick, or care for the poor, or fight for justice – often sacrifice financially lucrative careers for the sake of their ideals.

During World War II those now dubbed “The Greatest Generation” made millions of sacrifices for their country. In strong communities people make sacrifices for one another when someone is in distress or needs help. As the writer Toni Morrison said “Sacrifice is the glue of relationships. It bonds us to one another.” That is why, in the Biblical age, sacrifices were so important. To quote Rabbi Sachs again, “at the beating heart of Judaism is love: “For we are commanded You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In many faiths, the driving motive behind sacrifice was fear: fear of the anger and power of the multiple gods. In Judaism it was supposed to be love.

Once we realize there can be a benign element to the idea of sacrifice, we begin to understand how deeply relevant the concept of benign sacrifice is in Western Civilization itself. The two major institutions of the modern world – the democratic state and the market economy – were predicated on the notion of benign sacrifice. This was best described by the idea the social contract formulated by the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes’ account of the social contract was, in a nutshell, it is in the interest of each of us to sacrifice some of our liberty  to a central power charged with ensuring the rule of law and the defense of all the people. Adam Smith’s insight into the market economy was that while we will always act to maximize our own advantage, we must do so in way that allows the general society to thrive. In short, there must be some governor of our actions. A governor to whom we must willingly sacrifice the worst of ourselves. As Hobbes says, sacrificing the worst of ourselves results in the growth of the commonwealth. This theory of social morality comes straight from Judaism.

Modern politics and modern economics were built on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest governed by the notion of the sacrifice of total freedom. The democratic state and the market economy were serious attempts to harness the power of self-interest to the sacrifice of those passions that lead to mass violence. It is a system, that for better or worse, has sustained the Western World for over four centuries. And how have Jews survived within that system that their morality helped to create? Jews and Judaism have survived due to the many sacrifices people had to make for it.

Judah Halevi

In the eleventh century the great scribe Judah Halevi expressed something close to awe at the fact that Jews stayed Jewish despite the fact that “with a word lightly spoken they could have converted to the majority faith and lived a life of relative ease.” The sacrifice then, is that in both Europe and America, Jews have set limits to their assimilation within the surrounding Gentile world. Among others, The philosopher Baruch Spinoza took note of these limits and the effect they had. He reflected on the hostility that these limits created in the greater Gentile world. That hostility has existed, particularly in Europe, for nearly a millennium. But the hostility against the Jewish decision to set limits on their participation in Gentile society had an unexpected side effect. Spinoza observed in his Theological-Political Treatise that “Gentile enmity has had the ironic effect of preserving Jewish distinctiveness.”

What did this mean in real life? It meant that the Jews’ ongoing adherence to their own set of ritual practices while living under Christian or Muslim regimes guaranteed a permanent minority status. This sacrifice of comfort and – even acceptance – marks the distinct trait of our people’s adherence to the principles, if not the physical actions referred to in Parsha Tzav. God’s commandment to Moses to perform the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination and most of all, the sacrifice of well-being, echoes down from Mount Sinai to Sof Ma’arav in 2020. We continue the practice of sacrificing a bit of our time, a bit of our treasure and a bit of individual liberty, to sustain this observant community here in Hawaii. And we will continue to do so until, as Tevye, requested, the Lord chooses “someone else.”

Zero Mosyel in Fiddler on the Roof

Holy Cow! – Parsha Chukat

August 15, 2019

By Naomi Olstein

Red Cow

While parsha Chukat deals with many topics, it begins with parah adumah, the red heifer. It is the most enigmatic mitzvah in all of Torah. More than a mitzvah, it is chukat haTorah – Law of the Torah. If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, she or he must go for ritual cleansing. The “defiled” individual shall then be sprinkled with a concoction made of the mixture of fresh water, mayim chayim, literally “living waters;” and the ashes of a slaughtered and burned “red” cow that had absolutely no blemishes nor ever bore a yoke. Now, here’s the paradox: the mixture of these “waters of lustration” cleansed the person who had been rendered ritually impure by contact with a corpse. However, the individuals who burned the cow, made contact with its ashes, and sprinkled the mixture on the “defiled” person would be rendered impure in the process. In other words, the act of making one person ritually pure makes the purveyor of purity impure.

At the core of all of this is the notion of tahor and tamai, “pure and impure.” These are states of being, reflective, I believe, of one’s bodily relationship to “life” and “not-life.” The things that make one tamai, “impure” are contact with various entities and conditions. These include dead animals, dead humans, and a number of different types of creeping things; skin diseases involving mortification of the flesh, tzaraat, contact with similar growths of inanimate objects, as well as menstruation and emissions of semen, and childbirth. None of these states of being are permanent, yet they all require “purification.” With the exception of childbirth, each of these “impurifying” things seems to have to do with “not-life,” a condition that would disqualify the individual from participation in the life of the holy. For ancient Israel, nothing was more central than being eligible to be part of the holy community. To do that, one had to be tahor, ritually pure, that is, “of life.”

Perhaps to our modern sensibilities, these notions of ritual purity and impurity are alien, even alienating. It is equally possible that our discomfort with such bodily states reflects a disconnection that we would do well to restore. Often the Torah touches on fundamental realities of the human condition from which we have distanced ourselves. Let’s face it: today death is a taboo subject. In fact, virtually all bodily processes are. Yet our ancestors didn’t have any problems with addressing the normal fluctuations of life. On the contrary, they saw the guf, body and life force, neshama, nefesh, and ruach, for what they are – profound mysteries that bind us to G-d. Our state of being was the essential component in our covenantal relationship with G-d. Just as the animal brought for sacrifice had to be without blemish, so for us to partake in the life of the covenantal community of holiness, we must be in a state of ritual purity.

Our connection with G-d is a corporal one. We are all in this together. Everyone has to be at their best, physically and spiritually. We have to be fully alive. Are we any different today? We might not like to speak of bodily emissions, we might not relate to all behaviors – netilat yadayim, washing of hands before a meal, mikveh, ritual bath, tahara, cleansing of the body before burial – that accompany the traditions surrounding ritual purity. However, we nonetheless live our lives with great attentiveness to our physical and emotional and spiritual states of being. We exercise. We diet. We meditate. We know what it’s like to feel “off” and we do whatever we can to get back “on.” We just don’t necessarily do it within the context of sacred community. Maybe we could learn something from Torah when it come to this.

The Rabbis identified this chok, “law,” from which the name of this week’s portion, Chukat derives, as one for which a reasonable understanding is humanly incomprehensible. It really might not be as elusive as we think. Perhaps there is great wisdom and insight in this seemingly bizarre practice. While we might not be on the lookout for red cows in our local pastures, which would prove a waste of time since the destruction of the Temple made this ritual obsolete, I think the underlying dynamics of these “waters of lustration” still speak to us today.

As far as parah adumah, how is it that the ashes of a dead animal make a corpse-defiled individual ritually pure and, in the process, how the one doing the purifying becomes impure. What is more important, what is essential to this ritual, is that the persons doing the “purifying” – the one who slaughters the cow, the one who burns the carcass, the one who gathers the ashes, the one who mixes the ashes, the one who sprinkled the ashes – are not priests but just members of the community. Indeed, Torah is clear, it is a community-centered ritual. As it says in Number 19:9, “The waters of lustration shall be kept by and for the community of Israel.” Simply put, this process of transitioning from “not-life” back to “life” is something we do to and for each other. Even today — all the time: as it states in Numbers 19:10, Chok Olam, Law for all time.

Every time members of our synagogue or extended Oahu Jewish family go into mourning, the community comes out to take on the mourner’s state of not-life. We sit with them. We pray with them. We embrace them and hold their hands. And we gently usher them back into life. We bring food to them. We affirm their recitation of Kaddish by saying “Amen.” Some of us stand with them. Some recite the Kaddish with them. And in so doing we assume – at least in part – their state of not-life. We adjust our daily lives. We accompany them to the cemetery. We surrender our evening activities. We take on their pain. We allow death to enter our state of being. We immerse ourselves in the spiritual waters of life and death. We transform in order to help others transform. We become community.

Which brings us back to the cow. The red cow. It has become a character of intense interest and mystery within the Jewish tradition. Some say it was incredibly rare. Some say it wasn’t really red, just brown and without any imperfections (Mishna Parah 2.5). Some say it was a symbol of the original sin of the Jewish people, The Golden Calf (as noted in B’midbar Rabbah 19:8). I just think it’s so obvious that…. it was a cow, a maternal life-giving creature whose own life force was surrendered so that the community could restore itself from the impurity of not-life. While I am personally grateful that we have moved on from animal slaughter as a means to ritually find meaning in our lives, I am not willing to lose the meaning our ancestors implicitly understood within the context of these now alien rituals. The great student of religion, Huston Smith called them “forgotten truths.” Perhaps we would do well to try and remember them. They touch at the core of our quest for the sanctification of life.

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