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Rabbi Staller's Drashot

November 28th, 2020: Vayetzei

It’s a little known fact that, growing up, I was a huge Kanye West fan. While, lately, Kanye has become an even more political and complicated figure, back in the day, I loved his music and general wackiness. One set of headlines that I remember being the butt of endless jokes was Kanye’s naming choices for his kids, choosing the names North, Saint, Chicago, and I think most recently Psalm. While those names all seem unusual, Kanye explained how each one represented what the birth meant to him and his family. North represented a high point in their life, Saint was a blessing, Chicago was a return to family and family roots, and Psalm I don’t really know. Kanye’s a little too “preachy televangelist” for me these days. Yet, while Kanye received a lot of flack for his ego-centric naming conventions, when we turn towards this week’s Parashah, we see a somewhat similar idea.

The first three of Leah’s children all seem to be named after her personal experience of grief. Reuvein is named after God seeing her pain and giving her a child to make her husband love her more. Shimon is because God heard that Leah is hated by her husband and gave her another son to try and fix it. Levi is named after Leah’s desperation, as after her third child she exclaims that surely now her husband must escort her and give her intimate attention, as she is the mother of three of his children. All three of these names share an inward focus and a tragic meaning, as they reflect Leah’s feelings of inadequacy as she feels unloved by her husband.

Yet, after Leah’s fourth child, we see a sudden shift, and Leah takes her fourth son’s name in a different direction. Leah names her fourth son Yehudah, saying “הפעם אודה את ה׳,” “this time I will thank God.” What happened that all of a sudden Leah changed her tone and perspective, and decided to think not of her own grief, but of her appreciation to God? And moreover, if Leah was so appreciative of having children, why didn’t she name one of her earlier children after that thankfulness? Why did she wait until her fourth child?

Interestingly, the Baalei HaTosafot avoid this question altogether by interpreting the word אודה in Yehudah’s name as meaning “admit” and not “thank,” as the Hebrew root has multiple meanings. They explain that Leah named Yehudah after his future episode with his daughter-in-law Tamar, in which Yehudah dramatically admitted that he was wrong and Tamar was right. In other words, Yehudah is not named after thankfulness at all, and thus, there is no question as to why now, all of a sudden, Leah is so appreciative.
The vast majority of other commentaries, though, understand Yehudah’s name as being a statement of thanks. So why is Leah thankful now all of a sudden? The Midrash tries to answer this question by explaining that Leah had seen, through Ruach HaKodesh, that there were destined to be 12 tribes from her, her sister Racheil, and their handmaidens. Leah figured each of the four of them would have three children, and equally contribute to the Jewish future. Once she had Yehudah, her fourth son, she realized she was destined to have a great role in the formation of the 12 tribes and thanked God for the privilege.

This approach certainly answers our questions, but it makes a host of strange assumptions. Not only did Leah have a secret divine premonition, but she had a particularly vague one. It was clear that there would be the highly specific 12 children across four mothers, yet conveniently left out who would mother how many. Thus, while we can sympathize with the difficulties the Midrash is trying to address, its answer leaves us with a host of different unresolved questions.

The Ibn Ezra tries to answer this question by explaining that, even without Ruach HaKodesh, after having four children Leah had decided that she was done having kids. Leah had had four kids in four years and figured that she had had enough. Thus, having decided to stop having children, Leah turned toward God and used her baby’s name as an opportunity to thank God for the children she had.

While the Ibn Ezra’s answer also addresses our questions, it is a bit surprising. First of all, nowhere in the text is there any indication that Leah decided to stop having children with the birth of Yehudah. But beyond that, Leah later goes on to have two more children! Perhaps, one could explain that Leah thought that she was going to be done having children, and named Yehudah after that expectation, as indeed we see Leah giving her handmaid over to Yaakov as she figures she can no longer procreate. But either way, this explanation along with the Midrash before it leaves Yehudah’s name as a relic of history, as it represents Leah’s mistaken impression that this was her last child.

Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, the Maharam Schick presents a totally different interpretation of Leah’s words as she names Yehudah. The Maharah Schick explains that “הפעם אודה את ה׳” is actually a rhetorical statement. Leah says rhetorically “This time I’m going to thank God?” In other words, Leah recognizes that this is now already her fourth child, and she has been blessed with so much. How could she possibly have waited so long to thank God! Only now, this time, I will thank God? Therefore, says the Maharam Schick, Leah names her son Yehudah as a constant living reminder of her need to be thankful. Thus, Yehudah does not mark a particular moment of thanksgiving or praise, but lives as a lesson and a reminder to the namer, that appreciation and thanksgiving is not merely an action that we value in a specific moment. It is not only when one is finished that they turn and say thank you, nor is thanksgiving defined by a specific requirement or Chiyuv. Rather, much like a name, appreciation follows us throughout our life and colors our perspective, as an appreciative lifestyle requires one to be attuned to the world around themself, understanding the many things they have to be thankful for, and appreciating those who work and sacrifice to enable that life.

Indeed, some of the discussion that has come up over the halakhic permissibility of celebrating Thanksgiving surrounds this very point. Many religious critics of Thanksgiving point out that in Judaism, appreciation and thanksgiving should not be reserved for one particular day or one moment. Every day is thanksgiving, they say, as Judaism has an expansive sense of appreciation that permeates our prayers every day, and our experience every moment. And yet, I stand here today as a proud turkey eater and Thanksgiving lover, not only because of the great food, but out of a wholesale rejection of this approach.

The lesson of Yehudah, according to the Maharam Schick, is not that “every day is Thanksgiving.” Rather, the Maharam Schick’s point is that being thankful and appreciative is a lifestyle and perspective that colors your everyday experience. Leah names Yehudah after her own failing as a constant reminder, day after day, to live an appreciative lifestyle. And yet, while your lifestyle and perspective may color your daily experience, it certainly does not preclude one from seeking out actions, holidays, and opportunities to re-center and re-dedicate ourselves to our valued lifestyle and goals. Being Bnei and Banot Torah, dedicated to Torah values, is certainly a lifestyle and perspective, and yet we celebrate Torah and our relationship to it every Simchat Torah and Shavuot. Being Ovdei Hashem, dedicated to serving God and God alone, is an essential part of our identity and our worldview, and yet every Pesach we celebrate that very notion.

Thus, rather than not celebrating Thanksgiving since Judaism doesn’t have only one day dedicated to being thankful, the most Jewish observance of all would be to celebrate Thanksgiving and not let it be only one day. Rather than a commercial 24 hour period of sales, football, and hollow gestures of patriotism, our commitment to Judaism and Torah values compels us to view Thanksgiving as an opportunity to recharge and reorient ourselves towards a lifelong goal of living a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. Thanksgiving should be our booster shot of thankfulness, that carries us into the long winter, and helps transform our day to day lives and experiences into those characterized by a sensitivity to and appreciation of the world around us.

To that end, our Stanton Community, being a community and not just a house of minyan, has beautiful opportunities to embody a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. This past Sunday, Brina Chu led a group of Stanton volunteer’s in the Shul’s first Chesed/Social Action event of the season. We expressed our thanksgiving and appreciation to essential workers around the community by baking and distributing treats to local workers. While this event has already passed, there will be many more opportunities to show our appreciation in the future. If you are interested in getting involved with the Stanton Chessed/Social Action committee, take this opportunity to reach out and get involved.

Similarly, I want to call everyone’s attention to an upcoming opportunity to express our thanks and appreciation. This Tuesday night, at 8 PM, we will be hosting an Eruv fundraiser over Zoom, with a presentation by former YU Museum curator Zachary Levine, as he discusses the exhibit he curated about the historical development of the New York Eruv and its sociological impact on the New York Jewish community. The Eruv is one of the most essential and least visible pillars of our Shabbat experience, and as such, is easily taken for granted. This Eruv Drive presents all of us with an opportunity to express our appreciation and give back, by donating funds to support the continued maintenance and upkeep of the downtown Eruv that supports all of us. Please attend the event Tuesday night and learn about the essential social and cultural role the Eruv plays in the New York Jewish community more broadly, and about the role The Stanton Street Shul and the Lower East Side played in particular in this fascinating story of the New York Eruv. Even if you cannot attend the event, feel free to donate through the Shul to support the Eruv.

Together, through seeking out opportunities to internalize, reflect, and embody thankfulness– be they a meaningful Thanksgiving celebration, a powerful Chesed event, or even a modest but appreciative donation– we can create a community that not only acts thankful, but learns the lesson of Yehudah, and sees every day as an opportunity to live a thankful and appreciative life, as we thank God, our community, and those around us for the many gifts we all share.

November 20th, 2020: Toldot

The drama in the room is high when Yaakov, covered in goat fur and his brother’s clothing, enters into his father’s room pretending to be Eisav. The tension is pushed to its peak when Yitzchak observes that, despite the hairy hands, “the voice is the voice of Jacob.” Ultimately, Yitzchak is fooled and Yaakov succeeds in stealing his brother’s blessing from his father, and slips out through a back exit mere moments before Eisav shows up and demands his blessing. And yet, while this story is familiar to us by now, in the moment, it all must have seemed so bizarre. How could it be that this is God’s will? Why did God orchestrate the events of Jewish history such that Jacob had to deceive his father and steal Eisav’s blessing in order to carry on the religious mantle of Avraham and Yitzchak? 

While many of us grew up on this story, and are used to the foregone conclusion that Yaakov had to steal Eisav’s blessing, and that events had to play out this way, it may not, in fact, be so clear. Later on in the Torah, Yaakov’s son Yosef is sold into bondage in Egypt, and Yaakov is told that he was killed by a wild animal. Rashi (Bereishit 37:34) quotes a Midrash that says that Yaakov suffered 22 years thinking Yosef was dead, as a punishment for the 22 years Yaakov lived with Lavan and neglected his responsibility to honor his father and mother. In other words, according to this Midrash, Yaakov is punished for running away from home! But how could this be? If Yaakov had to steal the blessing from Eisav to be the leader of the Jewish people, thus angering Eisav and threatening his own life, how could he be punished for fleeing and protecting himself?

Rabbeinu Bachya (b. Asher 13th c. Spain) gives a technical explanation, saying that while Yaakov had to run away to protect himself from Eisav, he didn’t have to run away quite so long. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, Rivkah’s initial plan was simply for Yaakov to lay low for a few days, maybe meet and marry Leah while he was with Lavan, and then return when things blew over. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, while it’s true that Yaakov had to run away to avoid Eisav after stealing his blessing, Yaakov’s sin was the length of time he was absent. 

However, I think there may be another approach latent in the Midrashim. ֵThe Midrash Tanchuma Yashan (VaYeitzei 11) also ses Yaakov as suffering as a side effect of stealing Eisav’s blessing. However, the Tanchuma Yashan has a slightly different focus. According to this Midrash, after Lavan tricks Yaakov into marrying Leah before Racheil, Yaakov and Leah begin to quarrel. Yaakov is outraged that he was tricked, and he accuses Leah and her father of being dishonest. Leah shoots back at Yaakov that she is no more dishonest than Yaakov is himself, as he tricked his father into giving him Eisav’s blessings. In other words, in Leah’s criticism we see that Yaakov’s misdeed was not merely the length of his absence, but the deceit and the thievery itself, as Yaakov lied and stole his way to Eisav’s blessing. That being the case, we get an entirely different image of the scene at the end of our Parashah. This is not a tense moment of narrow victory in Jewish history, but rather, a shameful airing of Jewish failings, as Yaakov sinfully deceives Yitzchak and steals that which is not rightfully his. 

Indeed, in a broader context, this characterization of Yaakov as sinfully deceptive makes some amount of sense, as Yaakov is repeatedly characterized by his trickiness. We know Yaakov is named for a moment during his birth, in which he grabbed on to the heel (Eikev) of Eisav– as if to fight him for the right to be the first born. However, Eisav reminds us that that heel (Eikav) shares its etymological root with the biblical word for trickery, as he tells us that Yaakov has Yaakveinu, tricked me, after learning that his blessing has been stolen. As such, it is no surprise to see the Midrash similarly reprimanding Yaakov for his trickiness.

But surely Yaakov, and not Eisav, was the next link in the chain of tradition from Avraham, and was rightfully charged with leading the Jewish people! Didn’t Yaakov need the blessing to be bestowed with the blessing of his father, and his father’s father, and to carry on the Jewish faith? A closer look at the text might indicate otherwise. While we often think of the “blessing of the firstborn” as Avraham’s blessing that God gave him, and later passed down to Yitzchak, a careful read of the Torah indicates that there are actually two distinct blessings. First, there is the blessing of the first born (Bereishit 27:28-29)– which Yaakov steals from Eisav– which is a brief two lines about economic and political success. Yitzchak blesses Yaakov, who he thinks is Eisav, with a blessing of great harvests and political greatness, as enemies should be few and far between. 

Then, after Yitzchak learns of what has happened and Yaakov is about ready to flee, Yitzchak gives him a second blessing (Bereishit 28:3-4). Here, Yitzchak tells Yaakov, “and God should give you and your children the blessing of Avraham, to inherit the land of your dwelling which God gave to Avraham.” In other words, it is only after Yitzchak learns of what has happened, and now knows that he is speaking to Yaakov, that the idea of “Avraham’s blessing” is ever invoked. Both in the initial blessing Yitzchak gave, mistakenly thinking he was blessing Eisav, and in the consolation blessing Yitzchak ultimately scrapes up for Eisav, there is no mention of Avraham, God’s promise, or the land of Israel. It is only here, when Yaakov is about to leave Israel and risk not returning, that Yitzchak reveals to him that he is the carrier of Avraham’s tradition and that this land will be his. 

Thus, it becomes clear that the blessing that Yaakov stole– of great harvest and great national power– had nothing to do with the religious charge and the divine blessing that was initially bestowed to Avraham! It was merely a paternal wish for financial success for the firstborn– similar to how the laws of primogeniture guaranteed material and economic dominion over the estate to the eldest son at the time. Yaakov– in part inspired by the fears of his worried mother Rivkah– unnecessarily steals Eisav’s blessing of material success, justifying it as a necessary step to support the Jewish people. In reality, though, it was not a necessary step at all! None of this had to happen, if Yaakov merely understood his father’s relationship with Eisav better, and respected it, trusting that he would lead the Jewish people, and Yitzchak would find an appropriate role for Eisav to thrive in. However, Yaakov and Rivkah were so sure of their divine mandate and divine mission that they ultimately got ahead of themselves and took radical action, lying to Yitzchak, stealing from Eisav, and feeling the painful ramifications of their actions for decades to come.

There are many lessons to be learned from Yaakov’s mistake. For example, we see that the national success of the Jewish people does not need to be tied to material wealth and power, and need not come at the expense of our competitors or even our enemies. Eisav could have been blessed with wealth and political might, and still Yaakov could have succeeded as the leader of the Jewish people. Indeed, when Yaakov and Eisav later cross paths, Eisav has in fact expanded into a large and powerful nation, and it does not detract from Yaakov’s trajectory as the father of the Jewish people. Rather than being motivated by our relative national ranking, our priorities as a people and as a nation should not be to do better than others, or to grow our own wealth, but to carry on the tradition of Avraham and the mission given over by God.

But in addition to that point, the story of Yaakov at the end of our Parashah reminds us of how easy it is to be swept up in a moment of self-confidence. Yaakov was sure that he was on the right side of history, and in a panicked rush, he and his mother took dramatic action that ultimately led to much pain and suffering that, perhaps, could have been avoided. It is important and commendable to stand for things and to have a sense of moral compass and direction. But we must remain careful not to allow our strong sense of right and wrong to lead to hasty or morally empty actions. If even Yaakov and Rivkah can succumb to pressure and slip up in a moment of moral self-assuredness, all the more so we should remain vigilant. It is only if we are able to check ourselves and be sure that, despite moral self confidence, the actions we are taking and the opinion we are committing to are actually necessary and just, that we can be sure to avoid the tendencies of radicalism that often lead astray those who are charged with a powerful sense of mission and purpose. Only then will we be able to grow as Ovdei Hashem and work to actualize God’s mission of a more just and compassionate world. 


November 13th, 2020: Chayei Sarah


Those of you who tuned in to our first Parashah Shiur of the year (Tuesday nights at 7 pm on Zoom!) will have heard our discussion this week about the various themes surrounding the story of Avraham’s burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah goes into unusual detail surrounding the logistics, preparations, and specificities of Avraham’s acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah. Ultimately, the Torah spends nearly an entire chapter describing Avraham’s haggling with the Hittites and Efron– their local council member– before telling us that Avraham finalized the purchase and buried Sarah in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah. Why does the Torah need an entire chapter to convey these mundane details? When Racheil dies, we aren’t given any elaborate details about Yaakov’s acquisition and burial of her in Kever Rachel? Why is this story of Sarah’s burial so important?

In the Parashah Shiur, we identified two major themes that emerged in this section of burying Sarah. On one level, this story is a testament to Avraham and Sarah’s relationship. As a couple, Avraham and Sarah have been through the world together. They were together before God ever spoke to Avraham, and remained together through famine, familial struggles, barrenness, war, wandering, and much more. They forged an exceptionally deep bond as a couple– as reflected in the various Midrashim about the pivotal role Sarah played in creating the unique spirituality of Avraham’s tent, and in helping him preach to and convert the masses. Chazal tell us that Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women– a statement of how closely they worked together, merging their mission and purpose in life with the powerful emotional connection that bonded them.

Indeed, we quoted the commentary of Benno Jacob who sees the burial of Sarah as a story giving us insight into the deep personal relationship between Avraham and Sarah. Sarah is the first major biblical character to have a death and post-death fall out. Whereas, until now, biblical characters merely died in the background, with their years of death mentioned in long lists of genealogies, Sarah’s death exists in the foreground of the story, as the Torah’s focus and message here is about how to properly deal with the death of a beloved. Indeed, it’s unsurprising that Chazal reference this story in their discussion of a spouse’s burial responsibilities, and Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Rambam, views this story as the earliest source for our mourning customs. Clearly, one major theme in this story is the personal and intimate nature of Avraham and Sarah’s relationship, and the moving outpouring of emotion triggered within Avraham by the loss of his beloved wife. 

And yet, at the same time that a deeply personal and emotional story is being played out in the foreground, in the background of this story is an important foundational tale for the Jewish nation and its divine mission. At the same time that this story tells us about the great lengths Avraham was willing to go to to bury Sarah, it also serves as a receipt and a record of Avraham’s first purchase of land in Israel. Thereby, the small and personal tale of loss is merged with a pivotal moment in the historic trajectory of the Jewish people’s national development, as the burial spot that Avraham lovingly selects for Sarah is also the earliest spot of Jewish land in Israel, and thereby, a foundational backbone for the larger Jewish nation and its historical mission. Thus, in addition to being a story of a husband losing a wife, this section in the Torah is also a foundational tale of how the memorialization of our first matriarch laid the groundwork for the Jewish nation and Jewish country that would later thrive from her descendants. 

It is fitting that we read this story of Avraham burying and eulogizing Sarah this Shabbat– indeed, the very basis for much of the halakhot and Jewish practice surrounding burial and eulogizing–  merely days after the Jewish world experienced immense loss with the passing of Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. While these two Torah personalities were hugely different in their focus, the role they played in the community, and what they meant for us here in Stanton Street, there’s no denying that they both were pivotal figures in the development of the Jewish people. 

On the one hand, Rav Dovid represents to us the story of the Jewish nation and its historical development. Much like the memorialization of Sarah on Hittite land laid an important foundation for the Jewish community to grow and thrive– establishing Israel as the rightfully purchased birthplace of our national narrative, and eventually pushing its boundaries well beyond that little plot of land to the rest of the land of Israel– Rav Dovid played an important historical and foundational role for the American Jewish people. Rav Dovid served as an essential link to his father and his father’s generation, as the Feinstein family laid the groundwork for much of what would become modern American Orthodoxy. 

While Stanton Street in particular may have a complex and confusing personal relationship with Rav Dovid– at times punctuated with pain or ideological conflict– there is no question of the larger national role he played for the Jewish people. Without the immense dedication of him and his family, the small plot of Jewish land in the Lower East Side would never have thrived, much less expanded out beyond its boundaries to the rest of New York, and the rest of America. And, perhaps most impressively, Rav Dovid was able to fulfill that role as a national figure and as one of the carriers of our Mesorah, serving as an essential link in the chain of tradition, all the while maintaining intimate and meaningful personal relationships with the Jews and followers in his immediate community. Perhaps the most amazing feature of Rav Dovid’s leadership was his ability to balance the impressive legacy and broad influence he had with his love of and dedication to Lower East Side Jewry. Despite being a renowned Poseik and standard bearer for Rav Moshe’s legacy, R’ Dovid never lost his passion and investment in his local Yeshiva, Shuls, and followers. There is no doubt that Rav Dovid was a Lower East Sider. Because, as we see from Avraham and Sarah, the grand mission of Judaism– of actualizing God’s just and peaceful vision for the world– starts with personal and intimate relationships. 

At the same time that we mourn the tragic loss of Rav Dovid– one of the historic standard bearers of Orthodoxy– our hearts are overfilled by the painful loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In many ways, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is a foil to that of Rav Dovid. While Rav Dovid represents the historic trajectory of the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks– with his reimagining of the Chief Rabbinate as an opportunity to spread inspiring Judaism to the broader less religiously engaged world– represents the power of novelty and innovation in promulgating Jewish values. And, while my personal relationship with Rav Dovid– and I suspect this is true of many in this room– was ideologically complicated and distant, my relationship to Rabbi Sacks and his Torah felt more simple and intimate, colored by moving words and powerful emotion. This is due in part because of the unexpected nature of the loss, but also because of the radically different personality and contributions of Rabbi Sacks.

I remember in my junior year of high school, around Parashat VaYakheil, my art history teacher played a clip of Rabbi Sacks discussing the artistry that went in to the design of the Mishkan, and related it to a piece by Rav Kook reflecting upon the divinity in Rembrant’s art. The moving and spiritual way in which Rabbi Sacks spoke about beauty and aesthetics taught me an entirely new mode of Judaism– one that is sensitive, spiritual, and unafraid of being intimately emotional. This penchant for pulling at the heart strings and making even the most remote philosophical or theological concept an inspiring and moving call to arms characterized much of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah. For many of us in the room here, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is not only the loss of a major national figure– a communal loss for the corporate Jewish people– but a personal one, as we invited Rabbi Sacks to join us at our Shabbat table every week, as we read his weekly Divrei Torah and deeply identified with his sense of Jewish identity and mission. 

And so, in the face of this immense loss– suffering nationally as we say goodbye to the carriers of our tradition, and hurting personally as we lose role models that many of us felt personally close to– I am at a loss of words. Nothing I can say can sufficiently do justice to these two figures, and surely I am not the right person to attempt to. And so, I’d like to conclude with a passage by Rabbi Sacks himself:

"There is death, yes, but there is also continuity. We are never privileged to complete the task, but others will take it on and move a little closer to fulfillment. So long as there is a covenant between the dead, the living, and those not yet born, mortality is redeemed from tragedy. The dead live on in us, as we will live on in our children or in those whose lives we touched. As dust dissolves in living water, so death dissolves in the stream of life itself."

May their memories be a blessing. 


November 6th, 2020: Vayera

Surely the story of Lot must be one of the quickest falls from grace we see in the Torah. When we first meet Lot, he is a foster son and a ward of Avraham, joining him on his adventures and partaking in Avraham’s larger divine mission. After a seemingly small dispute over appropriate grazing practices, Avraham and Lot decide to split up. At this point, we still haven’t really seen any bad action on Lot’s part beyond a seemingly calm disagreement with Avraham. Ultimately, Lot decides to move to Sodom due to its economic success, as it has fruitful land full of produce and greenery, due to the geography of the land and its water access. 

While the educated reader, knowing full well that Sodom is later doomed to destruction as a center of depravity, may judge Lot for this decision, at face value, Lot is not to blame for moving to Sodom. Avraham was given the mission of settling Israel, not Lot. It hardly seems his fault that he would choose an economically comfortable land to move to, as who amongst us can confidently say we would have made a different choice given the same opportunity. 

That said, it is clear that there is a certain amount of perversion to Lot’s otherwise generally good character. When the angels first visit Lot, Lot demonstrates his laudable hospitality, a trait he surely learned from Avraham. And when the people of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand he relinquish his guests to a violent mob, we again see Lot’s commitment to his guests’ comfort, as he takes every measure within his means to protect his guests. And yet, here we begin to see signs of something being wrong, as part of Lot’s efforts to protect his guests involve offering his daughters up to the violent crowd in the angels’ stead. While perhaps Lot’s intent was in a good place, his actual suggestion was reprehensible– a clear corruption or perversion of Avraham’s values.

This perversion follows Lot in his story. Following Sodom’s destruction, angels take Lot and his daughters to a nearby hilltop to safely wait out the end of the destruction. There, alone with no one else but their father, Lot’s two daughters take turns taking advantage of their father as he sleeps, ultimately becoming pregnant and giving birth two two children– Amon and Moav, the national forefathers of the two border nations that would develop outside of Israel. Again we see an act of perversion surrounding Lot and his relationship with his daughters. Whereas in the first instance, Lot offered his daughters to strange and violent men, here, Lot creates a environment and household where acts such as rape and incest are thought to be tolerable.

However, even this reprehensible act of Lot’s daughters came with its own attempt at doing the right thing. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that while they knew that rape and incest were both forbidden, they feared that the destruction they had just witnessed in Sodom was more widespread, and that they may have been the only survivors left. Indeed, in many ways this is understandable, as the destruction of the flood was not that long removed, and the Torah parallels the aftermath of Noach and Lot in many ways. Both families experience total destruction of humans, animals, and land from a clear act of divine justice, and both families are just narrowly saved as a family unit. The ends of these stories also strike a funny parallel, as much like Noach’s offspring sees his naked shame as he sleeps in a drunken stupor, Lot’s children similarly act inappropriately as he sleeps. Thus, we can begin to see the rationale behind the shocking action of Lot’s daughters.

And yet, any of us in the room here can say with confidence that that explanation is not enough. Setting aside the perhaps more complex or abstract prohibition of incest, the violent act of taking advantage of Lot in his sleep is never acceptable, and a clear perversion of morality. How could it be that Lot, having grown up in Avraham’s household and lived with him until just recently, could have fostered such immorality within his own family?

I think the answer lies with the Rashi we quoted before. As we quoted above, Rashi quotes Chazal as explaining Lot’s daughters’ reasoning as being based on the assumption that the entire world had been destroyed in Sodom and, therefore, they needed to repopulate it. And yet, when we reflect on this reasoning, it should strike us as just how shocking it is. Lot until just a moment ago had lived his whole life in Avraham’s household. How is it possible that Lot’s daughters thought that they were saved, but everyone in the world, including Avraham and the various other righteous people affiliated with him, were wiped out? Surely they realized that they were not the most righteous people in the world to be the sole humans to merit salvation?

One must conclude that, despite their previous closeness, Lot did little to keep Avraham a presence and a figure in his household. Despite traveling with Avraham, Lot’s daughters heard little about him, and knew even less first hand. And when the moment came to move and part ways with Avraham, Lot made no effort to maintain a relationship and ensure his daughters knew of the righteousness of their adoptive grandfather. Rather, Avraham’s name was not a presence in the Lot household. While Lot personally may have learned from him, Avraham as a presence and a figure was relegated to Lot’s past.

Given that lack of connection to Avraham, we can begin to see how Lot’s perversion of justice began to settle in. While Lot may have absorbed values such as hospitality from Avraham, without the actual anchor of speaking to and seeing Avraham first hand, these lofty values and ideals became perverted and corrupted. Lot’s daughters, even farther removed from Avraham and his example, learned uncritically from their father, and accepted his perverse value system without any judgement, assuming they were amongst the few in the world to have just values and thus be saved by God. 

Thus we can understand Lot’s daughters’ self confidence that surely they were the only ones saved by God as he destroyed the world. Lot’s daughters didn’t have any conception that the society they lived in was uniquely flawed. They figured the rest of the world must surely be this way, and they alone stood out as moral actors. Without the  positive example of Avraham in their lives, Lot’s daughters were mistakenly led down a path of unearned moral self-confidence, ultimately leading to their own moral downfall.

The message of Lot’s daughters is a powerful one for all of us. There are many ideals and values we all care about and subscribe to in the world. We all value hospitality and welcoming, Minyan and religious ritual. But if those values remain lofty ideals– floating about in the abstract, without a concrete example to weigh against– they become perverted. If we want to build homes that propagate the values and morality of the Torah, we must lead by concrete examples. We must fill our homes with positive role models, and seek out opportunities to concretize and act upon our values. If we relegate it to the realm of the theoretical, paying mere lipservice to our values, we not only risk corrupting our values, but much like the daughters’ of Lot who looked around Sodom and figured this was what the whole world must be like, we risk losing our sense of perspective. 

And so, as we build our homes, our Shul, and our community, we must seek out those voices and role models who stand for good and amplify them as examples in our community. We must make sure that the Shul we build is not one where Torah values are assumed in the abstract, but never discussed or demonstrated. And we must expand our perspective beyond the narrow confines of our own walls of existence, and look to learn from the positive role model of those voices we bring into our community. Hopefully then we can rectify the wrongs of Sodom and build a community that embodies Torah values. 


October 30th: Lech Lecha

Serving as an early example of a story that begins in medias res, the Avraham narrative manages to entirely leave out Avraham’s back story and childhood, instead picking up with Avraham having already found God. But the Torah tells us that by the time Avraham heard God’s call of Lech Lecha, Avraham was already middle-aged (or, for the lives of Tanach characters perhaps more third- or quarter-aged). The four decades of growth and character development that brought Avraham to the place where he could hear God and respond are totally omitted! The reader is left wondering what Avraham’s early life was like, and how he became the heroic figure he is.

Thankfully, the rabbis and contributors to the oral tradition stepped up in the place of this lacking and filled in many of the details. Rambam, through a combination of his personal scientific beliefs and Midrashim, describes Avraham as a philosophical and scientific pioneer, extrapolating astrological and astronomical conclusions from his personal observations and hypotheses about the cosmos. Rambam (Avodah Zarah 1:3) makes oblique reference to Avraham’s father and mother as “foolish idolators,” a piece of important context and background info that is absent from the Tanach, but thoroughly developed by Chazal throughout the Midrash, as the rabbis sought to fill in the gaps the Torah leaves in Avraham’s childhood.

In particular, Rambam makes reference to perhaps the two most famous Midarshim about Avraham’s early life. Firstly, Rambam tells us that Avraham broke his family’s idols– a rabbinic legend that has grown and been retold in numerous ways, often framed with the claim that Terach, Avraham’s father, was steeped in idolatry and the production and sale of idols, and a young Avraham, as a sign of protest, destroyed his father’s idols and idol-making shop in an attempt to teach a lesson about monotheism. 

Next, Rambam moves on to the famous incident of the Kivshan, the industrial oven that Chazal see as the source of Ur Kasdim’s– literally the the fire of the Chaldeans– name. Rambam references the Midrash that tells us that the authorities had found out about Avraham’s rejection of idolatry in favor of monotheism, as well as his successful prostylezation to his brother Haran. As a punishment, they demanded that Terach give over his children to be thrown into the oven of Kasdim for heresy. The Midrash describes how Terach painfully watched his son Haran immolate in the flames first– picking up on the unusual formulation the Torah uses of “וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו,” “and Haran died in front of Terach his father”– and then gave over Avraham to presumably meet his brother’s fate. Ultimately, Avraham was saved from the flames of the oven by God’s miraculous intervention, and the event served as a major revelation for the religion Avraham was preaching. 

On their surface, both of these stories seem to present Terach, Avraham’s father, as a quintessential idolatrous sinner, leaving us to ultimately conclude, much like the Rambam, that Avraham’s revelation and commitment to God must have sprung out of nowhere– from Avraham’s unique perceptiveness and aptitude for astrology and theology. Steeped in a society and family of immoral and corrupt idolaters, little Avraham had to teach himself the truth of God’s singularity. Perhaps that is why Avraham is given little to no introduction in the Torah, as Avraham is meant to feel as if he just appeared out of nowhere, as the striking nature of his autodidactic realization of Hashem’s existence also feels surprisingly ex nihilo. 

And yet, this presentation is not fully complete. Shallowly, because we do in fact have at least one story presented in the Torah prior to Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha. Perhaps more importantly, that singular story seems to complicate our simple picture of Avraham’s unlikely origin story as a contrarian who rejects the values and culture of his family and surroundings to go off on his own. I’m referring to the few verses at the very end of Parashat Noach which serve as a preface to the story of Avraham in Lech Lecha. The Torah tells us (BeReishit 11:31):


31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

לא  וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.


Before Avraham ever hears God’s call “to the land which [God] will reveal to him,”– which we the readers know to be the land of Canaan– Terach, Avraham’s father, rounds up the entire family and attempts to make it to Canaan, ultimately failing to reach the final destination and settling around Charan. This often overlooked verse should strike us as shocking. What was Terach, Avraham’s idolatrous father, who willingly sacrificed his son Haran for the sake of his corrupt ideology, doing by trying to make it to Canaan? Why is he journeying to God’s revealed place before we even hear of Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha?

Despite the impression one might get from a casual read of the Midrashim and oral traditions surrounding Avraham, I think the Torah here is trying to push back against the perception that Avraham appeared out of nowhere and managed to reach his spiritual level despite the sinfulness of his father and his father’s house. The Torah is prefacing the Avraham story by drawing our attention to Terach and paralleling Terach with his son, showing that Avraham and Terach both tried to journey to Canaan, perhaps reflecting similar religious urges and commitments. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra says that Terach’s trip towards Canaan happened after God’s call to Avaham, seemingly implying that, at least to start, Terach and Avraham were working together in the mission of realizing God’s call– a shocking idea for those of us accustomed to the popular conception of Terach as a sinner. Not only does it undermine our previous conception of Terach’s religious constitution, but it pushes us to see Avraham and Terach as closer to each other than one might have thought from the Midrashic stories. 

Perhaps we can take this idea even further, using the perspective of the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet comments on the beginning of Lech Lecha and claims that God’s call of “Lech Lecha,” the archetypal call to rise to the divine mission and spread God’s word to the world, was not uniquely spoken to Avraham. Rather, God had been calling out repeatedly to the world, looking for someone to take up his cause. Avraham was simply the first person to actually respond to God’s call. Given that perspective, we can even further appreciate Terach’s initial efforts to make it to Canaan. While perhaps he was ultimately incapable of living up to the charge of Lech Lecha and actually fulfilling God’s mission, Terach at least tried, hearing God’s call and taking important first steps towards actualizing it. Perhaps it was these first steps that laid the crucial groundwork that would enable Avraham to later fulfill his mission. 

Shockingly, Rav Kook takes this parallel between Terach and Avraham to an extreme. Rav Kook points to Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac– perhaps the most quintessential and important Avraham story– and asks how Avraham was able to muster the strength to rise to such a serious challenge. True, Avraham was a loyal servant of God, but sacrificing his son was a challenge of scale and kind that was completely unprecedented so far. Where did Avraham gain the constitution for such a harrowing and morally confusing challenge? Rav Kook answers by pointing to the Midrash of the fires of Or Kasdim. There the Midrash tells us that Terach, himself perhaps a religious leader in the community as a producer or at least owner of many idols, was willing to give over his own sons and risk sacrificing them– ultimately losing his son Haran– for the sake of his religious convictions. It was out of his commitment to his, unfortunately flawed, pagan ideals and religious commitments that Terach willingly offered over two of his sons to be murdered as sacrifices in the name of religion. Avraham remembered the conviction with which his father acted for his pagan beliefs, and was inspired to act similarly in service of Hashem, as he willingly offered Yitzchak as a sacrifice at the Akeidah.

Much like the parallel between Terach’s Aliyah and Avraham’s, Rav Kook’s parallel between the Akeidah and the story of the Kivshan not only brings Avraham and Terach closer as a familial unit, but it identifies some of the very qualities that made Avraham into the unique religious forefather he was with his idolatrous father Terach’s example. Avraham knew the details of Terach’s belief in flawed idolatry was incorrect, as God ought to be worshipped as a non-physical montheistic entity. But Avraham nonetheless was able to recognize and learn from Terach’s religious passion and commitments, perhaps even going so far as to work together with him in his initial trip to Canaan to heed God’s call. 

This interpretation also sheds new light on God’s emphasis that Avraham must leave “the land of his birth, his father’s house.” If Avraham was growing up surrounded by sinful idolaters, and was very nearly killed by his father, what sacrifice would it entail for Avraham to disconnect from his father’s house? Surely it would be a breath of fresh air to get out on his own and practice his religion without persecution! But the Torah is rejecting that narrative. Avraham was close with his father despite their disagreement, because he was able to learn from the good within him, despite the many significant and important matters they disagreed on– matters that dealt with the most severe of consequences, such as the true religion, the true God, and how to properly serve Him. Yet, despite all of that difference, Avraham was able to hold a close relationship with, and perhaps even learn and team up with his father Terach, all in service of God’s divine mission. 

Rav Kook learns from here an important message about the sparks of holiness that exist within everyone and everything– even literal heresy and heretics themselves. Avraham was able to mine the holiness within Terach and use it in service of God. Perhaps less mystically, we can view this teaching as a lesson on our need for flexibility and a willingness to learn and partner even with those we disagree with. Unfortunately, we live in a world where purity tests are all too common, and a person or organization fighting for justice can immediately be dismissed– or worse, labeled as malicious– due to important and substantive disagreements. It is all too common for organizations or movements that focus almost exclusively on pressing issues of justice domestically across America to be castigated and rejected in our community due to the positions its members may hold about political issues surrounding Israel, or other perceived flaws or disagreements. Of course the safety and security of Israel, our religious commitments, and our Jewish perspective are essential elements of our belief system and identity that we should never compromise on. But Avraham teaches us that, when the end goal is heeding God’s mission to serve him and actualize a more just world, we need to be able to work through our discomfort and disagreement and build coalitions. If Avraham could learn about religious commitment and self-sacrifice from his idolatrous father Terach, then surely we can learn much about issues of justice and activism in our home communities from people with whom we vehemently disagree about issues of religion or global politics. If we can work to emulate Avraham– not only in his example as a devout Oveid Hashem, but in his role of an Av Hamon Goyim, a father of many nations– who was able to forge bonds and work together with all kinds of people he disagreed with– we will be able to heed the call of Lech Lecha that, as the Sefat Emet teaches us, existed before Avraham and still continues to this very day, as we work to actualize God’s vision of a just world. 


October 23rd: Parshat NOACH

It has become a familiar trope that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While it should come as no surprise that the science and history behind this quote is questionable, and that this definition of insanity seems to actually originate in the literature surrounding 12-step recovery programs and embracing your powerlessness in the face of addiction, the idea remains resonant. And so, it is surprising that immediately after seeing his first creation fail and having to destroy the world, God seemingly does the exact same thing all over again. In this week’s Parashah, God brings a flood to wipe out the corrupt human civilization that developed after Adam, but saves Noach and his family to rebuild. But what has changed that God thinks Noach and company will do a better job than Adam and Eve’s family were able to do? How is God setting Noach up for success? Is God addicted to humanity?

To see what has changed, we must first compare these two creation stories– the creation of Adam and Eve, and the renewal of creation that takes place by the hands of Noach and his family. Both stories involve God’s “ruach” or wind blowing over the waters and separating out dry land from the seemingly unending wetness of the oceans. Following this separation of wet and dry land, produce is found by God’s command in Chapter 1, and by the dove’s return in Chapter 8, and then man is allowed to settle the world and given a command and charge from God. Adam is told (BeReishit 1:28-29): 
כח)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ 
כט)  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע:  לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food

Notably, Adam is charged with the command to multiply and conquer the land. To that end, he is given the right to exercise dominion, URedu in the language of the Torah, over the animals and creatures on the Earth. Noach’s charge is strikingly similar (BeReishit 9:1-3: 
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.
3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.
א)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נֹחַ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
ב)  וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ.
ג)  כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.

Noach’s blessing can be boiled down to very similar bullet points as Adam’s, as he is given a blessing of fruitfulness, charged with repopulating the Earth, and given special license over the animals and creation. However, it is amongst these large similarities that the subtle differences stand out.  Perhaps most famously, when one compares Noach’s permissions with those of Adam’s, one sees that Noach is given a broader set of allowances– namely, while Adam was only allowed to use animals, but had to eat strictly vegetation, Noach is allowed to eat animals as well. In other words, Noach was the first man given permission to eat meat.

While this halakhic shift in dietary restrictions is surely significant, oftentimes people are so preoccupied with the practical “what” question of “what was man allowed to eat,” they miss the perhaps more significant “why” question: why was man permitted to eat meat starting with Noach? To that end, I think we have to focus on the different charges Adam and Noach receive in relation to creation. Adam is charged with being Koveish, conquering, all of creation. To that end, he is allowed to exercise dominion over animals, but not allowed to eat them. If God is the king of all, then Adam is his delegate and governor, chosen to represent Him as the ruler of Earth. Noach, however, has no command of dominion. In fact, Noach has no command at all! God merely describes a reality– that animals will fear Noach. Whereas Adam is told to conquer the world, Noach is merely informed that the animals of the world will fear him.

This shift reflects the fundamental shift that takes place between the creation of the world during Adam’s time, and the recreation and renewal of Noach. Initially, man was charged with conquering the world and serving as its ruler. Man was meant to exist above the animal kingdom, not merely being the most powerful apex predator, but being of a different level of existence and being altogether– a spiritual one in the Garden of Eden, closer to God and the angels than to the materiality of his physical and animalistic body. This echoes Adam’s other commandment, LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and guard the garden, as Adam is given responsibility with his privilege and charged with caring for the entirety of creation. To that end, man had no right to eat animals, as a ruler is charged with caring for his subjects from above, and succumbing to their level and partaking in the predatory nature of the food chain was beneath mankind.Thus, Adam is charged with the command of VeKivshuah, conquering, and empowered with the right of URedu, dominion. 

Noach, however, represents the major shift that took place during the generation of the flood. Man corrupted their divinity and fell out of touch with the initial mission of Adam. Rather than steward and protect creation, man sought ways to manipulate and abuse it. Thus, God stopped treating man as a nearly divine-entity that is above the creation, but rather shifted to treat man like the animal that he is. This moment of “recognition” on God’s part is expressed in the verses immediately preceding the Noach story, at the end of last week’s Parashah. There the Torah tells us (BeReishit 6:3):
3 And the LORD said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.

After observing the generations post-Adam and seeing their corruption, God realizes that man is flesh– like the animals– and has decided to pursue his Earthly and physical existence at the expense of his spiritual existence. Thus, God needs to wipe out the Earth and start over given this new recognition and new reality. Creation has to be reordered to function without a human governor from above. This is why God brings about the Flood– to respond to this new recognition and understanding, and address the new reality. 

Given this context, we can now understand why Noach is allowed to eat animals. Man is no longer expected to be a divinely empowered ruler, who conquers the world and represents God’s interests to the creations within it. Rather, God is forced to concede that man is one of the animals like the rest. True, man is the ultimate apex predator, and as such the other animals will all fear us and be subject to our desires, but that is not a divine right of governing, but merely a reality that we are “better” or more powerful animals than all the rest. As such, man is part of the predatory food chain of creation, and the human history that we continue to be a part of today is set on the backdrop of man conceding to his animalism and taking his role in the creation as another animal. 
Yet, while the sinful ways of the generation of the flood convinced God of man’s inability to rule and govern as a steward for creation, we today have a unique opportunity to try and correct for man’s mistakes. The world we live in is in a precarious place. We are already past the point of feeling the effects of global warming, and seeing how man, as an animalistic apex predator, can kill and devour other creatures and earthly resources with no regard for its implications. And much like the generation of the flood, the sins of our generation– our selfishness and lack of thoughtfulness about the consequence of our actions on the planet– are resulting in disproportionate violence, economic hardships, and injustice for the most vulnerable in society. But unlike the generation of the flood, it is not yet too late to reverse course and do our part to care for and preserve the health of the world. We can still prove to God our ability to live up to the command Adam was given LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and preserve the garden he was born into. 

We should take the destruction story of Noach as a painfully relevant reminder in our days that, if we choose to live in a world of social Darwinism, governed by the hash rules of the animal kingdom, the strongest will survive at the expense of the less fortunate. If we want to avoid another global destruction, and prove to God that we are able to live up to His aspirations for us, we must all take collective responsibility for the challenges that lay ahead, and not be complacent as the world around us begins to slip away. 

Mon, November 30 2020 14 Kislev 5781