With the opening of this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, the Torah begins to tell the story of one man and his family, rather than humanity in general. We are introduced to Avram and his wife Sarai, and their journey, at Divine command, from someplace in ancient Mesopotamia to the Land of Israel. This is more than just a physical relocation. It is a spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, Pirkei Avot teaches that Avram underwent 10 tests, and both Rashi and the Rambam present a list of the tests. Even though there is some discrepancy, they agree that the last test is the binding of Yitzchak upon an altar, which we will read about next week.
Avram passes all 10 tests, and this is evident when HaShem gives him a new name. “No longer shall you be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I made you the father of a multitude of nations, “ he is told. The new name is indicative of Avraham’s spiritual ascendency. He is a different person. The Torah and Rabbinic literature are replete with examples of Avraham’s character. We are familiar with the midrash of him smashing the idols in his father’s store, in recognition of the One true G-d. Next week we will witness him standing up to HaShem on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gemorah. To a certain extent one may say that Avraham is the first maverick among humankind, swimming against the current of his time. In fact, he known, according to the midrash, as Avraham HaIvri. Ivri is Hebrew for “Hebrew,” but the word Ivri also indicates, “other,” meaning that while the world was on one side, Avraham stood on the other, charting a different course for his family.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of the Kohanim and the crown of kingship, however, a fourth crown, that of a good name, is superior to them all. We are known by our name. Unlike Avraham we are not changing our names, therefore for each of us our name is our character, our reputation. Avraham, known as the man of chesed, of kind deeds, a hallmark of Judaism, is the exemplar of a good name, a good character. Ultimately, in the end, we will be remembered not for our grades and our degrees, but rather our character, how we touch, and make better, the lives of those around us.
We live in an uncertain and often times frightening world. We need heroes to whom we can turn for strength, guidance and inspiration. Sadly, sports figures, rock stars and politicians are fleeting at best as many do not embody the values we want for ourselves or for our children to emulate. While he is not perfect, Avraham is such a role model. He is devoted to HaShem, to his family, to treating people the right way (again, we will see this next week as Avraham welcomes the three strangers into his tent despite the pain following his brit milah). He stands up for injustices.
This is the time for heroes – let Avraham, the man with the good name, be ours.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) was a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust and one of the prominent leaders in the Religious Zionist Movement in Israel for many years. When he founded Yeshivat Har Etzion in late 1960’s in the aftermath of the Six Day War, he told this story:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (the founder of the Chabad sect of the Hasidic movement) and his grandson were once studying Torah in a three room house. Reb Shneur Zalman was in the inner room, his grandson was in the middle room and in the outer room a baby slept. At one point the baby began to cry. The grandson was so immersed in his studies that he did not hear the baby’s cries. Reb Shneur Zalman interrupted his learning went to the baby and soothed him. He then admonished his grandson saying that if he could not hear a baby cry in the next room, there was something wrong with his study of Torah.
Rabbi Amital told this story to illustrate the type of yeshiva he envisioned. He explained that Reb Shneur Zalman’s point was that while Torah study is of tremendous importance, we cannot disengage from the world around us, that study must not prevent us from feeling the pain of another Jew. Rabbi Amital wanted that notion instilled into the foundation of his yeshiva.
This week’s parsha is Noach, and we are all familiar with the story of HaShem’s anger at humanity for corruption so pervasive that, as Rashi comments, even the animals were affected. Therefore Noach is commanded to build an ark and bring his family and two of every animal aboard, for they would repopulate the world after every living being creature would be wiped out in a flood.
The part of the parsha that resonates with me, however, is the very end, a portion which is only nine verses long. Here the Torah relates that the all the world’s population was situated in one locale and spoke one language, which according to Rashi was Hebrew. It is described how the people traveled east, settled in the land of Shinar and decided to build a tower together, “. . . with its top in the heavens.” HaShem is distressed over this and scatters the people all over the earth. In doing so languages are changed so that people cannot talk to each other. The tower is known as Babel. The Hebrew root of this word means “to confuse.” From this moment, the people would be confused by each other’s speech.
The piece I find compelling is how the people came together. While the Talmud does point out that the people wanted to “wage war against G-d”, the reality is that when people unify under a common purpose, great things can be accomplished. The people’s ultimate goal was misguided, to be sure, but their sentiment of unity was not. In fact, the midrash makes the point that the people of the generation of the dispersion loved each other.
At this moment the situation in Israel is indeed perilous. Hardly a day passes without the news informing us of another attack against Jews. We see the photos on TV and computer showing scenes of funerals. Now it is our time to unite. It is our time to stand with our fellow Jews in Israel. As Reb Shneur Zalman said to his grandson, we must feel the pain of another Jew. How many mothers are afraid to send their husbands to work or their children to school for fear of attack? Their pain must be our pain. Our brothers and sisters in Israel must be in our thoughts and our prayers.
Like Rabbi Amital we, too, must envision a school where the Torah we learn weaves threads of compassion into its very fabric. Our Torah must help us hear the baby’s cry.
Let there be peace in Israel.
The holidays are over. We have heard the blasts of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, we fasted on Yom Kippur and experienced the joy of Sukkot and finally danced with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Now, it is back to the beginning returning once again to Bereshit as we read about the origins of humanity in general and our people specifically.
The creation story may indeed be one of the more well known stories in the Torah. Towards the end, the Torah says, “And G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him . . .” This idea of being created in the Divine image is, again, one of the more familiar concepts in Judaism. But to what kind of “image” is the Torah referring? Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, (1134 – 1204) known as the Rambam, wrote in his work on Jewish law, The Mishneh Torah, that G-d has no physical form whatsoever, therefore the question remains.
The Rambam raises the same question in the first chapter of his philosophical work, the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed). Here, the Rambam writes that “image” is not physical form, but rather essence. Consider these two sentences: “She is the image of her mother” and “he was the image of bravery.” In the first sentence, image is a physical trait, she physically resembles her mother. However, in the second, the use of the word “image” is descriptive. The sentence is describing the essence of the person as brave. Rambam, therefore is teaching us that when the Torah says that we are created in the Divine image, we are created with an essence that is divine. Again, what is that essence?
In this first chapter of the Torah, G-d is creating the world. Prior to each day’s creation G-d says, “Let there be . . . “ There is thought and then the creative act. The Divine essence, or at least one aspect of it, (if I may be so bold to suggest) is thought and creativity (along with other Divine qualities such as mercy and compassion). Through using our minds, our thinking, our creativity as well as our mercy and compassion, we are indeed in the Divine image.
Thinking, creating, having compassion – qualities that make us human. Isn’t that just divine?
The Torah commands that we “take the fruit of a good tree, a branch of a date palm, twigs of plaited tree, and willows and rejoice” for seven days. Today we know this as the mitzvah of the Arba’ah Minim, the lulav, the etrog, the hadasim and the aravot, the four species that are waved during six of the seven days of Sukkot, as they are not waved on Shabbat. One important aspect of this mitzvah is that these four minim are waved, they must be bound together. The lulav, hadasim and the aravot are held together in a small basket, woven from strips of the palm branch, but the etrog must be held directly adjacent to the other three. Another crucial element of this mitzvah is that all four minim must be held together in order to recite the accompanying blessing and wave them. If one of the minim is absent, the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled.
There is well known midrash which teaches that if each of the arba’ah minim represents a different type of Jew. The etrog, for example, has a combination of fragrance and taste, representing that some Jews are more scholarly and involved, as opposed to the aravot which has neither, symbolizing those Jews that are neither scholarly nor involved. The lulav and the hadasim represent gradations of the two extremes. However, the main thrust of the midrash is that every Jew, no irrespective of how much they know or how involved they are, is part of the Jewish people and cannot be discounted. The mitzvah is only fulfilled if all four minim are present; each min is important, each Jew is important.
The Arba’ah Minim embody our GBDS. We are a diverse community, with differing backgrounds, and practices and opinions. Yet, like the Araba’ah Minim, each of us is important, each of has a place in the community. Just as the Arba’ah Minim are bound together by the small woven basket, we are bound together by Jewish tradition, with the same history and ultimately the same destiny. Let the Arba'ah Minim be our banner.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Samayach.
The Talmud relates the story of a man named Elazar ben Durdia who was known to lead a rather immoral lifestyle. When he visited one such consort, she told him that heaven would never accept his teshuva, his repentance. This so shook Elazar ben Durdia that he went to the field, sat between two hills and asked the hills to pray on his behalf. The hills told him they could not. Panicked he asked the sun and the moon to pray on his behalf, but they too answered that they could not. Finally he begged the stars and the constellations to pray on his behalf, but alas, they also responded that they could not. Elazar ben Durdia screamed “The matter depends solely on me!” With that realization, Elazar ben Durdia put his head between his knees and wept and continued to weep until his body gave out and he died.
In many ways this period immediately following Yom Kippur is more difficult, and possibly even more important, than Yom Kippur itself. The fasting, the prayers and the beating our chest are vehicles to bring us to reflect on how we need to do better. The entire nature of the day is focused on this. However, it is much harder to put those thoughts and hopes of self-improvement into practice the next day when we return to the normalcy of our lives interacting with our spouses and our co-workers and friends.
The good part is that is indeed possible to make those changes. Elazar ben Durdia’s realization “The matter depends solely on me!” is our realization. We have that ability to change, to be better, to become the person we want to be.
Say it to yourself, “The matter depends solely on me!”
Shabbat Shalom one and all