Noach – Dominion after the Deluge

October 8, 2018
By
Noach – Dominion after the Deluge

Listen to an audio version

B’reishit offers us unique insights concerning humankind’s responsibility to be both sovereign and servants over creation, and the lessons that we might learn about compassion from our furry friends who are the “other white meat” on this planet. Some might be surprised to learn that this week’s parasha Noach offers more of these insights and still others that we might deduce such as self-control and self-limitation. But first let us review last week’s lessons.

As described by the first two commands given in Genesis, humankind was given the responsibility of being the image bearers of God in this world in two distinct ways. First, humanity is commanded to have dominion in this world. “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth (Gen. 1:28).” The second divine charge to humanity is to “till” (l’avdah, literally to serve or to worship) the ground (2:15). While the command is very much the same as the first command, it is actualized quite differently. In the first, humans mirror the image of God as kings, but in the second, as servants. Dominion or mastery does not suggest unbridled freedom to ravage, exploit and exhaust the rest of the animal kingdom, rather as the only beings created in the image of God, humans are expected to be benevolent rulers, serving the creation.

It would appear from the Creation narratives of Genesis 1-2 that animals were originally intended for a more intimate relationship with humaWhy nity than a mere food source. In Genesis 2:18 God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” But there is a gap between this declaration and the creation of the women from the rib of man in verse 21. In between, in verses 19 and 20 God creates the animals from the dust of the earth just as he did the man. Also the animals are brought before the man who is given charge to name each of them, “but for Adam no suitable helper was found.” From this we might ascertain several thoughts. First, this reiterates the idea of man as the benevolent ruler. Although the animals were created much as he was, only the human is able to participate in the creative task of naming. Second there is a clear intimacy between Adam and the rest of the creatures, not only does he know the animals well enough to give them suitable names, but there is an implied potential for one of them to be his special mate. Whatever the unstated process of evaluation was, the Torah is clear that it is only after eliminating the rest of the animal world, as suitable mates, that God provided one that Adam could say was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (v.23).” Read more »

B’reishit – Facing Our Other Side, East of Eden

October 1, 2018
By
B’reishit – Facing Our Other Side, East of Eden

As we begin to explore this story of humankind outside the Garden of Eden, we like Cain should be uncomfortable with our first encounter being fratricide.  Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we walk away with less emotional investment into this narrative, than we put into the average Super Bowl.  Lamentably, those of us who are most committed to the inspiration and historicity of the Genesis accounts,  often  accept a very pale one dimensional rendering of these stories, that strip away the great complexity of human drama.

Why then does the inspired writer force us at the outset of the human journey, to confront such a violent accounting of sibling rivalry?  I believe that the answer lies between the lines of the terse narrative found in the fourth chapter of B’reishit. The sages engaged in a homiletic enterprise called midrash, that comes from   the word that means “to search.”  By developing stories that filled in the missing details to the biblical narratives, they confronted the unanswered questions that arose. Far more important than the static details of the stories themselves, are the challenges that they pose to the hearer, and the lessons they teach about the Divine human encounter. If this form of exposition sounds familiar, it should.  The inspired authors of the Brit Chadashah, including Yeshua himself used midrash, and engaged the existing “midrash like” stories  of his day. Read more »

Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

September 25, 2018
By
Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

Sukkot remembers that freedom came as the result of pitching tents over 14,600 days and honors the 43,000 meals prepared in the dessert. But more importantly Sukkot reminds us that God is everywhere and undermines the idolatry of rootedness. This doesn’t mean that home and hearth are bad values; rather it serves as a dialectic reminder that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners in this present reality. Our journey in the wilderness began at Passover when Hashem took us out of the land of Egypt and commanded us to eat our last meal there in great haste with “our staff in hand and our loins girded” (I am still a little uncertain and just a little scared of the alternative), an idiom which suggests that we are to be perpetual wanderers.

We look for shelter in our possessions, but they can only give us temporary comfort. We seek reassurance from our jobs, but they can’t really protect us from uncertainty. We turn to hobbies, people and places to fill the emptiness, but ultimately, our souls cannot be filled from the outside.

The idea is to remind us of the fragility of the world that we occupy, a world that relies upon the sustenance and the benevolence of the Creator. This is why we add the following statement to the daily Amida between Sukkot and Passover; “Who makes the wind to blow and the rain descend”. It is wedged between two other affirmations in the prayers; “You resuscitate the dead and are able to save” and “Who sustains the living with loving kindness.” The placement creates the unambiguous suggestion that God’s provision of our agricultural needs that provide our daily sustenance is no less miraculous than the resurrection of the dead, and no less important than the care of our individual health. Therefore we are reminded that all that we are, all that we have and all that we need are in the hands of the one who created us. Read more »

Shabbat Shuvah – Scandalous!

September 11, 2018
By
Shabbat Shuvah – Scandalous!

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. It is also one of the least read! Even those who claim love and fidelity for the Bible, who often quote chapter and verse, rarely have read the Scriptures in entirety! It is so common for biblical adherents to skip over the most difficult passages to interpret and the ones that are frankly just difficult to hear. Psalm 137 for example is often quoted and sang in various Christian and Jewish liturgies as well as popular song (re: Joan Baez), “By the Rivers of Babylon”) yet its  impassioned plea to dash our enemies’ babies against rocks (v.9) is usually expurgated! The fact is that the Bible is hardly a children’s book. It deals with human frailty and the hard and often harsh reality of human interaction. Perhaps though,  given the most popular viewing and reading choices in popular culture,  it would be a better PR strategy to advertise the more scandalous narratives in Scripture!

The haftarah for this week has one of the steamiest back-stories in the entire biblical canon. It can be found in the book of Hosea which has its own set of PR problems. First and foremost, it is one of the so-called minor prophets, a very unfortunate moniker! Nothing says “pay no attention” like calling something minor. This nomenclature is not a commentary on the importance of these prophets, rather it is a misunderstood description of their shorter length. I think if we called these the “very short but really important prophets” it would boost their ratings exponentially!  But so, would this story. It is what my mother, of blessed memory would refer to as a “tear jerker”. It is a sad story of adultery, abandonment, neglect and betrayal. It is also though, a story of faithfulness, patience, love and relational restoration. Read more »

Nitsavim – Choose Life

September 5, 2018
By
Nitsavim – Choose Life

Listen to an audio version

God is dead! Or so some would say, such as Richard Rubinstein the esteemed former professor of religion at University of Florida and Bridgeport University. As a leading cultural analyst, and a most prominent “Death of God” theologians this is Rubinstein’s response to the horrific atrocities of humankind against itself in the 20th century, especially following the holocaust. God is dead! After all, in the wake of Auschwitz the highly valued norms of modern culture were deeply implicated in creating the backdrop to the mass murder. It is no small wonder then that when confronted by the sinister nature of human reason and the implosion of the modernist paradigm of moral progress, Rubinstein responded with the language, reasoning and rugged individualism that had ironically defined the failure of his generation. In his famous book After Auschwitz he states, “We learned in the crisis that we were totally and nakedly alone, that we could expect neither support nor succor from God nor from our fellow creatures.” Sadly, Rubinstein’s thoughts echo the philosophers of the 17th century who after observing the decline of the church and crowns of Europe, found certitude in nothing but their own machinations, and in the declaration that the only hope, is to confess that here is no hope at all. For Rubinstein the covenant with Israel is an illusion and the only Messiah is death. Read more »

Ki Tavo – Do Not Neglect Nor Transgress

August 28, 2018
By
Ki Tavo – Do Not Neglect Nor Transgress

Listen to an audio version …lo avarti mi’mitzvoteycha v’lo sha’chachti “I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of your commandments” (Devarim 26:13). This is the pledge that God commanded the children of Israel to declare every third year after removing their tithe from their premises and having given it to the Levites and the indigents in the Land. It was only after they had fully divested themselves of all portions of the crop that were to be donated that they could make this formal declaration and pray for God’s continued blessing upon the land and the people of Israel. Why then the apparent redundancy in this statement? One who has not transgressed the commandments has obviously not neglected them.

The S’fat Emet, a nineteenth century Chasidic rebbe and scholar, comments that sometimes we may perform a mitzvah only out of habit neglecting the reason behind it. While we may fulfill the commandment we might lack the proper kavanah, or intent. Therefore, we might expand this declaration to say, “ I have not performed any of the mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, without feeling, or proper devotion.”

As the High Holy Days are approaching, we are to turn our intentions to the sins that we have committed over the past year. The shelichot (penitential prayers recited following the last Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah) ask us to examine our negative actions and our negative attitudes such as mendacity, frivolity, haughtiness and dozens of other words that we do not use in normal conversation. But the spirit of repentance during the Holy Days demands that we go beyond negative commands (the “Thou Shall Nots”) that we have transgressed, and requires us to consider the positive commands (the “Thou Shalls”) that we may have neglected.

In other words our introspection should include not only sins of commission, but also sins of omission. This I believe is why we are asked to declare that we have not only transgressed the command not to oppress the stranger, as the Egyptians did to us when we sojourned among them (vv. 5-8), but that we are not to neglect the plight and the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan (vv.12-13). In Judaism helping the needy, the helpless and the homeless is not merely a nice thing to do, but rather is considered a sacred obligation commanded in the Torah. Read more »