Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayetzei - Divine Karma

It would be nice to imagine that our world works according to the principles of karma; that people's good actions would be rewarded, and people's negative actions would be punished.  But, all too often, unfortunately we see that the good are not rewarded, and the wicked are not punished.  And so it's hard to believe that the world really works according to those principles of you get what you deserve; and yet in this week's Torah portion we see an important example of divine karma.  

The main character of this week is Jacob.  Last week we read about how Jacob deceived his father Isaac to steal his brother Esau's birthright.  Jacob essentially pretended to be his brother, and played on the fact that Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see.  Following this deception he fled and seems to have got away with his crime, having received the birthright and made it to Haran at the beginning of this week's Torah portion.  But the story does not end there.  

Jacob meets Rachel the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and falls in love with her.  We also learn that Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we read that "Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful."  At this moment, having read previously about Isaac's eyesight, we cannot fail to see a connection between Isaac and Leah.  As the story continues Jacob works seven years in order to receive Rachel's hand in marriage.  And after seven years of work there is indeed a wedding; but the following morning when Jacob wakes up he discovers that rather than marrying Rachel, it was Leah whom he married.  

In this way Laban tricked his nephew and switched the sisters beneath the veil.  Considering the fact that Jacob had tricked his father, pretending to be his brother, this seems an appropriate response that Laban, in turn, tricks Jacob by having Leah pretend to be Rachel.  

The text does not suggest that Laban knew of Jacob's earlier deception, and it seems unlikely that he was concerned with "punishing" his nephew, and so in the background we might see an example of divine karma.  While God intended for Jacob to receive the birthright, and did not intervene at the moment of deception, there is still a need for there to be some form of punishment, some retribution for what he did.  

Rather than leave this in the hands of Esau, where the conflict would have been resolved brother against brother, God takes the matter into God's own hands and through this divine karma ensures that Jacob receives an appropriate punishment for what he did.  In this case, and perhaps only in this case, in our Torah we really see that what goes around does come around, and we see that sometimes there can be divine karma with a clear punishment for the crime that was committed.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Toldot - Peace with our Enemies

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being a delegate at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem representing the Arzenu faction (as an ARZA delegate from the USA).  This trip was challenging, thought provoking, inspiring, uplifting, and depressing all in one.  While it was wonderful to be together with Jews from around the world at this historic gathering; at the same time it was very difficult to hear from Members of Knesset and Israelis, both on the right and on the left, who saw little hope for optimism and little prospect of peace.  

At this time we might think back to this week's Torah portion about the challenges of making peace in the land of Israel.  Isaac is the one patriarch who never leaves the land.  Despite the fact that there was a famine in the land God appeared to Isaac and said "Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. 3 Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you."  Isaac knows that his destiny is to stay in the land of Israel and he does this throughout his life.  But it is not always easy.  

We read that Isaac grew rich until he was very wealthy acquiring flocks, herds, and a large household.  His success comes at a price as we read that the Philistines envied him and so they "stopped up all the wells which his father's servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham."   Rather than seeking conflict Isaac moves on to another place; but again the Philistines come and they dispute with him and block up his wells.  So he moves again, trying to avoid conflict.  

Eventually we reach the point where Avimelech comes to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath, his councilor, and Phicol, the chief of his troops.  Understandably Isaac appears skeptical and says to them: "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?"  Their responses show that something has changed: "We now see plainly that Adonai has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of Adonai!"

Having read the previous passages we know that this is not necessarily an accurate retelling of what has happened and we know that there has been tension and enmity between Isaac and Avimelech.  And yet, at this moment, as Avimelech comes seeking peace they are able to make peace together and exchange oaths, departing from one another in peace.  Both sides need to recognize that the other is going nowhere.  And only then, sitting down as enemies, were they able to make a pact and make peace; allowing each other to live in the land side by side.

In advance of Avimelech coming to visit him I doubt Isaac envisaged that peace would ever be possible.  And yet somehow they found a way to make peace - a challenge which still eludes us today.  Hopefully we can follow in their footsteps.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Chayeih Sarah - Making our Peace

When people deal with a difficult event or something traumatic in their lives we on the outside often feel that there should be a timetable for when they're ready to get back into their normal routine.  A point when they should be able to put the thing behind them.  But, we know that really there is no set timetable for dealing with difficult events in our lives.  

While Judaism does lay down a schedule for mourning we know that some people need longer.  Some people need less time because we all mourn in our own ways, and we all come to terms with things on different schedules.

In this week's Torah portion we see just how long it takes for Isaac to come to terms with a few traumatic events in his life.  Last week, when we left off, Abraham had almost sacrificed his son Isaac on top of Mount Moriah, and this week we begin with the death of Sarah; as we read of his mother's death, Isaac is conspicuous by his absence.  

We might imagine that Isaac would be there to help with the burial of his mother and yet as we read the account of Sarah's death and then her burial we see that Abraham was very much alone.  In many ways the text emphasizes his loneliness and solitude amidst the Hittites.  As Abraham negotiates for the Cave of Machpelah, to have a place to bury his wife, Isaac is absent, still coming to terms with the events that have taken place. 

And then, after the burial, as Abraham prepares to find a wife for his son, Isaac is still absent.  Rather than speaking to his son and telling him that it is time for him to take a wife himself, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find his son a wife.  It is Eliezer who journeys back to the land of Abraham's birth to find Rebecca rather.  And it is only once Rebecca is with Eliezer that we finally read about Isaac again.

As Eliezer brings Rebecca back to meet his master we read that Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beerlecharoi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev, and it is then that Isaac sees Rebecca.  As we read in the text  "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife, Isaac loved her and found comfort after his mother's death".  Only with Rebecca by his side was he able to find comfort in the aftermath of his mother's death.  It took that amount of time and that event for him to make his peace with the fact that his mother had died.  

And then in making his peace with his mother's death he appears able to make peace with his father.  Although we do not read of the reconciliation between Isaac and Abraham we do read that Abraham died and his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah.  In this way we can read into the text that Isaac made his peace with his father and with his brother.  And for us reading the text perhaps Isaac and Ishmael making peace with one another can serve as a model for their children today to find a way to make peace.  

Friday, October 30, 2015

My Rosh Hashanah sermon on relationships

This year for Rosh Hashanah I preached on the importance of friendship and the need for us to invest in our relationships.

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayeira - Taxi for Abraham

Last week I had the privilege of being in Israel serving as an Arzenu delegat to the thirty-seventh World Zionist Congress.  There were many experiences from that time that will stay with me, but one of the highlights was definitely a taxi that I took to Ramat HaSharon.  At the beginning of the journey the driver started talking to me about what I did, and why I was in Israel.  When he found out I was a Reform Rabbi he was fascinated and started talking about Judaism, about Torah, about his family, and all sorts of other subjects.  But chief amongst them he wanted to tell me about Avraham Avinu - Abraham our father and the wonderful Midrashim that he had heard recently on the radio in Israel about Abraham and why he was chosen by God to be the founder of the Jewish people to be a great nation to be the blessing through which all the families of the shall be blessed.  

These Midrashim offer explanations for why God chose Abraham suggesting that Abraham, after worshiping the sun and the moon, realized that there must be one true God that he was supposed to worship and they go into more details about the reason for Abraham's choice.  

In many ways the reason that these Midrashim exist is because the Torah does not tell us anything about why God chose Abraham.  Two weeks ago when we first met Abraham all we knew was that he was married to Sarah and that they didn't have any children.  Last week the story was not filled out particularly in why he was the one to be chosen.  But this week in our Torah portion perhaps we finally get the beginnings of an answer. 

As Abraham is recovering from the surgery of Brit Milah of circumcision, he sees three men approaching his tent, and he rushes out to meet them.  Ever the hospitable host maybe one of the reasons why God chose him is the way he rushed to greet the stranger.  But then later on in the story we read that Adonai said: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?"  And then we find out the God intends to destroy the cities of Saddam and Gomorrah.  

Hearing these words, Abraham, rather than accepting God's decree, says: "Maybe there will be fifty righteous people in the city".  And then he proceeds to negotiate with God; suggesting first fifty, then forty five, then forty, then thirty, and then twenty, until eventually settling on ten.  Evidently those ten people could not be found, but we see in this moment that Abraham is someone who is willing to stand up to God, to challenge God, and to question God if it means protecting other people and protecting the world.  

Perhaps this is what God was looking for when God chose Abraham.  God wanted someone to be a partner, but someone that would also challenge God.  We might think back to the story of Adam and Eve when Eve was created so that she could be an ezer kenegdo - a help and an opposite to Adam; most importantly someone who was different and would challenge him.  Perhaps God knew that God needed someone like this as well, and that this would be the type of person with whom God should enter into a covenant.  And who would be God's chosen person?  Abraham in this week's Torah portion proves how he can be the ezer kenegdo, the one challenging God for the good of the world and humanity.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Lech Lecha - The Children of Abraham

When we divide the world's religions we often focus on the division between the monotheistic and polytheistic religion; essentially dividing religions between those with one God and those with more than one.  With this division the monotheistic group are often referred to as the Abrahamic religions; implying that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all descendants of Abraham.  And it is this week, in our Torah portion, that we read about Abraham's covenant with God and the beginning of these religions.  

God calls to Abraham lech lecha, instructing him to leave his homeland and set out on this journey to the Promised Land to enter into the covenant with God.  Another element is added to the covenant later in the Torah portion when God says to Abraham that his children and descendants will be more numerous than the stars and therefore impossible to count.  

While we focus on Abraham's covenant, the reality is that in this week's Torah portion we receive a second covenant.  Following on from Abraham's entry into the covenant.  We get the story of Hagar, who is Sarah's maidservant.  With Sarah unable to have a child she gives Hagar to Abraham so that he might conceive through her. However after falling pregnant Sarah persecutes Hagar so that she flees into the wilderness; it is there that we read about this second covenant.  

Alone in the wilderness she meets an angel of Adonai, and that Angel gives her a similar promise as was previously given to Abraham, telling her: "I will greatly increase your offspring and they shall be too numerous to count".  She is then told that she will have a son whom she shall name Ishmael, and after the exchange she says God is El Roi because she has seen God in this place.  Through the name Ishmael, which means God hears, and through the name El Roi, which means God sees, we know that at this moment Hagar has a divine encounter.  

In this Torah portion we therefore have the beginnings of two covenants; one with Abraham and one with Hagar; a Jewish covenant and a Muslim covenants.  God placed them in the Torah in close proximity, I think, believing that the two of them could coexist in the same Torah portion and then by extension, coexist in this world, and even in the same land.  

The challenge for us today as we read the Torah portion is to see the way that often Jews and Muslims are portrayed as enemies; rivals at war with one another.  But when we go back to the very beginning and look at how the two covenants started at the same time as parallel covenants, intended to exist alongside one another we see a very different message. And while I don't want to skip ahead, it is striking that at the end of Abraham's life.  It is Isaac and Ishmael who come together to bury their father.  Today, we must hope that the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael can once again come together; no longer for burials, but to make peace with one another.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Noach - Washing Everything Clean

I don't know about you, but at the end of a long, busy day there's nothing like stepping into the shower, feeling the water on your skin and washing away all of the dirt and grime that has accumulated.  I always feel when I step into the shower that I'm not just actually washing myself clean, but at the same time there's a sense of washing away everything that I need to get rid off at the end of a long day.  Water has an amazing power to give us that sense of being refreshed, renewed, and revived; and it also has an ability to wash away all that needs to be gone from our bodies.  

It's interesting therefore to think about this week's Torah portion of Noach when water comes down to flood the earth, destroying everything on this planet.  We read that the earth had become corrupt before God and was filled with corruption.  God decides that all flesh must be destroyed so says to Noach: I've decided to put an end to all flesh for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them I'm about to destroy them from the earth and then God instructs Noach to build the ark because God says; I'm about to bring the flood waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life.  

Everything shall perish in this week's Torah portion, and water appears first and foremost as God's instrument of destruction.  The entire earth is filled with water so high that even the hills in the mountains are covered.  And the rain falls for forty days and forty nights so that when Noach and his family and all the animals emerge from the ark there is nothing else left.  But at the same time we might wonder why God chose water as the method of destruction.  

We know that water brings with it cleanliness and in this way God may have been trying to wash away the sins of the people and wash everything away so that the world could be clean once again.  But at the end of the story most importantly God promises, through the covenant of the rainbow, ne.ver to destroy the world again by flood and so never again will we have this cleansing, brought down by God to remove the sinfulness and lawlessness from our world.

In this way, at the end of Noach's story, is the challenge to each one of us.  We have to keep this world clean, we have to be the ones who ensure that it does not become filled with lawlessness and corruption as it was once before, in the aftermath of Noach's story.  We are the ones once again, and it's reaffirmed who are responsible for the earth and all that is in it.  God cleansed the world once for us and will not do it again.  And so we have to be the ones who are mindful of making sure that this world never needs the full scale cleaning and wash that happened when God flooded the earth.