Friday, October 30, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayera

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, (Gen. 18:1 – 22:24) continues the story of Abraham, Sarah and the rest of their complicated family.  In last week’s portion, after Sarah had been unable to bear a child, she urged Abraham to take her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine.  Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael, but God assured Abraham that he would also have a son by Sarah, and that son would be his spiritual heir.  Abraham fell flat on his face and laughed before God at the thought of his 100 year old self and his 90 year old wife having a child, and God did not rebuke him for it.

In this week’s Torah portion, three strangers come to Abraham’s tent bearing news:  Sarah overhears them telling her husband that at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son.  She, too, laughs, although only to herself.  But God knows it, and calls her to account for it. (Gen. 18:10-15)

Bible scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky interprets the difference between God’s reaction to Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter as follows: “God ignores Abraham’s laughter but reacts to Sarah’s.  After all, Sarah should understand how important she is…Sarah’s importance in God’s scheme means that God will have zero tolerance for skepticism from her.” [Women in Scripture, quoted in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary]

Throughout Genesis, we repeatedly see that the matriarchs are the ones who ensure the spiritual heritage of Israel by collaborating with God to make sure that the “correct” son is chosen to lead the next generation.  In this week’s portion, Sarah begins that tradition.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Lech Lecha

 This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) picks up the story of Abram and Sarai, who were introduced to us at the end of last week’s parshah.  At that time, Abram’s family had left Ur of the Chaldees and settled in Haran.  Now, Abram receives the word from God: “Go forth from your country, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

But wait a moment.  Abram can’t leave his birthplace; he already has. The whole family has moved from his birthplace, Ur of the Chaldees, to Haran.  In fact, we were told at the end of last week’s parshah, they had originally set out from Ur for the land of Canaan, but instead they got as far as Haran and settled there.  

God is asking Abram to go on one of the greatest journeys of history; a journey that would become the beginning of the Jewish religion, as well as the other great religions that would take their origin from Judaism.  He will end up in Canaan, where his family had originally planned to go, but he will go there without the idols and pagan practices of his family.  Rather, he goes at God’s bidding, on a sacred journey.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Noah

This week’s Torah portion, Noah, (Gen. 6:9-11:32) tells a story of an ancient flood which wiped out all life in the world except for that of Noah, his wife and sons and his sons’ wives, and one each male and female of every species.  In the beginning of the tale, Noah is “a righteous man in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).  Noah does God’s bidding. He builds the ark to the exact specifications, collects the animals, lives through the flood, and watches everything else on earth die.  After spending nearly a full year on the ark, God gives them permission to leave it.  Noah builds an altar and God blesses Noah and his family, and makes a covenant with them with the rainbow as its sign.

And the next we hear of Noah, he plants a vineyard, drinks of the wine and becomes drunk, then lies naked in his tent.  What has become of the righteous man, above reproach, who walked with God?

Almost ten years ago, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi on a Hillel trip to help repair the extensive damage done by hurricane Katrina.  Across the street from the home on which we worked, a woman lived in a FEMA trailer on the front lawn of her destroyed home.  We noticed that she started drinking bourbon at about ten every morning.  One day she told us her flood narrative.  When the hurricane was due to land, her boyfriend tied her with a belt high on a telephone pole, and she stayed there for nine hours as the waters rose.  In those hours, she told us, she watched the dead body of her neighbor’s child wash down the street past her.  A snake slithered up the telephone pole, and she claimed that their eyes met in mutual fear.  Neither of them tried to harm the other.  She also told us that she had had a drinking problem in the past, but had been clean and sober for six years before the hurricane.  She lost her home and her sobriety, but she still held the awful memories of what she had seen.

Perhaps there are things that human beings endure that cause them to seek comfort in whatever way they can. Drinking alcohol can be one of those comforts.  Sometimes they can be transcended.  I hope that the woman in Biloxi is once again safe in her own home, and has regained her sobriety.  And maybe for the first time, I understand why Noah needed to do what he did.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Torah Thoughts on B’reisheet

This week’s Torah portion, B’reisheet (Gen. 1:1-6:8) tells the story of creation.  In fact, it tells it twice.  The first Creation narrative, Gen. 1:1-2:3, tells of a well-organized creation of the heavens and the earth, beginning from chaos.  In six neatly ordered “days”, God creates light and darkness, heaven and earth, seas and dry land, sun, moon and stars, creatures of the air and sea, and finally ending with land creatures, and last of all, human beings, male and female.  On the seventh day, God ceases from work and rests.  And then, instead of moving on, comes yet another recounting of creation.

The second Creation narrative, Gen. 2:4-25, begins with a formed planet, but with nothing yet growing on it.  God first creates the male human out of the dust of the earth, and blows the breath of life into him.  God follows with a garden in the east, called Eden, and then considers that it is not good for him to be alone.  God creates all manner of animals and birds, and brings them to the man but none is an appropriate companion.  Then God puts the man into a deep sleep, removes one of his ribs, and fashions a woman from it and brings her to the man, and the man names her, too, calling her “woman”.

The two stories may be explained, as Dr. Tamara Eskenazi does in her introduction to her work, The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, as follows: “A wide-angle lens that encompasses the whole world in Genesis 1 is augmented in Genesis 2-3 with a zoom lens that discloses an ‘up close and personal’ relationship with God. This split-screen view characterizes the Torah as a whole and introduces a biblical perspective on important events.”

One difference between the two stories that is seldom commented upon is the way God is depicted in the two versions of Creation.  In the first, God, working alone, builds an ordered universe from utter chaos.  There is no question but that God is in charge, and knows exactly what is to be done.  In the second, God creates the man, allows him to name the animals, and then casts about for a suitable helpmeet for him, apparently not even knowing what that might be.  Perhaps when the human factor enters the story, and God must interact with us, there can be no such thing as order and organization.