Parasha Vayakheil-Pekudei

Transparency is an extremely important Jewish value. There is a comment in the Shulchan Aruchthat even though gabba'ei tzedakah (distributors of charity) can be trusted with funds, it is proper that they give a full report of their disbursements (not by name of recipient), just as Moses does at the beginning of the second part of our Torah portion, Parashat Vayakheil-Pekudei. This value of transparency is much in demand today and rightly so.

Transparency is an important virtue, all the more regarding questions of financial integrity. This is also why it has been important in being transparent with all of you on a daily basis about every aspect of our congregation.  However, there is another type of transparency exhibited and then removed toward the end of the parshah. Each of the sacred objects of the Mishkan is described in loving detail, and each object was presumably displayed as the Tabernacle was constructed.  However, slowly these sacred objects disappeared from view as the courtyard walls and then the Tabernacle walls were erected; the screen and finally the

parochet (curtain or screen) formed another layer of coverage. In 40:33 the last human act is "vayitein et masach sha'ar hechatzeir." At that point, God's glory fills the Tabernacle, and even Moses cannot enter. What had once been visible to all is now hidden even from the prophet who had spoken to God, panim el panim(face to face).

What I take from this is that as much as we value transparency -- with good reason -- there is also a place for opacity and the mystery it engenders. At the very center of the Tabernacle and of the soul, there should be some private space for God alone. The gate should be closed sometimes, and we should cherish and nurture that hidden place within.

Our contemporary confessional culture of Facebook and Twitter, in which every insight must be shared with everyone, where people broadcast their every hiccup to everyone, is simply incomprehensible. We must be open and share when germane and be modest and private when appropriate. This is not a luxury but a necessity. When the gate is closed, it makes our willingness to share deep thoughts far more significant. This is a type of spiritual tzniut (modesty or privacy) that we can learn from the end of Pekudei.  Privacy can lead to holiness and intimacy with God, and it can lead us to make our connections with others profound, as opposed to banal.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Ki Tissa/AIPAC

As one who thought seeing Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera up close was the ultimate (in San Antonio, one would say Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli), this past week in Washington at AIPAC makes that a distant second.  In three days I had the opportunity to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu and meet with Congressmen Will Hurd and Joaquin Castro and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.  We heard from United States Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and many more!  Moreover, we had the opportunity to hear from the parents of the three boys who were so tragically murdered last summer; it was one of the most powerful points of the entire conference.

Being with 16,000 others as passionate about the State of Israel as I was invigorating.  The woes that confront Israel are known, but when you hear of them compressed into a few days, it becomes bewildering.  

The general sessions when everyone is together seemed like a sporting event-everyone was rooting for Israel!  This year the focus was on ensuring that Iran does not gain the capabilities of nuclear weapons. Watch some of the videos from the conference.  In particular I enjoyed Samantha Power and am enamored with Senator Robert Menendez.  Click Here to view.  I hope these videos will help prompt lots of discussion in the weeks to come. 

The larger sessions were wonderful, but it was the smaller or breakout ones for rabbis that were truly stimulating.  Emphasis was placed on how to make Israel more relevant to the younger generation and how to be able to discuss and debate Israel's issues in a persuasive and constructive manner.  At one session in particular led by Donniel Hartman, we spoke about not becoming Ahasuerus today where we are ambivalent and oblivious to everything going on in society, particularly related to Israel.

Our parasha this week, Ki Tissa, opens with the commandment that each member of the Jewish nation must contribute a half-shekel for the upkeep of the Tabernacle.  Noting the unusual language which states that, "Thisthey shall give," Rashi (on verse 13), quoting Midrash, teaches that Moses was shown an actual image of a coin so that he would know exactly what amount to collect from the people. "[The Holy One] showed [Moses] a coin of fire whose weight was a half-shekel and said, 'Like this they shall give.'" Why did God show Moses a coin of fire? Why not a regular coin?

Rabbi Nachman of Breslev explains that money and fire share unique qualities. Fire is considered to be one of the most important and indispensable elements known to man. Fire, when used properly, helps the world to exist. But, when misused, that very same fire also has the potential to be destructive. The same can be said of money. Money, when used properly, helps to make the world a better place. But wealth also carries great danger if it falls into the wrong hands, and if misused, money could lead to terrible destruction. Moses was shown a coin of fire to emphasize that both fire and money carry incredible powers for good and for evil.

This is also the case with Iran.  If nuclear weapons end up in the wrong hands, we are all in grave danger in the world, particularly Israel.  While the politics that led to Prime Minister Netanyahu being "invited" raise questions, I do feel his message was important to Congress, the American public, and the entire world.


 

We must speak out to our legislators and make sure they hear from us as to just how important Israel is.  We need them to stand up for Israel and ensure that Iran is not given an ounce of chance to continue its nuclear program.  We can make a difference!  Am Yisrael Chai!
 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


 

Please save the date of Wednesday, March 18th at 12:30, as we will discuss the outcome of the Israeli elections from March 17th together at Agudas, for those who can attend.  Also, be on the lookout for an e-mail on Monday regarding many other exciting Israel-related items here at Agudas, including our upcoming June 2016 Israel trip from June 5-17, 2016!

Parasha Tetzaveh/Purim

Only a smattering of Shabbatot have "names."  Shabbat T'tzavveh is also known as Shabbat Zakhor as it immediately precedes Purim, and at the end of the Torah reading (from a second Torah, from Parashat Ki Tetzei) we read of the attack of Amalek.  There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman was descended from Amalek.  The Amalek portion includes the firm commandment to remember his attack.  I encourage you to read it from Deuteronomy 25:17-19.  In very traditional settings all men and women make a special effort to "hear" that reading.  As Jews, we see that things do not change.

While the initial Torah portions lack the drama of Megillat Esther, they do provide a sensuous experience in their accounts of the colors, textures, sounds, tastes, and fragrances of the Tabernacle and the High Priest's vestments.  Mordechai, too, wears special vestments-first of bereavement and later of royalty, symbolizing the shifting fortunes of the Jews in his era.

The passage addressing Amalek's attack recalls a significant aspect of our bloody history, and, at the same time, alerts us to new perils while eliciting divine compassion.  Indeed, Jewish memory is sometimes of future events.  Zikaron is about aspiration and hope as much as about preserving a sense of the past. "Memory" is not an adequate translation for the word "zakhor." "Mindfulness" may sound too trendy, but it is in fact a decent approximation of the experience of Zikaron.

On Shabbat Zakhor we all become like priests, bearing the names of our people and also of our oppressors, in a ritualized form of memory before God. In Psalm 92, we read that the wicked "flower like grass" but will eventually be scattered and destroyed by God. That is, the victory of evil is never as complete as it seems; salvation awaits at the darkest junctures. At this moment it may seem that the darkest days of Jewish history are behind us, but Shabbat Zakhor is a day to be on guard for future peril. Yet, there is also a positive side to this Zikaron. We should not forget the resilience of evil, but we should also not forget the potential for deliverance. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Terumah

There is a Psalm for every day of the week.  Wednesday's is Psalm 94, and it tells us, "For the law shall return to righteousness, and all those of upright heart shall follow it." Implicit is the reality that the law is not always righteous. As the Torah warns us, sometimes there is avale bi-mishpat or perversion in law. Norms are essential for any functional society, but obedience to the law is never a sufficient religious posture. The truly pious jurist is zealous not so much for enforcing the law as for protecting the integrity of the system so that it can be an effective tool for righteousness.

Parshat Terumah follows Mishpatim-the latter focuses on rules required for a stable society. But once stability is achieved, something more is conceivable-a righteous community where people join together to create a sacred center and to worship together. Tyrants can establish stable societies (think Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi), but who wants to live like that? After justice comes righteousness as the next rung in a progressive approach to God.  What personal strategies are helpful in making this approach?  Self-sacrifice?  Resolve and resilience? Reverence? Yes, all of these are needed, but they will not suffice alone. 

The final words of Psalm 94 raise the question of how one becomes "upright of heart". When a person is despondent, it is hard for him or her to act with sympathy and compassion.  But when a person feels joy, he or she can afford to lend support. And then, in acts of righteousness, one discovers a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and this leads back to joy. It is a positive feedback loop, or "virtuous cycle", to practice righteousness and cultivate joy.

The way that I understand Reb Nahman of Bratzlav's (1772-1810) well-known dictum, mitzvah gedolah lihyot bisimhah tamid, is that it is a greatmitzvah to always be joyous.  Reb Nahman's philosophy is not so obvious-I am not aware of any earlier statement identifying a commandment to be happy. As contemporary Conservative Rabbi Shai Held once said to me, only a person who finds happiness to be challenging would call it a commandment.  Reb Nahman is well-known for his moodiness, much like the Psalms, and it is perhaps this swing of emotions that makes his writings so spiritually accessible.  Still, I sense that what Reb Nahman means is that cultivating joy augments the practice of mitzvot, and cultivating mitzvot augments joy.  Let's cultivate such joy in our community and beyond during the coming weeks of Adar.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Mishpatim

Without "law" our lives would be in chaos.  Our Torah portion,  Mishpatim, begins a long set of laws we will explore for a number of weeks.  Typically, one thinks of religion as a matter of spirituality.  Our world differentiates between so called Church and State.  The Torah does not embrace that dichotomy.  Every aspect of life is entwined, and religiousness arises from halachically correct business dealings, no less than from the holiness in matters of ritual.  Succinctly, Jews should be conscientious in adherence to "the law," as there is no distinction between the courtroom and the synagogue.

In Exodus 23:2 and 3 one might gloss over what seems so obvious until taking a moment to see how our sages and modern day commentators address it.  "You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong-you shall not give perverse (wicked) testimony in a dispute so to pervert it in favor of the mighty-nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute."  Rashi, who typically takes no more than two sentences to amplify one sentence from the Torah, literally takes three pages on 23:2.  For our purposes it can safely be said that a judge should render his opinion predicated only on his understanding of the law AND the evidence without any preference to a poor litigant or "jumping on the bandwagon" to favor the majority. 

The Talmud (Hullin 11a) establishes the core legal principal of majority rule.  This is somewhat ironic given that the verse (Exodus 23:3) seems worried about the tyranny of the majority, but the rabbis discerned that the Torah says not to follow the majority "to do wrong."  Thus, the second principle is protection of the vulnerable, even if they are a minority.  Still, a third principle is that the protection of the vulnerable minority cannot be extended so far that it causes injustice to the powerful.

It is remarkable that the Torah here anticipates what remains one of the most challenging aspects of democratic rule-how to respect the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority, especially when that minority is vulnerable.  Some see verses two and three addressing the same concepts.  I see them as opposites-verse two warns us not to join the crowd in favoring the mighty; verse three balances this by warning us not to show favoritism to the poor. Somewhere in the middle of these natural tendencies is where we find justice. A just society puts restraints on the powerful; conversely, it is fair and does not resort to "Robin Hood" maneuvers to take from the rich and give to the poor.

Taken together, our reading of two verses in Mishpatim yields a sense of great moral responsibility in the construction of a just society. Each judge must be independent, respectful of rich and poor, and tip the scales just slightly towards leniency so that a just and righteous society can emerge. Leadership requires not only wisdom and creativity but also principle and courage. What is true for judges and other civil leaders is equally applicable to those called to religious leadership.

It is my aim, (and it should be ours as a community), to create a balance, treating each person with the respect he or she deserves.  As we journey through the "laws" over the coming weeks, let us remember that no matter where we may stand in society, we all must find a way to live under the roof of our Mishpatim, our laws.  It is achievable!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham 

Parasha Yitro

Have any of you ever had that wow or "ah ha" moment in your life?  These are moments when something happens and it all just "clicks," or a time when you simply aren't expecting anything and suddenly something amazing or miraculous appears.

This week in our Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, there are two such moments, one for Moses personally and one for the Israelites as a whole.  Most of us are familiar with the Revelation as our people, the Israelites, stand at the base of Mount Sinai and hear the majestic thunder and lightning from God as they receive the Ten Commandments.  Moses' own "ah ha" moment is almost an afterthought in our parsha.

In chapter 18, we see Moses overwhelmed and exhausted, trying to do everything for everyone and having forgotten to take care of himself.  It is at this precise moment that his father-in-law, Yitro, appears on the scene.  Yitro tells Moses that he must take a step back and delegate.  Yitro's thrust is with the judicial system, but the intention of Yitro's comments are meant for every aspect in Moses' life.  If we overextend ourselves, it will have an adverse effect on our personal and professional lives.

As many of you know, I had the privilege of attending the Shababa Network Summit at the 92nd Street Y in New York last weekend.   I am extremely thankful to work at an institution like Agudas, which values professional development for its staff, allowing each of us to both recharge our batteries and imbibe the amazing new and innovative ideas out there in the Jewish world today.

While at the Summit, I was exposed to some incredible Shabbat family programming ideas that I was both excited to observe and to learn about; I plan to implement the ideas into our programming at Agudas.  There were also sessions from which I gained meaningful concepts to employ in future sermons.

It is imperative that all of us find time in our own lives, no matter what we do professionally or personally, to take time for ourselves, to learn more about what new ideas are circulating in our respective fields and to simply "recharge our batteries."  Yitro teaches us that we can't do everything on our own; we need to rely on those around us in our lives and the abundant resources available to us to truly reach our full potentials.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Bo

Our Exodus is just beginning, Parashat Boconcludes with Moses telling the people on the very day of their departure to remember this day and to commemorate it with what we know as Passover, the eating of matzot and the retelling of the story. Furthermore, he tells Israel in 13:9 to place it "as a sign upon your hand and a memory between your eyes."-tefillin.

Tefillin are only obliquely mentioned in the Torah. It does not explain. The oral tradition, which you and I refer to as the Talmud, is very clear-black, square, leather boxes of precise specifications held onto the body with matching black leather straps. Indeed, tefillin are the most complete example of the importance of oral Torah in the development of Judaism. Without the oral tradition, we would not have a clue about them.

The area where the tefillin's knot rests on one's head is the region where the Rambam believes memory is located.  If so, then perhaps the old halakhic debate about torn tefillin straps is really about a rupture in memory-what happens if your memory is no longer intact?  Is it possible to repair the memory, even incompletely, or is only perfect memory acceptable?  If the mitzvah of tefillin is about looking at past current events, about stimulating the recall of our collective memory and then acting with this consciousness, then how can we function when "the ties that bind" break?

Dementia is one of the saddest and most painful of all human conditions. Anyone who has had someone they love suffer from the gradual or sudden loss of memory has struggled with the mystery of human identity and relationship. Can I be me without my memories? What happens to a relationship when one party no longer recognizes the other?

It is possible that contemporary Jews are suffering from a form of collective dementia. We no longer remember our sacred history, and thus the Torahand the mitzvot are not always on our minds and in our mouths. Themitzvah of tefillin is designed to restore that memory daily, to bind us to our past and motivate sacred conduct. Even if the ties have become tattered, it is our task to repair them, so that we and those we teach can again see, recall, and be motivated by the great passage from slavery to freedom, and from spiritual isolation to our covenant. 

There was a man who prayed at the synagogue where I grew up.  Every time he finished putting his tefillin on, he took out a small mirror.  One day I got the nerve to ask him about it.  He said, "If you were going to see the judge in traffic court, wouldn't you adjust your necktie and lapels before you enter the courtroom?  When I pray in the morning I want to be sure mytefillin are just right for my audience before the Supreme Judge!"  Think of talking to God, every day.

I would like to invite all of you, men and women alike, to join us in the international World Wide Wrap on Sunday, February 8th.  Agudas will be one of hundreds of synagogues participating as we recall our past and connect with other Conservative Jews all over the world.  Anyone, whether you have never put on tefillin or have not put them on in a while, is welcome to join us to wrap together followed by a nice breakfast and additional interfaith program.  I will not be as punctilious as my friend with the mirror. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Please note that Rabbi Abraham will be away next week at a prestigious conference at the 92nd Street Y as part of a grant Agudas as received.  His message will return on Friday, February 6th.

Parasha Vaeira

Parashat Vaeira opens with God reassuring Moses that he will indeed redeem the Jewish people from servitude and bring them into the Land of Israel.  Some may think it a "stretch," but I could not help but juxtapose that with the Tweet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made as he was leaving France last Sunday after the march against the terrorist attacks. 

Whether you revere or abhor him, his words strike at every Jew's heart strings.  Realize that in France virtually every synagogue was closed this past Shabbat, for the first time since the Holocaust.  It is unproblematic for us in Texas to realize the virulent anti-Semitic nature of life in Europe, and France in particular, (think of the Ozar HaTorah school murders in Toulouse in 2012 and now a kosher supermarket right before last Shabbat).


 

All did not agree, and many French were truly offended.  I am still pondering it, but it is real "food for thought."  The Prime Minister's quote on Twitter was:

To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the State of Israel is your home.

By no means do I even remotely equate Mr. Netanyahu with Moses and certainly not God, but I cannot help but think he is echoing God's sentiments in last week's parsha Exodus 3:8: "I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of the land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey..."

 

Many French and Israelis consider the statements needless and even arrogant.  That is for each of you to decide in your own heart, and I, too, am ambivalent about it.  Acceding to the requests of their families, the bodies of the deceased were quickly taken to Israel for immediate burial in Jerusalem's Har Menuhot cemetery.  Let each of us be fully cognizant of the closure of the synagogues in France last Shabbat and the relative freedom we enjoy in this great land, albeit with armed guards.  We must demonstrate to God, and to the world, our unshakable faith.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Shemot

Wow!  What an amazing time we had last Saturday night in our private viewing and discussion on the new movie on our exodus from Egypt, "Exodus: Gods and Kings."  It was truly fascinating, bringing its own midrashic interpretation to the Torah's rendition of our being freed from slavery in Egypt.

In many ways it was serendipitous that we viewed this film as we now begin the book of Shemot, Exodus, in our Torah.  Before the birth of Moses, before the burning bush, and before the first divine statement in the book of Exodus, there is the most inspiring example of spiritual heroism and physical bravery exhibited by the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. At the very beginning of Parashat Shemot, Pharaoh commands them to examine the Hebrew babies for gender and kill the boys. But the midwives truly fear God and do not comply with what the Egyptian king's commands; they save the boys.

This story of the midwives' disobedience is remarkable enough, but our rabbis ascribe additional merit to these brave women, finding evidence in the final words of the verse that they saved the boys.  In the Midrash Shemot Rabba they ask, "Isn't it obvious, since they did not listen to the Egyptian king, that the children lived? What's the point of adding they 'let the boys live?'" Our rabbis offer three explanations of the extra steps taken by the midwives. They became "social workers" going to wealthy families to collect contributions to deliver to the poorer families. Another is that they prayed the children not be born with defects. And yet another is that they prayed the children not be stillborn. Granted, the Midrash sees the latter as self-interest; the midwives did not want to be blamed for any mishaps in the delivery. Still, the claim here is that Shifra and Puah (identified elsewhere in the Aggadah as Moses' mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam) were willing to place their own lives in danger.

This story makes one think about how often we have the chance to offer partial measures that make us feel good about having done something (or at least not having done something evil) without actually doing enough to change the end result. We volunteer for an hour or we "do our part" with a modest contribution and move on, confident that someone else will take over the task once our interest wanes. It is necessary to remind ourselves that it is never sufficient to avoid murdering another person; Shifra and Puah-as interpreted by the sages-teach us to take responsibility beyond avoiding evil and become sustainers of life by taking the extra step.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Miketz/Hanukkah

Sleep is always precious.  Benny and Henry frequently wake me up long before the time I have to be up.  In contrast to a natural awakening, the sounds of Benny or Henry are stark (but music to my ears).

These two types of awakenings are reminiscent of the two awakenings we encounter this week: "...and Pharaoh awoke."  He awoke to the puzzling images of his dreams and immediately queried what they meant and what response they demanded.  We awake with an equal sense of confusing reality-a mixture of hope and anxiety attends our arising, and each of us always wonders, "What should I do?"  "What dramas can be put aside, and what new challenges demand my full attention?"  Increasingly, we ARE Joseph-called upon to be a voice of wisdom and holiness in a world of fear and hatred. Exercising this form of leadership is a privilege but also a burden. Our parashah is about the assumption of responsibility and living with the consequences of our decisions.

Miketz means "at the end," and in a way this parashah signals the end of the preliminaries of the Torah and the childhood of our people.  The transition from being merely a family in Canaan to a nascent nation in Egypt has begun.  The decisions made by our biblical characters increasingly impact not only on their own destinies but also the destiny of the whole world. From a modest beginning will come a mighty narrative that will eventually define the parameters of civilized society.

It seems appropriate that Miketz is connected each year to the festival ofHanukkah, which represents both a middle and a new beginning.  This is an activist festival-the one more than any other when the initiatives of the people determined their destiny.  The festival's name refers, of course, to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  But it also alludes to chinnukh, or education-this is a time to train ourselves with new skills and insights.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav brings out a beautiful word play-through Hanukkah we reveal the hidden light of God's face.  

There is a tradition of reciting the passage "Hanerot Hallalu" after lighting the Hanukkah candles. The earliest version of the text is found in theTalmudSofrim 20:6.  It emphasizes that we are forbidden to use the light ofHanukkah (e.g. to read or cook by it), but we are merely to look at it and thereby praise God's name.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known generally as the "Shelah" for the name of his book, Shnei Luchot HaBerit says that Hanukkah is the "coming out" celebration where the righteous are able to reveal light that had previously been hidden and share it with the world. What is that light?  It is the light is of the Shekhinah, the divine presence; the light of Torah; and the light of mitzvot.

It is our collective responsibility and joy to reveal hidden light-sources of joy on this festival. We can rise in darkness and feel burdened and overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.  We can bemoan the weakness of our institutions and despair in our inability to redeem goodness, tranquility and holiness in this world.  Or we can assert hope and banish darkness.  Hanukkah teaches us to simply light and look at the dancing flames: not to use them but to absorb their light until we gain hope and courage and the ability to carry on our holy work.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

Please note that Rabbi Abraham will be away for the holidays.  His message will return on Friday, January 9th.

Parasha Vayeshev

A most memorable quote is the 2008 statement by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff (and now mayor of Chicago), which occurred during the time of one of the worst financial collapses.  He said, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that [is that] it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." 

While Rahm Emanuel gets credit, the concept is not new. I have heard variations of it from management types for years. The greatest exemplar of seeing opportunity in crisis is the Torah's protagonist featured in Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph. His story is entertaining and simultaneously instructive.  Its key literary feature is the opposition of appearance and reality. When Joseph appears to be the lucky son, lavished with paternal love and favoritism, his childhood is rudely terminated by his brothers selling him into slavery and cruelly leading their father to believe that he has been devoured by wild beasts. When Joseph is brought lowest, God showers him with blessings, first in Potiphar's house and then in Pharaoh's palace. 

Chapter 39 resumes the Joseph story with him being "taken down" to Egypt. The text carefully plays on the earlier narratives with how others view Joseph. His brothers "envied" him (vayikanu vo), whereas Potiphar "acquires" him (vayik'neihu). In the end Potiphar, too, will have cause to envy Joseph, and the brothers will ultimately offer themselves to be "acquired" as his slaves. Up is down, and down is up -- nothing stands still in the life of Joseph.

We see the word "Vayehi" (Now it was....) four times in just five lines that start with Joseph's descent and end with his ascent. In Midrash Vayikra Rabba 11:7, a Diaspora tradition is cited to show that the wordVayehi always introduces trouble (tzarah), whereas the similar word V'haya always introduces joy (simcha). Our sages note where Vayehi introduces something apparently joyous, such as the creation of light on day one and the rise of Joseph in Potiphar's home. These passages begin Vayehi, and they portend blessing and success, not sorrow, right?

Call them gloomy or just realistic, but the sages say that these blessings were only apparent, not permanent. The light created on day one was a miracle light-powerful enough to illumine the entire universe-but God immediately hid it away. Vayehi ohr thus signifies the special sorrow of those who are granted a fleeting glimpse of a treasure but cannot enjoy it. Joseph is labeled as Vayehi ish matzliah (behold, a successful man!), but his success story is also only fleeting. True, he will rise in power, but his power will always be tinged with sorrow and tragedy. Joseph's wealth is the fruit of famine and enslavement, and Joseph will be forgotten, first by the butler in our portion's final word and later by Egypt itself.

The theme of the reversal of fortune is a favorite one of religious literature. It gives hope to the humiliated and humility to the powerful. As Shabbat Vayeshev leads into Hanukkah, this theme also sets the stage for the heroic efforts of the Maccabees and leaders of all generations who faced crisis with imagination, courage and resolve, leading our people from darkness to light, and from sorrow to joy. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasah Vayishlach

What's everyone crying about in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach?  In 33:4, "Esau ran to meet him; he embraced him, fell on his neck, he kissed him and THEY wept."  We are told that Jacob readies for the encounter-with prayer, bribery, and the preparation for battle. What is Esau feeling?  Has he nurtured his anger for twenty years or, given his apparent prosperity and might, decided to let it go? The five verbs in this sentence maintain the ambiguity to the end-is Esau running to hug or to hit?  Is he embracing in love or in hatred?  Is he falling on Jacob's neck to kiss or to kill?  The first four verbs are expressed in the singular-Esau owns all the initial action-but the weeping is mutual. Why? 

In the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says that Esau kissed Jacob "with all his heart."  Rabbi Yanai reads that it was no kiss but an attempted bite! He turns Esau into a vampire (maybe it was a full moon?)  If so, then why did they cry-both of them?  The Midrash cryptically explains-this one wept for his neck, and that one wept for his teeth.  Later Midrashim expand on this, claiming that Jacob's neck turned briefly to marble (talk about a stiff neck, and you can imagine what biting marble does to your teeth!), thus hurting both brothers (Esau weeps with frustration at the foiled attack; Jacob in fear of a second strike). Other versions have Esau's teeth turning to wax.  

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, offers a p'shat, a simple meaning. He sees this as a moment of brotherly love and explains that after all the anxiety of the encounter, and perhaps even out of love, they wept at the encounter.  This somewhat sappy reading works for me, but I believe there is more to it.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym, the Netziv (1816-1893), explains this incident in his Torah commentary,  Ha'ameik Davar, as predictive of a future reconciliation between Jacob (=Israel=the Jews) and Esau (=Edom=Rome=Christians). Specifically there will come a time when Christians will recognize that Jews are their brothers and have their own relationship with God.  And, remarkably, he says that Jews will also recognize their brotherhood with Christians and appreciate them (without mention of a theological reconciliation). The Netziv notes that the encounter awakened mercy not only in Esau but Jacob as well.

In our day, such reconciliation seems to be natural. Great efforts have been made to advance ecumenical appreciation for other faiths.  In some ways Christians and Jews have a good head start-we share much sacred scripture and have interacted intensively since the very emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.  Yet, the force of differentiation in those early years and the weight of many violent and hateful centuries thereafter have marred the kinship.  We have made great strides with many Catholics and mainline Protestants, but some estrangement remains. This passage reminds us of the need to reclaim our relationships even with those with whom we may disagree. 

The recent festival of Thanksgiving is the most ecumenical of seasons-Americans of all faiths seem drawn together by the spirit of gratitude and the commonality of giving thanks (and of watching football).  Then comes December, a month where for all of the generic holiday spirit, distinctions arise which are too impossible to ignore.

As we enter this Shabbat, let us think about ways to embrace the other, to share the light and overcome estrangement and emulate Jacob and Esau.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Toldot and Thanksgiving

Jacob is destined for struggle from the womb.  He is always running, wrestling, and outsmarting others and, in return, getting outsmarted. His story is a tight literary unit, with the use of leitmotifs of deception that always rebound upon him (taking advantage of Isaac's blindness, but being deceived in the dark tent; using the bloody skin to deceive Isaac; the bloody tunic used by his sons to deceive him, etc.).  In addition, Jacob deceives his father, and he is later deceived into marrying the "other sister," Leah, instead of Rachel. While this constant struggle makes good literary sense, it also fulfills the rabbis' concept of midah kneged midah, one measure for another!  

We would hope that Jacob could at least find refuge in his faith.  However, Jacob and his family have questionable religious practices-they seem to depend on magic in the procreative tale of the mandrakes and also with the use of stripped branches to breed mottled goats; then there is next week'sparashaVayeitzei which mentions the theft of Laban's household idols, and we see problems with the creation of a matzeivah shrine or monument to house God (28:22). [i]

Jacob never seems able to relax and just be at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors or his God. As the Rabbis say, the acts of the ancestors foreshadow what will come from the descendants.  So too, it seems that the Jewish people's destiny has been to struggle in many of the ways of our ancestor, Jacob/Israel.  This continues to some degree today in the Land of Israel with the recent horrible terrorists attacks.  However, we have the good fortune to live in a period that is somewhat tranquil; there are no cataclysmic pogroms lurking here in San Antonio.  However, the struggle to figure out how to live with integrity before God-that remains a constant challenge. How do we balance ritual versus social obligations?  How do we maintain boundaries while opening our hearts to others?  How do we live with deep principle while also respecting other opinions?  What do we do with all this tension, and how do we keep it healthy rather than corrosive?

It seems to me that the best way to balance all of this and to feel whole is in the cultivation of community.  Religious communities are seldom places where everyone is in agreement and nothing divisive ever occurs.  You may have heard of the town with two Jews and three shuls?  How could that be?  And then I realized the obvious: everyone has to have a shul they would not set foot in!

Like families, communities are places where we are known and loved even when we are at odds with one another.  As with families, it takes real, sustained effort to protect this structure, to augment the forces of love and to channel tensions into constructive cooperation, i.e. to make our community into a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community.

Watching Jacob this week and next, running from Esau and then from Laban, only to be forced back into an embrace with each that he had desperately sought to avoid, I think about our own lives.  As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we should think about our families and our communities.  Our families and our communities are complicated places with the greatest capacity of both love and tension. I wish all of us fortitude in the creation of such an embrace, and hope that you will experience this holiday as a time of true thanksgiving.

In order to help aid us in finding a true Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to share a beautiful Thanksgiving poem written by Rabbi Naomi Levy:

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

Please note that Rabbi Abraham will be away next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.  His message will return on Friday, December 5th.

 

 [i] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein makes an interesting comment in 28:22 aboutmatzeivah, that a Jew should tithe his or her money, as well as his or her time to worthy causes.

Parasha Hayyei Sarah

The characters in our parsha, the Life of Sarah or Hayyei Sarah, are well-known.  While the title speaks for itself, most of the action is identified with men-Abraham, Eliezer [i], and then Isaac.  My real interest is in Rebecca, the most iron-willed of our matriarchs (which is saying something).  She is the bridge between Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, and the death of Sarah. This is certainly no accident, as it foreshadows the next stage of covenantal history.  But Rebecca is not just a tool.  She is an actress with a pronounced sense of self.  Modern commentator Tikvah Frymer Kensky sees Rebecca as comparable to Abraham in her hospitality and to Sarah in her willingness to subvert her husband's inclinations in order to fulfill the will of God. "These women temper paternal authority to bring about God's will."

Yet, despite her strong entrance and her powerful manipulations of the men in her family, there is eventually something unstable about Rebecca. Initially, in Chapter 24 Rebecca is remarkably self-assured. She appears with her water jug on her shoulder and shows no hesitation in engaging the stranger, watering his caravan of camels, and inviting him home. She is comfortable in her persona---she identifies with her family, but given the opportunity to leave, she announces her intention with the single and unambiguous word, elekh---I'm outta here. This is Rebecca the confident.

Something changes. She sees Isaac, and suddenly she is falling off the camel and covering up. She struggles to conceive, and when Isaac's prayers are answered, she struggles in pregnancy, finally seeking out God.  Ramban, Nachmanides, dismisses the explanations of Rashi (why did I yearn to be pregnant?) and Ibn Ezra (why is my pregnancy so abnormal?) and says that Rebecca's question is: "Why do I exist in the world?  I wish I were dead, or had never been born!"  Ramban associates Rebecca's anguish with that of Job-if this is life, why live?

What's up with Rebecca? My suspicion is that she entered the scene whole, confident that she could fix any problem, and then she was pierced by the suffering absorbed by Yitzhak.  Her husband has the least fitting name in Tanakh, The Bible.  Can you imagine Isaac, whose name means "he will laugh," laughing? It is almost a cruel irony of his life that the laughter preceding his birth was actually sarcastic.  In life he may have suffered at the hands of his big brother, was nearly sacrificed by his father, and seems to have endured a silent and paralyzing form of grief over his mother's death.

It is a mystery as to how these characters, or any persons for that matter, develop as they do.  But today, after all of the horrible episodes and wars in our world, I think about the myriad of young men and women all over the world who left home whole, ready to serve and solve the world's problems, just like young Rebecca, and some became transformed into fragmented selves, broken by battles that started externally and then infiltrated their minds and bodies.

The time is now for our collective Jewish and general communities to rally for one another so that we don't have the Rebeccas and Isaacs of the world going into their shells.  Instead, we should have people who still want to be a part of this great society.  I believe we can rally now and help each other heal and feel each other's appreciation and love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[i] In my attempt to be consistent with the Conservative movement, I strive to utilize the spellings from our Etz Hayim.  As I reached for it to be sure I had the name of Abraham's servant properly spelled, I realized Eliezer was not mentioned by name in Hayyei Sarah.  I knew that I knew his name, but from where?  In a short jaunt back to Lekh L'kha, we are given his name.  Perhaps next year we will address why he is only mentioned as "the servant" in Hayyei Sarah so many times.

Parasha Vayera

Who is most compassionate? Every political candidate who ran this week has been eager to demonstrate their compassion.  Ultimately, they are going to be judged by how much they are able to accomplish.  Our forefathers from the narratives we read in the coming weeks are no different.

I like to associate this week's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham's "interaction" with God before and after.  We are told Abraham arose early and returned to the place he had negotiated with God, as the origin of Shacharit---our morning prayer service.   In all his consternation, what did he do?  He went to pray.  Seeing the smoke rising from the burning cities, he realized it was too late for prayer.  Can you imagine his angst as the pillar of ash arose in the sky?

Abraham's experiences are myriad.   He stood up for his son Ishmael-he became VERY upset about Sarah's demand that he drive out Hagar and the boy-but God admonished him to back down and listen to Sarah.    He stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah-to no avail.   Perhaps he felt that God didn't really value his compassion---so dulled with this sensitivity he marched silently for three days with Isaac, raised his knife, and ultimately heard a "voice from God," which allows him not to kill his son. 

Do I have sympathy for Abraham? What could he have done differently?  Think of the surgeon who reports the operation was a success, though the patient died.  At least he did try!    Our sages have not been so generous with our father Abraham.   The Zohar has a remarkable take on the passage where Abraham challenges the justice of God's plan to wipe out the cities.   It begins with Rabbi Yehudah lavishly praising Abraham, who shines in contrast to Noah who had silently acceded to God's plan to flood the earth.   The question is asked--who has ever seen a "father" as compassionate as Abraham.   Rabbi Yehuda misses something.   In the end, Abraham is not fully compassionate; he is troubled by the injustice of a God who judges the wicked and righteous alike.

We next encounter Rabbi El'azar in the Zohar who says "Even Abraham did not act perfectly... he did not culminate since he did not plead for mercy unconditionally."   What did he mean?  Abraham said "I don't want to claim reward for my deeds."   Abraham seemed to only care if there were innocent people in Sodom-as for the guilty, he did not care.   Contrast that to Moses who asked for forgiveness for all--even the ones who built the Golden Calf.

The Zohar sees justice as being concomitant for God and humanity.   It is a given that mercy supersedes justice.   Abraham should have pleaded for all.  Even today we see our rituals reflecting this prioritization: mercy from the right, over justice from the left.   We blow the shofar from the right side of the mouth, we wash the right hand first, we leave the right strap of the head tefillin longer than the left and so on.

Our sages concurred that mercy is the greatest of all religious achievements.  Abraham is universally accepted for Hesed, or mercy, even though he seems to fall short of it several times in our parsha.  As I noted in the beginning we can read the Abraham cycle as a lesson in moral development.   He is pushed back and forth and comes very close to losing the most fundamental form of compassion-of a parent for their child.  Next week we will see his "chesed shel emet" doing a deed and not expecting any thanks or compensation as he arranges Sarah's burial place and attend to Isaac's marriage.

Compassion is insufficient when it is just a feeling of empathy.  True compassion relates to the horrific realities of loss and destruction, and then carries on.  In the face of destruction, we too must find the resolve to act effectively and assist others in their time of need.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Lech Lecha

I am impressed by the physical activity that drives our parashah.  If the Torah had a travel rewards program, then Abraham would deserve its gold card. In this parashah alone he traverses much of the Middle East, starting in Mesopotamia, walking the length and breadth of Canaan and even checking out Egypt. He is the "Ivri-the crosser"-and he indeed crosses rivers... and climbs mountains and explores valleys. He constructs altars, directs armies and builds a family. Lekh lekha or "Go" is an apt title for this parashah and its frenetic protagonist.

Imagine that you were staging a dramatic production of this parashah, how many stage notes would be required to capture all of the gestures of our patriarch? I count dozens of verbs attached to Abram, [i] but one gesture which recurs and seems particularly significant is that of prostration. Twice Abraham "hits the dirt," falling on his face before God, once in awe and once in apparent disbelief. Twice God promises him prodigious progeny-fittingly, the first time God tells Abraham that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth. This image is hardly as glamorous or poignant as the later stars of the sky promise, but perhaps Abraham prefers the earth? Next week he proclaims "and I am dust and ashes." Abraham truly inhabits the land and develops a special bond with its physical features.

We often say "think first, act second." This is generally good advice, but it seems to me that Judaism teaches us to modify the concept. We should think before we take fateful action, of course, but sometimes we must act even before we fully understand our direction. As we stand up and get into a ready position, our body and brain prepare to work in concert and to identify our next step. Beginning to act can be a trigger that allows understanding to emerge. That is part of the wisdom of mitzvotwe have ritualized behaviors which themselves teach us how to think, even before we understand their rational. [ii]

As we follow the motions of Abraham this week, let's consider our own physical motions. How does one act in the face of God? What do our own motions teach us about our priorities? As we enter our resting state this Shabbat, let this be a time of contemplation which prepares us to act in the coming week with rigor, good instinct and insight.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

[i] Although their names are Abram and Sarai through most of the parsha, most refer to them as AAbraham and Sarah, the names God gives them at the end of the parsha.

 

[ii] The story is told of the solider in boot camp who complains about having to dissemble his rifle blindfolded.    He says "this is silly."   Six months later he is in Iraq on the front line and his rifle jams in the middle of the night.  If he takes out his flashlight, the enemy will see where he is.   As he unjams it in the dark he thinks to himself, "Now I know why they wanted me to do it blindfolded!"

Parasha Noah

In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Noah, Noah is commanded (Genesis 6:16) to tsohar ta'aseh la-teivah (make a skylight for the ark).  There is a differing of opinions as to what "skylight" means. Rashi notes that some suggest it is a window, while others note that it is a precious stone or gem.  We see in the Talmud (Sanhedrin108b) that the gem opinion prevails, as a window would have served no purpose since the sun and the moon provided no light during the flood.  Even with that said, we see in Midrash Breishit (Genesis) Rabbah 31 that Rabbi Abba bar Hahan somehow notes it was a window, and Rabbi Levi says it was a (magical) gem.

God gives Noah the command to face darkness and oppression to make joy and light.  A well-known commentary from the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, sees the command to Noah (and each of us) to bring light to the world.  Our words of Torah and t'fillah (prayer) should shine like gems.  The invigorating thing it posits is that it takes "our" effort to bring out the light of Torah.  Like a closed book or gem in a drawer, the words cannot "shine" without our action and attention.  In what might be called a Hasidic version of a post-modern reader response criticism, I leave the following for you to digest and ponder.

What I take is more than just the delight of the word play; we see that the responsibility is implicit upon us to read the Torah as a personal command and thence expand its light of mercy and wisdom into a world that is often dark and full of pain. Parashat Noah is a meditation on the catastrophes that inevitably follow human misconduct and for the responsibility of each individual to respond constructively to crisis, thereby preserving not only one's family, but also the physical and spiritual environment.  On this Shabbat of Noah, my hope and prayer is that our words of Torah and t'fillah will shine like precious gems.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Simchat Torah

On Simchat Torah we will literally open three books of Torah: the end of Devarim, Deuteronomy, the beginning of Bereshit, Genesis, and theMaftir section from Bamidbar, Numbers. As we open these volumes, it is perhaps appropriate to meditate on the different levels of knowledge to which we can aspire. There is a pre-verbal level of comprehension -- we listen to words like infants, seeking to integrate them, but we are not yet capable of breaking the sounds into ideas. Then, there is a next level of learning where the words take concrete form -- we can read them, write them, and interpret them. Finally, there is a third level of learning in which the words again escape their received form because they are now our words; they are a book which we ourselves are writing, just like the book of Adam.

Sometimes we are in that first stage -- overwhelmed by the vastness of Jewish knowledge and unable to categorize the flow of letters and words. Most of the time we are in that beautiful middle realm of interpretation. We are reading and translating ancient texts. But it is that third level which is most creative and powerful, when the words recombine through the force of our cumulative learning and experience, and we imagine ourselves entering a prophetic mode, generating new knowledge: this is the book of our Torah.

It is even possible to associate these modalities of learning with the three books of Torah that we will open on Friday. We begin at the end -- with "this blessing" offered by Moses, the man of God, before he dies. The poetry of this section is often quite obscure; it flows over us with strange power, but we have little specific relationship to its imagery. The second book, Bereshit, opens before us with the promise of new life and comprehension. We thirstily take in its account of origins, willing ourselves into a new hold on life. But it is that short third reading, the Maftir, which is our opportunity to add to the Torah. This is the only reading which describes (sacrificial) ritual behavior. Although we will not be offering animal sacrifices, we can imagine and trust with this reading that our own "avodah," or worship, will be found acceptable to God. 

Devarim describes the righteous leader Moses at the "end" of his journey. His book is complete. The second book, Bereshit, tells the story of the dreadful fall of Adam and Eve, Cain's murder of Abel, and God's disgust with humanity, "who do evil all day long." They are written into the book of the wicked. But it is again in the third book -- the book of uncertainty that we ourselves inhabit -- that written within are our own words: our insights, our deeds, our Torah. What will we write in it this year? Will we be righteous pillars of the world?

As we dance with our sifrei Torah on this festival and celebrate completion and resumption, let the words we write be suffused with joy and light. May the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of the children of Israel.

 

An early Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Sukkot

Just four days separate Yom Kippur from Sukkot, and yet these festivals occupy completely different emotional and spiritual zones. The former is somber, austere and still. Hours are spent in the sanctuary, reading, singing, and periodically falling down in submission. We don't "do" anything on 

Yom Kippur-the day is one when we abstain from "doing," the better to examine our deeds. On Sukkot, we are a blur of action-out shopping for a beautiful lulav and etrog.  We schlep, we hoist, we hammer and we tie. And when the holiday finally begins, we keep active-waiving our funny fruits, dancing in circles and sitting anywhere but in the house. Yom Kippur is a day for hunger and tears. Sukkot is a time for fruit, wine and joy. Could you ask for two holidays which have more contrast?

And yet, the holidays are linked. On Sukkot we act like prisoners freshly released by the parole board-eager to prove our virtue, to be on our best behavior after standing accused of horrid crimes. Our celebration reflects our survival and our desire for life-on Yom Kippur we turned from evil, and on Sukkot we do good. The two holidays are paired well together. One sets up for the other. The joy of Sukkot would never be as powerful without the trepidation of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur was a time for sober reflection about spiritual failures and about gaining the strength to live better, truer, purer lives. On Sukkot we rejoice, but our rejoicing is its own spiritual challenge. Rejoicing can lead to spiritual breakthroughs, but it can also endanger the carefully constructed sense of holiness that we achieved on Yom Kippur. Thus, this is not a time just to party, but it is one to think about the true nature of joy and the ability to rejoice in our fragile "huts," as our ancestors did.  That way we can infuse the New Year with holy happiness. I hope that your Sukkot is filled with joy, delicious food [i] and friendship, and I look forward to dwelling in our sukkah at Agudas with you throughout this coming week.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

[i] There are a number of opportiunities to "dwell in the sukkah" with lunch on Thursday, Friday, and Shabbat; a dinner on Friday night and Pizza in the Hut on Sunday night. Please RSVP for the dinner and Pizza in the Hut today!

Yom Kippur

On Erev Yom Kippur it is said that "we will be as pure as the angels and cleansed of our sins."  There is one actual way we manifest that, and I think you will appreciate it.

No one among us is unfamiliar with the Shema and its refrain Barukh shem kevod malkhuto leolam vaed, "Praised be His glorious sovereignty throughout time."  All year the prayer leader and the congregation read these auspicious words silently. 

Yom Kippur is the only day of the year the refrain is recited aloud during the Shema.   There are a litany of reasons for this.  The emphasis given Barukh Shem... is a means of reliving and recalling the atonement rites conducted in the Temple.  Also, at Jacob's deathbed his children affirmed their loyalty to God by proclaiming the Shema (Israel in this context refers to Jacob).  And, Jacob responded Barukh Shem...

Interestingly, our Sages taught in the Talmud Pesachim 56a and Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:36 that we should say these words as Jacob did.   But, since they are not found in the Torah, we should say them silently.  How do we get from "silent" to "aloud" at Yom Kippur?  Tradition has it that Moses heard it recited by the angels, and he taught it to Israel.  All year we recite it silently since we are sinful and unworthy of using an angelic formula, but on Yom Kippur, when we are cleansed of our sins and are "as pure as angels," we recite as the angels did-aloud.

 

G'mar Hatimah Tovah (May we all be sealed in the Book of Life)! [i]

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

[i] This blessing arises from the concept that on Rosh Hashanah God judges individuals, but that judgment is not finalized or "sealed" until Yom Kippur, and is consequently only recited during the Ten Days of Repentance.