Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
“Will You really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” [Gen. 18:23]
In Vayera we find Abraham at his very best, risking his life by challenging God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Abraham’s world, authority was absolute. No king would ever allow someone to challenge their decision, yet over the next several verses Abraham dares to do that not merely with a king, but with the Almighty! Make no mistake, this was a dangerous business. Abraham risked his life when he asked God to spare the cities if fifty innocent people could be found in their midst. Incredibly, God agreed, yet Abraham did not stop there. He continued to challenge God, whittling away at the number until he eventually negotiated it down to ten. Not only did Abraham escape punishment for his temerity, but God agreed at every step of the way! Unfortunately, however, for Sodom and Gomorrah not even ten innocent people could be found.
The Abraham of this story, willing to challenge even the Divine to protect life and God’s reputation in the world, is my hero.
A few chapters later Vayera shows us another Abraham. One who is willing to sacrifice his own son at God’s command. How do we reconcile the Abraham who challenges God directly to save strangers from the Divine decree with the Abraham who agrees to kill his own son?
This is the question that the Midrash HaGadol tries to answer. According to tradition, God tested Abraham ten times, with the final and greatest test being God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The sages teach that Abraham passed all ten tests with flying colors. God’s decision to destroy the cities was one of these tests, and Abraham rose to the occasion. However, according to Midrash HaGadol he only partially passed. Abraham should not have stopped at ten; God would have spared the cities for one innocent person.
For this reason, says the midrash, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: to teach him the value of even one human life.
May this be a lesson for us all.
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Part of the genius of Torah is that it does not start with Judaism or even Jews, but with humanity. Neither Adam nor Eve were Jewish, nor were Cain or Abel. The Jewish narrative does not begin until (in next week’s parasha) God calls upon Abram to leave his family and his land to a place that God will show him. Noach is not about the Jewish people, it is about all people.
Noah’s saga ends with the divine promise never to destroy creation again, and moves on to the shortest story in all of Torah: eleven whole verses dedicated to the Tower of Babel. The really short version is this: all of the people of the world lived together, and spoke the same language, and decided to build a tower up to the heavens. God does not like the idea, and confuses their speech by introducing different languages so that they could no longer understand each other. Then God scatters them across the world.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in the late 19th Century taught that the Tower of Babel was the first totalitarianism. Why? Just look at the first verse of the story: “The entire earth had one language, and spoke the same words.” [Gen. 11:1] This is the ultimate expression of human uniformity. If everyone speaks not only the same language but the same words then there is no individualism, no creativity, no growth, no diversity. We are all the exactly the same, and never change.
Torah, beginning with the Babel story, repudiates the very concept of uniformity or universalism as an ideal. God responds to the people of Babel, by forcing diversity upon them, and therefore, upon us. Then, in next week’s parasha, God singles out Abram and says, in effect, be different. This is a big part of what it means to be Jewish. The rest of Torah goes on to differentiate Israel from among the peoples; it defines our particular relationship with God and assigns us our own special set of divinely ordained obligations – 613 of them to be precise.
The theological and practical ramifications of this are breathtaking. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Judaism has a structural peculiarity so perplexing and profound that though its two daughter monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, took much else from it, they did not adopt this: it is a particularlist monotheism. It believes in One God but not in one exclusive path to salvation.”
In other words, being chosen in this way does not mean we are better than anyone else, or that God favors Jews over the nations. Rather, the message is one that values diversity. God wants us to be different because diversity in an of itself is good.
What an extraordinary message for us today.
 Sacks, Jonathan. The Dignity of Difference. London: Continuum Books, 2002, p. 52.
Deuteronomy 29:9 –31:30
“You stand here today, all of you, before the Lord your God …” [Deut. 29:9]
We read these words at the beginning of this week’s parasha, and then again on Yom Kippur – our holiest of holy days. While we believe that God is always present, at this time of year, we try to become more aware, and we attempt to take stock of how we are living our lives. Are we proud of who we have been? Are there things we would like to change? Asking ourselves these questions while standing in the presence of the Divine helps us to be more honest with ourselves – for nothing is hidden from God.
… but we can always use a little extra help.
A friend and colleague of mine introduced me to a wonderful tool that I have used now for several years. Do You 10Q is a free website that is designed to help us make the most of this opportunity to consciously stand before God. It is run by Reboot – a cutting edge example of Jewish spiritual entrepreneurialism.
Here is how it works:
First you will need to register. Then, starting on September 20th, a 10Q question will land in your inbox with a link. When you click on the link you will be taken to a secure site where you can record and store your answer. Nobody but you will have access to your answers. Each day, for ten days, you will receive another question with another link. You will then have a day or two after Yom Kippur to reflect on your answers and decide whether you want to keep them private, or share them either anonymously or attributed with the 10Q staff and with other 10Qers.
Once you are ready, you can then hit the “magic button” – which will lock your vault until next year, when your answers from the previous year will “magically” reappear in your inbox.
Each year, when I receive my answers from the previous year, I gain a fascinating perspective on how far I have come, where I have stumbled, and what I want to focus on for this upcoming year.
I strongly recommend Do You 10Q for your consideration, and in advance wish you a Shana Tovah u’Metukah, a sweet, healthy and happy New Year.
Deuteronomy 26:1 –29:8
Fifty-three verses. That is how long the interminable list of curses take in this week’s parasha as punishment for not following God. The number of blessings for doing right just pale in comparison.
It would be easy, understandable even, to focus on the negative and gloss over the good. Yet, doing so would cause us to miss one of the single most important teachings of Torah. The curses come: “because you [meaning us] would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.” [Deut. 28:47]
One little verse, buried in the midst of a long litany of curses, says more than all fifty-three verses together: cultivate a life of gratitude, recognize the role of God in “the abundance of everything,” and even if the world around us seems filled with curses, we will somehow be able to find and live with joy.
All the rest is commentary.
Deuteronomy 21:10 –25:19
In Ki Teitze we find one of the most enigmatic of all commandments:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stragglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! [Deut. 25:17-19]
At first reading, this commandment seems to defy logic. How could we possibly remember not to forget to completely forget?
Amalek, for us, represents far more than one attack against the Israelite slaves escaping from Egypt – but to understand why we need to remember what actually happened. When we first left Egypt, we were a mob of refugees. We had no organization and no defenses. The people who were physically strongest walked quickly and were well towards the front. The most vulnerable followed as best they could – sometimes far behind. In attacking the stragglers, Amalek demonstrated the worst kind of depravity. It was not enough for them to prey on refugees, they attacked the most helpless from among our people: the very old, the very young and the infirm.
What could possibly motivate such an action? There are many possible answers: callousness, cowardice, opportunism. Our tradition judges Amalek more harshly: only pure evil, only unadulterated hatred could lead to such action. So, we are taught that in every generation Amalek rises again to destroy the Jewish people, and in every generation we must remember to blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. For us, Amalek and each new iteration of anti-Semitism are one and the same.
In Torah and in our generation, ‘never forget,’ is the first step in the fight against anti-Semitism and all racism. However, it is only the beginning of the process. The end goal is to eventually wipe out not only the reality of racism, but even its memory. To do so requires a strong and sustained act of will – over generations.
Amalek is still with us, and in many ways, we are still in the Wilderness. For now, we must never forget, we must remain vigilant, we must stand up through word and deed to repudiate those who spew hate. Yet, we must also remember: that while Amalek is still here, so are we – a small but strong people, bearing witness through our survival and our covenantal relationship with God, that the world can be a better place.
Deuteronomy 16:18 –21:9
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the new month in the Jewish calendar. Elul is the month immediately before the High Holy Days, our time to prepare ourselves through Chesbon HaNefesh, by reviewing the choices we have made over the past year to reinforce the good we have done and determine where we have faltered and need to improve.
Our parasha opens with: “Judges and magistrates shall you place at your gates.” (Deut. 16:18) Rabbi Steven Wernick, leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, looks to a beautiful Hasidic commentary which asks, ‘what are the gates?’ The answer could not be more perfectly written for these times: Our eyes, ears and mouth. “In other words,” Wernick writes, “how we understand and react to each other is how we establish a just society.”
Our nation is more divided, more polarized than ever – making it ever easier for words of hate and anger to dominate, to become a new ‘normal.’ How we respond, however, is up to us. Now is the time to look back on the year that has past, and forward to what we pray and hope will be a better year to come. Let us examine honestly how we have used our eyes, ears and mouths and weigh the choices we have made, and may we be inspired to use them in the future in the service of compassion, truth and justice – just as our Torah teaches.
Deuteronomy 7:12 –11:25
In Eikev, Moses continues the covenantal theme of the previous two portions: he reminds us of all the good that will come when we follow God’s laws, and of the trouble we caused when we did not. However, this week Moses drills into the psychology of what motivates our behavior.
With just a handful of verses Moses highlights the fragility of human nature that leads us to arrogance; and he warns us about the necessity of humility when we enter the Land, “lest you eat and be sated and build goodly houses and dwell in them. And your cattle and sheep multiply, and silver and gold multiply for you, and all that you have multiply. And your heart become haughty and you forget the Lord your God …” [Deut. 8:12-14]
The danger of arrogance is that when we become full of ourselves there is no room for anyone else. Arrogance may be self-satisfying in the short term, but in the long run it weakens and destroys our relationships with each other, and with God. Just as in last week’s parasha we explored how love is the antidote to hate, this week Moses teaches us to adopt humility as a counter to arrogance.
Yet what does it mean to be truly humble? Many of us assume that humility is the opposite of arrogance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The opposite of arrogance is the denial of one’s self-worth. Self-debasement is not humility. The Mussar tradition teaches that arrogance and self-debasement define the edges of a range of human behavior, with humility operating as the healthy balance point in the middle. Here is one way of describing some different points along the scale:
To be humble does not mean to have no sense of self-worth, but rather to have a healthy sense of one’s place and value in the world. To be humble means to recognize that our gifts are just that – gifts. Rabbi Leib Chasman (1867-1931) taught: “One who denies one’s strengths is not humble, but a fool. Rather, a humble person is one who understands that all of his strengths and accomplishments are a gift from heaven. The more a person recognizes this, the more humble he is.”
Recognizing our gifts can inspire us to make the most of them, while staying grounded and avoiding the trap of arrogance. This is a difficult lesson to learn, and we have failed many times throughout our history. In Eikev, Moses makes sure that we understand what is at stake. When we become filled with arrogance we put ourselves in God’s place, often by creating and serving our own gods – the work of our hands. In the end, this path always leads to disaster. Humility, it turns out, is the secret ingredient to long term success for us as individuals and as a community, and ultimately, to the full realization of our sacred covenant with God.
In every generation, this is a lesson we should take to heart.
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Last week, on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we learned about the toxicity of hatred, and how the hatred in our hearts led us to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. This week, we begin the Sabbaths of comfort with Shabbat Nachamu, which as it turns out means, “the Sabbath of comfort.”
What do we need following the destructive force of hatred?
We need to receive love, but we also need to find and express our own love. Perhaps that is why VaEtchanan contains the Shema and V’ahavta. This parasha commands us to love. Love is the antidote to hate. Love and hate cannot exist simultaneously in the human heart. Yet, how can we be commanded to feel?
The short answer may be that we are to “fake it until we make it.” If we cannot feel the love, then we must go through the motions until we do. The V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema starts with the commandment for us to love God will everything that we have: our hearts, our strength, our very souls.
Yet, what does that mean? How can we love God with everything all of the time? How could we possibly maintain that kind of intensity? When could we find space in our lives to love anyone else?
I would like to suggest that if we love God with everything that we have, then we must also love each other with everything we have. If we are to devote ourselves to God and to Torah, then we must also devote ourselves to each other and to Creation.
The challenge of Shabbat Nechamu is not to respond to violence and loss with hatred, but rather with love. Love is meant to be shared, and the more love we bring into the world, the less room there will be for hate.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
This week we not only begin a new book of Torah, but we observe Shabbat Hazon, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.
There is a powerful connection between this parasha, the concept of Shabbat Hazon, which literally means “sabbath of vision,” and the observance of Tisha B’Av. In Devarim, Moses begins his first major speech before his death, and starts off by reminding Israel of the MANY terrible mistakes it made during the forty years of wandering. While this might seem harsh, it is more like tough love – and in an odd way I am reminded of hockey all star Wayne Gretzky. He once quipped that 100% of the shots he doesn’t take, don’t go in. Moses forces us to confront our past deeds, because 100% of time, we cannot learn from the mistakes which we do not acknowledge.
On Tisha B’Av we remember and mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other tragedies which befell our people on this date in years past. Yet Tisha B’Av leaves us with a theological dilemma: how could God have allowed the destruction of either Temple, let alone both? In the Talmud we learn that the problem was not God, but us:
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because three things happened in it: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed … But the Second Temple, in which there was so much Torah study, observance of commandments, and acts of good deeds – why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred inside of it. This teaches you that senseless hatred is equal to the three worst sins in Judaism: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. [Talmud Bavli, Yoma 9b]
History offers a stern warning to those who learn hatred.
We, a people steeped in history and memory, are ignoring this warning.
Today, the Jewish people is a people divided, and senseless hatred festers in our midst. There is a growing tension between the Diaspora and Israel; there is infighting within the State of Israel about the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism, and by corollary, the definition of who is a Jew; an increasing number of American Jews have stopped speaking with fellow Jews who do not share their positions on Israel or politics.
On this Sabbath of Vision, let us look to Moses. Let us acknowledge our mistakes that we can learn to be better. Let us seek ways to speak with each other rather than scream at, ignore or avoid those with whom we disagree. Let us acknowledge our differences, and yet seek ways to be one people, here and in our ancient homeland.
For how could we possibly bear to add another calamity to the list, for Tisha B’Av.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: forty years have now passed since the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the edge of the Promised Land, and Joshua has already been selected to succeed Moses to lead us across the Jordan River. The narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here.
The book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah conclude if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, does not deny the request but instead asks God, who grants permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to the decision. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land, but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her portion.
They all chose husbands from within their own tribe.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I strongly agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefer the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land, and ask to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses is concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if they stay behind, and allows them to settle on the east bank only if they will fully commit to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They can leave their children and cattle behind, but the men will only be able to return once all the Promised Land is under Israelite control.
What is the connection between this story and the daughters of Zelophehad? In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes preference. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land. In both examples, harmony is preserved between the tribes of a fledgling nation.
Personal sacrifice for the greater good, then, is the theme which leads us to the final verse of the book: “These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
For us, sacrifice is not something that was performed by priests alone, it is something we still do today – for each other and for God.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras