Abraham, Isaac, and Bob

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

Rabbi Maurice Harris                           

Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together. 

First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition. 

Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.

Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.

The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation. 

Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham: 

“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17

In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash

Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.

Genesis Rabbah 41.9

What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, and Bob”

D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)

D’var Torah ­ T’rumah 5769 – Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

By Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

Parashat T’rumah details the construction of the mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built and took with them during their 40 year journey through the wilderness. The early rabbis noticed the high frequency of similar words used in this story of the creation of a holy sanctuary and the language used in Genesis to describe the creation of the world.

The portable temple – the mishkan – is the Torah’s early preview of the permanent Temple that would be built centuries later by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Jon Levenson, a Bible scholar and the teacher of my Bible professor, Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski, wrote that the parallels between the Torah’s account of the creation of the universe and the Exodus chapters detailing the creation of the mishkan provide “powerful evidence that, as in many cultures, the Temple was conceived as a microcosm, a miniature world.”

For this week’s Torah portion, the ancient rabbis chose a haftarah, the public reading from the books of the Prophets, that accompanies the weekly Torah reading, from the book of First Kings. That text describes Solomon’s building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most commented upon verses we find in the description of this massive construction project reads as follows:

“When the Temple was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the Temple while it was being built.” [1 Kings 6:7] Continue reading “D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)”

D’var Torah: Acharey Mot / Kedoshim (2010)

Acharey Mot – Kedoshim D’var Torah

Rabbi Maurice April 23, 2010

Shabbat shalom. This Shabbat we continue our journey through the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, or Leviticus in English. We actually read from two Torah portions this Sabbath. The first is called Acharey Mot, and the second is called Kedoshim.

Acharei Mot presents an account of the laws of Yom Kippur, as well as a list of laws regarding sexual relationships. Kedoshim offers us a list of laws that define which behaviors are considered holy – kadosh – and which are not. It’s a mixture of ethical and ritual laws.

Perhaps the most famous part of Kedoshim is Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Chapter 19 happens to be right at the mid-point of the Torah, and many commentators have described it as the heart of the Torah. It begins with God telling the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. And then the Torah goes on to present a list of mitzvot – commandments.

The list includes the foundations of a universal human ethics. Honor your parents. Don’t steal or make a false oath. If you’re a farmer, leave the corners of your fields unharvested so the poor and the needy can anonymously come glean and avoid both starvation and the embarrassment of begging for food.

If you hire a day-laborer, pay him or her promptly for their work, the same day. In other words, don’t take advantage of their desperate economic situation or essentially enslave them by withholding their wages for long stretches so that you can force them to stay under your employ.

Don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind – in other words, don’t amuse yourself at the expense of another’s difference of ability. The phrase “stand up before the aged” is also found in this chapter, and the exact words that the Torah uses for this commandment are the words you’ll see posted on Israeli busses above the seats closest to the bus’s doors.

This is the section of Torah that says don’t profit by the blood of your countrymen and women, or hate them in your heart. Do tell someone if you see them doing wrong, but don’t let yourself get dragged into their wrongdoing too. Keep the community’s place of worship in good condition and treat it as a sacred place. Don’t defraud anyone, and love your neighbor as yourself. V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha – possibly the most famous passage in this entire section.

And in this section of the Torah God states, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, ye shall not do them any wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am ADONAI, your God.

How ironic that we come upon these words tonight just as the State of Arizona has passed a law allowing police officers to take race into account and stop people on the street to do a check on their immigration status. I guess it’s not enough to use undocumented immigrants for hard labor in our agricultural fields and pay them a couple bucks an hour so we can have cheap lettuce, strawberries and melons. No, we need to scapegoat them too and humiliate an entire racial group with spot checks by police.

Is that the best that’s in us as a society? Is that how we show the greatness of our nation? By wronging the stranger? I’m sorry – apparently I’ve digressed.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Acharey Mot / Kedoshim (2010)”

A D’var for Shavuot (2009 / 5769)

D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff.  As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around.  We are so blessed.  We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes.  One full year of life.  There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space.  Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God.  We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.

Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot.  Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus.  Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.

Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel.  Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place.  The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land.  Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago.  That leaves the Book of Ruth.  Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel.  It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem.  Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem.  As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book.  The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.

It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.

The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.”  Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace.  As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself.  Just to illustrate this with one small example:  in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.”  This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew.  It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh.  And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”

Nuremberg_chronicles_-_f_15r

Continue reading “A D’var for Shavuot (2009 / 5769)”

D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.

In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty.  You know what happens next.  As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” 

And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God. 

When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it. 

By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.”  P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.

Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process!  But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it.  Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”

Exploring Connections btw Midrash & New Testament

I just had the pleasure of presenting a two-part series on connections between Midrash and New Testament writings to an interfaith audience in Corvallis, Oregon. We met at the Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal), and a local synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, co-sponsored the course. (Shout outs to Rev. Simon Justice and Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of the respective congregations!) Members of at least 3 other Christian churches in the area attended as well.

I used PowerPoint slideshows and I think they were really effective.

I’m using my blog to share links to them on Slideshare.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can find them here:

 

I’m interested in getting feedback, or in coming to your community to teach. It works great with a Jewish, Christian, or interfaith group.
thanks!

A Quick, Substantive Overview of the Library of Sacred Jewish Writings

 

I created this 18 minute video for a Melton course I taught a couple years ago, and I think it’s pretty good. If I were to re-do it, I would change a couple things, but overall I think this is a decent resource of its kind. If you think it could be useful, please do share it.

Now for the promotional part: I would love to come to your congregation & offer a teaching, or work with communities looking for the development of new online education resources, on a contractual basis. Please let me know if you’d like to talk about it!

 

Songs that drash other songs and that I like a lot

Thanks to my kids, I’m a 40-something dad who hears a lot of pop music (and, because of my daughter’s love of it, country music too). Most of it isn’t my cup of tea.

But some songs pop out for me, often if they do innovative and twisty things with influences from earlier rock / folk / funk / pop music (that I happen to like.) Creating new religious/spiritual/literary/homiletical/linguistic art from earlier rabbinic and biblical texts is the basis of midrash, and engaging in that activity is sometimes called “drashing.” I like the way a lot of songs today drash on earlier music.

For example:

Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s. I hear echoes of Nancy Sinatra, Cyndi Lauper, Melissa Ethridge, and even her contemporaries, Adele and Amy Winehouse – both of whose music serves as midrash on a variety of earlier styles.

Cee Lo Green is doing it for me too:

I’m hearing so much wonderful early 70’s Motown, or maybe 60’s – I’m not an expert on this stuff. Al Green. James Brown. My wife even says a bit of Marvin Gaye.

Neko Case, drawing on vintage country and folk, as well as some 90’s REM sensibilities, mixed with some torch worthy of K. D. Lang, released Hold On, Hold On in 2009:

Interested to hear others’ thoughts!

D’var Torah: Vayechi

I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.

D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004

 By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis.  It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph.  Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing.  The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim.  The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.

You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.

Yet another example of Hollywood casting white dudes to play ancient Hebrews… I mean, he’s definitely easy on the eyes, no disrespect to the actor, but ancient Hebrews and Egyptians probably didn’t look quite like that.

When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt.  Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather.  Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons.  In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.

Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons.  Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried.  Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela.  After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery.  They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him.  The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Vayechi”

Loving the Stranger / Loving the Vulnerable Among Us

Acharey Mot – Kedoshim D’var Torah      April 23, 2010

Shabbat shalom. This Shabbat we continue our journey through the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, or Leviticus in English. We actually read from two Torah portions this Sabbath. The first is called Acharey Mot, and the second is called Kedoshim.

Acharei Mot presents an account of the laws of Yom Kippur, as well as a list of laws regarding sexual relationships. Kedoshim offers us a list of laws that define which behaviors are considered holy – kadosh – and which are not. It’s a mixture of ethical and ritual laws.

Perhaps the most famous part of Kedoshim is Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Chapter 19 happens to be right at the mid-point of the Torah, and many commentators have described it as the heart of the Torah. It begins with God telling the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. And then the Torah goes on to present a list of mitzvot – commandments.

farmworkersThe list includes the foundations of a universal human ethics. Honor your parents. Don’t steal or make a false oath. If you’re a farmer, leave the corners of your fields un-harvested so the poor and the needy can anonymously come glean and avoid both starvation and the embarrassment of begging for food.

If you hire a day-laborer, pay him or her promptly for their work, the same day. In other words, don’t take advantage of their desperate economic situation or essentially enslave them by withholding their wages for long stretches so that you can force them to stay under your employ.

Continue reading “Loving the Stranger / Loving the Vulnerable Among Us”