This week’s Torah portion is called vayetzey, and it is found in the book of breisheet, or Genesis in English. Our story begins with a young Jacob fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau. As you may recall from last week’s Torah reading, Jacob deceived his dying father, Isaac, by pretending to be his twin brother, Esau, and by means of this deception Jacob made off with the special blessing Isaac had intended to give his first born son, Esau. Having been stripped of first-born privileges twice by Jacob at this point, Esau began muttering to himself that he would murder his brother once he got the chance. And having overheard Esau’s plotting, Rebecca sent Jacob away to her brother, Laban’s, household in the town of Haran.
This week’s parashah begins with young Jacob on the road to Haran. He stops for the night at a certain place. He takes a stone to use for a pillow, drifts off to sleep, and has a life-changing dream. Angles, or divine messengers, are ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven and earth. God appears standing above the scene and blesses Jacob, saying: “the land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.”
Jacob awakens from his dream, astonished and alert. “Truly, God is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says aloud. And he adds, “mah norah ha-makom ha-zeh: how awesome is this place! This is none other than a house of God, and this is a gate of heaven!”
Jacob’s dream of the angels traveling up and down a ladder to heaven is famous. Something I find interesting is that the entire story up to the point that Jacob awakens and realizes that God was in this place takes the Torah only 7 verses to tell. But the element of this famous story that I’d like to focus on tonight is a single word that dominates the story – the Hebrew word makom, which means place. The Torah’s storytelling style is sparse on words and fast on action. So when a single word is repeated several times in the course of a story, you can bet that there’s special symbolic significance to it. In this case, the word makom appears 5 times in the 7 verses that tell the story of his dream and his awakening, and 3 of those occurrences take place in one of those verses alone. The narrating voice tells us that Jacob arrived at a certain makom, took one of the stones of the makom to use as a make-shift pillow, and that he lay down in that makom. When Jacob wakes up, startled by his amazing dream, he says that God is in this makom and that this makom is awe-inspiring.Continue reading “D’var Torah – Vayetzey”→
The double-portion of Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1 – 15:33) presents a series of ritual purity instructions for Israelite priests, starting with procedures for women who have recently given birth, and shifting to the rules priests must follow to identify, quarantine, inspect, and ultimately, readmit to the community people with an ancient skin disease called tzara’at. In my first years working with b’nai mitzvah students, I repeatedly
witnessed the disappointment of kids upon learning that Tazria-Metzora was their parashah. I would try to reassure them that, with help, they really would be able to find something relevant to their lives within these verses. The cultural distance, confusion, and even revulsion that many experience when encountering these parts of Leviticus are tough to overcome. And yet, with some cultural translation and an open mind, Leviticus can teach us a lot.
Our parashah offers us a good example in Leviticus 14, which describes the process by which priests would examine people to determine if they had tzara’at. If yes, then the afflicted person was placed outside the community in quarantine. Priests would then repeatedly visit to check on whether their skin was healing. When a priest verified a complete healing, he would then perform a purification ritual for the person involving two birds and a bowl of water – one of those bloody, non-rational Levitical rituals that often make us squirm. But if we can put our scientific Western mindset aside for a moment, we can explore the potential spiritual lessons for us in this part of Leviticus. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Write People Off (Tazria-Metzora 5778)”→
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!
I’m thinking about possibly starting an online Jewish education venture that would involve me creating a series of 4 to 6 minute long YouTube videos offering a quickie overview of different Jewish texts, historical figures, etc. I know that there are already a few things out there, like the fabulous G-dcast, but I think there’s a niche I could establish that would help a lot of people and possibly generate some good career opportunities for me.
A couple years ago I was monkeying around with this concept and I created this “Overview of Sacred Jewish Texts” video, which is too long, muddled, and visually uninteresting to quite fit the bill.
I like the idea of creating videos that make Jewish texts, from the different books of the Torah to various rabbinic texts, accessible to the general public. My vision is to create videos that are not dumbed down, but that remain committed to high degrees of comprehension from viewers who are newcomers. Each video would end with a screen shot of recommended links to other online resources that viewers can use to expand upon what they’ve learned in my videos. I’d call that the “Now go and learn…” feature, echoing the ancient sage, Hillel, who is responsible for both the “on one foot” and the “go and learn” memes in Judaism.
I’m interested in what kinds of grants I might be able to apply for. Perhaps I should go ahead and create a starter set of these videos and then seek additional funding. I don’t know. Interested in others thoughts in the comments here or privately.
Here’s another example of a video I created that seeks to help people use a structured method to writing a d’var Torah (a sermon) on the weekly Torah portion.
Again, I feel it’s a bit dry, but I wonder if anyone out there would be willing to comment or send me private feedback as to whether something like this would be useful.
As we enter into the part of the year in which we read the Exodus story in our synagogues, here’s an excerpt from a chapter from my recent book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, that I hope you’ll enjoy. The book is a terrific resource for clergy of all faiths, especially those looking for good stuff for sermons, and it’s also a really accessible and usable scholarly work on Moses. What follows is part of Chapter 10, “Moses” – the quotation marks are intentional, as in someone making air quotation marks as they say the name Moses.
Since 1985, a group of Christian Bible scholars have worked on what has been known as the Jesus Seminar. Their web site states, “. . . the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings . . . and events . . . attributed to Jesus in the gospels.”
Even though their work involves questioning the historical accuracy of how the New Testament presents Jesus, many of the Jesus Seminar professors are also Christian pastors invested in a living Christian faith. By closely analyzing the New Testament texts and reviewing other available historical information, these scholars have sought to develop theories about who the actual, historical Jesus may have been, and which sayings and actions attributed to him are most likely to be authentic.
In part, what they seek to do is better understand how their religion evolved in its first two centuries of being. They want to better
understand the various early Christian groups that produced the different gospels, for instance, and how each of them may have shaped or added to the teachings attributed to Jesus over the years.
It’s important to bear in mind that in the ancient world, the common practice was for disciples of a great master to add to his (or occasionally, her) sayings and teachings. When faithful disciples would add to their master’s sayings, they would often attribute the new sayings to him, out of respect and loyalty to the school of thought that he had founded. Disciples and students were not eager to claim personal authorship of new ideas for themselves, nor did they have the need modern Westerners often have for historical accuracy.
When rival groups of disciples of the same master would interpret the master’s life and teachings differently, they would be sure to develop additional sayings in his name that reflected their varying ideological perspectives. In this way, a master’s teachings would sometimes develop over time along different ideological lines, in some cases evolving beyond what the master himself would have condoned or even imagined. This was a practice that was so normal that it was not noteworthy in the ancient world. (The Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, commenting about similar processes that have played out in Islam, writes: “There might have been one historical Muhammad, but there have been many memories of Muhammad.”) – from his book, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
In Jewish tradition, scholars see the same pattern having played out among the early rabbis. There are many teachings and sayings attributed in the Talmud to great sages like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for example. Both men had many disciples and developed popular schools of thought. It is likely that over time, sayings accrued to them that they never actually uttered. Sometimes different groups within a developing religious tradition would join together to consolidate and canonize an official version of their sacred texts. This usually involved discussion and compromise, as the different groups would each want their own texts and traditions included in the canon. In the ancient Middle East, the canonizers of sacred texts were not operating within the framework of modern Western writing, and therefore they were quite comfortable putting multiple and even contradictory written traditions alongside each other as part of the finalized sacred canon.
The canonizers of the New Testament, like the redactors of the Torah that I discussed in chapter 6, were not threatened by presenting their contemporary readers with a Bible designed as a composite text that includes multiple accounts of the same story, complete with contradictions and logical or narrative conflicts. This is why there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one. The New Testament even presents two gospels that have conflicting genealogies of Jesus’s ancestry (see Matthew and Luke).
As the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar have continued their work, they have offered a new way of looking at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament. They see Jesus as a literary composite figure, a combination of some of his own authentic teachings as well as the varying and sometimes conflicting teachings of others who came after him. Some of these scholars have even started writing about the difference between “Jesus” and Jesus. “Jesus” is the composite literary character we find when we take the entire New Testament as a whole that is made up of many component parts: different writings from different communities with different agendas, writings that were joined together by editors and canonizers. Jesus – without quotes – is the historical person who lived, taught, inspired large numbers of people, and died about 2,000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea.
Needless to say, the written use of “Jesus” as a way of making a distinction that is important to the Jesus Seminar scholars was bound to upset some Christian religious traditionalists. One of the most common criticisms of the Jesus Seminar from some Christian conservatives is that their entire endeavor is heresy. Once they deconstruct traditional Christian belief to the point that Jesus becomes “Jesus,” the conservatives argue, they’ve left the fold. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, disagree, and don’t see a threat to their tradition through this kind of historical inquiry.
In rabbinical school we were required to take a course on Christianity taught by a local Methodist minister . . . who is also a Jesus Seminar scholar. Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig shared how the research he has done into who the historical Jesus might have been has deepened his appreciation for the best aspects of his religion. In addition to the interest he expressed in discovering which sayings and teachings are most likely to have been authentic to the historical Jesus, Dr. Taussig also has found great value in identifying the sayings that were most likely attributed to Jesus by others during the decades following his death. This information reveals insight into how spiritual life developed in early Christian communities under different circumstances. What Dr. Taussig modeled was a way of relating to one’s own religion with an attitude of excitement and curiosity about what kinds of truth and beauty one might see if one is willing to look behind the curtain of the myth, letting go of dogma and approaching the past with a sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s in this same spirit that I have chosen to write this last chapter not on Moses, but rather on “Moses.”
This was a d’var I wrote for the organization currently known as T’ruah, but at the time as Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.
There’s an oft-quoted midrash that tells a simple but powerful tale. A group of travelers are in a boat upon the open waters, when one of them suddenly takes out a hand-drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. Astonished, the others turn to him and say, “What are you doing?” He responds by saying, “What concern is it of yours? I’m drilling under my own seat!” The others then spell out the obvious truth that he is unable to perceive – that his actions affect them all, and that they are all in the same boat.
As I considered the famous story of Noah and the Great Flood in this week’s parashah, I wondered: what if the boat this misguided traveler was aboard had been Noah’s ark? If we transplant the boat midrash to Noah’s ark, then the man drilling a hole under his own seat becomes someone who just might cause the entire living world to perish.
The story of Noah’s ark and the boat midrash both teach about interdependence and shared destiny. The boat midrash particularly reminds us that there are certain destructive actions that imperil all of us even if just one of us is allowed to carry them out. In addition, it teaches that we are all responsible for making sure that everyone in the community (aboard the boat) adheres to certain basic rules so that we don’t all drown. Human rights advocates can draw on both of these stories to illustrate some of our core beliefs: that we human beings are the guarantors of each other’s basic rights, and that our universal human rights only exist when we take them on as universal human responsibilities.
Too often, here in the U.S., our leaders have decided to set human rights aside in this or that case for the sake of some other highly desired political, military, or economic outcome. We live in a moment when some politicians openly brag about their support for casting aside human rights in our treatment of prisoners. And even government leaders who support human rights choose to make exceptions.
In addition, our elected officials frequently turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by other nations so that our industries can continue to do brisk business and our consumers continue to get cheap products. When political leaders do this, their sense of urgency is deeply misplaced. Often they’ll justify these decisions by saying that the consistent application of a commitment to human rights is an ideal to be achieved incrementally, whereas economic or short term political concerns are supposedly urgent. When we permit our elected officials to do this, we as Americans choose to let somebody else drill a hole under their seat in the boat. We usually rationalize that we can’t control what other’s do, or that sometime later we’ll prioritize urging them to stop.
The ancient rabbis taught that a person who has the capacity to object to the harmful actions of others and does not bears some of the responsibility for the harm that’s done. This is not an easy mitzvah to uphold – not in the small worlds of our families and workplaces, nor in the larger world of governments and nations. But it’s an essential mitzvah for humanity to practice if we are ever to rise above the willingness to violate human rights or stand idly by while others do so. For human rights to become deeply rooted worldwide, they need to be upheld in all times and places.
(Note: the video above is of an early ’70s pop song called “Noah,” sung by Matti Caspi. If you want an English translation visit here.)