by Alex Krule
We’ve grown up with the golden myth of Avraham. Avraham is an ideal character in the Tanach; Avraham is a figure whom we should all strive to be like; Avraham is the quintessential Jew. But this myth was taught to us by our preschool teachers and is just that: a myth. It has become apparent that this Avraham that we have come to know and love has never existed.
Rambam’s commentary on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 3 explains ten tests of Avraham. The tenth and final test is the akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – found in this week’s parsha. Rambam says that the akeidah exists to test Avraham’s faith in God. Now, according to the traditional understanding of Avraham, we would like to believe that Avraham passes this test. However, the case simply is not so. Avraham misunderstands God’s directions and fails the test.
In Genesis 22:2, God says, “v’ha’alei’hu sham l’ola.” Now, according to the preliminary understanding of the text (found in a JPS), this means that Avraham is to “offer [Isaac] there as a burnt offering” (JPS Tanach, 39). However, we must look further into the text to find the true meaning.
Rashi, a notable medieval French commentator, notes that God never said “lishchot,” to slaughter, when he tells Avraham what to do with Yitchak. Additionally, he comments on the “bringing up” or “ola” part of the action. He says that where it says “la’a lot,” to bring up, it also says “la’redet,” to bring down, later in the text. Similarly, according to Ibn Ezra, a French rabbi and commentator who specialized in a grammatical analysis of the Torah, says that “nasah,” nun-samech-hay, often translated as “he tested,” can be spelled with a sin and an aleph. How does this change the meaning of the passage? Well, “nasah” with a sin and an aleph means “lifted up” or “elevated.” This is not the only place in the Tanach where the word “nasah” (with a sin and hay) means “to elevate.” In Exodus 20:17, it says “n’sot etchem” (“God will raise you, so that the vision of God will always be upon you”). This means that, as a member of the Nation of Israel, God will raise you higher, in terms of holiness, above the other nations, and that God will always be watching over you.
I believe that the fundamental test that Rambam spoke of was a test of Avraham’s understanding of God’s will; a decision between pshat (basic understanding) and drash (in depth understanding), if you will. God was testing to see if Avraham would take God’s words at face-value (pshat) or to seriously consider the deeper meaning of God’s words (drash). I also believe that the true answer is the drash; Avraham was not supposed to kill Isaac, rather, he was supposed to lift him closer to God. Avraham obviously interprets God’s words only to the level of pshat. And so, Avraham fails that test.
What does this mean? Why does it matter if Avraham failed a test? Well, this read of the Torah is dramatically different from the traditional read. Many of us learn in Hebrew School that Avraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, but it was actually a test of faith from God. We are also taught that Avraham is a near-perfect role model to be looked up on. This is clearly not true, but it doesn’t mean that we should not respect Avraham. Avraham is not perfect, but that is what makes him an important character in our heritage. Instead of trying to be perfect, which, as humans, we can never be, we can look at Avraham and acknowledge that we have flaws; that it is okay to not be perfect. We must cease from putting our biblical heroes on a golden pedestal and think of them on the same level as us. Only then will we have a more accurate understanding of our tradition.
Lekh Lekha 5763
by Josh Dorsch
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, deals with the beginning of the 10 tests that God gives to Abraham, all of which he passes with flying colors. In last weeks parasha, Abraham is put into a furnace because he wouldn’t denounce his beliefs of God. And wouldn’t you know it, he came out of it unharmed. This week, our portion begins with God telling Abraham:
“Lech l’cha me artzecha umemoladetche u me beit avicha el ha aretz asher arekha” (Go for you from your land and from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you).
This is the second of 10 tests which God puts Abraham through. However, being that God is all knowing, he would already know that Abraham would pass the tests. Why would he then require for Abraham to act them out? The Ohr Gedalia explains the situation to us, with “potential.” He says that everyone is born with a certain amount of potential. G-D knows what everyone’s potential is, however, it is our job reach for our potential. God may know exactly what someone is capable of doing, as well as what they should do, however, unless that person does it, he will remain the same. God knows you can talk, but you must walk the walk. Another way in which this dilemma can be viewed, is the ever so popular and controversial question, about Free choice. If God is supposed all knowing, and he knew what Abraham would choose, was Abraham actually tested in the first place? Rambam’s answer to this question, is that God controls, and knows everything, except for how much one fears God. The reason in which someone would, or would not do something is because they are scared of their possible punishment. The more someone feared God, the more one would be inclined to follow God’s commandments. Even though God may have known what Abraham was going to do, he decided to let Abraham see for himself. God bestowed upon Abraham a great responsibility. He was going to be the father of not only the Jewish People, but a lot of other nations as well. Abraham may have been unsure of him self to be able to handle such a big responsibility. These tests were not actually meant to show God how affirm to God that Abraham was the right man for the job. But, to show Abraham his potential to be the father of a great nation.
Lekh Lekha 5770
by Bekah Hakimian
October 31, 2009/13 Heshvan 5770
Imagine this. One day you are told by a total stranger to pack all of your belongings, pick up and leave your life back home. You are told to trust this stranger, even though clearly this person is someone you don’t know. Imagine this happening thousands of years ago, and that stranger is a voice you are hearing, and the voice just so happens to be God. Now remove yourself from this picture and place Abram in this scene.
At the end of last week’s parsha, we are introduced to the decedents of Noah’s children, and those descendants are Abram, Sarai, and Lot. In Lech Lecha (which means, “get out” or “leave from here”), God promises Abram that a special land will be set aside for him and his descendants, and that Abram will be a father of a great nation. Abram and his family, which includes his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, travel from Haran to Canaan. On his journeys in the land, Abram sets up an altar to God in Alon Moreh between Bethel and Ai.
A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek food in Egypt. Upon entering Egypt, Abram declares that Sarai is his sister, not his wife; she is then taken into Pharaoh’s palace. Abram realizes good fortune from this deception, but God afflicts Pharaoh with plagues. Pharaoh realizes that Sarai is really Abram’s wife. Pharaoh sends Abram, his wife, and their possessions out of Egypt.
God once again appears to Abram and promises him progeny and land. This convent is confirmed when Abram brings sacrifices. At this point, God foretells the Israelite bondage in Egypt. Sarai, who has not been able to bear children, gives her handmaid Hagar to Abram as a concubine. Hagar bears Ishmael. God repeats his covenant to Abram, but now requires Abram and all the males of his household to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant. Abram at this point is 99 years old.
The parsha concludes with a final covenant. God appeared before Abram and said, “I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be perfect” (17:1). God tells Abram he will be a father of a multitude of nations and a nation so great that not even all the grains of sand could measure up to his descendants. God then changes Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah. The name change was a way to show that God will remember the covenant and Abraham and Sarah will always have a part of God. The name change was minor yet very significant. In Hebrew, the letter Hay often is another name for God. By adding the letter Hay to Abram and Sarai, is in a sense placing God’s name in each of their names.
In this parsha, Abram is called an Ivri, a Hebrew. Rashi explains the term by its root letters, ayin, vet, resh, meaning “other.” He translates the phrase as: “the one who came from the other side of the Euphrates River.” This is interpreted as: The whole world stood on one side and “Abram the Ivri stood on the other.
Through this all, Abraham pasts the entire test God set before him. He leaves his home, becomes a figure head in this land, has is named changed, is circumcised and has a child at the age of 100. There would to be one more test on Abraham later on in the Torah, but I don’t want to ruin next week’s parsha. But what we can learn from this is that with a little faith in people, good things could come your way.
So, if you hear a voice in your head telling you too go travel to a new place and start a new life, I think we need to talk. Shabbat Shalom.
#6: From this point on, I am generally using A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein and Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Mekor Chayim by Rabbi Chayim David HaLevi. If you have any practical questions regarding Halakha, please consult your rabbi; ideas presented here are not meant to provide halakha l’ma’aseh (practical halakha) but rather an overview of how Shabbat works and ideas to enhance its observance.
While there are multiple possibilities of how Shabbat begins, the obligatory candle lighting is one of the most common ways in which one sanctifies the beginning of Shabbat. In the words of Heschel, “just as creation began with the word ‘let there be light!’ so does the celebration of creation begin with the kindling of lights.” While Karaites take the law of not kindling a fire on Shabbat to mean that literally, light should not permeate the house on Shabbat, Rabbinic Jews take the idea of oneg Shabbat (delight of Shabbat) seriously, and candle lighting is meant to bring joy to the home on Shabbat. There is also considerable thought behind the idea that lighting candles brings peace to the home. When the time comes, we set down our weekly occupations, and we have a moment of tranquility while bringing the light of God, Torah, and Shabbat into our homes.
There are many traditions behind the amount of candles one lights. It is fairly standard to light at least two candles, one for shamor and one for zakhor, the first words of the Shabbat commandment in Deuteronomy and Exodus, respectively. Some families have the tradition of lighting one candle for each family member.
When we light candles, we cover our eyes as we say the berakha. The reason for this is because normally, we say a berakha before we do the mitzvah. However, saying the berakha for lighting candles would automatically mean that Shabbat has started, and we would be unable to light candles! So we light the candles, cover our eyes, say the berakha, and then we open our eyes and enjoy the aura of holiness that the light of the candles brings to our Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom U-mevorach!
by Aaron Aftergood
It is told that Noah’s righteousness was well known among his contemporaries. One of his main occupations was traveling among them, trying to convince them to change their ways. Noah even planted cedars and spent 120 years tending them, cutting them into boards, planing them, and finally building the Ark. He could have accomplished this in much less time, but he felt that if the people saw his preparations for the Flood, they would change. But the others made a joke of it, saying, “What the heck’s he gonna do with that big boat?” He tried to convince them, but they would not listen.
The first line of the parasha reads, “These are the chronicles of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”
“Faultless in his generation,” is the phrase that has been massively commented on. Yalkut MeAm Lo=92ez, written by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in the early 18th century says that “in his generation” suggests that even though he lived among wicked people, he maintained his high moral standards. It also tells us that if he had lived in the time of Moses and other tzadiks, he would certainly have even been much greater, since they would have reinforced his determination.
Rashi takes an opposite approach. He thinks that Noah would not have been considered righteous in any other time. Only the fact the every one around him was wicked, made him appear to be a good guy, and thus he was chosen by God.
In any case, I believe that it is not only possible, but our duty as Jews and USYers to be “righteous” in our generations.
You may respond, “Look, I’m certainly not righteous, and my generation is already having identity problems as it is; what am I supposed to do.”
Well, I interpret this passage to mean that we should be examples in our daily lives. As Jewish individuals, we have a responsibility to role models, and leaders, whether we are in school, USY, or anywhere. My decision to wear a Kippah, both at a secular school, and in my public daily life, has instantly transformed me into a representative of our beloved religion, and, as a result, I have much more confidence as a person, and a much better outlook on life. So next time you’re tempted to do something that your mother might not necessarily be proud, think again, be righteous in your environment, and stand up for what’s right. Not only because you may be the teacher’s pet, but because you are a Jew; like Noah, you must be a light unto the nations.
Remember, USY today, is the World Jewish leadership of tomorrow, and we must not forget to learn, and improve ourselves as human beings in preparation for this colossal responsibility.
by David Abraham
Here is a brief summary of the portion: Noah, in his generation, was a very righteous person, a true tzadik. However, the rest of the society in which he lived was very corrupt. Because of the society, God decides to destroy everything in it, except for Noah’s family and seven pairs of “clean”, or kosher, animals and one pair of “unclean”, or unkosher, animals. (Of course everybody knows the next part) God then releases a flood that lasts 40 days and 40 nights, killing everything on the Earth except the animals and Noah’s family in the ark. The sign that the flood has resided is delivered from a dove carrying an olive branch, a very huge symbol for peace in today’s world. Another sign is a rainbow, a covenant between the people and God that there will never again be a flood that destroys the Earth. Also, there is the story of the Tower of Bable. The Tower of Bable was a tower trying to be built by many inhabitants on Earth in order for them to reach God. When God sees what one people with one language can do, God scatters the languages all over the Earth.
As stated before, this portion describes Noah as “a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; he walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). This verse is mostly interpreted to his credit, with some exceptions. Rabbi Tanhuma, a Rabbi who wrote many Midrashim, says that, “Righteous in his generation, but not in others.” This is to say that he may have been righteous when compared to the people at the time of the flood, when in actuality, that doesn’t really say much. However, he was a tzadik because he tried to make society as best as it could be and it was unfortunate for him that his life had to be lived with those type of people. Another interesting thing is that the Torah provides no specific behavior of Noah, yet God found him favorable. It does say that he was grateful to, obeyed, and had faith in God. The rainbow is a beautiful thing, but always think when you look at it: that the array of colors is a covenant between God and yourself.
As the story of our people in the Torah is just beginning, and the USY year as well, it is important for us to try and be a person like Noah; a person that tried to do the best and always had faith in God while doing it. Obviously it is hard for us to be a tzadik, but if we can do mitzvoth each day, it will certainly help the world. Each and every person should try to be a leader in his/her own USY chapter and region, and more importantly one’s community, just like Noah. Shabbat Shalom!
by Tyler Dratch
October 24, 2009/6 Heshvan 5770
This year, let’s dig a bit deeper into Parshat Noah past the story about the flood and the ark. Later in Parshat Noah we find nine short verses that make of the story we all know as “The Tower of Bable.” The people of the world decide to build a tower that would reach the sky. Midrash adds that this tower would be higher than God. God comes down to look at the tower, and is not happy. “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach (Genesis 11:6). God then proceeds to scatter the people all over the world and give them different languages.
Something isn’t quite right here. Why would God not want the people to be able to accomplish anything they put their minds to? There are two answers to this question. First, God knew that even though the people could accomplish great things, they would not always accomplish them ethically. Midrash tells us that towards the completion of the tower, if a person fell off the tower and died, the rest of the builders would not stop to mourn. However, if a brick fell of the tower, the people would mourn, due to the fact that they would need to send another brick all the way to the top of the tower.
Second, God knew that as humans, we cannot be the rulers. God knew that if humans could do anything they wanted, there would be no need for a God, and no need for a covenant. People would ignore the valuable teachings of the later formed Judaism. So remember, that while we are humans, we will always need the help of God to help make our lives meaningful. Shabbat Shalom!
#5: Friday is called Erev Shabbat, and the same holds true for any day before a festival (e.g. Erev Pesach). I find it significant that we look at this day through the lens of Shabbat – that it’s night just Friday, but it’s the day before Shabbat. It is important to spend this day preparing oneself to be in the mindset of Shabbat. You would not show up to prom in the clothes you had just worked out in without having “gotten ready.” Likewise, we do not greet Shabbat in the midst of the chaos of the week; rather we put on nicer clothes, shower, and tidy ourselves in whatever ways possible. For me this often means cutting my nails and shaving. A joke we sometimes use at camp goes, why do we wear bigdei Shabbat (Shabbat clothes)? Because Shabbat is a Big Day! The more we are both physically and emotionally prepared for Shabbat, the more special we make it.
A Midrash from the Talmud discusses the angels that visit our homes at the beginning of Shabbat. If the home is not set up for Shabbat and everyone is still running around chaotically, the “bad angel” insists that all Shabbatot in the future should be like that one, and the “good angel” must say “Amen.” If, however, the table is set, everyone is dressed well, and the house has the Shabbat atmosphere, the “good angel” insists that all Shabbat should be like that one and the “bad angel” must answer “Amen.”
Things you can do to prepare for Shabbat, besides the ones mentioned above:
- Clean your room/house
- Give tzedakah
- Study the Torah portion
- Listen to Shabbat music
- Bake a special dessert or create something special for Shabbat
Shabbat Shalom U-mevorach!
by Scott Greenberg
When I say “city,” what do you think of? Chances are an image of a skyscraper comes to mind. Lofty, towering, and majestic, the skyscraper is the symbol of the modern era and what humans can accomplish. It can hold hundreds of offices and homes in just a few acres of land, and tourists flock to the top to look down on the ant-sized humans below. It defines the urban skyline and can be seen from miles away.
But while the modern skyscraper came into existence in the late 1800s, humans have been trying to build tall buildings since the time of the bible. This week we read about the gigantic flood which God sent on the world to punish them for their evil. The parashah then relates how all the people of the earth journeyed east together, with all a common language. There, the people said to each other (in Genesis 11), “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in the sky, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
This doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. After all, the world has just been destroyed, and people are trying to rebuild. So what do they do? They build a city, where they can establish a permanent life, and center it around a strong tower, a guarantor of their stability. But when God sees the tower, God becomes angry at them. Why?
“And the Lord said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”
God then proceeds to scatter all of the people who built the tower across the earth and “confound[s] their language” so that everybody begins to speak different languages. This is a really harsh punishment if you think about it. According to the story, once humanity used to be unified both geographically and linguistically and God destroyed all chance of human unity by dividing people up by language. Legend has it that God also destroyed the tower itself, making all of the labor that went into it futile. What could have been so bad about the Tower of Babel for God to impose such a harsh punishment?
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t give us many clues. All it says is that God feared that humans, spurred by the success of the Tower, would proceed to accomplish more (and presumably worse) things. As usual, the midrash has a host of explanations for exactly what was so bad about the Tower of Babel. One presents the tower as an attempt to prevent another flood by having a high place to flee to. Another said that the people of the generation were trying to reach heaven to rebel against God. Yet another says that the builders of the tower cared more about its completion than each other: they would cry out when a brick fell out of place but not for the humans it fell upon. The Midrash clearly thought that the building of the Tower of Babel was an act of arrogance and rebellion.
The story of the Tower of Babel has always disturbed me a little bit, mostly because I live in the New York metropolitan area and can still remember when two extremely tall skyscrapers fell over nine years ago. Why would God destroy a skyscraper, the ultimate symbol of human accomplishment? Why would he scatter a unified society trying to stabilize itself after the flood? Why would he be afraid that “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them?” The picture of God painted in Genesis 11 is a destructive God, jealous of human progress.
But maybe this story, only nine verses, is trying to teach us an important lesson about the achievements of humankind. A skyscraper, so monumental and majestic, is only as good as its builders. The Tower of Babel was built by humans who thought they could rebel against God or betray each other, and thus it had no value. Conversely, the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9-11 destroyed it because it did have value, because it embodied the American (and Jewish) ideals of liberty and tolerance. The skyscraper is value-neutral; its builders give it value.
This is a broader lesson: when we set out to achieve and accomplish, we must always consider if the towers that we build deserve to be destroyed. Have we built our towers with kindness, generosity, dignity, and respect, or with arrogance, apathy, vengeance, and selfishness? Will our towers last from generation to generation or will they come crumbling down? That is the true lesson of the Tower of Babel.
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