Noah 5770

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!

Seventh-Day Stretch:

#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
  • Meditate!
  • Bake a special dessert or create something special for Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom U-mevorach!

Noah 5771

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.

Bereishit 5758

by Ari Blinder

Parshat Bereshit is a section of the Torah we all know from our days at Sunday school. G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Adam and Eve were tossed out of the Garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden apple. Cain kills Abel and then, hopelessly, tries to hide from G-d. The Parshah ends with a prelude to the story of Noah and the flood.

We know these stories so well, yet we often fail to look closer to gain a more profound meaning. For my D’var Torah I want to look at the story of Adam, Eve, and the apple again.

The apple came from Ha’eitz hada’at tov v’rah (The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad). G-d had warned Adam and Eve not to eat from it saying that “on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Bereshit 2:17). Of course they did not die immediately, but after eating the apple they became mortal beings.

Also it says that after eating the apple “the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked” (3:7). The apple gave them both mortality and a release from innocense.

The part of the story that most people forget is one of the most interesting. G-d had planted another tree in the center of the Garden of Eden named Ha’eitz Chaim (The Tree of Life). After Adam and Eve ate the apple, G-d banished them from the garden fearing that they might also eat from the Tree of Life and regain immortality (3:22).

The Torah is analogized to a Tree of Life at the end of every torah service: “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy” (Proverbs 3:18). Therefore, through the study of Torah, we acheive something very similar to eating from the Tree of Life. We don’t become immortal, but we learn the challenges of being mortal. Adam and Eve lost their innocense, but gained the ability to accumulate knowledge. G-d exclaimed, after Adam and Eve had eaten the apple, “Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad”(Bereshit 3:22). Through the study of Torah, Man can become even closer to G-d.

Keep this simple lesson in mind when studying Torah throughout the coming year.

Bereishit 5763

by Stuart Glazer

I’m certain that nearly every Jew has heard the story of the Garden of Eden. Whether in glittering liveliness by a Hebrew school teacher, or in descriptive accuracy from a Chumash by a rabbi, nearly everyone has been told how the snake convinced Chava (Eve) to eat the forbidden fruit and how she then passed it right along to Adam. Then, as He always does when someone disobeys him, God becomes quite angry and punishes the three of them.

God may seem occasionally off base in later books of the Torah, but here He seems downright crazy! If God didn’t want Adam and Chava to eat this forbidden fruit, why did He place the tree of knowledge in the garden in the first place?

It reminds me of a contrast between the common child raising methods of today and those that were employed by Native American mothers. Energetic toddlers are likely to attempt any number of not exactly brilliant stunts, including touching a host stove, drinking foaming, green liquids, and trying to fly. The reaction of most mothers would involve physically removing the child from harm’s way. Native American mothers adopted a somewhat different approach. If a mother noticed her child attempt to play with the cooking fire, she would leave out a few hot rocks. When the curious toddler started towards the rocks, the mother would suggest not touching them because they were hot. The child would usually touch the rocks anyway, learning early in life that Mom is always right.

With Adam and Chava, God could see that they were going to eat from the tree and was perfectly capable of stopping them. But He didn’t. Instead, he allowed them to exercise their free will and then learn from the consequences.

As God created the world, each day he looked at his creation and saw that it was good (except for the second day). Hopefully we will also be able to look at the results of our actions and see that they are good. However, God will not stop us from carrying out our decisions. Rather it is our job to look ahead at the consequences and act accordingly.

Bereishit 5770

by Becky Schisler

October 17, 2009/29 Tishrei 5770

Bereishit, God created the heavens and the earth.

We’re all familiar with the story of creation. We are taught that God created the world in six days & darkness and light the first day, then the heavens, the land and sea, the sun, moon, and stars, animals, humans, and finally, on the 7th day, the Sabbath.

Initially, he created man as a lone being, but deciding that solitude is not good, took a “side” from the man, formed a woman, and married the two. These, as we all know, are Adam and Eve.

The parshah includes Adam and Eve’s partaking of the Tree of Knowledge and subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden, which leads to a decree that man will experience death, and that all gain will come only through struggle and hardship. The parshah goes on to relate the story of Cain and Abel, and ends with the first mention of Noah, the only “righteous man in a corrupt world.”

As I was reading the parshah this past week, I noticed one reoccurring theme: the difference between humans and animals. Namely, we have intuition, intelligence, and the ability to appreciate God; animals have none of these things. We also have souls – we received the “divine kiss” from God when he breathed life into Adam. Animals did not. All of this reminded me of an incident that happened recently when I was teaching Sunday School for fifth graders at my synagogue.

The curriculum for this particular day must have been pulled right from Bereishit. I was teaching the class the difference between animals and humans, and that the life of a human is more important because our tradition teaches that animals don’t have souls. But when a child insists that his pet dog has a soul, how can I argue? Why would I want to? To me, that’s not what Judaism is about – teaching children that the lives of their animals are of minuscule importance in comparison to ours.

We then got into a discussion about what a soul is. I explained the best I could, spoke of something eternal, of ruach, the light of God inside of you, something that never dies. But how can I teach them something I’m not entirely sure of myself? One little boy offered the analogy that God is like a pizza pie, and a slice of that pizza is inside every one of us.

I liked that a lot. Sometimes, probably more often than we realize, we’re the ones who learn from those we teach.

Just something to think about this week.

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