Friday, November 26, 2021

Shedding Light On Inconvenient Truths: Vayeishev.21

 Shedding Light On Inconvenient Truths: Vayeishev

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 26, 2021

Our history books are filled with lies. 

The way the stories are told is through an artificial design, based on a preconceived notion that “we” (fill in the pronoun with more specific titles and names) are headed toward a manifest destiny—be that what it might. What we perceive is a portrait only of the high points along the way—peaks of excellence and distinction. Failures, if at all noted, are seen as no more than momentary setbacks. 

The story of our American holiday of Thanksgiving is founded on just such a premise. In our imagination we see the early Americans as “pilgrims” (a religious image in itself), while the Indigenous Peoples of New England rise from their primitive status to something more noble as they help the struggling immigrants cope with the difficulties of survival in the New World. 

What we know today is that the real story was not quite so pretty.

Hanukkah is likewise based on a myth—the miracle of the tiny amount of “pure” oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights of candle-lighting at the Jerusalem Temple.  What is missing in the story is the dark reality of the bloody civil war that preceded this event, and the tragic aftermath that followed it.  

At first reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) we encounter a similar pattern. Even the title of the portion—"And Jacob dwelled—” is misleading. It might refer the reader to the earliest part of Jacob’s story, where Jacob is described as an innocent “dweller of tents,” a mild and civilized man. In this misleading view, Jacob has at last come home to rest. We want to believe that he can finally dwell in comfort and peace after all the toils he had lived through.  And yet what lies ahead is yet more tragedy, more trials and tribulations, more sadness and loss.

Vayeishev is, after all, where the story of Joseph and his brothers begins—a story of pride (and the inevitable fall), a story of betrayal, abandonment and injustice. Vayeishev is not a happy conclusion to a sorrowful life.

And yet, as Judaism teaches us, the spark of Redemption is embedded within the deepest darkness. In this portion, immediately after Judah’s despicable proposal to sell Joseph into slavery, he seems to descend even further into shameful behavior. His treatment of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, is inexcusable and immoral. Yet Judah will take to heart the lesson that he is about to learn. Overcome by remorse, he will assume responsibility for his deeds. And that will lead him toward reconciliation and, ultimately, the Redemption of the whole People of Israel. 

Of course, it’s hard to see the light in the midst of all this darkness. Only in retrospect can we see the sparks. What we learn the is that path forward begins with the smallest steps.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, has become symbolic of the rededication of the Jewish People to our mission and cause. But when the Maccabees first lit the fires of victory on the Temple Mount, that’s not how they saw it. The war was still raging. The road ahead was still long and dangerous. Judah the Maccabee, the great liberator of Jerusalem, would be killed, possibly betrayed by rival Jewish factions. His successors would fight among themselves for the power and glory of royalty and the High Priesthood, a bloody quarrel that in the end will lead to the fall of the Kingdom of Judea. Within a short period of time, the Romans will march victorious into Jerusalem. 

But even as the thousand-year-legacy of the kings and prophets of Israel comes to an end, a new era begins: the Rabbinic Period. It’s a new chapter, a mighty new volume, in the history of the Jewish People, filled with visions and glory no less glowing than what had come earlier.

Likewise the holiday of Thanksgiving in America. The cruelty and arrogance of the colonialists eventually do lead towards a miracle: A new nation and mighty nation is set to rise out of the darkness.

But what our history books fail to tell us is how this happens. The story we tell and retell glosses over the greed, cruelty and treachery. We prefer to focus instead on the qualities of generosity, love, and charity.

What we should learn from our history books is that reality is much more complicated than our myths would have us believe.

Judaism teaches that reality is infused with a Divine Purpose, that we are indeed moving forward toward some magnificent goal. But at the same time, Judaism does not ask us to ignore the darkness. It recognizes human behavior as complex, a mixture of bad and good, evil and holy. As difficult as they are to accept, the unadorned lessons of Vayeishev and Hanukkah are embedded in our texts, taught and repeated, lest we ignore and forget. 

Vayeishev begins with an unrealized dream. Jacob does not get to live the comfortable life he wishes for, and the road that lies ahead is anything but simple. His family life is about to become fractured, riven with jealousy and hate. He is about to lose his beloved son Joseph. Yet Jacob does not give up hope. Despite the darkness, he is confident that Redemption will yet arrive. 

Truth—as inconvenient and unpleasant as it may be—is a difficult burden to bear. We can’t escape our past; it’s a part of who and what we are today. But what this week’s Torah portion teaches is that we can fix our mistakes. Responsibility for past deeds isn’t easy to accept. Yet in order to move forward, that’s exactly what we need to do. Owning our faults is the first step toward Redemption. Taking responsibility for repairing the damage is next. That is the lesson that will become clear as the story of Joseph and his brothers begins to unfold.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 19, 2021

Of Angels and Men: Vayishlach.21

 Of Angels and Men

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlach

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 19, 2021

Since the dawn of awareness, people have experienced, imagined or dreamed of angels. The Midrash—Rabbinic commentaries from the first millennium of the Common Era—offers that the angels were created on the second day of Creation (or on the fifth—naturally there’s a second opinion [Breishit Rabba 3:8]). Likewise, right before the creation of the first human being, Adam, Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, ‘Let us make man’” (KJV), a verse that seems to imply that there was some discussion prior to the decision to go ahead with the plan. Rashi, the famed 11th century French rabbi and commentator, explains that this comes to show God’s quality of humility: God foresaw that, because of man’s more complex nature, the angels would be jealous of humans; “therefore God took counsel with them.” 

In a world filled with events no one could explain, the hand of angels was seen everywhere. Archeology has unearthed visual and literal proof of a world filled with all sorts of mythological, winged creatures able to defy the laws of physics and gravity. Early on, the Torah (Gen. 6:2) speaks of “Divine beings” (the Hebrew text actually reading, “Sons of God”) as it describes the extent of corruption that preceded Noah’s flood. 

And of course there are the cherubim, sometimes depicted as children (and giving rise to the adjective “cherubic,” meaning sweet and innocent). However, originally the term probably referred to much more powerful and dangerous beings. It was cherubim, after all, that God places to guard the locked gates of the Garden of Eden. Surely the text didn’t mean to imply that God would place sweet and innocent children there, or put fiery swords in their chubby little hands, to make sure human beings never again set foot in Eden!

Seraphim, ranked fifth in the Jewish hierarchy of angels, but first in the Christian, are similarly powerful. In his vision of heaven, the prophet Isaiah describes the seraphim as having six wings, with voices so loud that, as they cried out one to another, Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai Tz’va’ot (“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts,” Is. 6:2-4 KJV), their voices made the very gateposts of heaven tremble, while filling the entire palace with smoke.  

Angels appear to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, taking various—and often interchangeable—forms. They could appear as ordinary men, or else winged, or sometimes mysterious, like the one that, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob finds himself wrestling with from dusk until dawn. First described as ish, a man, as the sun rises Jacob understands that this being is actually an angel, bearing a blessing of strength and hope, along with a new name for him: Israel. In the Torah, angels, whether innocent, powerful, or sometimes even terrifying, all have one thing in common: they bear God’s message, entrusted with carrying out God’s purpose on this earth. So it was with the Angel of Death on the night of the Exodus from Egypt; or the warrior angel that God promises would lead the Israelites during their years of wandering in the Sinai Wilderness (an offer that Moses rejects, demanding that God—directly, not through an angel—lead God’s People to the Promised Land).

In the later Biblical books, angels serve as healers, prosecutors or defenders of Israel in the heavenly Court of Justice. At other times they are teachers and interpreters of visions that even prophets have difficulty in understanding.

During apocalyptic times—such as the fall of empires—angels assumed even weightier roles. The Talmud speaks of four archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael—each standing to one respective side of God’s throne, each representing one attribute, or power, of God. 

In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides, the most prolific and authoritative Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, lists ten ranks of angels while explaining that angels have no physical bodies, but rather that they represent the various forces by which God manifests Godself in the world. With this explanation, Maimonides both negates previous understandings and sets up a new concept of angels, one that has become part of both Jewish mysticism and even modern, rational thinking. In this perspective, angels are non-corporeal. They are the spiritual guides that steer us and move us forward toward our goals. Angels are like atoms and subatomic particles, containing the force of creation, sent forth from an unknowable source with one particular mission: to interact with matter, to create or transform what is into what must be.

Angels appear frequently in Jewish folklore, literature and art. On Friday evenings, as we sing “Shalom Aleichem,” we welcome angels of peace into our homes. And at bedtime, as we say the Sh’ma prayer, we invoke the names of the archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, praying that they protect us from malevolent spirits of the night.

And yet, powerful as these ministers of God are, Jewish belief also holds that there is an even greater power: tzedakah—righteous deeds. That is so because angels are seen as incapable of making choices. An angel must carry out his mission precisely as commanded. Human beings, on the other hand, can freely choose. Acts of love and compassion, which come from the heart, have infinite power. Indeed, as the book of Proverbs proclaims, צדקה תציל ממות —"righteousness delivers from death” (Prov. 10:2, NKJV), meaning that a kind deed can potentially defeat even the Angel of Death!

In modern thinking and belief, angels can take two forms—spiritual and/or physical. In the spiritual sense, an angel is like a prayer—a message of faith, trust and hope. But angels can also appear to us in the form of other people. We can be angels of mercy; we can guide a person and show them a path to a better, more meaningful life. We can teach, defend the defenseless and bring justice to the oppressed. In these ways we, like the mysterious being that Jacob encounters in this week’s portion, turn from simply ish, mere human beings, into angels. 

Or, perhaps, even greater.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 12, 2021

Jacob’s Angels: Vayeitzeh.21

 Jacob’s Angels: D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzeh

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 12, 2021

Jacob was a young lad when he left the safety of his father’s and mother’s home. He hadn’t ventured out much prior to the events that led to this moment. Unlike his brother, Esau, Jacob is described by the Torah as a “dweller of tents” who preferred vegan cooking to hunting in the fields. He has much yet to learn about life.

But still waters run deep, and Jacob, also described by the Torah as “guileless,” is not as simple as he might first appear.

More than his father Isaac or his grandfather Abraham, Jacob knows that sometimes a person has to make a deal in order to survive or get ahead. A bit of give and take, with the hope that in the end the transaction will come out advantageous, or at least even. 

But the price we have to pay for such deals sometimes includes hidden costs—losses we don’t anticipate, a sullied reputation, conflict and strife within one’s family.

In this respect Jacob is more like us, ordinary people, than are either Abraham or Isaac. Abraham takes extra care to make all of his deals above board, public, and untainted with any semblance of cheating. Isaac prefers to ignore conflicts and just “go with the flow” until confronted with the consequences of his indecisiveness.

Somewhere there, for any number of reasons, Jacob has learned to watch out for himself. Perhaps he sees his father’s acquiescence as a sign of weakness. Perhaps it’s part of being a twin (especially Esau’s twin, a man Jacob sees as reckless and maybe even dangerous). Or it could be his keen perception of how the household is run—the cunning of his mother, the blindness of his father. 

Along with Jacob’s inclination to take care of himself first, however, comes an even more risky tendency—lack of faith and trust. There is a certain haughtiness that this engenders in Jacob. He is super confident in the outcome of his endeavors, regardless of the ethics involved.

Jacob has tough lessons to learn. And even in this, he is more like us—everyday folks trying to make it in a world where rules seem to change all the time, where people’s conduct is more frequently marked by indifference and avarice than by compassion and generosity.

If the Torah were only about perfect people, however, it would leave nothing for us to learn, nothing to imagine, no vision of how things could be made better. There would be no hopes and no dreams. The best that any of us could wish for would be to somehow emulate behavior we know is impossible—a surefire path to failure.

Jacob’s first lesson in life then comes early in his journey to self-awareness. No sooner has he left his home than he reaches a “certain place” (Genesis 28:11), where nightfall comes upon him. It is here that he has his famous dream of a ladder reaching up to the heavens, with angels busily ascending and descending. It is Jacob’s first encounter with God—his first lesson in trust and faith.

Jacob doesn’t pass this test as definitively as either Abraham or Isaac. Responding to God’s promise to be with him and protect him along his journey, Jacob responds with a resounding “if.” “IF God will be with me and guard me… and give me bread to eat and garment to wear; and IF I return in peace to my father house, THEN Adonai will be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21). He doesn’t reject God’s promise outright, but neither does he accept it wholeheartedly either.

Up until this time, Jacob’s understanding of God was typical of the way people thought of gods in those early days: as geo-theological powers: every land, every political entity, every state, had its own ruling divine beings whose powers stopped at the border. As Jacob awakens the next morning, however, he realizes a far-reaching, perhaps even revolutionary, truth—that God is not confined to any one place. Jacob had first learned about God in his father’s and mother’s home in Beersheba. It was a limited perspective, one he never thought to question. Now, however, he sees that this “certain place” where he has had his strange dream, is also God’s abode.

Baby steps perhaps, but a good start nonetheless.

But what of those angels that he also saw in his dream? Angels ascending and descending, busily engaged in some mysterious work?

The Torah doesn’t tell us what Jacob thought of when he saw the angels. Again, he doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t inquire what their task was. What he fails to understand is the unfinished nature of God’s work in this world, the ongoing interaction between God and God’s creation.

What Jacob will come to realize is that God’s work is eternal. Creation is not a done deal. It’s a process in which we are no less intertwined than the angels in Jacob’s dream. 

Like those angels, we too ascend to heights previously undreamed of. From these peaks we gain perspective and understanding. Yet what we see at such moments is not perfection, but rather the road that stretches ahead of us. We learn that what we dream can only be achieved when we awaken, when we find ourselves once again not in “God’s abode,” but in the middle of nowhere, on hard and cold ground, with a stone as our pillow. It’s an ongoing process. As often as we rise to our best, so do we also fall—and must climb up again. Perfection isn’t the goal; progress is. This, for me, is the big lesson of this week’s portion, Jacob’s—and our—first lesson about God’s intended role for us in an unfinished world.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Unifying the Fragments: Chayei Sarah.21

 Unifying the Fragments: D’var Torah for Parashat Chayei Sarah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 30, 2021

Today I celebrate the 59th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. My Torah portion, when I turned 13, was Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah,” Genesis 23:1-25), this week’s portion. Just as it was then, so today this portion is read all over the world in context of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.

I have returned to this parasha many times in the past and each time have found new lessons in it. Such is the nature of Torah—not only does it contain unique teachings for each individual, but at each stage of one’s life one can find something new, a new understanding, a new way of seeing oneself in the light of Torah.

The title of the portion—Chayei Sarah—refers to the life, death and legacy of the first Matriarch of the Jewish People, Abraham’s wife and mother of Isaac. And yet, beyond the first few verses of the portion, very little is said about this important personage or the place she holds in our heritage. This of course opens the door to many stories, midrashim and rabbinic commentaries about Sarah. Still, the rest of this portion has to do with events that followed her death (including, at its very conclusion, the death of Abraham and his burial—attended by Isaac as well as the estranged other son, Ishmael—at the Cave of Machpelah, the burial cave near Hebron that Abraham purchases from the Hittite people).

As I returned to this portion this week, two elements of the story struck me: Abraham’s words as he addresses the Hittites at the beginning of the purchasing transaction; and the important mission he entrusts his servant with—finding a wife for Isaac.

Ger v’toshav anochi ‘imachem—"I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you”—Abraham says to the Hittites.  What an interesting combination of words! It had been years since Abraham had left his homeland in Haran in search of a land God promises to him and his descendants. Even after reaching Canaan, Abraham wanders the breadth and length of this land, pitching his tent in various places and setting up worship altars at every resting point. For many years he dwells in Beer Sheba, then in Hebron. For a period of time, he finds himself in Egypt and even among the Philistines, yet each time he returns to Canaan, knowing that his true home is in the Land God promises him seven times(!). One would think that after all this, he would feel at home somewhere! Yet, by his own admission, though he dwells in this land and calls it home, he sees himself a stranger, a foreign resident among his own neighbors.

Moreover, even though Abraham knows that his future is bound up with the land he knows as Canaan, his heart is still bound up with his past, in his old homeland of Haran, among the family he had left behind so many years earlier. And that’s where he sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. 

This mixture of past, present and future never crystalizes within Abraham. He is a wanderer not only in the physical sense, but also psychologically. He is a dweller and a stranger all at once. His longing knows no bounds and no boundaries, and so at the end of his life he focuses on securing the future for his son, Isaac, knowing that it is through Isaac that God’s promise will continue and endure.

Looking back at the various parts and fragments of his life, Abraham knows he has fulfilled almost all the duties and responsibilities he had taken upon himself at God’s commands. How well he has done so, however, is something that he probably struggles with every day. The pain of leaving his home and family is compounded by the deep sadness he felt when he sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. The longing for a child with his wife Sarah and the joy of bringing this child, Isaac, into the Covenant with the Eternal God, was shattered at the top of The Mountain of Seeing—Har ha-Moriah, the future home of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem—as he saw himself holding a knife over the heart of this beloved child.

Only through his relationship with God does Abraham feel an almost mystical unity. The many losses he suffered through his long life have left him feeling isolated—a stranger among his neighbors, perhaps even estranged from his own family. In his old age, Abraham feels deeply the very temporary nature of life. Perhaps that is why he feels so strongly at this point that he needs to fuse and unify the many parts of his life. To commemorate the past, he must buy a burial site for his wife, Sarah. For the sake of the future, a wife for their son, Isaac, must be secured. With these transactions, public, fully paid for and recorded for all posterity, Abraham ties together his not only his past and future, but also his body and soul. It will be through Isaac and Rebecca that God’s promise will endure. It will be here, at this burial site near Hebron, where his sons will gather to mourn him when his time comes, where all future generations will gather to remember and honor their past and their rich heritage.

It is in this Torah portion—Chayei Sarah—that the Jewish People have always found our unity. We have traversed every land and every continent. We have lived among many peoples, assimilated customs, clothing, and cuisines. Yet throughout our wanderings, we never lost the feeling of being “dwellers and strangers.” Our true home remained—and still remains—where Abraham first staked a claim, the Promised Land. And to this day, despite the cultural differences that have emerged among us through the centuries, we remain spiritually united—one family, one nation, one people—through our relationship with our Eternal God. Our prayers, our conversations—even our arguments—with God still form the bond that cement the many into One. Like Abraham and Sarah, each of us may see ourselves an individual; the life of each of us is defined by the time and place in which we live, by changes and fluctuations, by losses and gains. Yet the streams of time that represent each of our lives, all flow into one sea. It is here, in our relationship with God and our heritage, that we find our one-ness, our unbroken unity. It is here that we find our purpose and meaning, our fulfillment and completion.

Sh’ma Yisrael: Hear, O Israel! We are one, and our God is One. 

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam, shehecheyanu v’key’manu v’higi’anu laz’man ha-zeh—Blessed are you, Adonai eternal sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season and time.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, October 22, 2021

From Justice To Tikkun Olam: Vayeira.21

 From Justice To Tikkun Olam: Vayeira

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 22, 2021

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, (Genesis 18:1-22:24) raises some of the most difficult questions about God, justice and fairness. The portion pivots around three key events: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the casting out of Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael; and the story known as The Akeida—the binding—and near-sacrifice of Isaac. 

At the center of each of these stories stands Abraham, a man whose faith in God is nearly perfect, yet who, as a human being, seems flawed and inconsistent. 

“Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked… Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” Abraham exclaims as he pleads for the Sodomites, doomed by God for their evil deeds. Yet he remains utterly silent and obedient when God commands him to offer his own, pure and innocent son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. 

And how to rationalize the unfairness with which Abraham treats his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac? A similar question may be posed in this case as well: Shall not a father’s love be shared equally between the one son and the other?

To be sure, the idea of sending Ishmael out into the wilderness is not Abraham’s. In fact, he does so at Sarah’s insistence, and with the approval—even blessing—of God. Abraham, in fact, disapproves of this demand, yet he goes along with it, reassured that God will take care of Ishmael. Yet the inherent unfairness of this act is disturbing, and its tragic consequences last to our own day.

The title of this portion, Vayeira, comes to tell us that God appears to Abraham. To skeptics and disbelievers however, this portion serves as proof that there is no fairness and no justice in this world. God does as God pleases, no matter what we say, no matter how fervently we pray or plead. And like God, parents too, all-too-often favor one child over another, with predictable results. Families are riven by jealousy and the innocent suffer for no apparent reason. The faults, it seems, are inherent, built into the system, and there is nothing we can do to change things.

And so, why even bother trying? 

As Abraham argues with God about Sodom’s fate, he brings up a reminder of God’s vow to “Never again… destroy every living being.” The guilty alone must bear the consequences; the innocent must be spared. Yet, as he barters with God, lowering the bar from fifty righteous people down to ten, he stops as he hears God’s final offer: “I will not destroy [the city] for the sake of the ten.” Even Abraham knows that God’s patience is not limitless, that God’s anger, once ignited, is impossible to quench. God’s will be done, Abraham understands, and he resigns himself to that undisputable, and often tragic, fact. 

The stories told in parashat Vayeira leave us feeling frustrated: Must injustice prevail? How can we allow unfairness— sheer luck and happenstance—wreak misery on the weak, tired and forlorn? Why must the innocent suffer?

Yet Abraham’s inability to dissuade God from God’s harsh intentions is not a total failure. As with every experience in life, there are lessons to be learned. Abraham realizes that even he—conversant with God—is powerless to change some things. Yet even as he comes to understand this, he teaches us all about the potential embedded in each of us to make a difference in the world.  

It’s a revolutionary idea. We commonly think of a rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel. History has shown how entire societies fall into the trap of following tyrants blindly, of “just obeying orders.” But rarely do we stop to consider—as Abraham does—the far-reaching effect of a kind and righteous deed. It can literally change the world for the better. And if that is true for one individual, how much more so for ten, one hundred, or a thousand!

Rather than merely accept the unfairness and injustice in the world, Abraham shows his descendants a new path: Tikkun Olam—fixing the brokenness of the world around us. 

Life is often unfair. There is no question of that. And sometimes our pursuit of justice goes wildly off-course. Guilt is sometimes assumed, punishment imposed without proper proof—or even any proof whatsoever. Good people end up suffering for no apparent reason.

The important lesson that Parashat Vayeira teaches us, however, is that we are not helpless. That we cannot and must not be merely onlookers. To the extent of our ability, we must offer help to those less advantaged, whom life has treated more harshly than us. Acts of kindness, charity and righteousness are limitless in their effect. And if enough of us engage in these, the outcome would be undeniable.

The world that Abraham lived in was not much different from our own. True, it was more primitive and less civilized: Laws were harsh and often unjust; cruel religions and perverse gods demanded child sacrifice; the rich and powerful abused their might without restraint; plagues and diseases ravaged the countryside. Yet today we encounter similar challenges. There is still oppression and misery, hunger, ignorance, rampant injustice and unfairness in life. But what Abraham, our People’s first Patriarch, taught all of us is that we must not ignore these challenges. A broken world needs fixing. 

And that is the most important and lasting lesson of this important Torah portion. “For the sake of ten righteous people, I will not destroy the city.” And the more righteous people who devote their time and energy to decency and goodness, the safer and more secure will our world be for all its inhabitants. As Father Abraham has taught us, the cause is ours now to plead and work towards.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, October 8, 2021

Relative Righteousness: Noach.21

 Relative Righteousness: Noach.21

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 7, 2021

 נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו--

“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” So begins this week’s Torah portion, Noach (Gen. 6:9—11:32). It’s a somewhat cryptic portrayal, and since earliest times commentators were quick to point to the words “in his age.” Rashi, the great French commentator of the 11th century, while praising Noah, also quotes from the Talmud and the Midrash, adding, “If he had been of Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.” In other words, everything is relative, including righteousness.

And what were Noah’s faults? The Torah doesn’t mention them specifically, but we can deduce these from the text itself. 

First, the phrase “walking with God.” These words always raise a red flag in my mind. What exactly does that mean? For me, the connotation is troubling, as though a person’s relationship with God is more important than how we relate to one another. And because of this phrase, I understand Noah’s first fault to be that he really wasn’t part of his community, or of any community at all. He communed solely with God, not his neighbor.

And then, the Torah doesn’t say anything about how Noah went about building the ark, only that he followed God’s specifications to the letter. “Noah did so,” we read, “just as God commanded him, so he did.” Now, that may have been fine in other situations: Moses and Aaron also are described as following God’s bidding “just so.” But in their case, the work they were engaged in was for the sake of the entire community. What did Noah do for his community? Did he lift a finger to save them? Did he warn them of the consequences of their wrongdoings—as Jonah would in Nineveh, centuries later? Did he try to change their ways, as Isaiah did when he saw injustice and heartlessness among his people? 

Where there is violence, there are victims. Did Noah stop his work for an instant to turn his attention to the sufferers and the hurting? Not a word in their defense.

But possibly the greatest fault of all was Noah’s failure to challenge God. Never once does Noah pause to ponder the justice—or lack thereof—behind God’s decision to wipe out all life. Was it really necessary to undo Creation itself? Was absolutely everyone on earth corrupt and violent? What about the animals, creatures born with little awareness of choice, whose violence is inherent in their nature and therefore, by definition, not evil? And babies who had not yet learned to tell the difference between right and wrong? What was their sin? Why were they all doomed? 

Sometimes too much “walking with God” makes a person insensitive to the pain and suffering of others, indifferent to the idea that we can—and must—help one another.

Not long into the flood, however, Noah must have learned his lesson. As the waters rose, he must have heard the cries, wails and screams coming from the outside, the pounding on the hull of his Ark. How devastated he must have felt when, after a while, those cries fell silent.

To be sure, taking care of the animals onboard must have awakened a certain sense of responsibility within him. After sending the dove out on its risky mission, how worried and concerned he was before at last he spied the tiny bird returning, fatigued and exhausted from its futile search for dry land. With how much tenderness and love did he extend his hand to bring the dove back into the safety and warmth of the ark!

It was a new Noah who emerged from the Ark after all these months. And yet—how overcome by sadness and a sense of failure. Consumed by guilt and shame, it’s no wonder that soon afterwards Noah planted a vineyard and took to drinking himself into a stupor. He survived, yes, as did his family; as did the various species of living creatures that were on the Ark with him. But could he have done more? Why did he not argue with God, or plead for the animals, for the babies, for the innocent among the guilty? For all those left behind?

It would be God Himself who saw the harshness of His actions. Swearing never to destroy all life again, to spare the innocent, God places the rainbow in the sky as a sign of this vow for all eternity. 

But that in itself was not enough. From the start, God wanted more. God was aching for companionship, for some human partner to pick up where God had ceased.

It would take ten more generations for such a person to arise. Ten generations before a man called Abraham would dare to stand up to God, to hold God to His vow and exclaim, “Shall the judge of all the earth not act justly?”

This amazing portion indeed contains elements of hope in it. Noah did preserve the seed of life within the Ark, just as God had commanded him. The dove did bring an olive branch in its beak. The rainbow did—as it still does today—bring us a measure of hope when dark storm clouds shroud the light. But beyond these, it is the birth of Abraham, as told in the last few verses of the portion, that brings us to a new understanding of our role in the universe, of our partnership with God. From this point on, we will all measure our own righteousness against a new standard: Abraham’s faith. A new chapter begins with his birth, and a new beginning is made possible by his insight and compassion. 

Noah brings to an end an era of complacency. Now a new age is ushered in—one in which human beings go beyond mere acceptance of their fate, in which our efforts can—and do—make a difference in the world around us.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Trampled Rights: The Case For Israel’s Right To Self-Defense: Yom Kippur Sermon.21

 Trampled Rights: The Case For Israel’s Right To Self-Defense

Yom Kippur Sermon 5782

September 16, 2082

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

In 1916, half-way into World War 1, a treaty was signed between Great Britain and France, looking ahead to the time following the presumed collapse of the Turkish Empire. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it came to be known, sought to set up spheres of influence in the Near East—basically to divide the remains of the Turkish Ottoman Empire among the would-be victors.

Consequently, as planned, when the War ended and over the next few decades, the lands that the Turks had controlled for five hundred years were handed over by the League of Nations to Britain and France to administer, along with a series of mandates: The vast empire would be divided up among the peoples and tribes who lived there. Between the 1920’s and mid-1970’s, more than a dozen countries, emirates, kingdoms and states were created throughout the region, among them Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Thus was born the Modern Middle East.

Though all these entities became legally recognized members of the United Nations, one was singled out for different treatment. Of all the countries that were created in those years, of all the tribal, national and indigenous groups of the area that were recognized and granted independence, one has been continually attacked, maligned and delegitimized: Israel. Since gaining independence in 1948, Israel has fought a dozen wars, survived two intifadas (armed insurgencies), and has had to fend off a never-ending series of terror attacks indiscriminately claiming thousands of Jewish lives—men, women, children and infants.

Why Israel?

There are several reasons. To some, Israel seems excessively aggressive. Others, however, even avoid calling it by its name, referring instead to “The Occupying Force.” Some see Israel as an invasive plant, remnant of European colonialism. There are those who hold grudges going back to 1948. Others stop at “The Green Lines” of the 1967 Six Day War. And then there are those whose hatred goes much farther: they see all “Palestine” as a Muslim sacred land. To them, any Jewish presence at all desecrates and profanes its holiness. 

However, world geo-politics aside, there’s another issue at play here, an elephant in the room that has to be addressed. The hatred of Israel isn’t limited only to the State of Israel. Throughout history, there has never been a religious group—not one! —that has continuously faced so many attacks on its identity and authenticity as the Jewish People.  Already 2000 years ago, the early Rabbis, authors of the Talmud and Midrash, faced questions, allegations and innuendos regarding the legitimacy of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac. In the Middle Ages, the Church enforced dogmas that canceled the validity of Judaism and stigmatized all Jews, setting us apart for ridicule, torture and death. In the 19th century, a theory was raised that Ashkenazi Jews are descended not from the Biblical tribe of Judah, but rather from the Khazars, a nomadic tribe that, sometime in the first millennium, roamed between Turkey and southwestern Russia. And more recently, an even more ridiculous claim was made, raising the obscene possibility that the Taliban—the Islamist tribal factions that now control Afghanistan—are somehow descended from the mythical Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

These attempts to deny and refute Jewish history are all examples of anti-Semitism.

Embedded in Christian and Islamic scriptures, anti-Semitism takes many forms. At first, it was used against the Jewish faith and belief system—our religion. In the 19th century it became a racial theory. In its latest mutation, it has become political intolerance.

This isn’t to say that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. It isn’t. Israel isn’t perfect. Like every other country in the world, Israel has had to face issues associated with multi-culturalism, overcrowding, and limited natural resources. It hasn’t always been successful. Israel’s democratic system is volatile, and often depends on unlikely coalitions. Unlike totalitarian regimes, where the state imposes one religion, one political philosophy and one party, in Israel the many different voices and opinions matter. Debate—vocal and often unrestrained—is a treasured characteristic of Jewish culture. But there is a downside. The political structure of Israel is such that disproportionate power sometimes falls to small parties, giving them outsized leverage. This is true in particular for the Ultra-Orthodox parties, whose views often contrast with the large segment of Israel’s population that considers itself secular. 

But that’s not what Israel’s critics focus on. It isn’t even Israel’s treatment of the Arab and/or Palestinians, though that often serves as the excuse. It’s Israel; Israel’s very existence; and the fact that it’s a Jewish state. 

The increase over the last few years of anti-Semitic attacks, both in the United States and over the rest of the world, is said to be related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it’s actually directed only against Jews—and not only Israeli Jews. In Europe, kosher restaurants and supermarkets are bombed. Jewish children on their way to school have to have police protection. Hassidic Jews, perhaps because they are so visibly Jewish, are viciously attacked in New York and other cities and states. On college campuses, Jewish students are discriminated against, silenced and shamed—because they are Jewish and therefore might be supporters of Israel. Even the dead find no rest, as cemeteries are desecrated and headstones defaced, a reminder that even after death the Jew has no validity, no right to live OR die anywhere in the world. 

The fact is that Zionism—the Jewish connection to Israel—is a valid and historic tenet of Judaism. Jews come from Judea—the name of our country of origin before the Romans destroyed it and renamed it “Palestine,” in an effort to erase our history and heritage. 

The Romans exiled thousands of Jews from Judea, but Jews have always lived in Israel, continuously throughout history—not only in the four holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias, but also in smaller villages and towns, in the Galilee, the Negev Desert, and even in Gaza, nowadays the axis of the terror organization Hamas. To deny the Jewish historic and binding connection to the Land of Israel is anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism, with its many forms and mutations, seeks to deny Jews the rights and freedoms that are afforded to every other political, national or religious group. Foremost among these is the right to self-defense. Where modern Zionism sees the need for self-defense, anti-Zionism is its very antithesis. History has proven that as long as Jews cannot defend themselves, they are at the mercy of the population among whom they live. That isn’t true only of Europe during the Holocaust. Massacres, forced conversions and expulsions characterize Jewish history not only in Europe, but in Arab countries as well. And yes, it was the Nazis—along with their many supporters all over the world (including the Muslim world); and it was the vicious and brutal pogroms in Czarist Russia—and later, in its makeover as Communist Russia. To this day, there is only one country in the world where it is legal and permissible for Jews to defend themselves, with our own weapons, our own army, and our own intelligence system. And that is Israel.

To deny Israel’s basic human right of self-defense is anti-Semitism.

Some would like Israel’s boundaries to go back to the 1967, pre-Six Day War borders. Fact is, however, that the PLO—the Palestine Liberation Organization, a terror organization created with the aim of destroying ALL Israel, was founded in 1964, three years prior to the war. Returning to the indefensible Armistice Borders of 1948 is completely unrealistic. To give just one example, those borders barred any and all Jewish presence in Jerusalem—including the historic Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In total disregard of the UN Partition Plan, the Jordanians denied access to Jews (and ONLY Jews) from visiting and praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, remnant of our Temple that, for more than a thousand years, had stood in the heart of Judea’s capital city, Jerusalem. The ancient cemetery on Mount of Olives, where Jews have been buried for thousands of years, was likewise desecrated, its headstones used to line sidewalks and latrines. Israel will not tolerate a return to these conditions.

Though mistakes were made along the way, by both sides, Israel has made more offers of peace and reconciliation with its neighbors than any other country in the world: From the first division of the land in 1922, which created the Bedouin-Muslim Kingdom of Transjordan and allowed for the possibility of a future home for the Jews; to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan; from Oslo to Camp David; from the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and Gaza to the creation of the autonomous PA, the Palestinian National Authority. Secret and open negotiations have been held—and continue to take place—with the hope of someday achieving peace. 

The rejection of each and every one of these peace overtures is proof of one thing: the ultimate desire of radical Islam to eradicate the Jewish State.

I am certain, without a trace of doubt, that if true peace were offered to Israel, even at the price of evacuation of most, or even the entire West Bank, Israel would agree in a heartbeat.

But not if that means the takeover of the region by terror organizations such as Hamas or Hezbollah. 

This does not mean that we, American Jews, have to agree with the force or means that Israel uses to defend itself. America is a democracy, and American Jews are free to espouse their own political views and opinions, even with regard to Israel. What we cannot afford to do, however, is basically three things:

First: We cannot become detached from the issues. We have to be informed. We have to learn the full history of the region.  We need to learn to recognize and separate between fact and opinion—something the news media is often incapable of doing, and which the social media find completely impossible. Best yet, physically go there yourself. Visit Israel for yourself and see it from the ground up. 

Secondly: We must not disengage ourselves from the discussion over Israel’s safe existence. We cannot use the excuse that we live far away from the region, that it doesn’t pertain to us, that it just doesn’t matter. Because it does. Violent attacks against Israel do not stop at its borders. They are directed against Jews and Jewish institutions—tragically here in Colorado no less than anywhere else. On the streets of our cities, our synagogues and on college campuses, sooner or later, we or our children will have to face confrontation, discrimination and violence, not because we are Zionists, but simply because we are Jewish.

We need to be part of the discussion so we can claim and defend our rights.

Third: Regardless of our political affiliation, we need to be careful about the alliances we make. Along the entire political spectrum, from extreme right to extreme left, some of the groups that claim to be only anti-Israel are actually founded on anti-Semitic ideologies. Jews in America are indeed free to hold and express our own opinions, but if we find ourselves in a position where we lend moral or material support to hatred or violence directed against the Jewish People as a whole, then we are in danger of undermining our own identity, our heritage, and our safety.

On Yom Kippur, from the time 3000 years ago when we were refugees from Egyptian slavery and genocide to this very day, we stand united as one people. We are all here today to examine and evaluate our vows and commitments, both to ourselves and to our God, to our families, our community, and to our People. As Americans, as citizens of other lands or of the Jewish State of Israel: We owe our ideals and freedoms, our pride and even our lives, not only to our heritage, nor even only to the Constitution of the United States. We are here also because Israel is there for us. Israel isn’t just the one and only Jewish State in the world; it’s also our safeguard against persecution. How we support it is our own business; but when it does need our support, as it does today, we need to be there for her.

May this day see us grow in resolve to be the best we can, to be the most we can, as individuals and as a people. May all our prayers and wishes be fulfilled. G’mar chatima tova, may we all—American Jews, Israeli Jews, Jews all over the world, be inscribed and sealed for a year of health, joy, love, security and peace. 

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman