Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Our Torah portion opens with the death of Sarah and with Abraham’s efforts to bring her to burial. To do this he must enter into negotiations with the local people, the Hittites, so as to acquire a plot of land in which to inter Sarah. Readers have noticed that the Torah is very terse in reporting Abraham’s emotional expressions regarding his loss. But it goes to much greater length to detail the in’s-and-out’s of the negotiation for the land. (See a discussion on this issue in my article on a text of the Zohar on this story:
What is the point of relating all the details of this business transaction? We may derive some insight by paying attention to at least one of those details. After Abraham starts the conversation by asking to buy a burial plot, the Hittites respond: “Listen to us, master…” (Gen. 23:6) By themselves these words are unremarkable. But they set up a recurring motif in the discussion. Abraham’s response includes: “Listen to me…” (v. 8) Then Efron, the potential seller, begins his words by saying, “No, my master, listen to me…” (v. 11) Then, again, he says: “But you, please, if you would but listen to me…” (v. 13) and “My master, listen to me…” (v. 15) Finally, the Torah reports: “And Abraham listened to Efron…” (v. 16)
“You distinguished the human from the start. And You noticed them so that they might stand before You.” These are words from the Neilah prayers, recited as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, draws to a close. It seeks to express the mystery of human importance, despite our puny weaknesses. In the greater scheme of things we should be counted as insignificant. But we are not. We are distinguished. God has turned to “recognize” us, to single us out as fitting interlocutors with the Divine.
Parashat Lekh L’kha
The story of Abraham and Sarah unfolds with twists and turns. The Sages called such moments “trials.” They are moments of challenge that call upon the person put to trial to have special strength and discernment in order to meet the test. One challenging situation for the first Matriarch and Patriarch involved the maidservant, Hagar. The multiple aspects of this story have, themselves, challenged readers throughout time. This brief discussion will not be able to sort through the story in its entirety, but seeks to consider only one small aspect of the tale. Continue reading
The story of Noah is the story of a new beginning – brought about by the crashing ending of the first beginning. Everything that God began – the entire world – is destroyed out of God’s disgust with its corruption. A new beginning starts with Noah emerging from the ark.
A Playlist of Light and Dark
Since I will be away for this coming Shabbat, when we are scheduled to read the first portion of the Torah – B’reshit – In the Beginning, I would like to share this playlist of musical selections that I feel are connected to some of the themes of this rich Torah portion.
Parashat V’zot Ha-b’rakhah/Bereshit
The Torah ends with blessing – v’zot ha-b’rakhah, Moses’ very last words of blessing to the tribes of Israel – and it also begins with blessing – almost.
Actually, the first four days of Creation pass by without any mention of this action or state of being. Nothing is blessed on those day. It is only on the fifth day of Creation that we first encounter blessing. Then God blesses all the creatures brought into being on that day, the fish in the seas and the birds of the skies. God says, “Be fruitful and multiply!” (Gen. 1:22) And then blessing is found in the sixth day, as well. God blesses the newly created human beings with the same blessing of fruitfulness. Continue reading
Sukkot/Sh’mini Atzeret/Simhat Torah
The festival of Sukkot is called “the Season of our Rejoicing – z’man simhateinu.” What is the cause – the source – of our rejoicing? What are we supposed to be happy about?
As I have explained on numerous occasions, this description of Sukkot parallels but is also different from the descriptions we have assigned to the other two pilgrimage festivals, Passover and Shavuot. Sukkot does not commemorate a specific occurrence such as the Exodus (Passover is z’man herutenu – the Time of Our Freedom) or the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot is z’man matan Toratenu – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah).
Parashat Ha’azinu/Yom Kippur
This year the Torah reading for this first Shabbat of the new year, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, is Ha’azinu. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is the Torah reading preceding this one, Va-yelekh. But the one constant reading is the prophetic portion that gives this Shabbat its name – Shabbat Shuvah – for the first word of the haftarah is “Shuvah – Return!” (Hosea 14:2)
The theme of teshuvah – returning, repenting – is central to this period, the Ten Days of Repentance. Whether the Torah reading is Va-yelekh or Ha’azinu (as it is this year) we can find connections to this essential concern. We are urgently called to return to God and abandon our transgressive ways. What do we wish to receive from God in return? The most obvious answer is “forgiveness.” Indeed, we ask God to forgive us over and over again in the prayers for this season. But another response or result is also presented to us by our Torah reading and haftarah. In addition to forgiveness we seek healing.