The first verse of our Torah portion tells of God’s appearance to Abraham. That visit is immediately interrupted and cut off in the very next verse: “And he (- Abraham) lifted his eyes and he saw three men standing before him (- nitzavim `alav), and he saw, and he ran to greet them….” (Gen. 18:2) Readers have often remarked over the energetic response that Abraham evinces, running after these strangers even though he is recuperating from his circumcision procedure and even though God is appearing to him! Continue reading →
Our Torah portion opens with God’s dramatic command to Abraham to “Get thee going! – lekh l’kha.” (Gen. 12:1) Since the Hebrew could have been stated more simply – as just “Get going! – lekh!” – without the “thee – ‘l’kha” (- literally “for you, to you”), this imperative is often interpreted as meaning that Abraham had to go “into himself” or “on behalf of himself.” In our time that is so focused on personal journeys, it is inspiring to conceive of Abraham and Sarah embarking on their own spiritual quest.
But that is not the whole story. From the beginning God explains that the journey is for the sake of the entire world, so that all the world would be blessed from it. (Gen. 12:2-3) And we are told that Abraham and Sarah start their trip with many others who follow them, including – and besides Lot, their relative – “the souls they made (`asu) in Haran.” (Gen. 12:5) Who are these people, and what does it mean that they were “made” by Abraham and Sarah? Continue reading →
Only Noah is a righteous person among the myriads of humans who inhabit the earth. The mystery of how he succeeded in maintaining his goodness in the midst of a thoroughly corrupt society has been a perennial question.
Perhaps one small factor that contributed to his decency can be discerned in the way the Torah describes his birth, as mentioned in last week’s Torah portion. There we find a long list of generation after generation of human beings living and having children and dying without any sense of their individuality. (There is one obscure exception – Hanokh [Enoch], but that is for another discussion.) Each generation is described through the name of one person who then has a child, whose name heads the next generation. But we do not have any mention of who gives these names to the people, or why. They just get born and get a name and live and die.
The story begins anew. We read of the creation of the world, and most especially, the creation of human beings. Many have noticed that the story has two versions. The longer, second version is very well known. It reports that Adam was created as a male and that Eve was derived afterwards, from Adam’s body. (Gen. 2:21-22) But the shorter, less well-known, first version says simply: “And the Almighty created the human (Adam) in God’s image, creating him in the image of the Almighty, creating them male and female.” (Gen. 1:27) In this first version “Adam” is both male and female, created as such in one act of creation. Continue reading →
During these days of Teshuvah – returning, I wish to return to one startling statement found in Moses’s final song, Ha’azinu. Moses speaks God’s words: “I have wounded, and I will heal, for none can save from My Hand.” (Deut. 32:39) I continue to be struck by the paradoxical implication of the verse – “I will heal – and no one can stop Me!” – as if anyone would want to stop God from healing!
This shortest of all Torah readings contains the final two commandments (mitzvot) of the traditional count of 613 commandments in the entire Torah. Both mitzvot are concerned with the growth of the Torah as a force in Jewish life. One mitzvah is called haq’hel – to congregate and hear the words of the Torah read in public. The other is to write a Torah scroll for one’s self. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (Sept 2021).
Our tradition teaches that when one sees a very dear friend for the first time in a very long time – a year or more – one should recite a blessing. The blessing is actually one we traditionally recite 3 times a day, every day of the year. But now we are bidden to recite it with renewed appreciation – ב ו רך … מח יה המת ים – You abound in blessings, Eternal One, Who brings life to the dead.
Let us, then, take a moment – If you are in such a position – if today you see, in the flesh, for the first time in ages – someone dear to your heart – then by all means please say these terrifying words of praise – ב ו רך אתה .. מ. ח יה המת ים – You abound in blessings, Eternal One, Who brings life to the dead.
This Torah reading is always read right before the New Year. It is the first of the last four Torah portions left in our Torah. After the lengthy and impressive unfolding of the entire Torah, each of these last Torah portions is very short. In comparison to the previous portions, these are like small tidbits of text. It is as if, after a full year of feasting on the amazingly rich nourishment of the Torah’s banquet, we still sit at the table, satiated and yet unable to resist nibbling just a few more delicious bites from the leftovers on the table. Just four more small bites before the meal is really over!
One theme that recurs in our Torah portion is that of being happy. We learn that God desperately wants us to be happy and dreads our failure to be happy. Why is happiness so important? And what is this happiness that God desires for us?
Being happy is mentioned three times in our reading. The first mention is in the opening section of our portion. After the farmer brings their offering of First Fruits to thank God for their harvest, the Torah releases the farmer to go out of the Temple and to celebrate – to “be happy” with family, friends and strangers, for God has given so much good to enjoy. (Deut. 26:11) Continue reading →
Among the many laws contained in this Torah portion are quite a few that challenge our sense of morality and justice. Over the years I have discussed some of these. This time I want to consider the law that prohibits women from wearing men’s clothes and men from wearing women’s clothes. (Deut. 22:5). The law is stated without offering a rationale, but it has been understood so as to render it a source of gender separation and gender discrimination for many generations and in many communities, even to this day. Some have deduced from this verse that women cannot wear pants. Even more sadly, some use this verse as the basis for forbidding women to wear a tallit or put on tefillin. (Overwhelmingly, the prohibition is applied against women’s freedom of choice.) In all these instances the changing social and cultural realities of what may constitute “women’s” clothes or “men’s” clothes are ignored. Continue reading →