There are few times in Torah where a human being feels more alone than Jacob does at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei. Fleeing his brother who is seeking revenge for the theft of his father’s blessing, Jacob must leave home for the very first time. He goes toward a place, Haran, he has never been, but where he’s been told that his family members reside. He has no map and no plan on how to get there. Stuck without shelter, he simply lies down on a pile of rocks, far from other people. This is, indeed, one of the lowest points in all of Torah.
However, it is here that the miraculous happens to Jacob – he finds God. While he is sleeping, he has a vision of a ladder going toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. God then tells him that the promise of his forefathers is with him, and that he will be protecting along the way. He awakes and announces, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and this is the gate of the heavens!”
We have all felt the dread of loneliness surround us. Thanksgiving, in particular, is hard for some of us in our community. We so want to be loved and accepted by our family, and while some of us feel that deep in our hearts, others do not. Jacob’s story is a reminder to reach out to one another. That is what God does in this week’s Torah portion, and that is what the Native Americans did for the Pilgrim settlers - they helped create a community when none existed prior. That is the role of the angels, in their accent and descent on the ladder. They are reminders that communities can emerge when we least expect it and, that like Jacob, even at our lowest point, hope can appear as if from nowhere.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg Germany thus starting the process of Reformation, at the same time as he started a wave of antiemetic rhetoric that would eventually lead the way to Nazi Germany. Now, anti-Semitism was nothing new even in Martin Luther’s time (he was, after all, nine years old during the expulsion from Spain in 1492), but he raised it to a whole new level in his writings from 1543, even encouraging Jewish synagogues to be burned down. This type of hatred existed since the beginning of Christianity, and if you believe the rabbis commentary from this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, since the time of Isaac and Rebecca. In chapter 25 of Genesis, the Torah describes twins in Rebecca’s belly fighting with another. These twins will go on to become Jacob and Esau, the forefathers of both Israel and, according to the rabbis, Christianity. The Midrash (early rabbinic writing) describes Esau’s unborn fetus pining for idol worship as Rebecca walks along the way, while Jacob’s unborn fetus pushes toward the study hall. The contrast is great, and it is clearly meant more at a slight on Christianity than on Esau himself.
According to the rabbis, it is all very one sided, with Jacob always on the side of good and Esau always on the side of evil. Yet, the actual story in the Torah is much more complicated. Jacob tricks his brother out of his blessing and his birthright, and Esau is more of a bumbler than an evil doer. And, then there is the climax of the stories a few weeks from now when, instead of fighting, the brothers reunite and embrace. This is the part of the story I tend to focus on and having taught side by side with Rev. Bill Hennessy from North Presbyterian this past week, delving into the complexity of the relationship between our two communities of faith, I am proud to live at a time where we share much more in common than not.
In early November of 1626, Pieter Schage told his superiors at the West India Company of the purchase of Manhattan Island from the Lenape tribe for 60 guilders. This is one of the foundational moments in American history, setting the stage for what this country would one day become. Similarly in Jewish history, the sale of the field and the cave of Mahpelah to Abraham for four hundred silver shekels in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is a seminal moment. This ancient deed laid out in the Torah is our first real stake in the land that would become our homeland. It is also the start of our people’s deep commitment to honoring our dead. This particular purchase was made with one thing in mind, to bury Abraham’s wife Sarah and to create a family plot that would extend through the generations.
Abraham does what none of us should - he waits until after Sarah’s death to make the arrangements. Because of his action, or perhaps his inaction, it a Jewish community’s obligation to purchase cemetery plots as soon as we arrive in a new place. As death can come at any moment, we must be prepared for all eventualities. And, unlike our forbearer Abraham, we are blessed today with funeral homes that do all of the work for us. In fact in Buffalo we are doubly blessed, with two amazing homes - both family owned and operated, both of whom understand all the intricacies of Jewish burial customs - Amherst Memorial Chapel and Mesnekoff Funeral Home. This is one area where we should not use Abraham and Sarah as examples. In doing so, your family will have clear guidance on how you want to be remembered and you will have peace of mind.
Salt is perhaps the most important commodity in the world. It provides taste to our food, keeps our roads safe, and generally makes life better. And, while oil may be in short supply, the land of Israel is filled with salt deposits. No more so than in the Negev desert where the primary geographic location is called in Hebrew “yam hamelach,” the salt sea, or as we more commonly know it, the Dead Sea. This is the location Cleopatra was gifted by Mark Antony, and that Herod used to store a hundred years’ worth of food up on his palace on Massada. It is also the location known in the Torah for the housing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These were places of ill repute where Abraham’s nephew Lot ended up and where God is forced to destroy in this week’s Torah portion Vaerah. They are also where Lot’s unnamed wife was left as a statue in salt, for the grievous sin of turning around during the destruction; salt taking on a ghoul like specter, death frozen in time, like the volcanic remains of Pompeii.
But, what Sodom and Gomorrah are really known for is an argument between Abraham and God, God wanting to destroy the two cities and Abraham wanting to save them. Abraham asks God to consider the righteous citizens living there and whether their lives would be enough to save the two cities. He bargains God down from a minimum of one hundred righteous, all the way to ten. But, alas Sodom and Gomorrah do not even have a minyan of righteous human beings presumably including Abraham and Lot. This story demonstrates the power of even one righteous person in changing the fate of the world for the better. In Judaism, a tzadik, a righteous human being, is the highest ideal. Like salt, tzadikim are necessary ingredients for sustained life and definitely worth their weight in salt.
What do you do with a group of teenagers to really show them what life was like prior to Abraham and Sarah? Well you show them pictures of idols and you have them build one. So there we were, myself and four teenagers, a tin of quick drying clay and pictures of idols. They bent the clay, twisted it into different forms, and rolled it into balls. The whole lesson had an end goal that would come into being in our next class together. Once the clay had hardened, once we had talked about what each of the idols meant and what it was for, we would smash them.
In order to form our faith, Abraham and Sarah had to break with their past. In the Midrash, the extra biblical stories that were not included in the Torah, when he was a boy Abraham (then Abram) takes on his father directly - smashing all the idols in his father’s shop and blaming it on the biggest idol. The rabbis imagined him taking on the king his well, battling the mighty Nimrod over the power of God. This is something teenagers can relate to. Every generation has to break with their past to make a new future. In the Jewish community we are currently facing one of those cultural shifts. Judaism is robust and adaptable. I’m not worried about Judaism. But I am worried about our teenagers finding their own way in. I’m looking forward to smashing idols with them in a few weeks and in the way they eventually lead our community into the future
In the early 1960s, over fifteen hundred Torah scrolls from the Czech Republic were brought to safety from where they had been desecrated by the Nazis. Thousands and thousands other Torahs were burned throughout Europe in that terrible period we call the Holocaust. Letters were sent out to the entire Jewish community to find places around the world to display these amazing artifacts. Through the persistence of Dave Feld, an aerospace engineer, who died several years ago, one of those scrolls, number 980, came to Buffalo in the 1970s. Scarred beyond repair, with hundreds of holes from Nazi fire, this beautiful, sacred scroll hung in the hallway of Temple Sinai and now Congregation Shir Shalom. Unfortunately, just about a year ago, the frame fell down and the Torah itself was damaged. We have since repaired the Torah, and now due to the generosity of the Feld family, and the ingenuity of our Executive Director, Joanne Marquisee, we have a new home for the scroll, right outside of our Daniel E. Kerman Sanctuary. There, it is open, just as it was in the past, to the Song of the Sea, Moses’ great poem dedicated to vanquishing Pharaoh and finding freedom for the first time as a people.
Torah is central to our identity as a Jewish people. In addition to being there at the crossing of the sea, we are all also supposed to have been there in spirit at the receipt of Torah on Mount Sinai. That is what is meant in this week’s double portion, Netzavim-Vayelech, when Moses says, “not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before God, and with whoever is not here with us today.” As none of us were physically there thousands of years ago, those “not here with us today,” has always been interpreted as us. For thousands of generations we have passed the word of Moses down, meticulously, lovingly, as if we ourselves had been there when it all began. This was why the Nazi desecration of our Torah scrolls hurt so deeply and why it is our community’s mission to preserve and protect this amazing Holocaust scroll. I encourage you to come and see it, and revel in the joy of having once again in our communal space.
This week is the week we start to say goodbye to summer fruit. Alas, all the yummy blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and plums have already begun to make the way out of the super market aisles. But, not to worry, apple and pear season is closely approaching. In ancient Israel fruits like the pomegranate, date, and fig were central delicacies the people would look forward to all year round. They put images them in the decorations of the High Priest’s garments, named towns and cities after them, and even composed love poetry with fruit as the central theme.
It is no wonder that sanctifying fruit is one of the first duties the people have when they enter the land of Israel. Here at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are given the command to bring the first fruits and offer them to the High Priest. One can imagine the reluctance of our ancestors to part with the crown jewels of agriculture, but also the need to celebrate the sweetness of God’s earth. Fruit, unlike vegetables, was available for the picking along the way, providing a splash of color on the mostly dry landscape of the Middle East. Is there anything more joyful than finding a loose raspberry or blackberry on a trail, or a newly formed apple falling from a tree? So, even as I indulge myself on the last of our summer fruit, I cannot wait to start breaking open the apples and pomegranates of High Holy Day season.
There is an open-ended question every time one affixes a mezuzah to a door – should it face in or out? Technically, a mezuzah is affixed on the right doorpost, approximately, at the bottom of the top third of the doorpost, with its top leaning toward the inside of the room. However it all depends on your orientation which way you see it, are you going into the room or away from it? In which direction do you need the mezuzah more?
This week’s Torah portion Ki Tetzei refers to going out from our environment, it refers to the most treacherous of all human activities going off to war. The Torah instructs us that there rules of behavior, how we treat a captive, how we treat one another. The message being that there is no place on earth out of bounds from Torah law.
And, while we need blessing both in our homes and when we leave them, we should never think that who we are as a human being should change in either circumstance. There is a reason that the Shema, the essential Jewish prayer, tells us not only to inscribe the words on doorways to our house and on our gates, but also to say the words when you lie down and when you rise up, as a sign upon your hand, and as a visible sign before your eyes. As such, it matters little which direction the mezuzah is actually facing, only that our obligations to one another and to God travel with us wherever we go.
For those of us who witnessed the solar eclipse on Monday afternoon, we saw something truly spectacular - the shadow of a full moon partially blocking the giant orb of the sun. Here in Western New York, the day barely darkened or grew colder, but through specialized eclipse glasses one could see a change of momentous proportion: “Blessed is God, who performs the work of creation,” - “Baruch Atah… Oseh Boreh Ma’aseh Breishit.”
Ironically, this year’s Great American Eclipse occurred simultaneously with the new moon of Elul, leaving the sky empty of a moon the same night the moon made such a big statement for us during the day. In Western Culture the moon often is overlooked, our solar calendar masking its movements altogether. Not so, in Jewish culture, where every lunar cycle is noted and woven into the fabric of our Jewish year. Indeed, at no time do we feel the moon’s presence more than in the Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei, when the moon becomes a giant Big Ben in the sky ticking down the moments we have to repent and make amends for our actions this past year. While the Book of Genesis tells us on the fourth day of creation that, “God made two great lights, the greater to dominate the day, and the lesser to dominate the night,” the moon never really takes second billing to the sun, she is always present for us, even during the day.
In many ways, this is how justice should operate, emphasizing the lesser over the greater and ensuring that everyone is seen equally under the law. I mention this in connection with this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, where even Kings are given strict rules of behavior, and criminals are given safe haven in cities of sanctuary. As the most famous line from this week’s Torah potion tells us, “Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof,” “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue,” because without justice human society ceases to be sacred. Perhaps, our celebration of the moon, both during the eclipse and in Jewish tradition, is a reminder to turn to those forgotten in society and ensure that they have a say, not just once a century, but every day of the year.
Our Torah portion this week begins with the words: “See, I present you today with a blessing and a curse.” This is exactly how I felt on Monday afternoon when I learned that my children’s playground at Windermere Elementary was vandalized with a swastika and a crude Star of David. Only a few days removed from the Nazi and White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered when a car deliberately crashed into a crowd of counter protesters, it felt like a double blow. Not only was my country struggling with its worst impulses, the evil had infected the very neighborhood I lived. But, as this week’s Torah portion teaches, perhaps there was a way to turn this around – to make blessings out of curses, and find light where before there was only darkness.
The next morning emails and Facebook posts began to pop up, and in a very short time we found the perfect response. Instead of running from these vitriolic symbols, and shying away from the playground where the graffiti was placed, we would go there deliberately, together, as a community, to not only say what happened was wrong, but to communicate that we would not let it happen again. I expected a few dozen people to show up, but over a hundred came. Less than 24-hours after the incident we were able to organize a moving response. And, the school and Amherst Township more than did its part. The graffiti was removed within two-hours of its being reported and standing with us at 5:30 on Tuesday were the school principals, Lavin and Flanagan, speaking about the values we hold so strongly as a community, love and respect of all people. If that isn’t turning a curse into a blessing, I am not sure what is.