Monthly Archives: November 2014

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Toldot, and a special presentation on taharah.

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a (slightly belated) good week to you!

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Toldot in the book of Bereshit (Genesis). The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

  • Toldot: Reform Commentaries (the Union for Reform Judaism’s page for this Torah portion, which contains several different Reform commentaries)

return-to-shabbat

This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be rabbinic student Lori Shaller.

Don’t miss Kiddush learning on taharah with Reb Lori – On Shabbat morning, Saturday November 22, Reb Lori (rabbinic student Lori Shaller, returning to us from Martha’s Vineyard) will offer a special teaching relating to the subject of her teshuvah, the rabbinic-legal responsum which serves as her rabbinic school thesis — taharah. Taharah is the Hebrew word we use to mean preparing a body for burial, and it is a beautiful Jewish tradition. Come and learn!

We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service hosts. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also extend thanks to our member Helene Armet for the beautiful home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!

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Reaching wholeness: brief thoughts on Chayyei Sarah

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

For me the most striking feature of this parsha — which contains Sarah’s death, Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Eliezer his servant going forth to find a wife for Isaac, Rebecca watering his camels at the well, and finally Avraham’s death — is that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father.

How often it happens that a death brings a family together, trumping distance and even estrangement. When we gather together to mourn, we are united in the most defining characteristic of human life: every life ends.

Torah doesn’t tell us how Isaac and Ishmael felt, reunited for this purpose. It doesn’t tell us how the brothers greeted one another, or whether there was animosity between them; whether they blamed their parents for the tensions of their divided family, or whether they were able to let all of that go.

I imagine them embracing, old resentments discarded in the face of their shared grief. I imagine them grateful to be together, caring for their father’s body lovingly as their descendants still do today. That imagining probably says more about me than about them; we know surprisingly little about their internal lives.

There’s a Hasidic commentary, from the rabbi known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, which translates the words “Sarah died” in a really interesting way. He says we should understand the word tamat, “she died,” as actually meaning wholeness and completeness. (This is a bit of Hebrew wordplay which is hard to translate — just roll with me on this.)

For the Degel, what happened to Sarah, in her hundred and twenty-seventh year, was that she achieved perfect wholeness and completeness. When she died, her life became complete, by definition, no matter what she had done or not done. She left the imperfections and the limits of her body and her health and her circumstance and entered into a state of perfect wholeness.

And at the end of the parsha, we read yamat Avraham – the same verb, “he died,” or “he reached perfect wholeness and completeness.” I like the Degel’s interpretation. When a soul leaves this life, brokenness and alienation and small-mindedness all fall away. The soul gets “breathing room,” as it were, for the natural expansiveness which connects it with God.

That doesn’t mean that Isaac and Ishmael didn’t grieve. For their sakes, I hope that they did. I hope they were able to mourn their parents. I hope they were able to embrace their loss as a sign of how fortunate they were to love and be loved, even by figures as flawed as our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs seem to have been.

But I hope there was comfort for them in being with each other, and in knowing that Sarah and Avraham’s journeys were complete.

 

I followed this d’var Torah with the poem “In the Same Key,” which you can find in 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenecia Publishing, 2011.)

 

Shabbat Chayei Sarah is almost here!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Whoops! We forgot to send out this email on Monday, so you’re getting this note right before Shabbat. Sorry about that.

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Chayei Sarah (“The life of Sarah”) in the book of Bereshit (Genesis). The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

 

return-to-shabbat

This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be Reb Rachel. There will be a special aliyah and blessing for new members, and services will be followed by a brunch where we will welcome new and prospective members — hopefully if you are planning to join us you have already responded to the office to let us know.

We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service hosts. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also extend thanks to our member Helene Armet for the beautiful home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Shabbat shalom!

The One Who Sees Me: a short d’var Torah for parashat Lech Lecha

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


In this week’s Torah portion God calls to Avram with the words “lech-lecha” — “go forth!” or “go you forth!” or perhaps even “go forth into yourself.” God calls Avram to leave the house of his father and venture forward to the place which God will show him. God promises him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. But his wife Sarai is unable to conceive. She gives him her slave-woman Hagar as a concubine so that Avram can father an heir.

Once Hagar is pregnant, she treats her mistress with disdain. Sarai, in turn, is so abusive that Hagar runs away. That’s when Hagar has the encounter with the angel.

The angel tells her that her descendants will be too numerous to count — the same promise which was given by God to Avram. He tells her that she will bear a son and will call him Ishma-el, because “shama El,” God has heard you. (If you remember the story of Chanah who yearned for a son, which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, her son’s name Shmuel comes from those same words, and means the same thing.)

In return for learning her future son’s name, Hagar gives a new name to God. She names God as El Ro’i, “The One Who Sees Me.” And on that theme of seeing, she asserts that she has seen God: “even here I have seen the back of the One Who looks upon me!”

Many generations later, Moshe will plead to be shown God’s glory. God will shelter him in the crevice of a rock and as God’s goodness passes by, Moshe will see God’s back, or perhaps God’s afterimage, a reverberation of divine Presence. Our tradition considers Moshe the greatest prophet who ever was or will be; Moshe had a direct relationship with God! And yet now we see that Hagar, “The Stranger,” the slavewoman, has just seen God in the same way.

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God renames Avram as Avraham and Sarai as Sarah. In Torah, a changed name means a changed inner being. In the case of Avraham and Sarah, each of them receives the letter ה / heh, which can represent divine presence, or divine breath, or the deep hidden wisdom of the Five Books of the Torah. So what does God’s new name tell us about the nature of God?

Hagar names God in a very personal way: not only “The One Who Sees,” but “The One Who Sees Me.” God is the One Who sees each of us, in our triumph and in our distress. God is the One Who sees through our masks and pretenses to the core of who we most deeply are. God sees our hopes, our fears, and our dreams. When we try to flee from the things in our lives which are most difficult or painful, God sees us where we are.

Being truly seen means being vulnerable. Maybe that’s frightening. I think it’s also a gift. God is the One Who Sees Me. And you. And you. And you.

I experience Torah not only as a story about those people then, but also about each of us now. Each of us is Avram, called by God to go forth, to go deeply into ourselves. Each of us is Sarai, trying to do the right thing, and struggling with jealousy sometimes. And each of us is Hagar, seen by God and seeing God in turn.

As we walk the journey of self-discovery, we are never alone. Even in times of despair, may each of us feel in our hearts that God is El Ro’i, the One Who Sees Me and responds with love.