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Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/11/03

Gahelet Ha'Torah
The Glowing Ember of Torah
Torah Portion: Lech Lecha (literally, "Get Outta Here")
Shabbat, November 8, 2003

2,500 years ago Abraham and Sarah followed God's call to "Go forth from your native land from your father's house to the land I will show you (Gen. 12:1)." It was not just a request. The Hebrew expression, "Lech Lecha" is in the imperative form meaning, "GET OUTTA HERE." Abraham and Sarah were not asked or told, but commanded. Their response? The next morning they left the comforts of their home to embark on a journey to a "Promised" land.

Rabbi Brad Artson notes, "To go to Israel is not merely to change one's address. Israel represents a shift in consciousness, a place that can nurture deeper spiritual insight by virtue of the events and institutions that will emerge from her soil."

Over the centuries, the Land would welcome slaves from Egypt, be led by King David, see his son Solomon build the 1st Temple, inspire the fight for religious freedom by the Maccabees, give birth to the Talmud, and bear witness to the modern words of "Hatikvah" (Israel's national anthem)-"to be a free nation in our land the land of Zion and Jerusalem."

All this the result of not just dreams and visions, but acting upon them. Abraham had every reason to be hesitant in accepting the challenge. After all, he had spent his entire life in his father's home. Yet, he responded without question to a journey into the unknown. He wasn't alone, Sarah was with him and both walked with God "to a Land I will show you."

Upon arriving in Israel, Abraham was instructed to "Arise, walk about the land, through its length and breadth, for I give it to you (Gen. 13:17)." Rabbi Eliezer, from the 1st century of the common era, explains this verse as follows: "If one walks in a field, whether along its length or its breadth, one acquires it."

Israel is no less important to our future than our past. We can, in our own way, experience and understand the journey of Abraham and Sarah by taking the same journey in our lives. Rabbi Artson profoundly notes, "By renewing our connection to Israel, by traveling there, studying there, living there, we establish our claim to the Land, and allow the Land to exercise its claim on us."

At least twice a year (Yom Kippur and the Passover Seder) we find ourselves proclaiming, "Next Year In Jerusalem." Abraham didn't wait, why should we?

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/15/03

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
November 14, 2003

At the end of last week's Torah portion, Abraham fulfills his commitment to the covenant with God by circumcising himself (at the age of 99!) and his first-born son, Ishmael (at the age of 13). Not pretty, and most certainly painful!

The portion "Vayera" begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent as three strangers approach. The Midrash (legends of the ancient rabbis) explains that Abraham was sitting in the sun to hasten the healing of his circumcision. When he saw the strangers, "he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them" (Gen. 18:2). The Talmudic tractate Sotah (14a) comments, "God visited the sick, as it is written "And the Lord [the three strangers who were messengers of God] appeared [to Abraham] at the terebinths of Mamre" (Gen. 18:1). By implication, God sent these messengers to visit Abraham and distract him from the pain of his recent circumcision.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his Torah commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash, notes, "visiting the sick might not physically alter the course of an illness, but the knowledge that people care may ease the suffering and discomfort of one who is ill or recuperating and dispel any fears that the suffering is deserved because he or she is a bad person. . . . sometimes all we can give an afflicted person is the gift of our caring presence, and when we do that, we are following God's way."

Abraham, in turn, forgets about the circumcision, his covenant with God, to concern himself with the needs of others-the three strangers. In a way, he turns his back on God to care for people. The Talmudic tractate Shabbat (127a) teaches that "Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming in the Presence of God." To this lesson the 18th century Hasidic master Rabbi Aaron of Karlin taught, "When we turn our attention from God to the needs of people, we do God's will. Conversely, God is not pleased when we place such a great focus on God that we ignore needy human beings."

There is a difference between a strictly "observant" Jew, and one who is "religious." A strictly observant Jew thinks by keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat, performing the rituals at their proper time and place, he is doing God's will. A religious Jew also keeps Kosher, observes the Sabbath, and does the rituals but understands them as a "means to an end," and not an end in themselves. The "end" is the betterment of humankind and prayer is a reminder that to serve God is to serve people, like Abraham and the three strangers.

Haye Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/22/03

Torah Portion: HAYE SARAH (The Life of Sarah)
Book of Genesis
Gen. 23:1-25:18
November 21, 2003

The title for this week's Torah portion comes from the first two words in the portion, "Haye Sarah," meaning the "life of Sarah." In fact, the portion deals not with the life of Sarah but with her death. Why, then, the title?

The Torah only reports that Sarah died. The Midrashic literature (stories and legends about the Torah) suggests Sarah died when she learned that her husband, Abraham, had taken their beloved son, Isaac, to offer as a sacrifice to God on Mt. Moriah. Most of the ancient rabbis explain away Abraham's role in Sarah's death by praising him for following God's will regardless of cost. Abraham is the hero and Sarah, just a grieving mother.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro asks who is the real hero in this story? Rabbi Shapiro writes, "Sarah dies because she knows that the sacrifice of their son is wrong; that God could not, would not, command such an act, and that any God who issued such a command must be rejected. Sarah knows that there is no category that transcends the ethical, that there is no God greater than human relations, that there is no commandment holier than the responsibility not to inflict pain on others."

Sarah knows that the "truth" is not to be found on some remote mountaintop, but in the home, in the comfort of a loving family. Sarah's death could have been prevented. Abraham discovers Sarah's "truth" at the last moment as an angel of God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. But, it is too late for Sarah. As Rabbi Shapiro notes, "There is no truth on the mountaintop, there is no special holiness up there. Truth is right here, at home, in cooking dinner, taking out the garbage, holding hands, raising a child."

Abraham returns from Mt. Moriah a different man. He lives out the rest of his life more humble, more human, and more real. With Sarah's death Abraham discovers the ultimate truth of life.

note: Rabbi Rona Shapiro is a Conservative rabbi who is director of education and outreach at Ma'ayan: The Jewish Women's Project. She is quoted from a piece appearing in the book, "The Women's Torah Commentary: New Insights From Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions," edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. The book is available in popular book stores and www.amazon.com

Toldot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/28/03

Torah Portion: TOLDOT
Book of Genesis
Gen. 25:19-28:9
November 29, 2003

Isaac, father of Esau and Jacob, prepares to offer his final blessings to his sons. He begins by telling Esau, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die (Gen. 27:2)."

Several years ago a colleague, then in his 50's, said to me, "I never realized how young 60 was!" Maybe George Bernard Shaw was right when he said, "Youth is wasted on the young!" No one can argue the theme of today's culture: Youth-Being Young & Staying Young. Entire industries have been created to make us always feel young and look young. "Modern Maturity," the magazine of the AARP (American Association of Retired People) features on its cover an active and still sexy Lauren Hutton, not "Whistler's Mother."

Former President James Garfield is quoted as saying, "If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should not grow old." There is nothing wrong with a youthful outlook on life, as long as we don't lose sight of the wisdom of age.

What did Isaac mean when he said, "I am old now?" Ancient near eastern documents suggest that this declaration by Isaac was probably the legal format for a final will & testament. He was not giving in to his age, nor giving up on life. Rather, Isaac realized that the time had come to inform Jacob and Esau of his ethical will; his hopes and desires for their future.

In 1850, Samuel Ullman immigrated with his parents from Germany to Mississippi to escape the discrimination of Jews in Europe. He would go on to fight with the Confederate army in the Civil War. After the war, he married the daughter of a wealthy Jew. They moved to Birmingham, Alabama where they had six children and Samuel became a well-known civic leader spending 18 years on the Birmingham Board of Education. During this time, he was also appointed the lay rabbi of Birmingham's Temple Emanuel. He is said to have been responsible for giving the women of the synagogue full membership with all the rights and privileges.

When hearing loss caused him to have to retire in his 70's, Samuel took up his lifelong avocation of writing poetry. One of his poems was entitled "Youth." Many years after his death, General Douglas MacArthur placed a copy of this poem on his wall in Tokyo at the end of WWII. The poem went on to become an important inspiration to a Japanese population trying to rebuild a country. His words are as meaningful today as they were when he first penned them:

"Youth is not a time of life-it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips, and supple knees; it is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness of the deep spring of life."

This sort of youth we never stop seeking!

Vayetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/07/03

Torah Portion: VAYETZE
Book of Genesis
Gen. 28:10-32:3
December 6, 2003

After deceiving his father into giving the blessing of the first born to him and not to the rightful
recepient, Esau, Jacob is encouraged by his mother, Rebecca, to leave home and escape the wrath of his twin brother. As Jacob journeys from his home in Beersheva to his mother's home in Haran, he stops for the night and his overcome by a dream. In the dream Jacob sees angels of God going up and down a ladder between the heaven and the earth. Upon awakening, Jacob exclaims, "Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it (Gen. 28:16)."

It's too easy to take life for granted, to assume we possess some divine right to everything we see, hear, smell, and touch. When everything is ours for the taking, nothing is sacred. It took a rude awakening from a dream to make Jacob realize this.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his work "Man's Quest For God," writes, "To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings-the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer for the mystery in which we live."

Heschel suggests that nothing is taken for granted. Every tree that grows, bee that flies, or breath we take is a moment of mystery and wonder. Prayer is our humble means of thanking God not just for the good moments in life, but for the completeness of life. How do we express our "Wonder" at the sweet smell of spices, or the awesome sound of thunder? We say Berachot/Blessings ("thank you God who creates various spices," "thank you God whose power and might fill the world"). There is a blessing for seeing a rainbow, or trees in blossom for the first time, or seeing the ocean, or standing before the head of state. Even in our saddest moment-the death of a beloved-there is a blessing said ("Blessed are you, Lord our God, righteous judge!"). The pain of death is no less a part of life than the joy of living.

Everyday living should be like a child's first visit to Disneyland. Remember the awestruck look when your child (or you) walked into the "Magical Kingdom?" If we can learn to see in all of life-and not just an artificial locale-a "Magical Kingdom" then we, too, can acclaim as Jacob did after his dream, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God. (Gen. 28:17)."

Vayishlach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/11/03

Torah Portion: VAYISHLACH
Book of Genesis
Gen. 32:4-36:43
December 13, 2003

After years of family separation, Jacob is returning to his homeland to face the wrath of his brother, Esau, who he had cheated out of his birthright and blessing. On the eve of the encounter, the Torah tells us that Jacob, alone, spends the entire night wrestling with a Divine force. As the morning light appeared, and the angel saw he was not going to prevail against Jacob, he instead wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket. Still, Jacob would not release the angel until he was promised a blessing. The blessing: "Jacob, your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and prevailed (Gen. 32:29)."

This famous account is explained and interpreted in a variety of ways. Some suggest Jacob was wrestling with his evil inclination, while others suggest he was wrestling with the goodness of God. He probably was encountering both; who he was and who he wanted to be. He cheated his brother and then ran away. He later cheated his uncle and, again, ran away. Jacob's method for dealing with his shortcomings was to run from them, deny their existence, pretend they never were. Then, on one lonely night he stood his ground against what he had become. He faced up to the enemy within, and came out a different person (no longer "Jacob," he was now worthy of being known as "Israel").

An unknown source teaches, "We want to be great and we see ourselves small. We want to be happy and we see ourselves miserable. We want to be perfect and we see ourselves full of imperfections. . . Truly it is an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion."

Whether 20 years old or 70, the path to personal and spiritual redemption leads through self-recognition. Sometimes it's hard to look in the mirror, but removing the mirror doesn't change who we are. Change can only occur when we are willing to do as Jacob did and face up to the "enemy within." In the end, our strength will prevail.

Vayigash posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/02/04

Torah Portion: VAYIGASH
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 44:18-47:27
January 3, 2004

Rabbi Chaim Potok, in his commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash (Five Books of Moses), notes, "The reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is one of the great scenes in all literature. It is preceded by a deeply moving speech by Judah, who uses the word "father" 14 times in 17 verses."

In the annual Torah reading cycle, this portion is always read about this time. Late December/early January is the "darkest" part of the year. The days shorter, the nights longer, trees without leaves, and a chill in the air. If there is no one to be with, this can be the most lonely part of the year. So, we liven it up. There are celebrations of "light" (Hanukkah & Christmas) and "time" (new year). What makes these occasions festive is not the holiday as much as the people and family who come to celebrate.

Nothing is more painful than to celebrate moments of living, alone. How many of us have family members-mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, etc.-who we don't speak to? Do we even remember the source of our anger? We are sometimes more willing to communicate with people who don't care for us, than those who should.

Norman Maclean, in his autobiographical short-story, A River Runs Through It, relates a sermon given by his minister father in which he states, "Each of us here today will, at one time in our lives, look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question, "We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?" Where it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us, but we can still love them."

Joseph realized, as did his brothers, that despite their differences, their petty jealousies, their infantile pursuit of revenge, they still shared a bond far deeper than any other. They were family. In the end, "Joseph could no longer control himself before his attendants, and he cried out. . . . I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. . . . God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. It was not you who sent me here, but God. . . . With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. . . He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them (Gen. 45: 1-15)."

A "new" year means new beginnings. Call the brother or sister from whom you've been so distant for so long. Re-connect with the parent who, in spite of themselves, does love and need you. Learn from Joseph who accumulated wealth, power, and fame but was not complete without family. And, heed the words of Norman Maclean who realized we may never be able to fully understand those closest to us but that should not prevent our loving them.

Happy New Year!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/09/04

Torah Portion: VAYEHI
Book of Genesis (last portion)
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
January 10, 2004

This portion brings to a close the Book of Genesis. The Patriarchal & Matriarchal period of Jewish history comes to an end. Jacob, after living the final 17 years of his life in Egypt in the care of his son, Joseph, dies. His sons fear that following the death of their father, their brother Joseph will finally unleash his vengeance against them for trying to kill him in his youth. There fears are unfounded as Joseph explains to them:

"Have no fear, for am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Thus did [Joseph] comfort them and speak straight to their hearts (Genesis 50:19-20)."

At no point in Joseph's life did he ever express anger against those who disagreed with him. As a youth, his world view was contrary to that of the rest of his family, including his father. Yet, he never forced his brothers, through acts of verbal coercion, to accept his opinions and outlooks. Joseph gives the appearance of one who, at worst, respectfully disagreed with views he did not share. He understood what his brothers never would: the difference in the pursuit of "truth," as opposed to self-interest.

The famous Scottish author, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote, "In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves."
Anger is not a positive emotion. After having been involved in an argument, if the first response is, "that makes me so angry," then one is no longer interested in the argument, but the "self."

I often think of the "good ole days" in Congress (I know, the "good ole' days" were never that good, but. . .), when a Republican would vigorously debate a Democrat and then share dinner together in the evening. The Talmud notes that the ancient schools of Shammai & Hillel, who disagreed with one another on almost every aspect of Jewish observance, married their daughters to each other's sons. They understood that the aim of their arguments was not victory, but common progress.

Joseph seemed to know that he served a greater purpose than just his own personal aggrandizement. He understood there was a "truth" that was bigger than him and his brothers. He wasn't willing to waste his precious time in anger, enmity, hatred, or vengeance. He saw the bigger picture; the future. It is only fitting that his death bring to a close the first chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston