To the tune of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’
Finding meaning in the ram
No story in our culture is more enigmatic and iconic than the Binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. The akedah, or “binding,” is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis and is only 19 verses long, containing just over 300 words. Yet this very short story has compelled writers from Maimonides to Wilfred Owen, from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan.
Throughout history, thinkers and writers focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as, “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During the crusades, the focused shifted to Isaac, who was widely viewed in that time period as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, the shift of focus was to Abraham with questions such as, “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Later, the feminists finally give voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s wish?”
But the most unsung hero of the akedah is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah. It’s the ram.
The basic narrative of the akedah is that God asks Abraham to take his son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Abraham and Isaac climb the mountain together. At the peak, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and unsheathes the knife. As he lifts the blade into the heavens, the Angel of God appears and stays his hand. A ram caught in the brambles by its horns — which Abraham sees for the first time — becomes the substitute sacrifice for Isaac.
The ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t choose to be there and finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in the right place at the right time. More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment that we live in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”
Each of us is just like the ram. There is much in our lives we don’t choose and in truth cannot control. Our parents’ dreams for us began months before we were born. They chose our clothes, our schools, even our friends, when we are young. As adults, we have the opportunity to craft life for ourselves, but we have moments in which we hear our mother’s or father’s words come out of our mouths.
As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image.
Then, at some moment not of our own choosing, the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you he’s getting married. These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond.
The religious energy of the ram saturates the High Holy Days. We begin with the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Every morning we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, as a symbolic wakeup call to attune ourselves to the spiritual drama that unfolds around us every day. The shofar gives shape and tone to our experience of life’s most precious moments and reminds us that there is so much in life we cannot control. We are told to calibrate our lives to the shofar’s call as we prepare for the spiritual encounter of Rosh Hashanah. In the ram’s song, its soulful blast vibrates in the chambers of our hearts, waking us up to the fragility of life and teaching us to respond with love and awe in each other.
As the holiday season falls upon us, we begin the journey, like the ram, up the winding paths to Moriah, where each of us allows ourselves the space to break down life to its most basic elements. How will I be in the coming year, and where will life take me? In the Unetaneh Tokef, we encounter God at the peak of the mountain. The author imagines us passing before the open gates of heaven like the sheep of the herd to be counted by God. As we take our turn before God, like the ram, we become our most vulnerable selves by laying bare our successes and failures. We look at our lives and see that that we don’t own them outright because we are entangled in the lives of other people. We look again and see that there are so many things over which we don’t have control. In that Moriah moment, we give ourselves over, like the ram, to the flow of the world.
At Moriah’s peak, we are the ram, giving ourselves over to a higher purpose. This act of giving over is a sacrifice where we draw nearer to both God and the world. In the Torah, the ritual of sacrifice is an act of substitution. The idea of substitution typically moves us away from the realness of life. Most of us have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry that your mother died.” Instead, we substitute, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The substitution makes the experience of death palatable by backing away from the harshness of death.
In the akedah, however, as with other sacrificial rituals, the move is exactly the opposite. In Hebrew, the word korban, which means sacrifice, shares the Hebrew root with the word karov, which means to draw close. This act of substitution in the akedah draws us nearer to, not further from, life’s most powerful truth. Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today, when we commit an act of sacrificial prayer, through our meditations and rituals, we say that we are willing to engage with the realness of life. We come to know that our lives, like the ram’s, are enriched when we view our days on earth as an offering — a gift — to be shared with the universe.
Which leads us to the last crucial point about who we are and who we should be. It was the ram who went to the altar to spare Isaac’s life. An act of substitution such as this is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah, for faith and for the covenant. The final teaching of the ram is that it is not enough to climb the mountain on the High Holy Days and realize that our lives are embedded in an awesome universe that we cannot entirely control. We must take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. As we draw close to God through the ram’s korban, our joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. To take up the shofar’s call is not only to feel the wonder of the world, but to feel its pain. The babes of others, even those we consider our enemies, deserve our tears as much as do our own children. To understand what it means to be the ram is to understand that we as Jews have a global responsibility to leave our sacred enclaves and go out in the world and stand in the breach of injustice.
This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in one another’s horns. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, but a call to partnership with God in the messiness of life.
In one last midrash, the rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. The second is larger and more powerful, heralding the coming of the messianic times. Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. As we take our journey up to Mount Moriah on this High Holy Days season, it is time to wake up to the spiritual drama around us, realize that we are all bound together in life, and focus our minds and hearts on hearing the messianic call of a better tomorrow.
Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.
The wells of peace: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Wells, water, history and peace. Seems like as much as the world changes, advances and develops, some things remain intact, remain essential to our future. In the midst of this week’s parasha, Toldot, within the stories of familial strife among Isaac, Rebecca and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, in between the pain, we have a scene that brings hope, if not for the immediate pain of the Torah’s story, then for the future, perhaps for us today.
Like his father before him, Isaac has to deal with a famine; like his father before him, Isaac is blessed with material wealth and success; like his father before him, Isaac lies about his wife being his sister; like his father before him, he has interactions with Abimelech of Gerar, the Philistine king. And like his father before him, Isaac digs wells, seeking water, which despite what anyone tells us to the contrary, is still the most valued commodity in the Middle East. I have become fascinated by these interactions of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, as they both end in peaceful ways, with enemies able to reconcile differences and strike an accord. In our parasha, Isaac “digs anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18). One of the lessons that our tradition gleans from this verse is that connecting to our history, our past, is crucial to our present and future. Isaac digs the same wells as Abraham — not only that, he gives them the same names as Abraham did, restoring a connection that had been lost after Abraham’s death.
How do we identify, relate to and engage with those people, places and sacred objects that came before us? This verse, and this whole story, in a way, reminds us that as we pass from one generation to the next, we are called to retain through memory and intention a connection to that which came before us. It is a holy balance to live in the tension between creating anew and retaining tradition, between innovation that disassociates from the past and innovation that builds upon the past. By naming the wells with the same name, Isaac is validating what his father created, honoring that creation even as he tries to make his generation connected anew. That is the history.
And now for the peace. The Torah says that Isaac’s workers found a “b’air mayyim chayyim, a well of living water.” The added word of “chayyim” gives the Talmud an opening for a midrashic understanding of this verse: “Rabbi Hanina says, ‘One who sees a well in a dream sees peace,’ as it says, ‘and Isaac’s workers found a well of living water’ ” (Berachot 56b). Water has long been associated with peace, one of the natural elements of creation. Torah itself is also known as a ‘well of living water,’ as the same talmudic passage goes on to say. What can we learn from this? In a commentary on this verse, Torah Temimah explains what it means that if one sees a well in a dream, one sees peace. He writes, “The new well, which Isaac dug, could not be re-established and give water until Isaac had made peace with Abimelech.” After a negative experience with Abimelech, Isaac leaves the main area and retreats to the wadi of Gerar, as Abraham had also done. The men of Gerar continue to struggle with Isaac’s workers over the wells. It is not until there is reconciliation between Abimelech and Isaac that the word “shalom” appears, twice, in describing the pact between them (Genesis 26:29, 31). There is an honest dialogue, an acknowledgement of each other’s humanity, a festive meal and words of peace. It is then that the news of water from a new well comes forth. Isaac names that well “Sheva,” and the area is again named Be’er Sheva, as it was in the time of Abraham. Old wells and new wells of water revolve around oaths of peace.
Wells, water, history, peace. As I said at the beginning, in the midst of familial strife, when bad decisions lead to ominous and continued quarrels, Isaac is seen in this passage as an ish shalom, a man of peace. He finds a way, over water, to make peace. As the Talmud teaches us, when we dream of a well of water, we are dreaming of peace. Let the dreams of water flow! Shabbat shalom.
In the face of strangers: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
This week’s Torah portion begins: “YHVH appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent … looking up, he saw: behold, three men standing opposite him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing down to the ground he said: ‘Adonai, if I have found favor in your sight, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under that tree.’ ”
This verse is the proof text for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham — still recovering from his circumcision surgery! — gets up, welcomes these guests, makes them comfortable and feeds them. We learn in the Talmud that hachnasat orchim is one of the activities that benefit us not only in this world but also in the World to Come. However one might understand the idea of the World to Come, there seems to be the suggestion that a big tent is a kind of heaven.
Later, we discover that these guests are angels who have come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. But Abraham doesn’t seem to know they are angels. To him, they are just three strangers. He calls them Adonai (My Lords, Sirs). Rashi offers a different interpretation of why Abraham calls them Adonai. Rashi imagines that Abraham was in the middle of praying when he noticed the strangers. So Abraham says: “Adonai, God, excuse me for a moment while I tend to these strangers.” In other words, the moment the strangers appeared, he interrupts his prayer to welcome these strangers and to take care of their needs.
Paying attention to strangers, welcoming guests and caring for their needs appears to be even more important than talking to God!
Abraham is the living embodiment of his tent. The Midrash tells us Abraham designed his tent intentionally to be open on all four sides — open to every stranger passing by from any direction in the desert. Abraham has an open heart and an open hand. He is not content to wait for guests, but rather seeks them out, runs to greet them, brings them inside and takes care of them.
The first blessing of the Amidah ends with the words: “Baruch Ata Adonai, Magen Avraham — Holy One of Blessing, the Shield of Abraham.” Traditional commentary interprets this first blessing as our presenting our credentials before God. “Hello, God,” we are saying, “you might not know me very well but you remember my parents, don’t you? I am the child of Abraham and Sarah. Remember them? Remember all that they did? Remember all you did for them? You are the One who helped Sarah and protected Abraham. You were the shield of Abraham, remember? For their sake, could you do the same for me?”
But Chasidic commentary reads the prayer differently. It suggests that when we call God Magen Avraham, we are asking God to shield the “Abraham” inside of us — to protect the dimension of us willing to see God’s face in the faces of strangers. We are asking God’s help to protect the part of us that wants to have an open heart and to be an open tent. That part of us needs protection because it is so very fragile and perhaps not instinctive.
It is hard to see God’s face in the face of strangers. It is even hard for us in our synagogues to look up from our own prayer books and notice newcomers; to stop what we’re doing and make them feel welcome. How much harder is it to invite them to sit with us at the Kiddush, or to invite them home for Shabbat dinner? Ron Wolfson argues that the first step in creating sacred communities is establishing a “welcoming ambience” for newcomers and spiritual seekers. Imagine what a synagogue would be like if it were really a place of “radical hospitality,” a genuine Abraham’s tent!
And as hard as this might be, it is easy compared to seeing God’s face in the faces of those who do not come to our synagogues — all those people who really are strangers, people we don’t usually interact with, or people who serve us, but remain largely invisible: undocumented immigrants, people from different backgrounds or of a different economic status.
Those biblical strangers turned out to be angels. But Abraham only discovered this truth by welcoming them in and taking care of them. Imagine the angels we could meet if we could shield the Abraham in each of us.
Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).
Marriage is a Jewish issue
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is the biblical equivalent of JDate. After Sarah’s death, Abraham gets busy trying to find the right wife for his son, Isaac. He sends his servant, Eliezer, to Abraham’s hometown to make the match. Eliezer prays that the right girl will show up at the well and that she will make herself known to him through her generosity, gentleness and beauty. And sure enough, everything unfolds the way it was supposed to, and Eliezer brings Rebecca home to Isaac.
As they approach on their camels, Rebecca sees Isaac off in the distance. The translation says: “And she alighted from her camel.” But the Hebrew word can also mean: “She fell off her camel.” I’ve always loved Rebecca for that — just at the moment when you want to make the best impression, you trip. I can identify with that. Still, Isaac loved Rebecca from the moment he saw her.
A lot has changed since the biblical period about how we find a marriage partner. And our ideas about who might be an appropriate partner have changed, as well. But as we saw from the recent passage of Proposition 8, not everyone agrees.
Why is Proposition 8 a Jewish issue? After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “One who lies with a male as one lies with a female is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22)? If we read the Torah as fundamentalists do, this and other verses would indeed present a problem. (Should we really execute people for working on Shabbat?)
That’s not how most Jews read the Torah. We read it through the lens of commentary and with the understanding that certain laws, which might have made sense in biblical society, are no longer relevant now.
As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote in “Gay and Lesbian Jews: A Teshuvah,” “We have reviewed a range of rabbinic reasons given for opposing same-sex acts. We have concluded that homosexuality is not intrinsically unnatural … destructive of family life, devoid of the possibility of children, or hedonistic. We are dealing, therefore, not with a previously considered and previously outlawed phenomena, but with a situation never before encountered in Jewish law. Modern homosexual love and stable homosexual couples are different in significant respects from anything known in Torah or rabbinic Judaism.”
In other words, what the Torah proscribes has nothing to do with contemporary gay or lesbian relationships and therefore is irrelevant to the current discussion. What does matter are core values that emerge out of Jewish tradition, including the fundamental notion that all human beings are created in the image of God and mishpat ehat yihe’eh lachem, that law should be applied equally to all.
Proposition 8 is a Jewish issue because we know what it is to be victimized because we are different. We need to stand up and defend the civil and human rights of other minorities. And it is a Jewish issue because it is also about us.
Gays and lesbians are part of our family. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our cousins and nieces and nephews. Gay and lesbian families are in our synagogues, their children are in our day schools, our religious schools and our early childhood centers. They are part of our community. “They” are “us.”
Reform Judaism has taken the lead in the Jewish community in supporting the civil and human rights of gays and lesbians. The Reform movement welcomed the first synagogue for gay and lesbian Jews into what is now the Union for Reform Judaism in 1974. The Reform movement began to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis in 1990, and, in 1996, the Reform movement went on record to “support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage.”
Thirteen years ago, I stood under a chuppah with my friends Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Tracy Moore. It was a powerful ceremony — without a marriage license. They were and still are such fitting partners for each other, still in love after all these years. Last month I stood with them again under their chuppah, this time with speaker of the state Assembly, Karen Bass. This time with a marriage license.
When Bass signed the license and declared them married according to the laws of the state of California, the congregation burst into applause. It was a historic moment.
Now the status of that marriage is unclear. This is a Jewish issue. The right to marry is a Jewish issue because we believe that all human beings, male and female, gay and straight, are created in the image of God. The right to marry is a matter of civil rights; each of us has the right to choose a fitting partner for ourself and enjoy the same protection that the law provides to any married couple and their children.
Few of us meet our marriage partners at the well anymore. Our world has changed. But some things never change. God is present when two people commit their lives to each other and become one family. We need to continue the struggle for marriage equality, because it is a Jewish issue.
Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation.
Look up to see angels
Vayera is a rich portion throughout, but I linger on the iconic images in the first lines: Abraham sits at the opening of his tent in the heat of the desertday, recovering from his circumcision. He looks up and sees God, in the form of three men, often described as angels, standing nearby. Abraham rushes to welcome them and offer hospitality. They, in turn, provide comfort for his convalescence.
These images could be the cover art for manuals for our caring communities, bikkur cholim associations and chevrat kadishah (burial societies). These illustrations of mutual generosity, which provided the rabbis of the Talmud with role models for the prescribed human behavior of “walking in God’s way,” could also illuminate instruction books for our social justice projects. I pray that they can be emblems for America as it rises to greet an era of compassion and caring.
Abraham’s bounteous welcome and the reassuring visit of the men/angels provide archetypes, embodying our injunction to act in imitation of God. We Jews literally begin our day by affirming in full voice the practices of a caring community. These activities, as well as others, such as “performing acts of lovingkindness,” and “making peace where there is strife,” are enumerated in each morning’s liturgy. Every day, we recite these directions for holy behavior, along with the promise that these deeds will be rewarded both “in this world and in the world to come.”
While world-to-come” benefits are enticing, I am most concerned with rewards in this world. Having been lucky enough to visit caring communities throughout the world, I have observed the most successful ones are those that emphasize both the caring and the community. Their success is measured not just by gallons of chicken soup served, hospital beds visited or acts of social justice advocacy, but also by the longevity of the participation of the volunteers, the strength of their relationships with each other and the sense of personal satisfaction and growth that those volunteers receive from their involvement with the community. The rewards of community and individual fulfillment are the “this world” bonuses promised by the liturgy.
I believe that the people who provide the most comfort to others serve from a stance of altruistic self-interest. This paradoxical phrase implies that those who serve do so not just to “help the unfortunates” or “give something back,” but also because they recognize that in helping others they learn about themselves and have an opportunity to grow. They know that comforting a mourner may remind them of their own unfinished grief issues or that visiting a sick person might expose their own fears of vulnerability. They know that serving meals at a homeless shelter may raise questions about their own values or those of their neighbors. They know, as well, that confronting these issues in the company of others will make them deeper, stronger people, more able to serve others and more at peace with what it means to be human. They discover that those who best serve others cultivate their hearts of wisdom through companionship when they return to their caring colleagues to speak of what they have witnessed in others and what it has taught them about themselves. They debrief together. They study together. And they pray together.
These successful caregivers and community advocates know that, as the Talmud tells us, we serve round things in a house of shiva because “like the pea, sorrow rolls. Today’s mourner is tomorrow’s comforter and today’s comforter is tomorrow’s mourner.”
There is no condescension in service to those in need. There is a recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.” All of us must cross that bridge. Our greatest gift to each other and to ourselves is to provide and find companionship on that narrow bridge.
We train caregivers and community advocates to recognize the commonality of human experience by asking them to look into the eyes of others in the room and see not just the superficial things that differentiate us and may cause us to have pity on challenged individuals but the spark of God that we all share. Then, we instruct them to ask each other, “What is it that keeps you up at night?” This invitation to share deepest concerns helps to identify situations and issues that need our attention.
Volunteers refine their ability to hear the needs of others as they decide which actions they will take to provide support and healing for individuals and the community. This form of “leadership by listening” has roots in the community organization techniques of the Industrial Areas Foundation, where President-elect Barack Obama began his career. “Leadership by listening” was the foundation of his campaign. Volunteers were instructed to call voters and listen to their concerns rather than tell them what they should believe. Moved by what they heard, they turned to each other when they hung up the phones. Sharing their experience, they built a community that is much deeper than a campaign.
As we sit at the opening of our tents, nursing the wounds of war, fear and economic distress, may we lift our eyes and perceive a new era for our country. May we, like Abraham the Patriarch, be comforted by the appearance of what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature” as they come to transform our country into the caring community for which we pray every day.
Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To let go and to pray
Lech Lecha begins with God telling Abraham, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”
But why does God say it in this particular order?
If you’ve left your country of origin, haven’t you already left your hometown, let alone your father’s house? You leave your house first, and then arrive at the edge of town and finally the country’s border.
So why is the order reversed?
Nachmanides believes that it is in ascending order of difficulty. It is hard to leave your country — the language, the culture, the currency. Harder still the place you were born — your friends and familiar places. Hardest of all is to leave one’s parents. Why? Nachmanides does not say. Might it be because parents won’t let go?
My eldest son flew by himself for the first time this summer. He dreamed for weeks about his trip from Los Angeles to Florida to spend a month visiting his grandparents.
Still 8 years old, he was proud of this approaching independence. He filled his MP3 player with music, and he uploaded pictures of his ema and abba and brothers to look at when he missed us. When the day arrived, he packed his carry-on bag with his favorite book, “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” and looked forward to being able to order Sprite after Sprite, for free.
He left while I was at work. I called to wish him a good trip as he sat at the departure gate with my wife, Jen. Over the noise of the airport terminal and the commotion of camp, I asked him to listen to me read tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, over the phone.
“May it be Your will Adonai our God and God of our ancestors that You lead us in peace, guide our steps to peace, and guide us in peace….”
And as I read, “May You rescue us from adversaries and ambush and robbers and animals along the way,” I thought to myself, “Am I crazy?” I finished the prayer but my mind wandered to thoughts of abusers lurking on planes and robbers who would steal from a defenseless child. I prayed God would shine His sheltering presence upon him, would appoint the flight attendants as His angels to watch over him.
“Give him all the Sprites he wants!” I pleaded. “See in him the image of God that I see in him. See the precious, holy, special, beloved child who I love so much it aches to think of him alone out there in the world, without me.”
I do not know if he heard my voice crack or if he could tell that tears were streaming down my face. I felt him slipping through my grasp as he proudly set forth into the world without me for the first time.
Why must parents let go?
Nachmanides explains, “It is difficult for a person to leave the country where he has friends and companions. This is true all the more so of his native land, and all the more so if his whole family is there. Hence it became necessary to say to Abraham that he leave all for the sake of his love of the Holy Blessing One.”
Family is important, but God tells Abraham to leave his parents’ home because he needed to become himself, not only his parents’ child. Abraham needed to leave his idolatrous father to become the “father of many peoples” (Genesis 17:5), the father of monotheism and the Jewish people. The legacy of the Righteous Gentiles teaches that a good person must be willing to reject the world around him or her. But one need not always reject the teachings of one’s country or community or family, just take responsibility for them.
For our children to find God, they must take responsibility for themselves, their own beliefs and, ultimately, their own relationship with God. We love our children so much it hurts, but we risk making of ourselves an idol if we fail to teach them to love God and encourage them to find their own path to the Holy One.
The modern Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said, “True teachers use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” I did not collapse joyfully when I hung up the phone and thought of my son as he boarded the plane. But I am grateful for the glimpse I was given of the task that awaits me: not to make of myself an idol. To point him along the way, to let go and let him grow, and let him find God for himself. And to pray God will protect him along the way.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish summer camp for the Conservative movement serving the Western United States, and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.
Israeli film ‘My Father My Lord’ — Abraham’s binding of Isaac redux
In the Israeli film “My Father My Lord,” the secular or casually religious Jew encounters a world whose mindset and lifestyle might as well be thousands of miles and centuries away.
It is the world of the charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, in which every action, every thought, is determined by God’s law, as elucidated by the sages.
This is the world of the Edelman family of Jerusalem, headed by Abraham, the community’s rabbi, who instructs his wife Esther and young son Menachem, “God doesn’t watch over those who don’t observe the Torah.”
But Abraham is no petty household tyrant. He is a deeply loving husband and father, who is deeply chagrined when he hurts Esther’s feelings but is the unquestioned authority on what may and may not be done in his household.
Menachem may be the apple of his parent’s eyes, but his natural inquisitiveness clashes with his father’s absolute strictures.
The boy cannot understand why a postcard of African tribesmen must be ripped up because it represents idolatry, or why a faithful dog mourning its mistress cannot have a soul.
Esther is more of this world and encourages her son’s planning for a family vacation at the Dead Sea, of course with separate beaches for men and women.
Here the running parable of the Akedah, Abraham’s binding of Isaac in obedience to God’s will, is played out to the end—only this time, God does not grant a reprieve.
“My Father My Lord,” whose Hebrew title is the more innocuous “Hufshat Kaits” (Summer Vacation), is a profoundly affecting film.
Despite the movie’s brevity (74 minutes), it moves unhurriedly, with more conveyed by glances and gestures than by the sparse dialogue.
The film marks the debut of David Volach as director and writer and incorporates much of his own youth.
Interview with director Volach
“I was born into an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem,” one of 19 siblings, he writes in his biographical notes. “In our home, worshipping God was a demanding activity that left no room for other areas of life.
“In my early teens, I harbored creative aspirations that I yearned to express through religion and worship. By my late teens, however, my long process of secularization began. Other creative endeavors—painting, writing and philosophy—began pulling at my heartstrings. At 25, I reached my final decision to leave religion and I emigrated to Tel Aviv to study film.”
Volach’s casting is impeccable. Assi Dayan, son of war hero Moshe Dayan and ironically an outspoken secularist, acts the role of the single-minded rabbi with complete authenticity and considerable sympathy.
Sharon Hacohen Bar as Esther plays the family’s softer intermediary between father and son, until driven to a final act of rebellion against her husband and her God.
Ilan Griff, the son of recent Russian immigrants, gives an astonishingly natural performance as Menachem in his first movie role.
“My Father My Lord” opens Friday (July 11) at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center in Encino, and Regency South Coast in Santa Ana.
Stuck in the middle
My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don’t.
I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father, Abraham, and my son, Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as “the offspring of Abraham” or, more commonly, “the children of Israel.” You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac.
It’s not that my name isn’t mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else’s point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.
When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother, Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my play partner. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we buried our father, Abraham.
Some years after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the “big test.” You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, “The Binding of Isaac.” The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s all about my father: “After these events, God tested Abraham.”
Not once throughout this “big test of faith” is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: “God will provide.”
So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father’s knife to my throat. Yet when it’s all over and God’s angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I — Isaac — felt throughout this ordeal.
In case you’re wondering, I’ll start by asking if you ever noticed that after my akeidah, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let’s add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother had died from the shock upon hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, the akeidah crowned my father the “ultimate hero of faith.” As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite a “all’s well that end’s well.”
My father’s last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, do you think I would have a say in who I would marry?
I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife, Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son, Jacob, to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been “Isaac Blessing His Sons” became “Jacob Deceiving Isaac.” My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. I had no say in the matter.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me.
As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and, as a result, both of them left and went down to Egypt. I, too, was faced with a “famine in the land,” but I did not leave. I stayed in Canaan, and I dug wells.
Perhaps I gained something when I was bound up on Mount Moriah. I became a survivor, and despite the trauma, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave the land.
Throughout our history, my family’s descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on “staying in the land and digging wells,” despite “the famine.” So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story — the story of a survivor — that is really their story.
Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
Setting out to look within
A 40-year-old British man named Jason Lewis recently completed a circumnavigation of the globe using only human power. He journeyed more than 46,000 miles around the world using a bicycle, pedal boat, kayak, rollerblades and his own two feet. He kayaked or pedaled across oceans and lakes, hiked over mountains and through jungles, and skated the breadth of the United States. In July, he ended his journey in Greenwich, where he started 13 years earlier.
That’s right — 13 years.
And the purpose? In the words of his friend Steve Smith, with whom he started the journey (the friend dropped out five years in), to ensure that the “prime of our lives does not turn out to be less than it should.”
Recounting the motivation that inspired the journey, Smith wrote, “What I see, day after day, are captured lives, half-lives, dedicated to a mirage of fullness that never comes…. My greatest fear is of mediocrity and of a slow, unremarkable acquiescence to society over time.”
Lewis’ story reminds me of the journey that begins this week in Lech Lecha. Like the Lewis journey, our first parents, the legendary founders of monotheism and the Jewish people, Avram and Sarai, leave their home, their familiar surroundings, all that they know to be true and head off into the great wilderness. They follow a call from an unknown God, a new spirit of unity and hope that would become the foundation of our existence, radically changing the way human beings relate to the divine and to each other; the calling of a lifetime begins in this parsha.
We live in a world today dominated by the drive to achieve more, gain more, conquer more, be it wealth, land, power or just stuff we are convinced we need. We seldom live fully in the moment, seek a connection with ourselves or discover what is transpiring, transforming within our own hearts and souls.
Shabbat is meant to be this time, which is why Abraham Joshua Heschel called it a “palace in time.” This is the one day of the week where we are gifted by our newfound Creator, as we read in the second chapter of Genesis, to rest and restore our sense of balance and equilibrium, which often can get knocked off kilter by the pace of our harried existence.
The journey each week on Shabbat is the personal journey of lech lecha, going inside ourselves — through prayer, song, community, study and rest — to ask the questions of substance, the questions that end up plaguing too many of us on our deathbeds: “Am I satisfied with my life? Am I living fully and with awareness? Do I spend enough time with my family, with my friends, pursuing moments that bring me inner joy and wholeness? Have I achieved a goal, reached a new height, a new depth in the realm of spirit, personal awareness or satisfaction?”
We have the chance, each and every week, to take the journey of Abraham, listen for the call of God and then find ways to answer that call.
The Mei Shiloach, a masterful Chasidic commentator, understood the call of lech lecha as “finding your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”
This life is not about how much money we earn, how many cars we own, how many vacation homes, yachts or private jets we can play in. No, this life is about how many moments we spend laughing, crying, singing, pondering and kissing; how many moments we spend learning to play an instrument, sculpting, hiking, biking, gardening, knitting; how many moments we spend in silent meditation, in a deep yoga pose or chanting to cleanse our hearts.
We must do what is necessary to live, feed our families and provide shelter, but the notion that this work is the essence of our life, the sole purpose for living, is a poison that too many of us have swallowed.
Lech lecha reminds us of what is truly important in this life. We might not circle the globe, but we can circle our deeper selves. And this might be the most rewarding journey we ever take.
As we begin this new year, as each moment passes in our lives, may we be inspired by Abraham and Sarah, people of courage and inner wisdom, people who were able to hear the call of a new life, a challenge to the status quo of their day, and embrace a belief that things need not be what they seem to be. May we all journey forth into greater unknowns, forging ahead into the depths of our being, into the fear of our greatest hope coming true, and may we find God, peace, compassion and wisdom of days. And may we each receive, accept and spread the greatest gift of Abraham: to be a blessing.
In Quest for Meaning
Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.
When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.
From a scientific viewpoint, “finding meaning” means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.
Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.
As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man’s role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.
The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.
How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?
Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.
But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.
I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.
Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption — the basis of all sacrificial rituals — may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.
But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.
How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known — the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?
The truth is: I don’t, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions — however essential for cognition — are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.
Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?
I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac’s binding): “And God tried Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.'”
I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.
What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that — and all on account of some imagined sound saying: “Abraham! Take your son….”
But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle.
There is God in this place
Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.
In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.
As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.
My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.
My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.
Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.
Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.
Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.
According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”
Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.
The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.
According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.
The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.
But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.
When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.
God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.
Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.
We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.
“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”
The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.
Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).
Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.
Witness to Redemption
The episode of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, presents so many difficult questions. One of the most basic is: For whom is this human and Divine drama staged?
Who comes out ahead as a result of the Akedah playing out?
Is it for Abraham’s benefit? Abraham receives no new blessings or rewards. Additionally, it’s difficult to argue that he learns anything about himself or God that he didn’t already know.
Is it for God’s benefit? We can only make this argument if we are prepared to set aside deeply entrenched beliefs that God’s omniscience includes His knowing Abraham’s character and the degree of Abraham’s devotion. God, it would seem, does not need the Akedah.
So who is it for?
In Megillah (31b), an account is given of an encounter between Abraham and God. Abraham seeks reassurance that his (as yet theoretical) children will indeed inherit the land of Canaan. Despite God’s repeated promises to this effect, Abraham remains uneasy.
“Perhaps they will sin,” Abraham says, “and You will do to them as you did to the generation of the flood.”
Even though God then insists that He would do no such thing, Abraham persists: “How can I know? What will you do, God, to guarantee it?”
It could be that God’s response to Abraham’s request is the command of the Akedah. It could be that the Akedah is the means through which God guarantees Abraham’s children would never sin to the point of being worthy of destruction.
“Do you want to be sure?” God says. “Then take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering upon the mountain that I will show you.”
How would this ensure anything?
The answer becomes clear when we consider the impact the Akedah has had on Jewish history. As Rabbi Yitzchak Arama reminds us, the Torah records the whole story of the Akedah for us so that Jews throughout history could “virtually” witness the Akedah. As a result, Jews of all ages have been shaken and moved by this account of devotion to God without limits, of commitment to God without boundaries, of the willingness to spare nothing in the pursuit of God’s vision.
Who could then deny the assertion that the Akedah has repeatedly, over the course of Jewish history, saved us from the fate of the Generation of the Flood, from the fate of disappearing from this world without a trace? Because of our sins, we could have disappeared at the hands of the Babylonians. But Jeremiah rose repeatedly, risking life and limb, to convey the message of God that we must not believe that this is the end. That if we return, we shall be redeemed.
From what story did Jeremiah draw the inspiration to remain steadfast and loyal to God’s vision despite the fact that doing so might cost him his life? Like all of us, Jeremiah was a witness to the Akedah.
Which story inspired Esther to gather up her courage and enter Ahasuerus’ throne room, risking her own life to save her people?
Which biblical figures was Rabbi Akiva thinking about when he defied the Hadrianic ban on public Torah study?
On the day of his execution, what story must he have been thinking about when he described his sense of joy to his students over the fact that he now knew that he truly loved God with all his heart?
And in a slightly different but not unrelated vein, how did it happen that not only the Jewish people survived the Shoah, but that Judaism survived the Shoah?
Abraham asked: “How will I know that my children will live on forever?”
And God answered, “Take thou your son….”
In other words: You and he will model devotion and persistence even in the face of possible death. And all will see it, and know it.
There is, of course, a startling but crucial implication to this reading of the Akedah. It requires that we assume that Abraham and Isaac knew that whatever was going to happen when they reached the mountain — however the drama would end, however many of them would descend the mountain alive — they knew that they were participating in this tortuous drama not for themselves and not for God, but for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they would never meet.
They did it for the unknown generations of people who would call themselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, for the generations that would need a model of love and devotion to God that they could latch onto and possess as their own, when their hour of trial would arrive.
“We do not ascend this mountain for ourselves,” father and son said to each other. “We ascend it to ensure the lives of those who will come after us.”
And for this reason, too, we hold them up as our models and heroes.
Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
“While all other sciences have advanced, government is at a standstill — little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.” — John Adams
If the art of government had improved, then war, disease and poverty inflicted by the tyranny and selfishness of man, as well as the corruption of leaders, would not claim so many lives each minute, each second, around the globe. Man’s quest for a perfect form of government started at the dawn of civilization and is still far from conclusion.
The Bible describes the failure of monarchy, and history has proven that theocracy usually leads to fanaticism or hypocrisy. Even democracy boils down eventually to decisions made by individuals, and as long as it depends on the wisdom and discretion of one or several humans at the helm it can take disastrous turns.
A system of checks and balances can put democracy back on track, but we must admit that stumbling, falling, hitting the ground and getting up again to repeat the process is not the ideal form of walking.
In the words of historian Barbara Tuchman: “Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity…. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
In the early chapters of Genesis, the Torah denounces different forms of government. The anarchy of the generation of Noah started with a corrupt oligarchy, the elite group of Bene Ha’Elohim, or the Sons of the Judges. The attempt of the builders of the Tower of Babel to create a totalitarian society, with communism as its flag and “one language, one ideology” as its motto, resulted in the dispersion and diversification of mankind.
In this week’s portion, we read about the destruction of Sodom, which came about not because of sodomy but rather because of its total abandonment of the weaker layers of society, as the prophet Ezekiel declares: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy” (16:49).
The model of Sodom was that of capitalism to the max. If you cannot make a living, don’t turn to me for help; it’s a free country, try harder.
In the midst of that political mayhem there appears our first patriarch, Abraham. He is plucked by God out of nowhere. He is not a king or a chieftain when he is addressed by God. Why was he chosen to be the forefather of Israel? What was special about him?
The answer is disclosed by God: I have chosen Abraham — or better yet: I have made Myself known to him — because I know that he will instruct his household members and his descendants in future generations to observe the path of God and to do justice and charity (18:19).
Abraham is chosen because he can prepare the ground for a utopian society, one in which every individual is raised with the understanding that the boundaries of law must be respected and justice must be pursued. At the same time, that charity, lovingkindness and understanding of other human beings are crucial to maintaining these very boundaries.
The path of God is remembering that all humans were created in God’s image and therefore all have equal rights. The perfect government, therefore, starts with the individual governing himself.
A short while ago, two friends with the help of many bloggers, created katrinalist.net a powerful Web tool for locating missing Katrina victims. As Discover magazine reports, it was “the kind of data management effort that could have taken a year to execute if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it.” The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars.
The activism of Bono and the philanthropy of Bill Gates are but two examples of what inspired and dedicated individuals can achieve despite the shortsightedness of governments. Theirs is a world where the responsibility of justice and lovingkindness lies first and foremost on the shoulders of the individual.
The goal still seems tantalizingly distant, but inspired by the eternal message of the Torah, we are allowed and obligated to dream of a perfect world. Translate the dream to action. Assume leadership of yourself first and then exercise it, combining justice and lovingkindness in order to help your family, your community, your neighborhood and eventually, the whole world. Imagine….
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Goggles of Faith
I first saw night-vision goggles when I watched Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”
The bad guys were prowling in a dark bedroom. Suddenly, a good guy switched on the room lights, practically blinding them.
The technology was featured again in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and then came the War in Iraq, showing us green-tinted footage unfolding amid the dark of night. All thanks to those night-vision goggles.
In this week’s Torah Portion, Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbeinu designates an advance party of 12 scouts to survey the Promised Land. The Jews are approaching their destination and the fulfillment of their destiny, and Moshe opts to have a team of prominent Jewish leaders, comprised of one delegate from each of the 12 tribes, investigate and report back.
Moshe asks the team to develop answers to several basic military questions. Is the enemy fortified, or is he so brazen in his self-assuredness that he lives in open camps? Is the enemy strong or weak? Few or numerous? He also asks them to report on the quality of the land, its fertility, its vegetation.
After 40 days of spying, the scouts return with their report, a frightful account of mighty giants in the land. Yes, the land is beautiful, flowing with milk and honey, resplendent with grapes so huge that they may become a registered national trademark one day. But the bad news is that we are not going to conquer it. The opposition is overwhelming — there are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites and Canaanites all over the place. Some are teeming along the Mediterranean coast on the west; others line the eastern border at the Jordan. Just impossible. The land eats its inhabitants. And then there are those giants: “In our own self-estimation, [as compared to their size and awesomeness,] we were like mere grasshoppers. And we were equally tiny and minuscule in their estimation, too.”
The nation hears the report. Many weep with hopelessness and despair, wishing only to return to the security of Egyptian slavery. Chaos ensues. Two spies emerge — Caleb of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua of Ephraim — and desperately try to overcome the mood.
“It is a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey,” they assure. So what if there are five nations encamped all over the place? God has promised us the land, and He certainly will give it to us. If these other nations try to stop us, we will have no problem defeating them — “They are our bread.”
In the starkly diverging views of the majority report and the minority, we see the role played by insight, understanding and faith in the God of our ancestors. One can infer why 10 prominent Jewish leaders were so despondent. They looked at objective facts on the ground. They counted. They measured. They were responsible. They were practical. And they figured it’s impossible. The whole world is against us. No way.
Caleb and Joshua reported differently because they donned the night-vision goggles of faith. Embedded among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua somehow peered through the muddled night of faithlessness, and they saw clear as day: the Lord is our God. Those who defy His plan for us are our bread.
Caleb and Joshua saw so clearly through the horizon’s murkiness. They did not see themselves as grasshoppers, and they, therefore, did not imagine that others saw them as puny either. Rather, they saw bread that, like any bread, easily could be made into crumbs. They saw that the God who had smitten Egypt with 10 plagues; who had targeted and pinpoint-excised first-born males among families and houses replete with females and later-born kids; who had split the Sea of Reeds and revealed Himself before the eyes and ears of the nation of several million at Sinai — could deliver. They saw it so clearly. There is no doubt in their voices. “If Hashem, our God, wants to do so, He will bring us into this land and give to us this land flowing with milk and honey. So don’t rebel against God, and don’t fear the local denizens, because they are our bread, and their protective cloaks already have departed. God is with us. Don’t fear them.”
There is such strong, overpowering fear from one quarter; such equal certainty of success from another.
Their story is ours. Some look at the Torah and see nice children’s Bible stories. But they are not nice stories, and are not primarily for children. The Torah recounts passionate dramas that recur throughout our nation’s march to ultimate redemption. The practical, objective Jewish leaders see Amalekites and Hittites on the border, barbarians at the gates, and freeze with fear. They back away from our destiny.
And those who don the night-vision goggles view the challenges with perspicacity and understand that Jewish leadership is about vision and destiny.
Crumbs of bread. Kernels of rice. We are protected by the Guardian of Abraham.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas since its inception, will become rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in August. He also is an adjunct professor of law and a member of the Rabbinical Council of California.
Our Two Worlds
In today’s world, it is so easy to get caught up in the development and achievement of the many goals we set for ourselves.
From the time we are very young, we are trained to begin thinking about what we want to be when we grow up and how we will get there.
And as we grow up, those objectives multiply as we consider the many goals we set out to achieve: getting ahead in our careers, earning money, getting married, having children — the list goes on. And, as we continue through life, we set new goals and set out to do all the things necessary to achieve those goals. Once we achieve one goal, we are already planning the next, ready to run out to complete it and move on to another one.
And as we spin through the kaleidoscope of movement it takes to reach one goal after another, it is much harder to stop ourselves en route and ask: Where am I in all of this, and what does God want for — and of — me?
In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, the Torah records, “And God appeared to him [Abraham] in the oaks of Mamre, sitting in the opening of the tent.”
Why is it that the Torah tells us that Abraham is sitting in the opening of the tent? After all, if Abraham wanted to find God, would we not expect that he would be out doing all the things necessary to make that meeting happen? If his goal were to meet God, wouldn’t he, like we, be outside finding all the ways to achieve that goal? Yet, despite the midrashic suggestion that it was only the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, we are also not told that he is inside the tent, retreating from the outside world, waiting for God to appear. It is in neither abandoning the home nor abandoning the outside world that Abraham ultimately finds God.
Instead, we are told that he is sitting “in the opening of the tent” on the threshold between the home — his private space, his inner world of devotion, solitude and privacy — and the outer world, the world of achievement and taking control of one’s own goals. It is in that very pause between his two worlds that Abraham invites in God’s appearance. It is only after his momentary pause that Abraham is ready to embrace his next task with renewed vigor, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. The narrative continues to describe how he runs out of the tent to welcome three men to his home, invites them in and offers them hospitality, eager to do what he can to please them and to be an exemplary host.
It is in this very idea that the Torah comes to teach us an important lesson. Instead of constantly running through the world, doing all the things necessary to show that we are in control, perhaps we, like Abraham, sometimes need to slow down before running to embrace our next task.
Perhaps we, too, must sit on the threshold between our own world of inner reflection and devotion and the outer world of goal orientation, directed objectives and tasks to be accomplished. In so doing, we create our own space — for our truest selves to emerge and for inviting God’s appearance into our lives. And, in creating that moment, we, too, find renewed vigor, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose for the tasks that lie ahead.
May we all be inspired by Abraham to find our own threshold, our “opening of the tent” between our inner and outer world, where we can search for — and hopefully find — God’s presence in our lives.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz is assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 2, 2001.
Different Yet Identical
In introducing us to the patriarchal family of Isaac, son of Abraham, this week’s Torah portion of Toldot begins: "And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham — Abraham begot Isaac." Since Torah is not given to redundancy, this opening passage raises the question: Once we’re told that Isaac is the "son of Abraham," what is the point of then stating "Abraham begot Isaac?"
The Midrash explains that the statement "Abraham begot Isaac" represents Divine testimony that Isaac was indeed the biological son of Abraham. That in the face of ridiculers and rumormongers who sought to claim that Isaac had been fathered by the Philistine king, Avimelech, God formed the physical features of Isaac in striking resemblance to those of Abraham so that there would be no room for doubt — "Abraham begot Isaac."
Another midrashic comment extrapolates upon this point by saying that this physical resemblance between Abraham and Isaac was a reflection of their spiritual resemblance; that the merits, the lofty pursuits, indeed the spiritual DNA, of father and son were likewise completely identical.
Now this declaration of spiritual similarity — let alone resemblance — is most curious.
We’re taught that Abraham’s primary mode of service was via the attribute of chesed (loving kindness). This was repeatedly and poignantly demonstrated by his incessant acts of hospitality, compassion and benevolence. He opened his home to hungry wayfarers. He reached out and taught others with delicate softness and patient sensitivity.
Isaac’s primary service, on the other hand, was via the attribute of gevura (severity and restraint). He was a much more demanding sort of fellow. This was demonstrated by his defiant and relentless digging of wells. Even as his enemies kept filling and destroying them, Isaac dug away the rocks and the dirt to uncover the waters beneath. With sharpness and strength, he dug away at the shmutz — the evil and the falseness that was seen on the surface — so as to unearth the reservoirs of goodness and truth buried deep within.
Indeed, everything we learn about Abraham and Isaac seems to cry out: Different! That if ever there was a father and son who seemed so unlike one another, it was these two highly individualized personalities. Yet the Midrash states that, in fact, Abraham and Isaac resembled one another — in every way!?
Within this paradox, seen at the inception of the family of Israel, lies the true beauty of our people. Different situations require different solutions. In the days of Abraham — during which unawareness of a Divine presence was rampant — the world needed an Abraham-like personality. In the days of Isaac — especially with hostilities looming on the horizon — the world needed an Isaac-like personality. Yet, these very different individuals — firmly embarked on their very different missions with their very different methods and characteristics — are deemed spiritually (and essentially) identical because their ultimate focus and goals were one in the same. Their core principles, values and underlying devotion to God were completely indistinguishable from one another. They blazed different trails, but both trails led to the same place: toward making their environment a more holy and moral place to live.
The great Chasidic master, Reb Zushe of Hanipoli, once remarked that when he thinks about the interrogation that might await him after his days on earth are done, he is not worried that he might be asked: "Zushe, why could you not attain the heights of an Abraham, a Moses or a King David?"
Such concerns did not trouble him. His one and only source of trepidation was that the question would be posed; "Zushe, why were not as great as Zushe?"
You are expected to rise to the heights of your own very special and unique potential — no more, no less.
Judaism, and its Torah way of life, celebrates individuality. We are each endowed with our own gifts and talents, our own passions and modes of expression. In terms of personality and character, none of us are truly alike. This is the way God created us for it is only through the diverse expression of the multitudes that His true intent in creating this world can be realized.
Each and every Jewish man, woman and child plays his/her own special instrument within the symphony that is Yiddishkayt. Within the context and framework of halacha and tradition are endless means and modes of service to the Almighty. From the intellectual to the emotional, from the ritualistic to the artistic, we are called upon to experience it all, even as we shine in some areas more than others. What inspires, stimulates and intrigues some may not do the same for others. Yet, at the pinnacle of it all, is that special place in which we are, and must remain, identical. Within the essential goals — of living and being true to the principles of our Holy Torah — is where there is beautiful resemblance among all of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Let each instrument of the orchestra contribute its own special notes with its own special sound and rhythm. Yet, let us make certain that we are playing the same piece of music — as guided by that One and Only conductor — so that rather than a cacophony of disjointed noise, we have a beautiful symphony of harmonious diversity.
Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Academy.
Permission to Grieve
Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.
"I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike." "I’m mad at my friend for dying." "I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I’m still sad," he said.
That 4-year-old’s earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.
Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition — sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss — expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.
This week’s Torah portion — Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.
But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.
After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does — "lispod … v’livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died … and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah’s body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).
How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.
Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah’s death. Sarah’s son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting, we glimpse Isaac’s grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).
It’s the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah’s death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.
Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac’s grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite — and to be there for others when they recite — the words of our little friend:
"I’m still sad."
Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.
Finding a Kindred Spirit in a Patriarch
"The Discovery of God: Abraham and The Birth of Monotheism" by David Klinghoffer (Doubleday, $26).
David Klinghoffer’s biography of the patriarch Abraham rides on a new wave of interest in the Bible, and a growing sense of the Abrahamic heritage that Christians, Jews and Muslims share.
Many books on biblical subjects have recently been published. In addition to Kinghoffer’s "The Discovery of God," there is Norman Podhoretz’s "The Prophets" (Free Press), Bruce Feiler’s "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (HarperCollins) and James Kugel’s "The God of Old" (Free Press). Also, forthcoming is Leon Kass’ "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis" (Free Press). Literary analyses of the Bible have long been with us, but undoubtedly the current trend has also been influenced by the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, and the high visibility of Bible study in the White House.
Klinghoffer, however, has written his biography of Abraham out of a deeply felt personal affinity. As a convert born to a non-Jewish mother but adopted by Jewish parents — he discusses his spiritual odyssey in "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey To Jewish Orthodoxy"(Free Press, 1999) — Klinghoffer sees himself as the spiritual son of Abraham in a very immediate way. He feels they both grew up in a spiritual vacuum.
"In [Abraham’s] case, it was the decaying roots of Mesopotamian paganism," Klinghoffer explains in an interview. "In my case, it was secular liberalism," which was found to be spiritually dissatisfying.
Klinghoffer had to reach out beyond his milieu as Abraham went beyond his father, Terach. Perhaps, as a consequence of his personal history, there is much in his Jewish piety that finds common ground with a Christian evangelical approach. He has no problem in depicting Abraham as an evangelist and missionary, a description that might make many Jews cringe.
At the same time, his personal history has made him particularly sensitive to the religious psyche, as he traces Abraham’s awakening to God. Abraham emerges not unlike the contemporary Klinghoffer, with a strong moral sense, as when he bargains with God for the righteous of Sodom, but he is also beset by much self-doubt.
There are no archaeological inscriptions relating to Abraham, or scientific proofs of his existence. Klinghoffer uses the shards of information about the ancient Middle East to piece together the context in which Abraham lived, advancing the theory that Abraham was born at a time of upheaval, a window of opportunity for new views to emerge. Sumerian civilization was in decline. Amorite nomads had swept over Sumer, and it is surmised that Abraham’s ancestors were among these Amorites, who were eventually integrated into Sumerian civilization.
As far as the Abraham story itself, the biblical style is very spare in the information it presents. There are also repetitions and excisions, typos and poor literary structures. Klinghoffer is hypercritical of the secular scholars who attribute this to the fact that the Bible is a composite of various texts from different times, which a redactor pieced together. He proposes instead the traditional view that the Bible was divinely given, and encoded in the Bible are interpretations of the biblical stories, later collected in what is called Midrash. They flesh out the cryptic dialogue of the Bible, and expand upon the context in which events are happening.
It is from the Midrash that we learn that Abraham faced 10 tests. Nimrod, who represents the ruling class of Mesopotamia at the time, throws him into a fiery furnace when he refuses to accept paganism — and God himself rescues Abraham. Klinghoffer explains that until that time, his recognition of God was an intellectual one. But once God saved him, Abraham’s faith becomes grounded in an actual relationship.
Sensitive to the vagaries of the religious psyche, Klinghoffer traces the relationship of Abraham and God through all its vicissitudes: Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to leave his homeland for the unknown territory of Canaan; God’s promise that he will create a nation from him; the influence of the Egyptian Hagar upon Abraham. The stakes are high.
According to Klinghoffer, Abraham’s pilgrimage "was all about either losing or securing the future of his monotheism."
That is why the final and tenth test, the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), answering God’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac, is so incomprehensible.
Abraham had stood up to many challenges, but according to the Midrash, he is plagued by self-doubt, that he has not sufficiently expressed his love of God. It gives lie to the view that the religious person lives in the smug certainty of his belief system.
Through the Akedah, God wants to teach Abraham about himself.
"Abraham did not know what the course of his emotions would be … his inner response," Klinghoffer writes. "To slay Isaac would mean rendering his whole life’s work absurd…. Also, it would nullify the virtue of chesed (kindness) for which he was known."
Nevertheless, the Akedah was necessary, according to Klinghoffer, to demonstrate to Abraham his dedication to God.
Klinghoffer is insistent that Abraham was a historical figure. And yet it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with his literal approach to Midrash. At times, he uses the Midrash as a springboard to a deeper understanding of Abraham and monotheism. But he often relates to Midrash as literal reality, rather than symbolic or dreamlike, the "Unconscious of the Bible," as the biblical interpreter and teacher, Dr. Aviva Zornberg has suggested.
Klinghoffer is not a fundamentalist. But he uses Midrash in a fundamentalist manner. He is a personable writer, with a large range of voices: biblical interpreter, religious psychologist, commentator on contemporary culture. A former editor of the right-wing journal, The National Review, and educational director of "Toward Tradition," an educational movement of Jews allied with Christians, he is very much aware of Abraham, not only as the founder of the Jewish people, but as the prophet of a monotheism from which Christianity and Islam emerged. Unfortunately, there has been much sibling rivalry among the heirs of Abraham, with the Jews, the original people of Abraham, particularly suffering Christian persecution. Klinghoffer feels that in recent years, this has begun to change. There is greater rapprochement, at least among Jews and Christians, as many Christians support Israel, returning to the basic biblical story.
At a time when the conflict with Islam is particularly felt, he holds out the ecumenical hope that someday all the heirs of the Abrahamic heritage, including Islam, will be able to live in peace, and the "household of Abraham can become a paradigm of mutual understanding."
Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic writing about social, cultural and religious issues. She’s a columnist for Hadassah Magazine and a regular contributor
to the Jerusalem Report.
Abraham Not Guilty
And the verdict is: not guilty, by a razor-thin margin. An audience of more than 400 people had a chance to flex their "Law & Order" muscles while serving as the jury in the mock trial of Abraham — that’s right, our founding forefather — held at the University of Judaism (UJ) Nov. 24.
At the sold-out event in the Gindi auditorium, Abraham was tried for the attempted murder of his son, Issac. The case was based on the Akedah, in the book of Genesis, otherwise known as the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham takes his son to a mountain and prepares to sacrifice him, only to be stopped by an angel.
At the trial, the patriarch was defended by attorney and constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky, fresh from an appearance before the Supreme Court. The prosecutor was Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor, who at one point during the proceedings wielded a knife in an imitation of the near sacrifice of Isaac. Judge Joseph Wapner of "People’s Court" fame presided.
Gady Levy, dean of the University of Judaism’s department of continuing education, said the idea for the event grew out of a similar trial he organized when he headed the religious school at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.
"At first I thought, it’s not really for adults, but we decided we could do it if we could get lawyers who were well known," Levy said. He added that other cases from the Torah are being considered for future trials.
The audience, most of whom came earlier in the day to the UJ to study the parsha with local rabbis, voted 225 to 216 — with three "undecided" write-ins — to acquit Abraham.
Both attorneys said they prepared for the trial as if it were an actual one. Levenson, who once worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Abraham’s case presented some unique difficulties.
"When I was a real prosecutor, I never had to prosecute a case I didn’t believe in," she said. "This one was much more of a challenge. It’s really hard putting the father of your people on trial."
What are you? An Innovator, A Developer Or An Adventurer
There are three patriarchs in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which of the above were they? Well, Abraham created a new religion. He was an innovator. Jacob spent his life traveling and encountering adventure after adventure. He brought the God of Israel’s religion to all the places he went. He was an adventurer. And Isaac? We don’t know much about him — except that he was almost sacrificed and that his son Jacob "tricked” him into giving him the blessing that was supposed to be reserved for the oldest son, Esau. But maybe he wasn’t really tricked. Maybe he just played along, because he understood God’s larger plan and knew that he was part of its long-term development. And that makes him a developer. Not only did he not stand in the way of God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s chosen people, but he also helped it happen. So, which one are you? Abraham, Isaac or Jacob?
Walking the Land
Every week I go on two walks that I absolutely treasure. Each Sunday, my husband and I walk through a different section of Los Angeles. We have no destination, but our purpose is to exercise. We could choose other forms of exercise. We could be on a treadmill, moving in place without moving in space. Yet this is not as gratifying as walking outside. The walks along the beach or in the hills around the city create another dimension of being.
The other walk is on Shabbat as I go to synagogue, walking the same streets that I drive during the week. Walking, I am much more present in the moment, existing in the place. Weekday mornings I pull out of my driveway, listening to the news on the radio and swerve around the two potholes in front of my home. Then I turn onto Pico Boulevard, knowing exactly how the stoplights are timed as I hurry through rush-hour traffic to get to work. Yet the details fly by.
When I walk those same blocks on Shabbat I notice subtle changes. I notice the tree that overhangs the sidewalk has grown an inch since last week. The pink of the gardenias is fading slightly, the white azalea bushes that are all around our neighborhood are drooping and turning brown on the edges. As I walk I am able to see the natural evolution, not just the end result. This happens even though the purpose of this walk is to arrive at a destination.
On both walks I am aware of more than my surroundings. I am aware that my breath is quieter as we begin our downhill trek and is much more labored on the uphill trip home.
As I walk I am also aware of my thoughts. Something happens as we walk. Rebecca Solnit writes in her book "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" (Penguin USA, 2001), "Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts…. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time, the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations."
Abraham’s extensive trek from his home to the land of Canaan begins as we read this week’s Torah portion when God tells Abraham, "Lech lecha." These two Hebrew words are typically translated as "Go forth." The phrase could more loosely be read as "Walk." God commands, "Walk from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you." Why does God use the Hebrew word that means "walk"? Why not "come" to a place? Why not "go out" or "leave"?
The word "walk" invites a journey. It implies separating from and going toward. It is neither the arrival nor the exiting, but is the continuum across time and space.
God implores Abraham to be on — and in — the journey as a way of knowing reality. Two levels of knowledge can be attained by walking the land. The first is physical: one gets to know the land by walking it. The second level is spiritual: walking allows wisdom to enter our consciousness.
The physical aspect of learning occurs as we slow down. When we are walking we see things we would not otherwise experience. In his book, "Walking the Bible" (William Morrow & Co, 2001), Bruce Feiler writes about the details of the land of our ancestors. He learns in-depth about the landscape, the topography, the climate, the foliage and the history that took place on those spots. Beyond the worldly knowledge he acquires, he discovers his connectedness to his roots, his people, his traditions.
The book of Proverbs says, "Your journey should direct you," and a Chasidic master teaches that it means, "Go to yourself." So, your wanderings should lead you to your true self. How do you get there? By creating the time and milieu to foster the insights that help us recognize who we are and who we can strive to be.
As we walk through the physical, we can also find the divine. We can find God on a walk in the tranquil woods as the wind rustles the leaves and the birds call back and forth in a song of response. We become aware of God’s presence when we stroll along the pounding shore, smelling the ocean, hearing the roar of the waves and feeling the breeze caressing our skin.
Slow down to rise higher. Step by step you can come to know the world, to understand your true self, and to recognize God’s presence in your life. As God told Abraham, "Lech lecha." Go forth, walking along the way, noticing, thinking, seeking, attaining wisdom. Ultimately, you may be able to walk with God.
Men in Black
The 74th Annual Academy Awards program will be remembered, at least by me, for women’s gowns with faux see-through gauze fronts and men’s suit jackets down to the knees.
Sunday night. For my town, Malibu, Oscar night is a kind of Yom Kippur. Roads are deserted; the local restaurants close early. The sky sparkles with possibility, in which any kind of magic or healing might occur.
It was 9 p.m. I was at home with my parents, having already cried over Sidney Poitier’s tribute and drooled over Denzel Washington. Now I was deep into analysis of Gwyneth Paltrow’s sheer frontage when the doorbell rang.
There in my darkened doorway were two men in black mid-length coats with long, curly beards and black hats; a younger and an older man, with eyes burning so clear and bright that they seemed to be reading from an inner script. There was about their smiling countenances such a sense of purpose, that the word "messenger" sprang to mind. They knew and I knew. They had come for me.
If you read enough Torah, it can come easily to life: a blending of the "then" and the "now," the foretold and the foregone. The slightest stimulus revives the age of prophecy to our own time. Seeing these two men in black, I pictured myself alongside the biblical Abraham as he sat in his tent, healing from his circumcision, awaiting word from the three angels.
Abraham wanted an answer. So do I. Angels always come in human form. Here they were. For a second, I expected these two messengers would present me with a ticket to my destiny. If so, I was relieved to be wearing my wig, ready to go.
"Malkah!" I was shaken from my reverie by the friendly voice of Rabbi Chaim Cunin of our local Malibu Chabad, addressing me by my Hebrew first name. He waves to me on my daily walks as he drives his SUV and talks on his cell phone.
"My father was in the neighborhood and wants to give you a prayer." Sure enough, the older man was Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.
"It’s the Rebbe’s birthday!" the elder Cunin booms out. "You need a blessing."
I certainly do.
Now let us talk about the power of suggestion: How much do you want something, and to what length will you go to get it?
As a person with lung cancer, I know there is only so much that medicine can do. After that, prayer must step in.
The other day, I began a new form of drug, an experimental clinical trial. The drug is so new it only has a number, not a name. It has the potential to work a miracle. That miracle is my prayer.
I am not the only one who is praying. Each time I see my oncologist, he looks at me for answers. His eyes get focused and he studies me for responses. The expert and the novice, neither of us know.
Prayer is possibility; it is the statement: "I don’t know all." Prayer asks, take me beyond my current knowledge to do good work.
Even the traditional kinds of prayer seek the extraordinary, the new.
I invited the rabbis into the living room where my parents were busy looking for Russell Crowe.
The Cunins presented us with a box of shmura matzah.
The elder Cunin asked my full Hebrew name.
"Malkah bas Henya," I said.
Then, while the TV screen showed Halle Berry’s sheer gown embroidered with silk flowers, the Chabad rabbi chanted at great decibel, for God and all of Malibu to hear, the traditional prayer for a full and speedy recovery.
I am getting answers to questions I have not asked.
Here is another action-packed parsha: First, Abraham takes in three angels, who tell him he will have a son. Then, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because its people were very wicked. Then, Sarah throws Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael out of her house, but God saves them from thirst by giving them a well. Finally, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but then saves Isaac at the last minute.
What I find most amazing is Abraham’s argument with God. God tells Abraham to do so many painful things — to leave his country, to be circumcised, to sacrifice his own son — and Abraham, who has the greatest of faith in God, has always jumped right in and done what God tells him to do. But when God says he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham stands up to God and argues: What if there are 50 good people? He bargains with God, and God finally agrees. If there is even one good person, God will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, who has gone through so much in his long and full life, still thinks about other people and their suffering.
You are probably a very busy person too — you have regular school, and Hebrew school, and maybe soccer, art, ballet, drama or karate. Take one minute every day to think of others, and do something nice for them.
The Birth of Chutzpah
We believe in a God who dreams. The Torah is the story of the transaction between God’s dreams and human reality. God dreams of a world of goodness. God creates humanity – fashioned in the divine image – to share the dream. But human beings betrayed God’s dreams. We filled the world with violence and murder. God despaired of having created humanity and decided to wash the world clean. But one human being caught God’s eye – one good man. So God saved Noah and his family, together with a set of earth’s animals to begin the world again.
And again, humanity disappointed God. We defiled God’s world with idolatry and evil. Once more, God’s dream was betrayed. This time, God pursued a different strategy – God took a partner. Having failed to create the good man, having failed to choose the good man, God endeavored to teach goodness, beginning with one family, one man – Abraham. Through Abraham, God would reach humanity’s heart and share the divine dream. “Go forth… and be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).
This is the Torah’s most radical idea: God needs us. God enlists us as partners. To share the dream of a world of goodness, God establishes a covenant with us.
Partnership is a unique relationship. A partner must disclose himself. God wonders: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … Since I have singled him out that he may instruct his children to keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:17-19). God is bound by the terms of the covenant.
How radical is this? Contrast it with another biblical character. Job lost his children, wealth and health. Out of his agony, he accuses God and despairs of God’s justice in the world: “He destroys the blameless and the guilty… The earth is handed over to the wicked. He covers the eyes of its judges. If it is not He, then who?” (Job 9:22-24) Finally, God responds to Job, “out of the tempest [God] said, ‘Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?'” (Job 38:1) Displaying the sweep of divine power, God challenges Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you ever commanded the day to break? Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea?” (Job 38: 4, 12, 16) Stunned into submission by God’s awesome power, Job surrenders, “I know that you can do everything, that nothing is impossible for you… I therefore recant and relent being but dust and ashes,” Job says (Job 42:2-6). Job is not part of the covenant. He accepts God’s display of power as the last word and relents before he receives the explanation of God’s justice that he had so adamantly sought.
In contrast, Abraham is God’s partner, and partners can disagree. When God decries the evil of Sodom, “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … Far be it from you to do such a thing to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that righteous and the evil fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?… I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.'” (Gen. 18:23-25, 27)
The language echoes Job. Abraham, too, knows he is dust and ashes, but Abraham is God’s partner, and partners are accountable to one another. Partners share a common moral language. In the ensuing narrative, Abraham bargains with God. For 50 righteous, God will spare the city. For 45, 40, 30, 20, 10. It is breathtaking to witness. Undaunted by God’s power, Abraham assails God in the name of God’s own dream. Thus is born covenantal chutzpah – the quintessential element of Jewish character.
Covenantal chutzpah reflects an unremitting expectation and demand that the world can rise to a higher moral standard. Cynicism, stoic resignation, passivity and surrender are foreign to the Jewish character. Serenity is not a Jewish virtue – not as long as the world is filled with evil and suffering. We share God’s dreams. We are not about to accept quietly the world as it is. We are God’s partner. In that is our highest purpose.
“At the moment of conception,” says the Talmud, “an angel takes the drop of semen from which the child will be formed and brings it before God. ‘Master of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop?’ asks the angel. ‘Will it develop into a strong person or a weak one? A wise person or a fool? A wealthy person or a poor one?’ Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask.”
Why not? Why doesn’t the angel ask God if the soon-to-be-formed person will be wicked or righteous?
Why not? Because the rabbis believed something that neuroscientists and psychologists have made unfashionable. The rabbis believed that we — not our genetic make-up, not our environment, not even God — are responsible for our moral choices. The genetic fix might be in when it comes to how tall or strong we will be, perhaps even how intelligent we might be, but not how decent we might be. Our decency, is up to us.
Rabbis have been divided for centuries as to whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test in this week’s Torah portion when he agreed to climb a mountain with his son, strap the boy down on an altar of stone and prepare to plunge a crude, iron blade into his chest. I for one am not conflicted.
When the angel calls out to stop the slaughter, the Torah is saying that although others might sacrifice their children, Jews do not. The Torah rejects Paganism as our moral benchmark. Abraham failed the test. Jews must have a different and — although it’s impolite to put it this way — a higher moral standard. For 3,000 years, we have believed that our decency is up to us.
Today, in America, a lot of people believe otherwise. Why? Because in many ways the highest ideal in America is freedom, and for many, that has come to mean the freedom to worry only about what is best for them. What makes me “feel good.” What makes them “happy.”
What happens when we follow this most unJewish of all paths through life? It’s not the big things that will go wrong — murder, rape — most of us understand how immoral they are. It’s the little things that begin to disappear when we worry only about ourselves — things like civility, decency, courtesy.
As psychologist Aaron Hass puts it in his book “Doing the Right Thing,” “generosity becomes replaced by reciprocity.” Instead of reaching out to others in kindness for its own sake, we start to ask what we will receive for the assistance we are about to render. We stop giving freely of ourselves and we start keeping score. Or worse.
What’s worse? Something Hass calls “cheap empathy.” It goes like this: Someone we know suffers a loss — a lost job, a lost marriage, a lump in the breast, a pain in the chest, the lost life of a loved one. We watch, we listen, we even call, but what do we say? We say the seven words that add up to cheap empathy — “Let me know if you need anything.”
When we say “Let me know if you need anything,” we place the burden on the one who is suffering. Our job as friends, as human beings, is to anticipate the needs of the suffering, to think about what we would need if we were in their position and then to provide it without being asked. So many of us offer cheap empathy, hoping we won’t be taken up on the offer.
Here’s a simple story about a congregant in a colleague’s synagogue. He was an important attorney. He rose to the highest levels of leadership in the Jewish community — even to the point of being involved in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, this man was retired. To fill his time, he volunteered a couple of days a week as an ombudsman at a local nursing home. It was his job to handle complaints and be an advocate for the residents and their families. It was at the nursing home that my colleague bumped into the former attorney.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said to his rabbi “I used to be an important person, and now, here I am at this nursing home. But rabbi, do you see that man over there? Yesterday, when they served him his lunch they put half of a cantaloupe in front of him and 30 minutes later they came to take it away. I stopped the woman removing the tray and I told her, “This man has had a stroke. He can’t eat a cantaloupe like that. You have to scoop it out for him.’ So she did scoop it out into bite-sized pieces.
Then, the man slowly lowered his spoon, placed one piece upon it at a time and gently brought them to his mouth. “Rabbi, ” he concluded, “watching that man eat his cantaloupe yesterday was one of the finest moments of my life.”
No keeping score. No worrying about what he would get in return for his kindness. No “Let me know if you need anything.” No excuses. Just anticipating; finding a way to be kind to another. Just a single decent act. A simple recognition of a simple truth: that our decency is up to us.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, Inc.).
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”— Mark Twain
We laugh at this quote because we can sense its truth. Each of us passes through stages of life in relation to our parents. Whether they are alive or deceased; whether we live in close proximity to them or across the country; whether we are emotionally close to them or have grown distant — an ebb and flow often characterizes our relationship to our parents. Parental separation is necessary, but painful. God knew this when, on the second day of creation, after the division of the waters above and below, God refrained from saying “and it was good.” Our struggle to separate begins at the womb and continues way beyond the grave.
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Abraham is told lech lecha, often translated as to “go forth”, from his native land and his father’s house, to a land that God will show him. The obvious question is why would God ask Abraham to leave his native land and his father’s house if the Torah teaches that Abraham had already done so at the end of the previous portion? And not only had he left his native home, but also his father had died in the process. So what was God talking about?
Separation. God was asking Abraham to psychologically leave his father’s authority over his life, and lech lecha — literally “go toward himself” — to define himself outside of his father’s control.
Separating from our parents is a lifelong process. In utero, we are literally attached to our mother’s body and separation can be a deadly consequence. As an infant we continue to rely on their touch, attention and nourishment. Yet, once we become toddlers and explore the world beyond our mouth, we quickly learn that we can emotionally and physically affect our parent’s behavior and feelings.
Then as a child and teenager, we separate through rebellion. We are embarrassed to be seen with them in public. We make fun of them to our friends. We give them a curt answer of “Nothing” when they ask us “What’s going on?” We can’t wait to run out the door of freedom when we leave for college, but then our half-hour phone calls back home prove our yearning for connection.
As adults we may marry and perhaps be blessed with children of our own, only to begin this cycle as a parent while our own parents move their attention to their grandchildren. Finally, God willing, we reach old age and stare at ourselves in the mirror, realizing that our body looks and moves just like our parents’ bodies did. It’s no wonder that Rashi, an 11th century commentator taught that when God said lech lecha, he meant “for your own benefit, for your own good.”
Parents struggle to let go of their children. Every day I talk to parents who, on the one hand, know that holding on too tight for too long can be damaging, but on the other hand, make appointments for their adult children with the rabbi, prevent their college-bound children from leaving the state for school or control their child’s choices with the power of money.
Separation is for our own benefit, and for our parent’s benefit, but it is long, hard work. Only when Abraham psychologically leaves his father’s house is he told veh’yay brachah, meaning “you will be a blessing.” God does not say “and you will be blessed,” but commands “you will be a blessing.” In other words, once Abraham leaves the psychological control of his father’s presence to find his own path, he will most definitely be transformed. His psychological freedom will enable him to accomplish his unique goals not in reaction to his parents, but for his own sake.
Mark Twain and Abraham are models for each of us on our lech lecha journeys.
Michelle Missaghieh is Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood
Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday School that thefirst Jew was Abraham. It was our father, Abraham, who detected thepresence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a paganworld. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant,defining our identity, our mission, our destiny. That’s true. But thefirst Jew wasn’t Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.
In Jewish prayer, we address God with the expression, “Elohaynuv’Elohay Avotaynu — our God and God of our ancestors.” We recitethese words easily, oblivious to the dynamic tension buried withinthe phrases: Is my God the same as the God of my ancestors? What ofmy faith is received, and what is created? What is of tradition, andwhat is my own?
The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Chassidism, wasasked why the “Amidah,” the central prayer of the daily services,begins with the triple iteration, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, Godof Jacob.” Why not just say, “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”? Heanswered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God ofIsaac was not the God of Abraham. Each grasped God in his own way.Each offered the world his own unique testimony of God. There is roomin Judaism — indeed, there is a need — for the new, therevolutionary. The personal spiritual adventure — the individual’ssearch for God — is the very life force of faith. Without it, ourreligion stagnates and dies. This is the radicalism of the Baal ShemTov.
But the same Baal Shem Tov awoke each morning, donned his tallis,wound his tefillin, and recited this prayer just as his ancestors haddone. In doing so, he affirmed a spiritual continuity with Abraham,Isaac, Jacob, and all the generations of Israel, down through hisown.
The personal religious quest brings energy, life, creativity andrenewal. The loyalty to tradition offers wisdom, depth, and the wordsand symbols from which we build the religious community. We need themboth. Denying a place for personal spiritual seeking leaves usstagnant. Cutting off tradition leaves us with a terrible sense ofweightlessness, of loneliness, and with a painful hunger forauthenticity. In my most significant moments, I crave a wisdom olderand deeper than my few years on this planet.
Responding to this hunger, so many of our contemporaries seem topatch together their own eclectic religious expression — mixing alittle Native American mythology, a little Buddhist meditation, alittle Christian morality, a little Sufi passion into the Shabboschallah. In the end, they find the mixture tasteless and unsatisfyingbecause it transcends neither the self nor the now. There is nonourishment in spiritual noshing.
The dynamic of Judaism embraces the personal religious questwhile, at the same time, affirming loyalty to the continuity of ourhistorical tradition. It is a dialectic filled with conflict andtension. But in this tension is the secret of Judaism’s spiritualvitality and its survival. And its father is Isaac.
Isaac, not Abraham, was the first Jew. For Isaac was the first toknow the tension between “my God” and “the God of my father.” He isthe first to know the struggle between the faith of his father andthe truth of his own religious experience. He is the first to knowthat we must do more than simply receive, affirm and repeattradition. We must make tradition our own. We must find a place forits wisdom in our life situation, fill it with our own passion,express its truth in our own idiom, remake its symbols to speak toour own souls, but never lose its message and its meaning. Ourfather, Isaac, was the first to know the challenge of receivingtradition and passing it on to those after him. And he was the firstto stay up at night, worrying about whether his grandchildren wouldbe Jewish. Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, was the first Jew.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
A Letter to Sarah
The boy is alive. Shaken — we both are. Butalive. I’ve sent him home to you in Kiryat Arba. I’ll remain here inBeersheba. I need some time alone to think things through.
From the beginning, this has been someadventure. “Leave home!” I was commanded. “Leave behind all thatmakes you who you are — family and place, culture and memory. Theblessing is yours only if you come naked, stripped of all thatprotects you in this world — position, patrimony, prestige.” Iobeyed because I heard a truth more compelling than any I had everknown.
You came with me. Out of love. Out of loyalty.Out of the hope that this might bring you the one thing you craved –a child. An end to your bitter barrenness. I strained to hear thevoice of God. You prayed each night to hear the cry of an infant. Itold you about the promise: Like the stars that fill the sky, ourchildren will cover the earth. You chuckled: Just one would be enoughof a miracle — a sign that we were indeed chosen.
I went out to war and defeated kings. Youfought the despair of the advancing years. And when, in yourdesperation, you gave me the handmaid Hagar, I could hear again onlythe voice of God’s promises. I couldn’t hear your anguish, yourloneliness.
The son that Hagar bore was my son, but notyours. He had all of my drive, my passion, my impulses. He had mystrength. He even had my temper. But nothing that’s you. None of yourwisdom, your patience, your tenderness. None of your laughter. Inthat, he was a dangerous creature. You were right in sending himaway. He would have destroyed us. He may yet.
And then came Isaac. “Come and know the boy,”you said. “Teach him your vision, the ways of God.” But I wasn’tthere. Having defeated kings, I took to battling God: “Shall theJudge of all the earth not do justice?” Again, you chuckled: Shallthe father of great nations never come home to meet hisson?
Then came that unfathomable commandment: “Takeyour son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land ofMoriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” For the first timein my life, I was struck dumb — silenced with fear and with pain.For this I abandoned my homeland and my kin? Where is Your promise?Your justice? But now He was silent.
I thought of waking you to say goodbye. But Iknew that this would kill you. You endured the ravages of our journeyand childbirth at age 90. But this was too much. So I rose early,made the preparations and took the boy.
The three days of journey were the longest daysany father has ever endured. It was the first time I had ever spenttime with the boy. You were right about him. He is the best of usboth. With each step, I grew to love him more. With each step, wedrew closer to our destiny.
How many times did I turn back? Swearing atmyself for once thinking that man can comprehend the ways of God,that man can think himself God’s partner in covenant. I could wrestleout of Him a concession for the few righteous of Sodom, but nothingfor my own son? Still, something drove me on. I needed to know,ultimately, if He would go through with it. Would He break Hispromise and cast us away? Is He like the gods of the land, demandingthe blood of children as His tribute? Or is He a God of life? Ineeded to know.
We went up the mountain. I bound Isaac to thealtar. We cried together, our tears mingling. And as I raised theknife to fulfill the commandment, I heard a voice — stronger andmore clearly than any I had ever heard. It was your voice, Sarah. Andit commanded me to drop the knife, to lift up the boy, to comehome.
You were right all along. No need to seek Godon the mountain top. That is the way of loneliness and death. Homeand heart are where God lives. No need to hear God’s voice from theheavens. The laughter and song of children are enough for anyone whoneeds to hear God’s voice. You were right, Sarah. I’ll be homesoon.
With all my love,
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
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