Torah portion: One night in Tokyo


Although I was just a kid, I still remember my walk to synagogue on Feb. 12, 1990. It stands out because I passed a newspaper, and on the front page was something I had never dreamed of seeing.

There he was, laying on the floor, out for the count — the unbeatable Iron Mike Tyson, KO’d in Tokyo by an unknown boxer named Buster Douglas. How could this happen? How could a 37-0 undisputed heavyweight champion of the world take such a fall to such a nobody?

The answer actually can teach us something about our forefather Abraham. Tradition says Abraham faced 10 critical tests in his life. According to the most commonly accepted order, the final test was the biggest: the binding of Isaac. Abraham is asked to offer his beloved son on the altar and kill him. At the last moment, divine intervention stops Abraham. An array of creative thinkers has grappled with this scenario, from Maimonides to Soren Kierkegaard to Arcade Fire.

But there is another way to count Abraham’s 10 tests. The 13th-century Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Yonah places the binding of Isaac as the ninth test. He said the final test was whether Abraham would find the most sacred burial plot for his deceased wife, Sarah. 

Wait a second … if Abraham has already passed the test of the binding of Isaac, what’s the point of following it up with something that, while meaningful, seems relatively minor-league? If you follow Rabbeinu Yonah’s count, shouldn’t God have stopped after nine tests?

I’d like to suggest two possible resolutions. The first is the zone of proximal development. Developed by Lev Vygotsky, who was admitted to Moscow State University in 1913 under a “Jewish lottery” when there was a 3 percent quota on Jews, the theory posits that recognizing a subject area where a child is challenged — just above the level they are comfortable with — is the sweet spot for child development. Information that is too easy for the child is below the range of optimal development, and information that is too challenging is beyond the normal mode of development. But if we can place that lesson in the perfect spot between too easy and too hard, then we have struck developmental gold.

Applied here, the test of the binding of Isaac was simply too hard. It was larger than life and, in some ways, didn’t truly assess the level Abraham was at. There are many people who step up when the tragedy is a huge one, but often, the response is less forthcoming when the tragedy or the pain of a friend is at a more moderate level. We are less likely to go into “battle mode” when the situation isn’t as dire. 

The same could be said for Abraham. It’s important that he stepped up at the binding of his son, but what is Abraham really like when the challenge is not as dramatic? Finding a burial plot for his wife is deeply important but it is a natural part of life. How committed will he be and how far will he go to secure one of the holiest spots in the universe? With this test, Abraham has found his zone of proximal development.

There is a more important explanation to the quandary posed by Rabbeinu Yonah, however, and that goes back to Iron Mike. He was, without a doubt, the greatest boxer of the 1980; fights would end in record time as his legendary uppercut made a mockery of his opponents. But then it all changed with one fateful Shabbos night in Tokyo when the young legend lost to the epitome of all underdogs. 

What happened? Sometimes, when you have done it all, you let your guard down. The real test comes only after you have reached the top.

Abraham had faced the greatest test that mankind would ever know by offering to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. But would Abraham have the fortitude to stay strong? Or would he let his guard down?

We say in Psalms 24:3, “Mi ya’aleh B’Har Hashem” — who can ascend the mountain of God? And subsequently, “Mi yakum bimkom kodsho” — who can stay in His holy abode? It’s one thing to pass that great test. It’s another thing to stay at that same level.

Our lives are an aggregate of peaks and valleys, although we hope there are more peaks. We need to keep in mind that the goal is not to reach the summit — that’s just the beginning. When we accomplish a significant goal that we’ve been striving toward, it is at that moment that our real work begins.  

May God give us the strength to climb the mountain, and may God give us the ability to stay there in victory. 

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). 

Torah portion: Living with pardon


A genocide here, a massacre there. Somewhere a theocrat falls, elsewhere a despot rises. Tent cities spring up like grass. Shantytowns and refugee camps sprout forth like fields of wheat.  

Who by poison gas, who by machete, who by bullets and who by bombs? Who shall expire quickly, whose soul will languish in a dark cell of hell? How terrifying was this week’s news of men cut down like weeds, women and children butchered like sheep? But was last week’s news less cruel? In Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East, the bloodshed is endless.

“And the Lord said, the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, their sin grave indeed” (Genesis 18:20). 

Great evil is nothing new under the sun. Before the flood we read, “The Lord saw how great was man’s evil upon earth” (Genesis 6:5).  And there is nothing novel about a victim’s cry either, as God said to Cain, ‘Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’ ” (Genesis 4:10). 

When murder and massacre are as commonplace as sunshine and rain, the essential question is: How are we allowed to remain? Why are more cities not overturned like Sodom? Why is the earth not drowned as it was in Noah’s day?

The prophet Ezekiel’s writings about evil complicate matters even further: “This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had power, an abundance of food and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).  

A remarkable description, as it casts a wide net of blame. God judges those who perpetrate death and destruction, as well as those who have the power to stop the violence and cruelty yet fail to lift a hand. We are told that it was only in Abraham’s merit that Lot and his daughters were saved by angels from Sodom’s fate (Genesis 19:29). Perhaps the fact that we still stand here indicates that we, too, have been gifted with divine grace. 

Two stories in Parashat Vayera that speak to this idea are remarkably similar in substance and plot. The first is the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and the second is the binding of Isaac. 

To review briefly, on the day Hagar and her son were driven away, we read that “Abraham awoke early in the morning” (Genesis 21:14). He placed food, a skin of water and the boy on her back and sent them off. Hagar wanders in the wilderness till the water runs out. Out of despair, she throws the boy beneath one of the bushes. 

Throughout, Ishmael is repeatedly referred to as “the boy” or “the lad.”  Eventually, mother and child are saved by an angelic messenger of the Lord, who hears “the cry of the lad where he lies” (Genesis 21:17). As Hagar lifts Ishmael up, she sees beside him a watering hole. (Fascinatingly, medieval Rabbi David Kimchi points out that these green bushes where Ishmael had been lying all along were themselves an indication of water.) Afterward, “The boy grew and became a bowman” (Genesis 21:20). He settles in Paran, and his mother finds him a wife. 

The binding of Isaac follows a similar pattern. “Abraham awoke early in the morning” (Genesis 22:3). He saddles his donkey with provisions as he had earlier “saddled” Hagar. A few verses later, he saddles Isaac with wood for sacrifice. Like Ishmael, Isaac is repeatedly referred to as “the lad.” Here, too, an angel cries out from heaven, saving Isaac and promising Abraham that his seed shall number as the stars, a promise similar to that made to Hagar and her son. Shrubbery also has a role in Isaac’s rescue: “And Abraham lifted his eyes and afterward saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket” (Genesis 22:13). The ram’s neck was substituted for Isaac. A short time later, Abraham tasks his steward to find a wife for his son.

As both lads were saved from near death by divine intervention in a strikingly similar fashion, one must look to places of divergence for a parting lesson. The most salient difference between the sparing of Ishmael and the sparing of Isaac is in what they do afterward, who these children become. Ishmael becomes an archer, he settles in the area of Paran, which is a pun on perah adam — “a wild-ass of a man” — an earlier prophetic description of Ishmael (Rashbam citing Genesis 16:12). In contrast, the next time we observe Isaac, he is “meditating in the field,” having returned from a godly place named “The Well-of-the-Living-One-Who-Sees-Me” (Genesis 24:62). Ishmael turns to the sword, Isaac to a contemplative life of the spirit. 

I have always found it fitting that the story of Ishmael and Hagar is read on Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah, while the story of Isaac and Abraham is read on Day 2. Undoubtedly, the two lads were hardly deserving of death. But on the Day of Judgment, a day in which the entire world is judged, we wonder aloud if this has been another year in which humanity has been spared its due judgment. 

There is so much hate and so much violence, and far too much averting of our eyes. These readings suggest that it is only by the mercy of God that we are spared the flood of Noah or the fire of Sodom. Perhaps the real lesson is that we are always being pardoned, and the true test of character is in what we do with this knowledge. 

 

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com. 

Vayera: The “Other”


This post first appeared in the blog Neesh Noosh

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is filled with ethical challenges:  Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Issac, and the departure of Hagar and Ishmael. But, at the beginning of the parsha, Sarah and Abraham welcome three unexpected strangers to their tent. They wash their guests feet, bake bread and slaughter a calf for them for dinner.

Shortly after Abraham and Sarah’s generosity to the strangers, we are brought to the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah lived in a land of material abundance but followed the ethic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” (Pirkei Avot). No one took care of sick, vulnerable people. As Aviva Goldbert of the Pardes Institute writes, “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are utterly destroyed because, according to many commentators, they wouldn’t help the “other”: the poor, the hungry, the weak, the needy.”

We Americans live in a land today of great wealth. But, how do we share it? As I’ve written previously, there are 46.5 million hungry people in the US, including 12 million children and 7 million seniorsI live in Los Angeles–a city with hundreds of farms within hours of our city limit, countless urban gardens and some of the nation’s best restaurants–but there are 1.7 million hungry residents.  These are the “others” in our cities and country: food insecure Americans who go to bed hungry, not necessarily knowing when they will next eat.

The faces of hunger in this nation aren’t always so obvious. They’re young and old; grandparents and children. They’re found in rural and urban areas, in every state and of every religion, color and ethnicity. What unites all of them is their hunger. Like the complicated relationship between Sarah and Hagar and their sons, Issac and Ishmael, we are all connected. And, thus, someone’s hunger does affect each of us.

How do we acknowledge the hungry strangers in our midst? Hunger in the US is everyone’s problem. It’s caused by a broken food system that we CAN fix. And, we can take inspiration from Sarah and Abraham’s actions at the beginning of Vayera.

There is the opportunity to connect us to the “other” in our lives. As Rabbi Brad Artson writes in, The Bedside Torah, “Hakh’nasat or’him, hospitality, is a central value of Judaism, one of distinctive mitzvot. . . . [it] reveals the human faces in our midst and restores the caring heart to its rightful place in our lives.

In Los Angeles, for example, volunteers can partake in preparing and eating fresh, hot meals with clients of SOVA. Or one can deliver a meal to ailing people who are home-bound through Project Chicken Soup. Challah for Hunger is a great student-led group that sells homemade challah with the funds donated to groups like MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Food Forward donates 100% of gleaned produce from people’s trees and gardens to local pantries.  And, if you are looking for more inspiration, check out Netiya’s Food Relief: Beyond the Can campaign about ways to rethink food donations and drives.

There are excellent examples of emergency food relief programs and they are doing critical work. But ultimately, they will not solve the hunger problem in the US. Nor is the majority of hunger relief done by charities; rather it is provided through government assistance programs, such as school lunch programs and SNAP (previously known as food stamps).

Rather, solving hunger in the US is really about tzedek, justice.

As Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar comments, “if Sodom is characterized by tze’akah (outcry), Abraham and his descendants must evince tzedakah (righteousness). This subtle word play serves to teach us that the Jewish people are in the world at least in part to embody a radical alternative to the brutal cruelty of Sodom. We are charged never to go along to get along; in the face of injustice, we are challenged by God to speak up.”

And, as Aviva Goldbert writes, “Abraham and Sarah are starting a world revolution that we are meant to carry on. A world revolution that the rabbis liken to a mass healing.”

This revolution IS happening across the country. Thousands of groups are fixing our broken food system by strengthening local food economies, supporting small, local farmers, increasing people’s access to nutritious foods, pushing for policies that help to expand these programs and advocating for government resources to be redirected from industrial agriculture to small farmers. The Food Trust’s campaign aptly sums up the goal:Everyone Deserves Access to Healthy, Affordable Food.

One small example, here in Los Angeles, is at the La Cienega farmers market, where I frequently shop. Recipients of government food subsidies can double the value of this money if they spend it on fresh produce at the market.  This type of program is happening at countless markets across the country and is a win-win. As the Fair Food Network has shown, with these programs, farmers earn more income, money is infused into local economies and recipients eat more healthy foods.

You can learn more about the many groups–both secular and Jewish–listed on the resources page of my blog that are doing amazing work, connecting rural and urban communities, empowering people to change their food landscapes, building strong local food systems and providing critical emergency food relief.

The recipe I created today is about our connection to the “other” in our lives. The dish is comprised of two dips that one can eat with breads, as a reminder of the breads that Sarah and Abraham offered the three strangers. In this parsha, Hagar is sent away with Ishmael.  He is Isaac’s half brother and they share Abraham as their father. This dish is made with the same ingredients in different colors to represent the connection of the”brothers” and is sprinkled with sesame seeds, symbolizing their shared father. It is surrounded by greens that stand for the bush that Ishmael was left under by Hagar, and the thicket where the ram was caught and used on the altar instead of Isaac.  The greens are like a family or community that stands in a circle to support and empower the most vulnerable, rather than leaving them behind like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Roasted Peppers Dips

Ingredients

  • 2 organic red bell peppers (read here why they should be organic)
  • organic yellow bell peppers
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 6-8 smaller carrots (I happened to find yellow, red, orange and purple ones at the market but orange will work)
  • small bunch of frisee or other greens
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 handful toasted walnut (about 15 whole walnuts)
  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 1/2 lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses or 1/2 medjool date
  • 1/4 tsp schug or other chili paste
  • 1/4 tsp black sesame seeds
  • salt to taste

Preparation

1. Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees. Wash vegetables.

2. Place peppers, carrots and garlic (with skins) on parchment paper lined trays and drizzle with olive oil.

3. Cook until brown, turning over half way through cooking, approximately 40 minutes.

4. Remove from oven and let cool. Once cool, peel pepper skins and take out seeds. Remove garlic skins and carrot tops.

5. Place yellow peppers, 2 cloves garlic and 3-4 carrots (yellow, if you have) in blender with tahini and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth.

6. In another blender container, place red peppers, 2 cloves garlic and 3-4 carrots (red and orange ones) in blender. Add schug, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, salt and lemon juice. Blend until smooth.

7. On a platter, arrange dips side by side and sprinkle black sesame seeds on top. Then, arrange greens along the edge of the plate.

B’tayavon!

Why Abraham? Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)


He had only God’s endorsement. Otherwise, this newly chosen leader of the world was a virtual unknown. He didn’t campaign for very long; he suddenly appeared on the scene, going on to change the world.

Who was Abraham, and why was he chosen? What was the purpose behind choosing him to become God’s representative on Earth?

For starters, the world was quite a broken place when he stepped into his new leadership role. A quick review of past events leading to Abraham’s selection as a leader is in order. 

From its very creation, the world was filled with problems. Temptations from a lowly serpent led to man’s disobedience of the law. Jealousy between brothers produced the world’s first homicide. Corruption at all levels of society brought about a devastating flood. The generation after the flood introduced cruel political power to the world, and Nimrod — the “first man of might on earth” (Genesis 10:8) — inspired his generation to pursue actions driven by selfish motives and self interests. “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4), they said. The world lacked ethics, morals or any sense of communal help and cooperation.

For 10 generations, the world was a society lacking direction, vision or purpose. For 10 generations, the world was without an effective leader. For 10 long generations, according to Pirkei Avot, God patiently searched for a leader on Earth.

Suddenly, after 10 long generations of searching and waiting, God finally chooses a leader. What is remarkable about God’s choice is that, given the enormity of the task facing this new leader, we actually know very little about him. He has no prior experience in leadership, and the first 75 years of his life were lived in relative obscurity. We do know that he comes from a father who sold and worshipped idols, and because of that he chose to break away from his father at an early age. He lived for many years in search of his identity, wandering from place to place. He traveled in many circles — some good, some not so good — and all of these experiences in his life seemed to give God a solid indication that this man possessed the qualifications for leadership that seemed to matter most to God — vision, courage and moral character.

For any leader, the ultimate test of courage and leadership comes when he is faced with the challenge of speaking out on an issue, even if his words may not seem popular. Thus it was with Abraham, who, when faced with God’s potential destruction of Sodom, displayed what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” In challenging God, Abraham says: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the 50 who are in it? It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to You — to kill the innocent with the guilty, letting the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It would be sacrilege to ascribe this to You. Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).

While many might find Abraham’s words shocking and disrespectful to God, it was exactly this type of response that God was looking for. Immediately preceding Abraham’s moral challenge is God’s personal reflection on Abraham and his purpose as a leader: “God said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God, by doing what is just and right’ ” (in Hebrew: “…la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat”).

In this mission statement of Abraham’s purpose as a leader, God was seeking someone who would stand up for what was “just and right,” even on an unpopular issue like Sodom. The Netziv comments that Abraham’s greatest moment of ethical virtue and leadership was his willingness to argue on behalf of Sodom, “even though he hated their evil ways and their corrupt leadership, he nevertheless sought their good, as seeking good is the essence of the continuity of humanity.”

Abraham’s leadership was not about political slogans, one-liners or PR campaigns. After 10 generations that lacked leadership, and were characterized by corrupt behavior and selfish motives, Abraham brought God’s light to a world that was filled with darkness. He met with kings, participated in wars, brokered peace treaties, built economic strength for his community, all the while experiencing trials of faith and even personal challenges within his own family. His tenure of leadership — like all other leaders — was far from perfect, but in the end, the legacy of Abraham was certainly one that brought change to the world.

May our leaders be blessed with Abraham’s “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with a campus in Jerusalem. To receive his weekly Torah Thoughts, e-mail info@secjerusalem.org.