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Books Torah

Book Excerpt: “Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot”

In recognition of the new CCAR Press book, Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, edited by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, we are honored to share this excerpt from a chapter on the Torah parashot Noach. This new collection follows the classic Voices of Torah, giving insight and inspiration on each Torah parashah, including holiday portions, and is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

נח Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, 2010

Noach ish tzaddik . . . b’dorotav, “Noah was a righteous person . . . in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

We are all familiar with the Rashi on this verse. The word b’dorotav can be viewed either positively or negatively. First, positively: despite his generation, Noah was righteous—as if there was a righteousness meter and Noah reached the level that any generation would call a tzaddik. Alternatively, Noah could only be considered righteous in his own generation, the generation of the Flood.

Too often we take this dichotomy into our own spiritual lives. How do we know how much we need to do in order to be good? Is there a level of study, tzedakah, or hospital visits we should be doing? Where do these levels come from? Yet, we are also told that we need to spend time with our families, go on vacations, network with colleagues, and even have a social life. The most limited resource for any rabbi is time. Are we doomed to a guilt-ridden life of “If only I had done more?” (I already hear—“Nu, what do you expect, we’re Jews!”) Whether we use subjective or objective measures, will that voice in our heads (mother? superego? conscience?) ever let us be content?

We, as much as our congregants, need to remember Reb Zusya’s lesson: “In the world-to-come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Whether Noah was righteous only in his generation or in any generation is less important than whether Noah was the best Noah he could be. So too for us. As we reflect on each day and each year, let us not forget the wonderful contributions we have made to the lives of so many. Let us remember our own limits and the importance of practicing self-care. To truly do our best is difficult enough. We are so used to saying, Hineini!—Here I am!; let us not forget our tradition also includes, Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, “You are not required to complete the task” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper, 2012

Parashat Noach offers one of the first and most powerful illustrations of the role played by water in our tradition. Though a source of life, it is also—as natural disasters have demonstrated—a cause of destruction.

With water, God destroys nearly all of Creation, while simultaneously cleansing the earth in order that Creation—humanity in particular—may begin anew. With water, Abraham generously bathes the feet of God’s messengers. It is near a well that Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah and that Jacob first sees Rachel. Both are pivotal meetings that ensure the perpetuation of our people. At the Sea of Reeds and at the Jordan River, our ancestors cross through water and undergo their transformation toward nationhood. In our own day, water remains associated with transformation and cleansing. Water is essential for tahorah, tashlich, and mikveh—traditionally understood as purification of body, spirit, and relationship.

The magnificent rivers, lakes, and oceans that define so much of our natural landscape and are sources of indescribable beauty can also bring about suffering, either through human misstep or act of nature. Niagara Falls is breathtaking to observe, but images of Hurricane Katrina conjure up horror and despair.

Only a slender thread separates delight and pain. May we today not retreat to our own arks as we continue to both cherish and fear the water that is fundamental to our lives.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, 2015

Midrash Tanchuma offers details on the Noach narrative that lift it out of the mold of the familiar children’s tale.

The word usually translated as “ark” in the biblical text is teivah, an Egyptian loanword meaning “box.” This particular box kept danger (the Flood) out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. Some of the animals were dangerous; a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Ps. 142:8, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks,” the Rabbis tell us that these words refer to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but misery. The Rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him harshly because he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. In comparison with Abraham, who advocated for his fellow human beings, the Rabbis found Noach wanting.

The Rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own, to Avraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare? Might he have convinced God to rethink the Flood? What “boxes” do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2017

Finding the world awash in the chaos of evil and corruption, God reverses the order of Creation, releasing the waters held back by the firmament and land. The world is engulfed with water, returning it to watery tohu vavohu. The people, who at first seemed pristine and perfect, showed their true colors while still in the Garden of Eden: imperfect human beings. So God wipes away humanity and begins anew with a new “first family”— Noah’s family.

Jonathan Sacks points out in Essays on Ethics that in the ideal garden, the so-far perfect people needed to know they were created b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27), but after the Flood, when the extent of the capacity for human evil is evident, people need to know that others are created in God’s image as well (Gen. 9:6). There is a world of difference between focusing on the divine image in one’s self and recognizing it in others. As Sacks points out, the former affirms that all in Creation is good, but the latter emphasizes the necessity of covenant, which introduces moral law into the world: prescriptions to restore “good.” He writes, “So, according to the Torah, a new era began, centered not on the idea of natural goodness, but on the concept of covenant—that is, moral law” (p. 12)—from “I am tzelem Elohim” to “you are tzelem Elohim.”

That lesson, that the other is also tzelem Elohim, remains the lynchpin for morality and the hardest lesson to teach. It must become the litmus test for policies in our local communities, for our national political endeavors, and throughout the world.


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, earned her doctorate from the Department of Rabbinic Literature at Potsdam University, Germany and is the senior editor at CCAR Press. Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, has been chief Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Canarsie since 2003. Rabbi Bill S. Tepper is the part-time rabbi at Temple  Shalom in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Rabbi Ruth Adar, known as the Coffee Shop Rabbi, teaches through HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, California and discusses film on her blog A Rabbi At the Movies. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the hospice rabbi in Howard County, Maryland, and is the editor of the Torah Commentary column of the CCAR newsletter from which Voices of Torah is collected. These accomplished rabbis have all contributed to the newly released Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Mussar Torah

Book Excerpt: “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life”

In honor of our new publication, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, a new anthology edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, the CCAR Press proudly presents an excerpt from a chapter written by Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal. This new book, which unites more than 50 authors who offer commentary on each of the 54 weekly parashot juxtaposed with the mussar middot, is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

“Yirah—Awe: From Fear to Awe”

Jacob goes through a major life transformation in Parashat Vayishlach, including a wrestling match with God and a change in his name from Jacob to Israel. These changes are reflective of changes in Jacob’s character as well, as he goes from a person filled with fear to one who is full of awe and gratitude. His transformation involves resolving old issues and grappling with feelings of guilt over his stealing the blessing and birthright from his brother—and, in the process, lying to their father, Isaac. As Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau in the morning, he lies restless. The Torah tells us of his state of mind: vayira Yaakov, “Jacob was terrified” (Genesis 32:8).

Later in the parashah, we learn why Jacob is fearful, as he says, “I am afraid of him, lest he advance on me and strike me” (Genesis 32:12), referring to his brother Esau. That night, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River, and then he is left alone to wrestle in the night with an unknown man or angel or messenger of God; the Hebrew word used is ish, “man” (Genesis 32:25). Jacob does not let the man go without demanding a blessing. The other says to him, “What is your name?” and he says, “Jacob.” “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” says the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28–29). A verse later in the Torah tells us: “Jacob set up a monument in the sacred site where [God] had spoken to him. . . . Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him Beth El [House of God]” (Genesis 35:14–15).

In Jewish thought, “fear” (yirah) of God is understood to be complementary to “love” or “awe” of God. In fact, the term yirat HaShem, or “fear of God,” is equal to following the Torah and mitzvot, according to Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380–1444, Spain), author of Sefer HaIkarim. In the teachings of Mussar, however, we find a very interesting concept when it comes to the middah of “fear/awe.” Alan Morinis writes, “Though yirah can describe the unified fear/awe experience, the term can also be used for the singular experiences of fear and of awe. . . . The Duties of the Heart makes this very point: ‘The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of His Glory, majesty, and awesome power.’” 1

In other words, fear and awe can be two separate traits completely, or they can be merged together. Many Mussar teachers encourage us to “orient ourselves toward the side of fear,” 2 especially of divine retribution for our transgressions. The middah is clearly about fear in the writings of the Mussar masters, as the words that often accompany this concept involve physical manifestations of fear: people shaking, sweating, quaking, and experiencing some kind of terror. Many people resonate to this idea that we should be fearful of God’s retribution for our own wrongdoing and that that fear will keep us on the right path.

However, Jacob is a model of another kind of yirah. Jacob is fearful, and rightly so. Not only has he done wrong in the eyes of God, but he has wronged his brother, who may understandably be hurt and angry with him. Jacob moves beyond his fear, symbolized by the wrestling he does with a man (perhaps his conscience?) throughout the night. When we have wronged someone, we, too, must take that fear of what may become of us, either through divine punishment or the anger of the person we have harmed, and turn it into something more productive.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, in his book, The Gates of Light, writes that the experience associated with awe is the higher form of yirah, saying, “It is clear that the awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.” He teaches that awe must stand on a foundation of fear. So, perhaps, to get to awe, we must first go through the fear of punishment, work through it in some way, to get to the other side of it, much like Jacob crossing the River Jabbok, wrestling with a man, and then and only then being able to feel the awe for God that leads him to build a monument. 


Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal has served as a rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, since her ordination in 2006, becoming the senior rabbi in 2015. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, Austin. She enjoys teaching students of all ages, and Holocaust and Israel are two of her areas of expertise. Siegal is a contributor to the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.


Categories
Books Torah

Teaching Chumash Skills using The Torah: A Modern Commentary

The Chumash, which I used when I first began to learn Torah in-depth, has a special place on my shelf.  The notes on its pages are invaluable, not just for their information, but also as a connection to a time in my past and to the teachers with whom I learned, among them Rabbi Judith Abrams, z”l, whose lesson about the words and letters of the Priestly Benediction remain an important part of my kavannah whenever I bless someone with them.

When I arrived at my congregation, there was a religious school book list which asked our 7th-graders to purchase a Chumash. Though, I would soon learn that they never used it or learned how to use it.

If we want the Chumash to be a meaningful tome with which our students connect, and if we hope that it does more than gather dust on a shelf, we need to teach our students to engage with it and make meaning.

I don’t necessarily anticipate the same kind of connection from our students that we as clergy may have with a Chumash.  But, the hope is that by engaging with the Chumash they will gain a connection to it.  This cannot happen if a wrapped copy is handed to them on the bimah and put into the backseat of the car on the way to their party.

Using a Chumash is a skill that has to be learned.product_image - Copy

At my weekly Torah study, I noticed that many of those attending didn’t fully understand the jargon nor did they possess the skills needed to navigate a Chumash.  In fact, many seemed intimidated by it.  So together we learned how it works and how to use it.  It’s important not to take for granted the facility we have with a Chumash.  For many of our congregants, odds are they have rarely opened or even seen a Chumash outside of the sanctuary. All the more so our b’nei mitzvah!

So, what do we do?  First, we transitioned to the Plaut (Torah: A Modern Commentary) Chumash both in our sanctuary and on our book list.  This sends a message that as a congregation, we use a commentary to which congregants and students can relate.  Next, we needed to work within the religious school to make use of this book we asked families to purchase.

In addition, beginning a couple of years ago, the Chumash became a textbook for the 7th-grade.  I introduce it to the students when together we pick the verses from their Torah portion which they will chant.  I show them the book, discuss why it’s titled: “A Modern Commentary,” and use the maps to help them see where their portion takes place.  Then I use the structural outline from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary to help them pick the section they will read when they are called to the Torah.  Not incidentally, I also ask why they think that the second volume is called “A Women’s Commentary” and explain that almost every other commentary on my shelf was written by a man, and so these two volumes work together to give a complete, multi-faceted, modern approach to Torah that values everyone’s input.

When they reach their 7th-grade classrooms, they use the Chumash in a few different ways and for a few purposes.  First, they use it to learn more about their parashah and where it falls in the context of the Torah, ultimately creating a story board of their entire parashah.  They also learn Chumash skills.  How does one read this book with Hebrew and English and columns?  How do we talk about something in the Torah in a way that everyone understands and everyone can find?  What are chapters and what are verses and what do they tell us?  Why are there essays?

As a rabbi, it’s quite special when I meet with the students later in the year to work on their divrei Torah and I hear them correctly refer to chapters and verses. This skill is not innate; and it is a skill that I believe all Jews should possess.  Helping our congregants powerfully and confidently engage in Torah is our goal.  Using the Chumash as a central text in our 7th-grade means that our students engage not just in words of Torah, but in the practice of Torah and the art of studying as Jews.

Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum is the Rabbi and Director of Education at Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, New York.