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Vayera 2023-Friday Eve-SOJC– Father and Son Relationships -11.3.2023

Our son Avi spent a great deal of time with his Abba during his early years. From taking Avi with him to minyan when he was saying kaddish for his father, playing soccer with his Abba as the coach, learning to fix things around the house, and reading scary books.  Perhaps one of the sweetest things I noticed over the years was the nightly singing of “Shema” before Avi went to sleep.  These experiences were endearing to me because I watched the flowering of the special relationship between our son and his father.


It was this context, I believe, which made Parashat Vayera difficult for me to read this year.  The father-son tension which struck me the hardest this time was in verse 11 of Chapter 21.  Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has asked him - in strong terms - to “cast out” Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s concubine and son). Abraham is quite troubled by this, but encouraged by God, Abraham listens to Sarah and soon cast out his concubine and his son.  And that is the last time we hear of Abraham’s relationship with his son Ishmael until Abraham dies, at which time both Ishmael and Isaac bury their father. (Genesis 25:9).


Seeing what I saw in the relationship between my husband and my son, I had great difficulty understanding how a father could cast off his own child - one with whom he had lived with for more than 13 years - and never see that child again. It pained me to imagine this scenario, even though I understood the broader themes of the parashah.


Apparently, Abraham’s casting off of his son also bothered some of our ancient rabbis, for I found a midrash which presumed that Abraham never completely abandoned his son.  In the midrash (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 30) Abraham goes to see his son Ishmael in the wilderness of Paran three years after Ishmael has married a Moabite woman.  Ishmael is not at home when Abraham arrives, but Abraham speaks to his wife and asks her for some bread and water, which she refuses to give him - even though it is midday in the middle of the wilderness.  Abraham asks her to tell her husband that an old man from Canaan came to see him, and to tell him that “the household of this house is not in good repair.”  When the wife transmits this message to Ishmael, he divorces her, and his mother finds him another wife.


Three years later, Abraham goes to see his son again, and again does not find him home.  Abraham asks this new wife for some bread and water because he is weary, and she brings them to him.  The midrash continues: “Then Abraham entreated the Holy One on his son’s behalf, and Ishmael’s house was filled with all manner of good things.  When Ishmael came back, his wife told him what had happened.  Then Ishmael realized that his father still loved him.”



The midrash touched me, not only because it provided a reconciliation of sorts between Abraham and his son, but because it seemed to me the more accurate portrayal of what must have happened between Abraham - father of our people and fighter for justice - and his son Ishmael. The midrash lets us know that Abraham still loved Ishmael, and did whatever possible to better Ishmael’s life. This, to me, is a more natural description of Abraham and Ishmael’s relationship, and more a model for us even in difficult, strained parent-child relations.  My prayer is that none of us should ever be placed in the situation Abraham was placed in, but if we must live with strained familial relations, that we will behave with as much concern and love as Abraham did in the midrash.


Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Noah-Friday DT- "Building our own Arks – SOJC – 10.20.2023

I love the story of Noah.  I love it because it's one of the stories I remember most vividly from my childhood.  It's colorful - with all kinds of animals and people climbing into a huge boat.  It's dramatic - the building of the ark, the heavy floodwaters.

But reading the story for 20th or 30th time, I began to see it in a different light. 


I take my cue for this year's understanding of the story of Noah from a comment made by Rashi  - the most quoted of our biblical commentators - on the following verse (Genesis 6:14):   God says to Noah: "Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; Make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch."  Rashi comments: "There are numerous ways by which God could have saved Noah; why, then, did God burden him with this construction?"


Rashi understands, in a very concrete way, that there's more than one way to protect yourself from a flood or a torrential downpour.    There's more than one way of finding a dry, protected spot away from the intrusive wetness which invades you.


I invite you to find out Rashi's answer on your own.  My sense is that, sometimes, we just have to build an ark to protect ourselves from the chaos that surrounds us. And we are surrounded by chaos at this moment, because Israel is pitched in a terrible war with Hamas.

Now God gives Noah specific instructions on how to build the ark – including adding an “opening for daylight.” (Genesis 6:15-16)  But what are the dimensions of our "arks"?  What realm are they in?  Are they spatial? Temporal? Psychological? Social?  What kind of ark do we build for ourselves?


Sometimes we build ourselves physical "arks"; we build beautiful houses, and furnish them with comfortable chairs and couches - because we have to feel comfort and order in our own "space" to make up for the discomfort, ugliness, and disorder we feel in the outside world.  We build synagogues and churches because we want to know that a peaceful, moral, protective place exists when the world of war, disease, immorality and violence overwhelms us.


Often the "arks" that we build are social; when the violence, anonymity and pressure of the outside world gets to be too much for us, we want to know that our families and friends are there to welcome us, comfort us, share our pain. In the last number of years, some of us have come to use “Zoom” to be together with our families and friends – which has been better than nothing, but not enough compared to physical hugs and close contact.

Sometimes the "arks" that we build are psychological:  when family relationships are difficult, or dealing with people is just too painful - the "ark" we build is sometimes immersion in our work; the "gopher wood" is the nuts and bolts of our occupations, which we allow to overtake our lives for a while, because it's just too chaotic to deal with personal relationships.


Finally, sometimes the "arks" that we build are temporal: when the world is "too much with us", we sometimes need to give ourselves some time away from the grind.  We take a weekend get-away trip, or a longer vacation.  Sometimes our temporal "arks" don't even involve going away physically.  At those moments, we certainly can appreciate Shabbat as that "ark in time" which allows us to rejuvenate.


The story of Noah teaches us that, at times, we all have to build an ark to protect us from the chaos which surrounds us. But the story of Noah also teaches us that the "arks" are not permanent.  "Come out of the ark" (Genesis 8:16) says God to Noah.  It exists for as long as it's necessary, until the floods of chaos subside, but after that, we must go back into the real world, "be fertile and increase, and fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1).


Let us hope that our arks will be there for us when we need them, and that they will enable us to return whole and renewed, back to the world which surrounds us.

Bereshit 2023 – “There is Light After Darkness” -MFC -SOJC – 10.14.2023


Reading the beautiful words of Parashat Bereshit this year takes on new meaning in light of the horrific events that Israel has experienced this past week, and which will continue.  It makes tears come to our eyes to read: God said, “Let there be light; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:3-4)

“Let there be light!”  But how can there be light when we are viewing the decapitated and burned bodies in the remains of the kibbutzim near Gaza?  How can there be light when we know that thousands of lives have been destroyed, thousands of families mourn their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons?  How can there be light when we feel the hatred of Hamas terrorists and their followers, and feel the blame of many nations for Israel’s military response?  It is darkness that we feel, a void, a chaos, a sinking feeling - not one of buoyancy and light.  The foundations that we take for granted have been shaken.  We feel not the creation of the world, but its destruction.  How can we feel the light that God promises us so eloquently in our parashah?

We may start by rereading the verses above, and knowing that, just as God created darkness, God also created light.  There is an antidote to the spiritual and psychological chaos we are feeling.  It is present in our lives and has been present since creation.  The world is not all darkness: “God separated the light from the darkness,” God made a distinction between that which causes pain and void, and that which brings healing and fullness.  A first example of the stuff of healing and goodness is evident in the words of our parashah alone; they are beautiful and poetic, and even if one has theological questions, one can appreciate them for their inspiring beauty.  The world is created anew; the earth, the sky, the heavenly bodies, the animals, the greenery, and finally, humankind, have a new beginning.  The potential for good is created again.  God looks at the world and says that it is good, and we look at our world, and despite the horrific destruction we have experienced, we know that there is much good in the world.  Those very trees and birds and skies which Parashat Bereshit tell us of - they still inspire and awe us.  And we know that humankind has the potential for enormous good; we are not all Hamas terrorists.  The very opposite is true.  Many more of us are caring mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, and friends.  We are capable of enormous kindness and giving.  God has created us “good,” and good most of us remain.  We know that when we look into the eyes of those we love, and we know it when we look at the outpouring of acts of hesed - loving-kindness - which we have seen in the aftermath of the Hamas attack in Israel: donations of blood, food, necessities, time, money, and arms to hug survivors and families of victims.  We are created good, and much of that goodness remains within us.  Parashat Bereshit reminds us that goodness will overcome evil, and light will overtake the darkness.
Shabbat Shalom.

Bereshit-Friday Night D’var Torah-“Creation”–SOJC-

10. 13. 2023

How many of you remember the Disney movie “Find Nemo?”  I remember it quite vividly as it was the first movie I brought my son Avi to a movie theatre to see.  He was only 4 years old, and after he watched it, I thought he would have nightmares about being swallowed up!  But he didn’t notice the darkness in the movie, ended up loving it, so much so that his grandmother bought him the DVD, and he watched it every time he visited her.

I bring up Nemo – not because of the shark’s very sharp teeth, but because it is a kind of creation story.  We learn how Nemo was born, how his mother and siblings disappeared, and how his father tried to protect him from anyone who might hurt him.  We learn about his voyage across the seas, and the friends he makes along the way.  And we see his father go to the other side of the world to rescue him.

This Shabbat, we read in the Torah about the creation that started the world as we know it.  We learn about the creation of the sun, moon and stars, the sky and oceans, the plants, animals, birds and creepy-crawly things, and finally about the creation of human beings.   

Just like Nemo begins his life journey, all plants, animals, light sources and human beings begin their journey in our parashah.  And even if it doesn’t match the beginning stories that scientists tell us, it is a way of looking at the creation of the world from God’s point of view, and from the view of the Jewish people.  God created everything in the world so that human beings, who were created last, could enjoy God’s creation, and be able to live in the world.  God wanted us to be good, but the first man and woman – Adam and Eve – got bad advice from the serpent – and we all suffered from them making that mistake.

As mistakes go, this one was a biggie, but Adam and Eve and their children were able to survive, live off the land, and create generations of people to follow them.

Nemo’s father, too, wanted him to be good, and follow his father’s rules for safety, and he was good, but he got caught by some nasty people who didn’t care about Nemo’s safety.  Luckily, Nemo had a father who really loved him – and looked for him all over the seas – and was able to bring him home.

We know that God’s dream for the world for every plant, animal and person was that we all be safe and live to prosper all over the earth.  We also know that we have taken advantage of the world God created, and we have used up too much of it, polluted other parts of it, and now find ourself in a world of global warming.  The earth may never look like it once did, but we know we can help get it back on track by recycling and reusing, and also using less gasoline in our cars.  God blessed us with brains to be able to solve our problems, and many good people have designed ways to help us save our earth.  But we, and our governments, have to listen to the people working to save the earth, and use their suggestions.

We have a wonderful earth, and it is up to us to clean it up and save it, for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parsha Korach
By Jeff Fischer

     Since January of this year, over 1500 rockets have been fired from Gaza and neighboring countries into Israel.  The vast majority between May tenth through the thirteenth.  Were these aimed at military bases?  No! They were fired indiscriminately into Israel, aimed at civilian targets. Thankfully, most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome.  A significant number fell into Gaza causing injury and death among their civilian population. Several, however, did strike within Israel with loss of property and life.  In response, Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow.  During this and previous defensive operations, Israel tries to take out terrorist launch sites, tunnels, ammunition stockpiles, and terrorist leaders.  And while Israel attempts to strike only at known terrorist areas to minimize collateral damage, this is extremely difficult as most of these sites are strategically located within the civilian population.

     One of the policies adopted by the IDF to try to minimize loss of life is to drop leaflets, urging the civilian population to leave a building or an area before an airstrike is launched.  While Israel has been condemned by many countries for defending itself, I am aware of no other conflict in the world where one country goes to such lengths to try to minimize enemy losses. And let’s face it, the inhabitants of Gaza, whether active terrorist or civilians are almost all committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.  I don’t think Russia warns Ukrainian civilians to leave a building before an airstrike.  I don’t believe the United States ever warned German or Japanese civilians to leave an area before a bombing raid.  This is a unique policy, and one that seems to be reflective of the actions of Moses in this week’s Parsha.

     This week we read Parsha Korach.  Korach is the leader of a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach, along with Dathan and Abiram challenge Moses’s leadership and the granting of the priesthood to Aaron and his sons.  Joining them are 250 distinguished members of the community, who offer burning incense to prove their worthiness for the priesthood.  In the end, the earth opens and swallows the mutineers along with their entire families.  A fire subsequently consumes the incense offerers.  As further proof of Aaron’s legitimacy, God has Aaron’s staff miraculously sprout flowers and almonds.

Just prior to this punishment, we read that God tells Moses to, "Speak to the congregation saying, 'Withdraw from the dwelling of Korach, Dathan and Abiram.'"  Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. He spoke to the congregation saying, "Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins.  So they withdrew from around the dwelling of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram…

     Here we see the reverence for life and the attempt by God and subsequently Moses to minimize collateral damage and loss of life by first warning the congregation to stay away from the tents of the insurrectionists.  It is only after those in the congregation who support Moses separate themselves from the mutineers that the land opens and swallows the rebels.

It has been said that war is hell and when it comes to war, there are no rules.  That is not a concept we learn from Torah.  While Israel will always stive to avoid conflict and work towards a peaceful settlement of differences, it will also defend the life and property of its citizens.  Yet it does so with a reverence for all life, even the lives of those who are sworn enemies of Israel’s right to exist.  Shabbat Shalom


Parsha Matot-Massei
By Jeff Fischer

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  We have all heard that phrase.  Probably first espoused in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text composed about 1755–1750 BCE purportedly by Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon.  This legal document prescribes an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth when one man destroys another's property. Punishments determined by this law could be transferred to the sons of the wrongdoer. For example, the death of a homeowner in a house collapse necessitates the death of the house's builder. If the homeowner's son died, the builder's son must die as well.  We assume if you injured someone resulting in the loss of use of a hand, your hand would be similarly injured.

We also see similar phrases in the Torah. In Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24 the phrase reads an eye under/in place of an eye while a slightly different phrase literally "eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth" is used in Deuteronomy 19.

The Talmud interprets these verses and similar expressions as mandating monetary compensation in tort cases and argues against the interpretations that the Bible verses refer to physical retaliation in kind. They argue that such an interpretation would be inapplicable to blind or eyeless offenders. Since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted in this manner. Therefore, an alternative, monetary compensation, is required. The amount to be paid is based on the degree of loss.

The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish."  The Bible allows for kofer (a monetary payment) to take the place of a bodily punishment for any crime… except murder.

In this week’s Parsha, Matot-Masei, we read how the promised land is to be divided among the 12 tribes.  The Levites are not given a parcel of land, however, there are to be 42 cities established across the land for the Levites to live. There were an additional six cities of refuge to be established.  Three west of the Jordan and three east of the Jordan.  One in the North, one in the south and one in the middle.  The Talmud tells us these walled cities were to have good roads that lead into the city, and they were to be well maintained. The purpose of these cities- to serve as a place of refuge, where a murderer could flee.

The murder of an individual is a serious offence in the bible.  One that mandates the death of the murderer. As previously stated, it is the only crime where monetary payment may not be substituted for the punishment of death.  But what if you killed someone, but it was an accident?  There was no premeditation.  It was an unfortunate accident that resulted in the death of another person. The Torah allows these individuals to flee to one of the cities of refuge where they are to live without the fear of death from retaliation by the murdered persons family.  Once they arrive, there is a trial, and if the death was deemed accidental, they must remain in the city until the death of the High Priest, after which they may return to their previous life.

Although one can look at these refuge cities as a type of jail, in truth, life there was fairly normal.  Their families would join them.  If they were Torah scholars, their teachers would also have to join them so they could continue their studies. Once the High Priest died, they were allowed to rejoin their previous lives without further penalty or stigma. 

Yes, the death was accidental, but when it comes to human life- you should have been more careful.  You may retain a normal life, but you must do so within a refuge city.  While not punitive, it does serve to remind the individual that a life was lost. Torah Law is less interested in punishing the wrongdoer and more concerned with righting the wrong caused by their acts, making restitution for the damage caused, and having the criminal repent from their evil ways and return to living a useful, productive, and honest life.   Perhaps our present criminal justice system could learn from the lessons of our Torah.  Shabbat Shalom

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