Torah Study Date
Saturday, September 4, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 26:18-34
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Starting at Genesis 26:35
I wasn’t present at our last Torah Study but three angels—some interpreters say it was four angels–came to me and told me we discussed Isaac re-digging the wells that had been dug during the time of his father, Abraham, but were stopped up after that by the Philistines, that water is important for life, that Isaac’s servants dug and found a well in the wadi (streambed), that the Gerar shepherds quarreled and said the water was theirs so that the well was called “Esek,” that Esek means “dispute” and is a “hapax legomenon” (something said only once), that there was dispute about the next well, too, so it was called “Sitnah” (nuisance? accusation?), that there was no quarrel about the third well so it was called “Rehovot” since YHVH had granted them ample space to increase.
You also discussed that naming is a way of taking ownership, that ritual practice and group identity was bound by location and was established by altars, and that some Jews today think religion is bound by location (such as certain Israelis—not all Israelis—who think you can only be a Jew in Israel).
You also discussed Isaac going up to Beersheva, that the phrase “up to” can have both locational and spiritual meaning, YHVH appearing to Isaac at Beersheva and saying “I am the God of your father Abraham” and what Isaac might think of a God who directed his father to kill him (if he in fact did know about that direction given that Abraham and Isaac did not talk to each other on the way to the intended sacrifice), YHVH blessing Isaac and promising increase to him and Isaac building an altar there where he invoked YHVH by name (as Abraham had done) and YHVH telling Isaac he would be with him so he need not fear (which must have been a comfort after all the quarreling with the locals).
You also discussed Abimelech, along with his councilor and top general, coming and negotiating with Isaac, that he came with them to show his power so he could negotiate from an equal position with Isaac who had become so big and prosperous, and that the wording of the pact—as well as the eating and drinking afterward–was formulaic and standard, that Abimelech previously had been hostile to Isaac and had driven him out, that the day after the eating and drinking, they departed in peace from Abimelech, that the servants found water at Beersheva, hence its name (“seventh well”).
Our artwork this week is by Jewish Israeli artist, Reuven Rubin (1893-1974). Rubin was originally from Romania, studied art in Israel and in Paris, had a studio in New York City for two years and emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1923. He rejected the orientalist style of the Bezalel Academy—with motifs of Israel as Eastern or Oriental—and turned both to Parisian modernist and naive elements. He was considered part of the Egged (“Amalgamation”) school. He loved the light in Israel and said that there “even the shade is luminous.”
Torah Study Date
Saturday, August 28, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 26:10-17
Saturday, September 4, 2021
Starting at Genesis 26:18
Last week we discussed Abimelech saying someone could have lain with Isaac’s wife (because Isaac lied and said she was his sister), who and how that might be (a rapist? Abimelech himself?), the fact that Abimelech likely is a different Abimelech than the one we saw interacting with Abraham, Abimelech’s concern with collective guilt that might have been incurred should that have happened, the idea of collective guilt, the fact that Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps when he calls his wife his sister but not quite because, unlike Abraham, he did not use her as a bargaining chip, Abimelech saying that anyone who touched them would be put to death (and that some translations use the term ‘molest’ instead of ’touch’, the more straightforward choice).
We discussed Isaac’s successes in Gerar, that he planted and harvested a hundredfold in a year (during a famine!), that he was blessed by YHVH, became great, and went on being great until he was very great (the word for ‘great’ being repeated for emphasis) with flocks, herds, and servants, we discussed whether ‘servant’ might mean ‘slave’ here and the variety of meaning of ‘avodah’ (service, labor). We discussed the Philistines’ envy of him that led them to stop up the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug, filling them with dirt, how important water was, Abimelech telling Isaac to leave because of Isaac’s very successes, fearing he would become stronger than the Philistines, and Isaac going to live in the wadi (stream bed) of Gerar.
Our artwork this week is by Russian-French Jewish artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Isaac Blessing Jacob (above), and Jacob’s Ladder (below). Chagall was a modernist painter but his works also are deeply emotional. “If I create from the heart,” Chagall said, “nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”
Torah Study Date
Saturday, August 21, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 26:1-9
Saturday, August 28, 2021
Starting at Genesis 26:10
Last week we discussed the famine in Gerar (after the previous famine in Abraham’s time), YHVH telling Isaac not to go to Egypt yet (in case he might think the exile to Egypt YHVH had foretold was to happen now), YHVH telling Isaac that the nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed (giving Isaac some importance so that he would not simply be the passive son who was almost slaughtered by his more active father).
We discussed Isaac following in his father’s footsteps by telling the people of Gerar that Rebecca was his sister (not his wife). We discussed Isaac saying he did that for fear that the people of that place would kill him due to her beauty and different ways of interpreting that (he was rightly afraid because in insecure circumstances, women are vulnerable to rape; or, he wasn’t really concerned about her but about himself, that he might die). We discussed King Abimelech seeing Isaac and Rebecca sporting: were they having sex as the medieval commentators assume? or were they just making out or being intimate in some other way? why were they doing that where they could so easily be seen? were they simply careless? did it have to do with the fact that a lot of time had passed when it happened? what is the significance of Isaac following in his father’s footsteps?
Our artwork this week is more by British-American Jewish painter, Alan Falk, Isaac Blesses Jacob (above) and The Cry of Esau (below). Falk’s early style was beautiful but he thought that style would contradict the content of the stories of Torah he wanted to portray. So he shifted to a more cartoon-like style that could better convey the harshness and starkness of the tales. Esau is painted in red as is appropriate since he came out of the womb a ruddy red and was given the name, Red (Edom). Isaac loved Esau because he brought game for Isaac to eat but Jacob is the one who will have a connection to the divine through his famous ladder, perhaps the ladder portrayed on the side of the second painting with Rebecca is pointing to it. Isaac’s hands are shaking when he blesses Esau—Esau, who was supposed to get the first blessing, but didn’t.
Torah Study Date
Saturday, August 14, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 25:28-34
Saturday, August 21, 2021
Starting at Genesis 26:1
Last week we discussed Isaac loving Esau ‘because he put game in his mouth’ and Rebecca loving Jacob, that the love may have been of opposites since Esau was a crafty hunter while Isaac was more passive and Rebecca was clever while Jacob was a simple person, and we noted as well that the idea that Esau was crafty while Jacob was simple does not seem completely evident since Esau seems like a simple person of the body while Jacob is crafty in tricking Esau out of his birthright (and seems to have been ready to put that plan in action when Esau returned). We discussed traditional negative interpretations of Esau but did not see the text as being quite so negative about him. We considered the idea that Jacob was called simple because he stayed home and ate simple food such as lentils while Esau went out to new places—to fields—and hunted so people could have food that was difficult to find and acquire.
We discussed Jacob’s red stew which we thought probably was lentil stew and that Esau came in exhausted (not famished but exhausted) and that he asked Jacob to feed him some of the red, red stew because he was exhausted and that he asks for stew rather than cooking up some meat because he was so exhausted and that his name, Edom, came from him asking for the red stew (since Edom means ‘red’) (though we wondered if he might be called Red because he came out of the womb red—ruddy–and hairy).
We discussed Jacob offering Esau the stew if Esau would give up his birthright, that Jacob seemed to be tricking him to exchange something of lasting value in order to get something transient, that Esau’s being ok with that could be construed in different ways—as him being a mindless sort so concerned with his body’s needs of the moment that he could not think about the future or as him facing death every day in his hunting activities so that the birthright would have no relevance (two different ways of thinking about his claim that he was going to die and so of what use would the birthright be) and we discussed what the birthright consisted in (mainly position, blessing and inheritance). We discussed Jacob asking Esau to swear that day that he was selling his birthright (and Esau doing so) and the text saying that Esau ‘disdained’ the birthright (perhaps meaning he just did not care about it).
Our artwork this week is by U.S. Jewish artist, Peter Asher Pitzele–Isaac’s Well (above) and Ruth and Boaz (below). Both are from his show, Torahluminations. Pitzele is a poet, bibliodrama teacher (midrash through role-playing Torah), and artist.
One of our congregants, Judy Schumer, introduced me to a new Yiddish word last summer: oysgezoomt. For a fascinating article on the word’s etymology, check out the article “The Yiddish Word of 2020.” Simply put, it is the feeling of being utterly fatigued by online offerings. Friends, looking into a second virtual High Holiday season, I can honestly say that I am oysgezoomt, and I’m sure that many of you are as well.
That being said, I am also feeling immense gratitude for everyone’s generosity, understanding, and patience these past 18 months of distancing. Congregants have donated and dropped off gift cards which have fed and clothed other congregants who lost their jobs. We distributed over $9,000 in relief funds. We have had members and non-members volunteer their time to come in and help us clean out the classrooms and put up and take down our new tent.
We have spent time cleaning and modernizing our classrooms (which hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned out since the ‘90s!) and curriculum. We’ve organized the loft upstairs and painted the sanctuary with a fresh coat of paint. We’re getting new LED lights thanks to a generous donation from a non-member, a donation that will not only bring us into the 21st century, but will also save us money and energy.
It is tempting to think that we are right back where we were a year ago when we headed into the High Holidays, but that would be a mistake. We have leapt forward because of your generosity, volunteer time, and connections. And we have done so while keeping one another safe and largely healthy, which is no small feat. So while we may be more oysgezoomt than we were this time last year, we should not despair that we’re running in place.
This year’s High Holidays may not be ideal, and I, like you, am dreaming of a day when we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder again as a congregation. But we have so much to celebrate together in a year of such hardship, and so much to be thankful for and proud of about what we have been able to accomplish as a congregation.
Perhaps it’s time for us to spend this preparatory month of Elul reflecting back on all the good we’ve been able to find in a difficult year. To be more thankful for the blessings of being together even if it’s online, to be humbled and grateful for our precious health and that of our loved ones, and to enter this new year in the simple joy of being alive with a thriving Jewish community here in our little city.
Rabbi Sara Zober
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Torah Study Date
Saturday, July 31, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 25:19-27
Saturday, August 14, 2021
Starting at Genesis 25:28
We had another fascinating Torah study last week, full of ideas and information. We discussed the record of generations from Abraham through Isaac competing with the previously given record of the generations coming from Ishmael and that the generations coming through Isaac were emphasized by their placement at the beginning of Parashat Toledot (Generations). This led to a discussion of the fact that parashot divide Torah differently than chapters and verses do. Parashot, we learned, are part of the Masoretic tradition (7th to 10th c. CE). The version of parashot used by Jews around the world today stems from the list of them given by medieval Jewish scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah (12th century CE). He based them on the Aleppo Codex (Tiberias, 10th century CE), a medieval bound manuscript of Torah.
We discussed Isaac prevailing on YHVH because Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, was infertile, YHVH being prevailed upon, and Rebecca becoming pregnant. We discussed the two struggling inside her, Rebecca feeling the pain of that struggle and wondering why she exists (“If it’s like this, why do I exist?”) and going to inquire of YHVH. We discussed the fact that YHVH responds by speaking directly to her (before ever speaking to Isaac) and that his response is poetic, telling her that two nations are inside her, one of which will be mightier than the other, and that “the older the younger will serve” (and that the ambiguity of the statement, not making it clear whether the younger would serve the older or vice versa, was pointed out to Richard Elliott Friedman by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, David Noel Friedman). We discussed other reasons why it would be hard to tell who will rule, for example, because it’s hard to tell who of twins comes out first in general and also that the time given for a birth often is not really exact.
Rebecca bore twins, we read, and one, Esau, came out red, like a hairy robe, from which he got his name (from the similarity of his name with the word for hair or, possibly, from the word that means to make and might here mean fully made or, possibly, a miracle) while the other, Jacob, came out holding Esau’s heel (hence his name, “Heel”). We discussed whether grabbing the heel implies usurpation or, to the contrary, could imply connection between Jacob and Esau (not conflict).
We discussed Rebecca’s twenty years of childlessness, that she was around 35 when she bore the twins, and that the Jacob story may be a graft.
Finally, we discussed Esau as a skilled, clever or knowledgeable hunter and Jacob a simple, pure or complete man who lived in tents and that this distinction between them—perhaps between cleverness and simplicity or purity—suggests Torah, or at least part of Torah, has a preference for simplicity.
Our artwork this week is by Harriet Finck, New Jersey Jewish artist–Jacob’s Dream (above), illustrating his dream of angels, and One Thing I Have Asked (below), inspired by Psalm 27:4 (which is about being in the presence of YHVH and is often sung on the High Holidays). I may be wrong, but I think I see arrows from the heavens in the first and Harriet herself in the second, surrounded by nature–composing and decomposing—thus providing her with YHVH’s presence.
Torah Study Date
Saturday, July 17, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 25:7-25:18
Saturday, July 31, 2021
Starting at Genesis 25:19
Last week, we discussed the death of Abraham, that he lived one hundred seventy-five years (but the text says one hundred years and seventy years and five years), that he is said to have died at a good old age–old and full—and we recapped some of the things that made his life full such as being a leader in battle, having a long line and having property (surrounding the cave of Machpelah), and that he was gathered to his ancestors (meaning, probably, that he became one of the ancestors).
We discussed that he was buried in the cave of Machpelah (where Sarah was buried) in the field that he had purchased from Ephron, by Isaac and Ishmael, his two sons, that it is significant that Ishmael comes back for the burial even though he was not to inherit from Abraham (it suggests Isaac was OK with Ishmael being there, may have felt some kinship with him and may have identified with him, as they both were not treated completely well by their father, or because he just felt close to him), and that the sons of Keturah were not involved in the burial perhaps because they had been sent away.
We discussed the medieval commentators’ strikingly philosophical understanding of his death based on a dualistic understanding of the relation of body and soul that we do not find in the text of Torah itself. We noted that Ishmael lived a hundred thirty-seven years (a hundred years and thirty years and seven years) and also was gathered to his people when he died.
Our artwork this week is two more paintings by Archie Rand, New York Jewish artist, Jacob and Esau (above) and Not To Insult Or Harm Anybody With Words (below). The Hebrew that accompanies the portrayal of Jacob stirring something in a big cauldron and Esau, in a red jacket, smoking a cigarette reads “And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Will you feed me some of the red stuff, this red stuff, because I’m exhausted’. (On account of this he called his name ‘Edom’.)” The other painting is from “The 613,” his interpretations of all of the commandments and is a fitting companion to the first painting because of that painting’s allusion to Jacob using words (and other tricks) to deceive his brother out of his birthright.
There is a joke in the Reform community, that we overuse the Shehecheyanu. Whenever we do something for the first time, or have a big moment, we say the prayer. And while every occasion may not merit a blessing like that, there are truly times when thanking God is appropriate.
Personally, I said it countless times a few weeks ago when our son, Toby, became Bar Mitzvah. I said it when I hugged my parents for the first time in over a year. I said it when I watched my son on the bimah chanting and singing. I said it when I realized that the room was filled with family and friends – people who I had not been able to sit with in far too long.
And as Shabbat began last week, if there are Shehecheyanu moments, that was it: we gathered in person for Friday night services for the first time in well over a year. In that moment, we lived out every aspect of that prayer. We offered thanks; we prayed and sang.
Thank you for giving us life. Amid a deadly pandemic that is still ongoing and real, we were able to be together, to laugh as one, to listen, learn, and engage in sacred worship. We are grateful for having made it through (and of course recalling with blessing those who did not). Thank you for sustaining us. It has not been easy, and not everyone is ready to resume in-person worship, but we are still a community, we are still a congregation. It has been no small task, and the countless volunteers, friends, and family who have helped us through and continue to provide support, are in our prayers. And thank you for enabling us to reach this moment. Again we think of those who we have lost during this time. We also appreciate the wonder that is being able to gather again – and that we can still welcome those who are not able to join us personally. But being able to come together, safely, is a moment of joy, inspiration, and hope.
We are not through this pandemic, and there will likely be more hard times ahead. But at the risk of overusing them, there will also be more Shehecheyanu moments as well. I look forward to celebrating them all with you.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ
אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Rabbi Benjamin Zober