July 21, 2006
This was without question the hardest d’var I have ever had to prepare. I had more false starts, more crumpled up pieces of paper, more feelings of desperation in the wee hours over this than I ever had before and certainly more than I ever hope to have again. For most of the portion for this week--the one I chose included-- we want to shudder and say ‘God who?’ Many of God’s commands to the Israelites fly in the face of everything we have learned and come to know, some of our most treasured values about tolerance, patience, acceptance of strangers. There are things I gleaned from this portion, certainly, as measured by my desire to rant and harangue, speak too much about some peripheral matters and not enough and not in the right way about the meaty ones.
In the end, I decided that I will focus tonight on just two sentences. One is a verse from the section of Torah you just heard: (Numbers 33:50-56) Verse 55. The other is from a newsletter I received at an Israeli support rally earlier this week. In the section you heard, after telling the Israelites that they have come to their homeland, their inheritance, God admonishes them that they have work to do; they must possess the land and take it for their own in the face of opposition from the Canaanites. In verse 55, he warns them “...if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be lesikim be'eyneychem “stings in your eyes and velitsninim betsideychem “thorns in your sides” and they shall vetsareru etchem “harass you in the land in which you live. I used the Hebrew words because if you say them three times fast--once you get your tongue untwisted-- it almost sounds like a swarm of buzzing, stinging insects.
And these words have echoed with me; they seem so prophetic. They are reminiscent, too, of a story a little later in the book of I Samuel in which King Saul is ordered to destroy all of the Amalakites, including women,children and livestock. The Amalakites were noted Jew-haters. King Saul did as he was told--except that he spared the life of Agog, the Amalakite king, and some livestock. As far as I know, the cows were harmless, but Agog was left to propogate and promulgate, and he was the ancestor of the infamous Haman. There is some modern midrashic opinion, I believe, that Haman and his sons were not killed in time to prevent them from having offspring, one of whom was the ancestor of Hitler.
I do not think that most people or people are Jew-haters, but there has always been a remnant of Jew-haters and Jew-baiters. They have existed in almost all places and in almost all times in history since there have been Jews. They have been known as the Crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoa--and the Intifada. They have been called Haman, Hitler, Farrakhan, among others--and Hamas and Hezbollah.
Their currency is lies--inventions to justify their hatred of Jews and of Israel. These are the “stings in the eyes,” of verse 55 which blind otherwise good people and confuse them--e.g, the blood libel or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The thorns in the sides are provided by the deceptive practices--sometimes intentional, sometimes not--of some of the people whom we thought we could trust: The media, who talk about militants, dissidents or even freedem-fighters--who in any other context would be known simply as terrorists. Religious leaders who refer to murderers as martyrs. And all of the misguided and misguiding souls who drive us nuts with their earnest analyses of the Middle East: occupation, settlements, fictional massacres in Jenin and elsewhere, refugees, economic factors, the WALL( which becomes higher and more forbidding with each mention); they do not mention that all of these are not causes but products of Jew-hating and attempts to destroy the state of Israel from day one.
The second sentence, found in a special issue of a newsletter entitled “The State of Israel Today,” provides wise counsel regarding a response. At least to me, because I’m inclined to become angry when discussing these issues, and, in addition to talking too much and too loudly, I tend to get incoherent and inarticulate-- and, despite my efforts, no one listens. The sentence reads “We must speak quietly, say little and tell the truth.” The State of Israel must do battle now with guns and rockets, but our best weapon here, our best response to the lies and deception, is clear, reasoned truth. Not to the creators of the lies (They don’t want to know) but to their targets--an uninformed public.
The truth that is Israel is not harsh or difficult. No other country in the world has provided a refuge, a haven, a home to Jews from all over the world, while welcoming people of other religions and ethnic groups. Few countries have lived in a continual state of siege, beset by almost daily attacks, and still managed to maintain a democratic government, a relatively stable economy, universal health care, and extremely humane and ethical standards regarding all human beings. And Israel invented cell phones. We don’t have to apologize, or rationalize or lie.
I think that we can also be consoled somewhat by another truth, supported by history, that, while bullies may prevail for short periods of time and may do a lot of damage in that time, they seldom thrive or survive over the long haul-- but the people of Israel have. Stings and thorns can hurt and distract us, but they’re not nearly as large or powerful as they seem.
D'var Torah - Lech L'cha October 30, 1998 by Susan Weiss
In preparing to read and talk about this week's portion, Lech L'cha, I often felt as excited as if I were embarking on a journey along with Abraham and Sarah. I kept wondering, though, why Abraham? (And Sarah--because although this is not acknowledged overtly in Torah, I must think of them together). Why were these people singled out to break the pattern--to go to a strange land and found a great nation. Were they such extraordinary people? About Abraham, there are many legends--most pointing to his great strength and might: that he walked, talked and cared for himself at 20 days old, and that, in adulthood, he was as tall as 70 men put together. About Sarah, there are fewer legends, although there are stories about her beauty--so dazzling that it nearly blinded an angel who had come to tell her that she was to give birth to a son--at age 90! Midrash attempts to show the young Abraham's steadfast belief in one God in the face of great obstacles: Most of us have heard about Abraham's father, the idol maker, and Abraham's clever attempts to persuade customers not to buy the idols.
However, my point of reference is the Torah, and Torah presents quite a different picture; in the Torah, we do not even meet Abraham until he is 75 years old. Sarah is 65. We have little information about Abraham's early life and none about Sarah's. The few bits of information we have do not show any specialness: Abraham's father was Terah; there were at least two brothers, one of whom died, leaving a son Lot, who lives with the family and travels with Abraham and Sarah. We do not know that Terah made or worshiped idols or, for that matter, that Abraham didn't.
Were they chosen because of their great virtue? Although that is the claim of some, I doubt it. In the story of Noah, the Torah states "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age. Noah walked with God." Such an attribution about Abraham and Sarah is conspicuous in its absence. Abraham and Sarah were certainly not evil people, but it would be a stretch to call either one a paragon of virtue. When a famine in the land forces them to move to Egypt, Abraham becomes worried that others might covet his wife because of her great beauty. He says to her, "If the Egyptians see you and think ‘She is his wife,' they will kill me and let you live. Please say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you." Well, she is technically his sister (his half-sister) and he does thank her, but she's also his wife; Abraham surely knows that when Pharaoh wants her, it's not as a cribbage partner, and it's clear that he's doing this for his own gain and safety. This is hardly an altruistic act. Sarah herself is no model of sweet-tempered tolerance; when her maid, Hagar, who at Sarah's suggestion has become pregnant with Abraham's child, decides that her status should now change and she should no longer be treated as a slave, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away. Hagar returns at God's bidding, but later, after Isaac is born, Sarah sends Hagar and her son--who, of course is also Abraham's son-- into the wilderness to starve
There is also the theory that Abraham was chosen not because of any unique attributes, but because he was willing to go. God spoke--this story goes--and Abraham did not ask questions but simply said "Hineni," ("Here I am"). There is some support for this idea. After all, it is an undertaking so grueling that there probably weren't many other applicants. And Abraham and Sarah knew that God would be there to lend his help and unconditional support. But these two still seem to be unlikely volunteers. Think of where the journey takes them: They are ordered to leave their home and go to a new land; then, they must leave that land because of famine and move to Egypt, where fearsome dangers await them. They emerge with great riches and Sarah's honor unscathed, but only with a good deal of divine maneuvering. Then, in order to save Lot, Abraham must go to battle as an ally of the king of Sodom, whom he detests. No sooner does he finish with that, Abraham hears with dread the prophesy that his people will later be enslaved in Egypt. He and Sarah are childless, so Sarah urges Abraham to bed with Hagar and she has a son, Ishmael. Surely, Abraham must think that he's done his duty as far as founding a nation is concerned, and he hints at that but no! God delivers a triple whammy. He tells Abraham that he and all males must be circumcised; that he and Sarah must change their names from Abram and Sarai; and, mazel tov, he's to have another son. A brief intermission while Abraham once again tries to rescue Lot from the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This time he must negotiate with God. Then the couple become parents of Isaac, and some time later Abraham is asked to sacrifice this beloved son. Although God intervenes in time once again, the experience may be what causes Sarah's death. But Abraham journeys on, finds a wife for Isaac, remarries himself and has six more children before dying at 175.
So, while Abraham may have said, "Hineni," I think it unlikely that he did so with much enthusiasm. Besides the fact that he and Sarah are elderly and probably tired and somewhat hesitant to change, I doubt that Abraham's personality would have predisposed him to willingly seek this assignment at any time in his life. If there are some who seek greatness and others who have greatness thrust upon them, Abraham seems to be squarely in the latter category. We don't know whether Abraham welcomed conflict and change as a young man, but certainly at the point that we become acquainted with him, he seems to seek ease and pleasantness and eschew friction. After he and his family come back from Egypt, they have so much wealth in the form of cattle that there isn't room enough for his cattle and Lot's to graze, and their respective herdsmen begin to bicker, Abraham says to Lot "Let there be no strife between you and me. If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north." Sarah is feistier, but she gets no help from Abraham. When she complains to him about Hagar's haughty ways, he isn't going to get himself in the middle: He says, "Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right." I'm fairly sure that when Abraham and Sarah discover that, at their respective ages of 100 and 90, they are about to be blessed with 2AM feedings ,the ancient equivalent of Pampers and the prospect of planning a Bar Mitzvah when they're 113 and 103, their laugh contains at least some part shock along with joy. When do they get to retire to the condo in Sun City?
So were Abraham and Sarah simply chosen at random--their names pulled out of some celestial hat? Perhaps. But I would like to suggest one other possibility. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were not chosen despite their age, ordinariness and imperfections but, at least in part, because of them. These are survivors who do the best they can with what skills they have, and one of their most important skills is their ability to stay the course. They are not dewy-eyed idealists, impetuous hotheads or single-issue zealots. They have faith in God, but don't assume that God will step in and solve their problems--though He often does. They do what they are chosen and have chosen to do even though they may not always do it graciously. When they cannot do a perfect job--and they often can't--they accept that they will do a good-enough job. They often blunder and stumble and--like the rest of us-- they do things that are thoughtless, cruel, uncaring or just plain stupid. They receive much help from God and need all of it. They wouldn't be very good sprinters, but in a marathon they might finish when others dropped out in sheer frustration.
I feel very close to Abraham and Sarah when I need to keep going and I'm exhausted and my kids are having their tenth battle in an hour; I sense them nearby when I need to be in three places at once and no matter which one I choose folks at the other two will be mad at me. I feel close to them tonight not only because I've been chanting and talking about them but because even though I've been thinking about this D'var for months, I couldn't quite get it to come out the way I wanted it and my Torah chanting still seems shaky. I don't think I'd feel comfortable even thinking about quasi-gods: A man who is as tall as 70 put together or (especially) a woman who blinds angels with her dazzling beauty. But Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors, were unabashedly human, and I find great comfort in that.
November 21, 1997 by Susan Weiss
I have been asked to talk about how adult education at Oak Park Temple has changed my life: I used to be a tall, willowy brunette. Actually, I have to say that the experience has transformed me from marginal in my Judaism to committed.
I grew up as a Reform Jew, but for many years as a single adult, I was only nominally Jewish. I had lots of questions, problems, things I just didn't like about being Jewish, but for a long time, I was able to ignore them. Adopting two children was what forced me to face some of the most difficult questions: Did I want my children to be Jewish? Did I want to be Jewish? And, if yes to the above, how would I do this? The answers I discovered were Yes, Yes and I haven't a clue.
One thing I was sure of was I wasn't going to send my kids off for a religious education while neglecting my own. And when I started getting involved in the congregation, I found it essential to learn more. Things were really different than when I was growing up; there was much more Hebrew( I could no longer get by with knowing just the Sch'ma.) There was lots of ritual-- some of which was meaningful, some strange, uncomfortable and frankly distasteful.
I know that for some people the connection with Judaism is through ritual and practice, intuition, sounds, smells, tastes, and I don't deny the validity of these.. My style has always been the opposite. I can more often reach my heart through my head than vice versa. Embracing all these new-for-me facets without thinking was not an option for me. But the prospect of studying and learning more did engage and fascinate me.
Among the courses offered adult Hebrew classes stood out for me. I have a facility for languages, and I'm intrigued by language, which I view as not just words or a means to communicate, but as a road to understanding the perceptions of the people who used the language--in this case prayer book Hebrew( I've never been interested in modern Hebrew).
I started with the Hebrew marathon about 5 years ago. This is the two day introduction-- which I see as a kind of desensitization. The members of the congregation who taught the course were enthusiastic and seemed to actively strive to reduce any pressure and to increase pleasure-- they even had pieces of candy on our books when we walked in. We weren't pressed to study, memorize or perform. We had songs, lots of food and even calisthenics when we got tired of sitting. It was painless. I'm not sure how much actual Hebrew I learned. I did pick up some of the letters and patterns of the language, overcame a kind of fear about the strangeness of Hebrew and had a lot of fun.
Importantly, I came away eager to learn more. I joined the next level course, which was once a week for several months and focused on reading and pronunciation sans comprehension. After that, I joined the course with the green book--which some of us affectionately called "Prayerbook Hebrew the Hard Way." This was a two year course in which we did learn translation and grammar and syntax, and there were expectations and homework. But by this time, I was hooked and couldn't stop. This course was taught by Rabbi Gerson, and some of the best parts were extensions from the language to more general topics. For example, some prayers-- notably the Aleinu--use the phrase Melech Malachai Hamlachim--The King of the King of Kings; given a culture in which there were many competing gods or kings gave this a meaning other than sheer hyperbole--though I like the hyperbole too.
When that course ended, I knew I wanted to continue, but I thought I had" bottomed out" in terms of the courses offered here. So I was happy to hear that a cantillation course was being offered and eagerly joined. However, I was taken aback when I was asked a scary question: Did I intend to pursue adult Bat Mitzvah? This seemed like the Big Time. Disregarding the fact that 13- year-olds do this all the time, this seemed like something other people did--people who were Hebrew scholars, had wonderful voices, self-confidence oozing from every pore. Moreover, I imagined people who took this step had no doubts or conflicts about Judaism and their Jewish identity. In short, this didn't seem to be me. But---I answered Yes and I did it, and in the process, found a group of people--the adult B'nai Mitzvah class who had many of the same concerns and doubts that I had.
It soon became apparent that I needed to venture from the little cocoon of strictly Hebrew language into the wider world of Judaic learning. Learning to read, chant and even translate Torah would have been quite unfulfilling without exploring Torah more--what it meant then and what it means now. I'm a newcomer to the Torah Study group, which has been in existence for 16 years. Some of the members have been in the group since it began--with the same enthusiasm and wonder for this amazing document.
I also began to read more about Judaism, and I discovered that Oak Park Temple offers a Jewish book group, in which I get to discuss some books that I wanted to read anyway. I've also attended lots of lectures and mini-courses. Most have been free. Some--one in particular-- called forth rage. But all have been stimulating and thought-provoking.
I've been quite selective about the courses I've participated in, which is good; if I gave in to my temptations in this regard, I'd have to have my mail delivered here.
In assessing my experience in adult education at Oak Park Temple, I have three general comments (and then I promise to stop):
The first is that praying in a language that our ancestors used 3,000 years ago is an experience that I cannot adequately describe (but I'm going to try anyway). I suppose the kids would call it "awesome," (though my daughter tells me no one uses that word any more). Certainly awe is a big part of it, and a sense of connection with the past that I had never experienced before. I have a personal anecdote which I haven't told very many people--because as I've mentioned earlier--I'm not a mystical person; among the course offerings is a Kabbalah course which is one I'm sure I'm going to take a pass on-- But while our class was preparing for the B'nai Mitzvah--after we had learned our portions fairly well, we began to have class sometimes here in the sanctuary and to use the actual Torahs. During the first such session, I was taking my turn, chanting my portion and doing quite well, I thought,--hitting all the notes right and getting even the parts I had had trouble with before. But still I could hear the Cantor and members of the class chanting with me, as if they were cuing me or didn't think I could do it on my own. At one point, I looked to them, rather annoyed, and it was only then that I noticed that nobody else was making a sound--nobody had made a sound the entire time I was chanting. I won't try to explain or interpret that for you, but the effect on me was quite profound.
My second observation is that learning with the members of the congregation here has been a huge part of the "wonderfulness" of all these experiences. In what I sometimes perceive as an era of schlock and slogans passing for knowledge, I find incredibly bright, thoughtful people here. I find this intimidating sometimes, but always challenging. Interestingly, I also find it supportive. There are people who are further along in their studies than I am, others not as far. There are people and positions that I'm sure I will disagree with until my dying day. But they have never questioned and I have never questioned my right to be there thinking the way I do at any point.
Finally, I have become aware that at some point in my journey through adult ed here, (which is not over by any means) I signed on the dotted line. I accepted Judaism with all of its and my warts and imperfections. Have all of my questions and concerns been resolved? Absolutely not! I still have a love-hate relationship with Judaism and with the Jewish people, with Torah, certainly with Israel and even with God. But it's all who and what I am, and, while it won't teach me the best way to make Cappuccino, for most of the other important things it has the answers I need. I haven't found all of them yet and probably won't in my lifetime, but I believe they're there, and I'm committed to keep searching.