Monday, October 28, 2013


Genesis 25:19−28:9

Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

His Father's Wells

A few weeks ago, our attention was turned once again to the space program. John Glenn, a true American hero, returned to space, and we celebrated the spirit of innovation, courage, and exploration that has always marked our country's best efforts. As we look at the exploration of space, whether through the mirror of current media coverage or through the prism of books and movies, we are awed by the many highly intelligent, creative and insightful people whose joint efforts push us deeper into the still largely unexplored region of space.

Some men and women of genius are innovators, and point us in new directions, down uncharted paths. Other men and women of genius are developers. They have the gift of recognizing the implications of a new idea or a revolutionary concept and the ability to find practical applications for it that change our world. Still others are adventurers. They are blessed with a sense of exploration and enterprise, and use the insights of the innovators and the wisdom of the developers to explore previously unknown regions.

Our culture often seems to honor the genius of innovators and adventurers more than that of developers. Yet, we know how important developers are to changes in all aspects of our lives, including science and technology, economics and politics, and arts, philosophy and religion. These people have the gift of seeing the utility in a scientific discovery, the power in a new concept, the potential of a new theory that is beyond the sight of the innovator. They have the talent for organization, structure, and planning that provide the foundation for successful adventure and exploration. Without their insight, courage and wisdom, their ability to "pick up the ball and run with it", the best efforts of the innovators would be for naught, and the adventurers would be left without tools. The developers are the people who build religious movements, who restructure social and political life, who change the way we see art, hear music and read books. In the imagery from this week's Torah portion, Toledot which tells the story of Isaac's developers, while drawing water from other's wells, learn to dig their own and to draw on their own sources of strength and wisdom.

The genius of each of our three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, fits the pattern of innovator, developer and adventurer respectively. Each patriarch plays a decisive role in the unfolding of our people's most ancient experience. Each one is important. Each one should be honored. Yet, of our three patriarchs, Isaac always seems to live in the shadows of his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1−25:18

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Filling in the Missing Pieces of Sarah's Life

Should we be surprised that a parsha entitled "Hayey Sarah," or, the life of Sarah, in fact opens with the death of Sarah, and encompasses nothing of her life story?

Torah is full of round-about tales and messages. Here is one that is perhaps more significant for being less straightforward. It is about Sarah, and yet not about one person, for it clearly connects to the origins of a people.

To find the beginning of this tale that is "the life of Sarah" we need to go back a few parshiot and chapters in Genesis, when her name is still Sarai. Her spouse Avram, in response to the call to "leave your homeland, your kin, your father's home," brings her on the journey, along with his nephew and others.

Contemporary readers, especially those straining to tune in to women's experiences in Torah, must surely wonder if Sarai had any say in the matter, and what it may have been like to her to uproot herself for the sake of her husband's call. Ellen Frankel, drawing on traditional rabbinic commentary, other relevant historical data, and her own imagination, constructs this tale, in the voice of Sarah, in her marvelous commentary, The Five Books of Miriam:

"What mysteries still surround the story of how our people began! For though the rabbi's recount that Abraham left Ur after smashing his father's stone gods, they fail to tell all the other stories - about my own decision to leave .. One night I had the most frightening dream. The tyrant Nimrod appeared to me and foretold the death of my beloved Abraham and his entire family. He declared that he would no longer tolerate Abraham's preaching about YHVH, who claimed he was mightier than all the gods of Ur. When I awoke, I told my mother of my dream .

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Monday, October 14, 2013


Genesis 18:1-22:24

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah

This week's parashah is Va'yera. Within its verses we find some of the most familiar, and troubling, stories in the Torah. For Va'yera contains within it the stories of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah), the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and Sarah, and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is on this last narrative that I would like to focus my d'var torah for this week.

In our contemporary lexicon the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah" has become synonymous with extreme depravity and immorality, with a particularly sexual connotation. Within the narrative in Bereshit it would seem that sexual immorality is only part of the evil of Sodom. Contrary to popular usage it is also clear from the reading of the narrative that it is not homosexuality that is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (though Jerry Fallwell and others might disagree). The people of Sodom did demand that Lot (Abraham and Sarah's nephew) hand over the strangers in their house (actually messengers of God sent to tell Lot of the impending doom) so that "we may know them," which is clearly a sexual reference in terms of biblical Hebrew. However, what makes them sinful according to our Sages is not sexual desire or lust, but rather their desire to abuse and humiliate other human beings because they are strangers in their midst. The two messengers could just has easily have been women and the people's response would have been the same. The Sages teach us that only the wealthy were welcome as guest in Sodom. The poor were to be expelled or killed.

We read in Midrash Pirkei Eliezer (a collection of rabbinic homilies collected in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the land of Israel) that any resident of these cities who attempted to give food or aid to a poor person was subject to death. As a matter of fact, this same midrash tells us that Lot's daughter was convicted of giving bread to a poor person each time she went to the well for water and, as the people began her execution, she cried out to God. It was this cry that reached God and prompted God to send the messengers (angels) to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their sin was as great as her cry would imply.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Lech L'cha

Genesis 12:1−17:27

"Be a Blessing"

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

The parashah begins with God's call to Avram (his name won't be changed to Avraham until later) to "Go forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father's house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give you blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!"

What does it mean to be a blessing? Even for us, those who are accustomed to the concept of berakha/blessing have difficulty wrapping our minds around this. How much more difficult must it have been for Avraham, who was raised in a polytheistic, idolatrous and superstitious culture, and who is having his first encounter with the Divine, to understand what he was being commanded to do.

How frightening it must have been for him be told to leave his place of grounding and to travel to a place that he has not yet seen, with only a promise of a great future and the commandment to be a blessing! This is not how I would like to be sent on my great spiritual quest! And yet this is exactly how each of us embarks on the greatest spiritual quest of all. Living.

In many ways each day we are commanded Lekh L'kha, for a male, or Lekhi Lakh, for a female. Each day we are each commanded by the Divine within us to go forth from the place that we have each come to think of as "my land." Every day we are asked to leave the place that we view as "home". Every day we are taking a journey to a place that we will be allowed to see only when we arrive there. The strange thing is that we don't really know we're there even when we arrive, because the goal of our journey is constantly changing.

If this is the challenge we face each and every day of our lives then it is a wonder that any of us embark on the journey. Why don't we all simply stay where we are and live out our lives in blissful ignorance that anything or any place else exists? Perhaps it is God's promise that provides the answer. For we are each promised to be a great nation, to receive divine blessing and for our names to be made great. But what does that mean?

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