God appears, Vayeira 5782

The weekly Torah portion, Vayeira, includes Genesis 18:1-22:24. The first two verses are as follows:

The LORD appeared to him;“וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ ה֔
by the cashew trees [terebinths] of Mamreבְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א
he was sitting at the entrance of the tent וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל
as the day grew hotכְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם ׃
Looking up, he sawוַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא
and look, three menוְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים
standing near him.נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו
As soon as he saw them,וַיַּ֗רְא
he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them,וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל
bowing to the ground. וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

The first sentence includes the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter proper name of God. Rather than writing out that holy Hebrew word, I replaced it with a ה״, indicating “HaShem” — “The Name” is the way this word is referred to when not praying or formally studying holy scripture. When praying or studying, Jews do not pronounce this name and replace it with the word “A’donai,” which is usually translated as “The LORD,” though it actually means “my Lord.” The word A’donai is often used as a name of God, even written in the Hebrew text using the letters of that word (as in the formula for a Jewish prayer). It can also be used to refer to human rulers. As my Hebrew professor, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, is fond of reminding us: context matters.

Recognizing the Presence of God

When we choose to see what is around us and within us, we have the opportunity to bring holiness into the world. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather, felt the presence of God. He paused from his busy day to connect with God. The content of that conversation is not provided — instead, we swiftly move to Avraham interrupting that holy moment in order to greet strangers approaching his tent.

Getting wrapped up in myself

These two simple lines have torn me open in the last week, as I have wrestled with the implicit expectation within them. Perhaps, like me, you have heard that Judaism prioritizes welcoming the stranger. Yet, can you imagine interrupting your prayers in order to offer a stranger food and drink? When you are in the flow of creation, or in a rhythm at work — are you able to graciously stop yourself and joyfully welcome an interruption?

For much of my life, I prioritized becoming “the best me” I could be. I relentlessly pursued knowledge. I wanted to completely understand the world of work. So, when working as a secretary for a magazine, I religiously read Ad Age magazine. Then, when Twitter came along, I drank in the fire hose of information pouring through that medium.

I walled myself off from other people. Never intentionally. I listened to podcasts while walking with my kids. I read a book while waiting for a class to begin. These simple actions, which were full of good intentions, left me separated from the people surrounding me. Our current time of relative isolation woke me up to the ways in which I was already separated from the physical world.

Making space for God in the age of smartphones

So I choose to follow Avraham Avinu’s example. Whatever I am doing, it can wait. Choosing to be fully present to the people around me, deepens me. Experiencing a six year-old’s inner logic is a truly enlightening experience. You might notice that prayer is not my husband’s jam. Whereas, I’m happiest spending a full day, or a full week, immersed in prayer and study. Living into the beauty of traveling through life deeply connected to people unlike yourself can be soul-expanding. In addition to reflecting on Vayeira, I’ve been pondering how fast the last decade went by. Tomorrow is my tenth anniversary and yesterday was my son’s sixth birthday.

What does “God” mean?

I started by chanting the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Most of the time, Jewish sources claim that there are many barriers between human experience and God. This portion begins by declaring that God, using God’s unspeakable proper name, appeared before Avraham. Do you think God was more fully present in the world during the Bronze Age than today? Do we have the ability to sense God’s presence? Looking down at our phones, is it possible to sense spiritual shifts?

Define God to make religious experience possible

For a long time, these questions never occurred to me. Stories of our forefathers did not pierce my consciousness. The Bible felt unrelated to modern life. I avoided Jewish religious practice because I was certain that I did not believe in the judgmental God of the Bible.

Until adulthood, I did not know there are a multitude of ways to describe God from a Jewish perspective.

No single set of beliefs in Judaism

Jewish understandings of the world and God changed over time. Our civilizations were influenced by the people around us. Our intellectuals constantly communicated with Christian and Muslim scholars. Since Judaism began before the Christian idea of “religion,” we are not tied to a single set of beliefs. Instead, our culture defines us. What we do distinguishes us from other people.

Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to be an agnostic Jew. Or even an atheist Jew. My goal is not to convince you to believe like me. Rather, I hope that together we can make space for questions and disagreement. 

For me, I am constantly seeking more precise ways to understand God. Yes, I want a definition of what I believe. I also need a coherent set of descriptions of God in order to sink into prayer. God is likely to be spoken about in every Jewish prayer service. So what does all the God language in prayers mean? And how does the God in prayers relate to my lived experience?

Describing God allows us to sink in prayer

Let’s try to define God.  Do you see God as directly responding to prayers?

Do you think our spiritual energy can help heal the people around us and the souls within us?

Does prayer help you connect with God?

What does the formula of Jewish prayers mean to you?

Our prayer formula begins:

בָּרוּךְ אָתָּה ה״ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם

“Baruch atah A’donai, E’loheinu melech ha’olam”

Traditionally, this is translated as: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe.” 

Those same Hebrew words can be understood as: “Source of Blessing are You, Ground of Being; Our God, Sovereign of spiritual reality.”

When we make space for alternative English translations of well-known Hebrew phrases, we open ourselves up to the worlds contained within each word. May we each find a word or phrase to meditate into this week, so that we can recognize when the Divine is appearing in our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

Go to yourself, Lech L’cha 5782

Several people at Temple Beth David let me know that my weekly d’var Torah does not have to follow the weekly Torah portion. I deeply appreciate the latitude this provides. On the other hand, the portion can be such a rich jumping off point for an important aspect of Judaism. Personally, there is nothing more important than sinking into the first lines of Parashat Lech L’cha. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 and 2 are a synopsis of how I view Judaism.

This week, we step forward from understanding the purpose of humanity into understanding the purpose of the Jewish people. We begin with God’s call to Avram, the man who will become Avraham.

The first two verses of chapter 12, the beginning of our Torah portion read as follows:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The Ground of Being said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

We could speak for hours just on these two verses. Let us begin to unwrap this origin story by recognizing the emphasis placed on moving forward. Avram is told “lech l’cha,” which could be translated as “Go to yourself” or “Surely you shall go” or, as JPS states, “Go forth.” The first significant words in this portion are a command to begin a journey.

Perhaps, like Avraham, you have completely changed your surroundings during your life. Maybe where you’re living now is nowhere near where you were born and raised. Or perhaps you’ve taken a spiritual journey and have arrived at a completely new understanding of God. Maybe you’ve been on an emotional journey and have better insight into who you are and why you’re here. As Avraham teaches us, being willing to put aside all that you know and all that makes you comfortable is the first step towards a more expansive way of being. Going on that journey — making your ego smaller, while sinking into your deepest self — can be a way to be a blessing to the world. 

Let us also remember that this command to go, lech, is intricately connected to halacha. They share the same shoresh, which means that the same three-letter root connects the verb with the noun. Halacha  means “the way.” Lech is the command form of the word “go (on foot), walk, depart.” So, while we have come to understand halacha as an impenetrable set of behavioral rules, its origin is as an attempt to create a Jewish way of being. In fact, for centuries halacha  was not codified in a book, or described with certainty. Variations have always existed between communities. This is why so many progressive Jewish teachers consider themselves halachic Jews — they are not willing to cede the term to a particular sect of the Jewish people.

As modern seekers of community and meaning, we have the opportunity to forge our own way into the depths of the Jewish tradition. We can choose to hear the call of the Divine, to walk in the path of Avraham — to go away from what we know in order to become who we are meant to be. Avraham modeled kindness. Our next portion will begin with Avraham leaving a conversation with God in order to welcome strangers into his home. 

In this portion, several people are named by God. First, He names Hagar’s son, Ishmael. That name, Ishmael, means “God listens.” The Hebrew Bible recognizes that it was not right for Hagar and Ishmael to be treated poorly. The name is given when Hagar runs away from the camp after Sarai speaks badly about her. When God appears and names her son, she is convinced to return to the camp. Later, God says to Avram, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.” This is when God makes a particular covenant for Jews. He renames Avram as Avraham. The extra “hey” is a form of God’s name, to signify that God is always with Avraham. God instructs Avraham to circumcise himself, Ishmael, and all of the males in the tribe as a physical sign of the covenant. While giving the instructions, God renames Sarai, adding a “hey” to her name as well, and she becomes Sarah. 

Here in this portion is the pure description of why I choose Judaism. It is not because it is better than other ways of living. For me, Judaism is a coherent way of approaching life: as a member of a community dedicated to walking a path of goodness and truth. I am responsible for greeting people with kindness, even if they are interrupting me. It is up to me to become a blessing for my family and my community. And it is up to me to honor my foremother and live fully into my soul’s name. My name is Sarah bat Fayge Rivka v’Moshe, and like Sarah, my goal is to help the Jewish people walk the path of goodness and be a blessing to the world. 

Shabbat shalom.

Noah, The Ark, Judaism, the World 5782

Beautiful flower representing the regrowth of the world following the biblical flood in the Torah portion Noah.

Noah and the Flood

The Torah portions in Genesis feature many narratives. Most people have a memory of this portion, unlike some of the more technical passages later in the Bible.

A refresher video in case you’re new to the story:

BimBam also offers a source sheet, midrash (a parable that expands on the text in the Torah), and a lesson guide.

So much Jewish wisdom traces back to this portion, at a deeper level than the simple story of the flood. Before we get there, a reminder: I don’t read the Hebrew Bible as history. The events described did not need to take place for me to describe the Bible as holy and worthy of my attention. As Dr. Martin Sweeney points out, at least three other well-documented flood myths arose in Mesopotamia. I imagine a catastrophic flood wiped out many communities and myths were created to make sense of the situation. This correlates with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. Regardless of why this story exists, how can it help us live lives of deeper meaning?

An ark to save us

Noah builds an ark, teivah תֵּבָה, in Hebrew. This ark provides physical safety for Noah’s family and all of the animals who survived the flood.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, a central figure in the popularization of Jewish spirituality, reminds us that the Hebrew word for ark also means word. His meditation on this portion brings forward the worlds contained within each word we read, we speak, and we think. In the larger tradition of Torah portion commentary associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, an entire separate book is built into the Noah section. Here is a taste of how he connects the ark with spiritual salvation:

Enter the ark! The Hebrew word for ark–teivah–also means a word. If we are beset with a flood of mundane concerns, we must enter the sacred words, so that when we pray, we enter within and attach ourselves to the very letters of our prayers. When we study, we must enter within and attach ourselves to the sacred letters of the Torah.

Portions of Light: Teachings from the holy Baal Shem Tov on Torah and Festivals, translated by Chayenu, p4.

From here, we could go into the breadth of Pillar of Prayer: Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life, from the Baal Shem Tov and his Circle.

Righteousness Throughout the World

Judaism often gets a bad rap for the particularism of our prayers. Traditionally, Jewish wisdom centered on the unique place of Jews in the meaning of the world. Let’s remember history — it was quite difficult to be Jewish. From the Romans destroying our homeland and renaming it Palestine, to Christian mobs murdering us en masse during their Crusades, to our legal second-class status throughout Christian Europe and Islamic caliphates, our leaders needed to assure us that despite the difficulty of remaining Jewish, it was extremely important to remain within the tribe.

Simultaneous with our wholehearted belief in the relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine, we have also recognized righteousness among other peoples. Early in rabbinic Judaism, we understood righteous gentiles. By observing the “Seven Noahide Commandments,” a non-Jewish person obtains righteousness and a place in the world-to-come.

The Talmud expands on the words in the Torah portion Noah.

The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot:

  1. The commandment to establish courts of judgment; 
  2. Prohibition against blessing, i.e., cursing, the name of God; 
  3. The prohibition of idol worship; 
  4. Prohibition against forbidden sexual relations; 
  5. The prohibition of bloodshed; 
  6. Prohibition of robbery; 
  7. The prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.

Sanhedrin 56a:24 from Kevin Wolf’s Noahide Lawes Sefaria Source Sheet

Please remember: Judaism sees a unique need for Jews in the world. And we recognize and lift up the righteousness of non-Jews. This is why the Noahide commandments became short-hand for describing righteous gentiles.

Choosing an ark of words

What words should we cling to? Personally, I am working towards separating myself from my social media addiction. I choose to live into deep thinking. My goal: allowing space for reading books rather than posts.

Additionally, I recognize that my words can form an ark of salvation or a battering ram of destruction.

My tone of voice matters.

Will my sharp wit respond to factually inaccurate beliefs?

Shall I approach situations wholeheartedly?

Further reading