Abraham, the Hebrew

motzei Shabbos: parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Abram the Hebrew – now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre.”

– Genesis 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

I would like to give a brief shpiel, in regard to the designation of Abraham as an Ivri. This word, denoting his ethnicity, as it were, is transliterated as “Hebrew.” And, in fact, if somebody speaks Ivrit, that means he speaks the Hebrew language. While for all intended purposes, on behalf of those who would like to instill a sense of continuity into Judaism, by claiming that Abraham was the first Jew, this is not actually the case, according to the most basic chronology in regard to the use of the word, Jew, as referring to a specific population or adherent of the religion referred to as Judaism. It would be more to say that Abraham was the first monotheist, as will be shown later in the discussion on the actual meaning of the word, Ivri.

The term Jew is derived from Judah, who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Each of the twelve tribes of Jacob consisted of persons who were referred to as members of their particular tribes, such Benjamites, Ephraimites, and Danites. So, a Judahite would have specifically been a member of the tribe of Judah. Not until sometime after the destruction of the first temple, and the seventy year exile, did the term Judahite become a more general designation. Why? Because, primarily, only members of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin returned to Israel after the seventy year exile – the Judahites, being the more populous tribe.

So, what is the significance of pointing out the difference between the words, ivri and Jew, inclusive of their actual use in history, as opposed to placing meanings upon them, derived from a perspective that recasts, specifically, the word “Ivri” in a quasi-religious light? One benefit is clear, in regard to being able to draw out the actual implications of the word Ivri (Hebrew), that referred to Abraham, and his descendants, who also became known as Israelites. For example, the word Ivri is said to mean “the other side;” thus, Abraham was from the other side of the Euphrates River (Rashi; Genesis Rabbah 42:8). From a symbolic perspective, commentary notes that Abraham was on the other side, in regard to his newfound monotheistic faith, while the rest of the world was steeped in idolatry.

Another point of significance is to make clear that the word Jew, eventually designated the same people known as Hebrews and Israelites, only many generations later, while living in the land of Israel, during the second Temple period. Yet, even to think of Abraham’s descendants living in Israel at that time as Jews, in the same sense that we think of ourselves today, would not be exactly correct either. Namely, because there was no religion, per se, in and of itself, called Judaism at that time. What we think of as the Jewish religion today, was simply the national way of life at the time, mostly centered around Temple worship, as well as synagogues that had been established around the country. The Judaism that we practice today is the result and consequence of our expulsion from Israel after the second Temple was destroyed in 70  C.E. At that time, a center of learning was established in a city called Yavneh, where the sages learned, and from where the Mishnah was eventually codified. Centuries later, Judaism continued to flourish, because of the continuity provided for by way of the Talmud, the observance of the mitzvoth (commandments), and the traditions.

Stewardship

drash for parashas Noach 5782

“All the springs of the great deep were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up.”

– Genesis 7:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

The judgment upon mankind was enacted through the natural forces of both the earth and the heavens. What can be gleaned from this occurrence, that destroyed mankind, except for the eight who were spared? Even the various species of plants and animals, fish and birds were only preserved through the efforts of Noach and his family. They may be said to exemplify what is meant by stewards of the earth. For the sake of mankind, all of the earth was created; so, stewardship cannot be separated from this truth. Is being environmental sanctioned by the Blueprint (Torah) of life? I believe so; yet, the underlying philosophy of radical environmentalism (deep ecology) borders on a type of “natural religion,” irrespective of Creation with a capital “C.”

motzei Shabbos: Sukkot Chol haMoed 5782

And Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba also said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Had there been left open a crack so much as the size of small sewing needle in the cave in which Moses and Elijah stood when G-d’s glory was revealed to them, as it is written: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock” (Exodus 33:22), and: “And he came there to a cave…and, behold, the L-rd passed by” (I Kings 19:9–11), they would not have been able to endure due to the intense light that would have entered that crack, as it is stated: “For no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

– Megillah 19b; sefaria.org

erev Shabbos reflection: Misplaced L’Chayim

As Shabbos approaches, I am fretting. It’s still within the grace period, before lighting the candles; so, it’s not like I’m committing a terrible aveirah (sin) by writing these words for a potential blogpost. It is such in life that hindsight is golden, and upon discerning the nature of a festive meal outside, underneath a sukkah, for lunch on the Second Day of Sukkot (Wednesday), I am concerned that I went above and beyond what I should have permitted for myself, in disregard of many Covid safety protocols that I had established for myself.

And, now, a simple stye in the eye is causing me to wonder whether this is the result of contracting the dreaded coronavirus. It would serve me right, if that were the case; because even my Yiddishkeit standards faltered at the table, for example, when I took part in a l’chayim, for no particular reason. That is not the way of a sincere chassidishe l’chayim. Guilt, regret, and mild worry, are some of the negative feelings that I now harbor as sunset approaches. L’chayim, indeed.

This kind of joy is not worth the trouble that it will bring, as is referred to in psalms, that only uz (then), that is when Israel is fully out of galus, should joy be overflowing (see Psalm 126). Therefore, a vain l’chayim, will only bring empty joy. For those wondering what I am talking about, drinking a l’chayim (a bisel of schnapps) should only be in respect to giving a brief dvar on Torah, for the aliyah of a departed soul, a healing (go figure on this one), or a simcha (good news). Not, simply drinking a l’chayim in order to drink a l’chayim. Shabbat shalom.

Let the Loudness Cease

motzei Shabbos: parashas Haazinu 5782

As the evening wanes, and the new day waxes (“and the evening and the morning were the first day” of the week), I am at a standstill with the circumstances, not knowing how to proceed. For anyone who relies on the customary protocol of Yiddishkeit, such as the routine at the end of Shabbos that comprises a peaceful and meaningful transition from sacred time to mundane time, it is of the upmost importance to carry out these traditions. Yet, to do so without the proper kavannah (intention) would be disrespectful to the Sabbath Queen (the Shechinah – G-d’s immanent presence). And, so, I am taking to writing out my thoughts and feelings, in hope that this will serve as a catharsis, because I do not want to let my negative emotions affect my solemn testimony to the parting of the Sabbath.

Truth be told, this may sound trivial on my part, however, I am thoroughly saturated with annoyance over the volume of the music being played in a neighbor’s apartment. As I would not enter the Sabbath, feeling annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise sullied by negativity, so shall I not depart from this sacred twenty-five hour-period that I look forward to every week. Perhaps, I’ll wait another two hours and twenty minutes until 10:00 p.m., designated as “quiet time,” at the apartment complex where I live, in hopes that he will at least turn his music down some.

Meanwhile, rather than delivering an insightful essay on the weekly reading from the Torah, with some concluding remarks as the new week approaches, I am serving up a rant. My apologies. Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land, because of a prior transgression: he was only granted a view of the land from atop of a mountain. Whatever I have done to deserve this constant interruption to my Shabbos, it is such that although sometimes I am able to enter the sacred time, beginning on Friday evening, that privilege does not always seem to last. So, who am I to complain, if everything is truly somehow from H’Shem, because He is sovereign? (I am but dust and ashes).

Va’etchanan 5781

parashas Va’etchanan 5781

“Ye that did cleave unto the L-RD your G-d are alive every one of you this day.”

 – Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach

During Moshe’s speech that lasted thirty-seven days, he prepared B’nei Yisrael to enter the Promised Land.  He cautioned them, admonished them, and reminded them in a tactful way of previous sins.  Rather than naming the sins, he would mention the place where the transgressions occurred.

One such instance that appears a little more direct is when he mentions the matter of Baal-peor, whereof H’Shem punished “all the men that followed the Baal of Peor [the deity of the Midianites]” (Deuteronomy 4:3).  He further mentions that those who cleaved to H’Shem, rather than follow the deity, “are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).

This juxtaposition makes it clear that those who did not transgress through idolatry and licentiousness were preserved by H’Shem because they “cleaved” to Him.  The Hebrew word used for “cleave,” in this instance, is “deveykut.”  The word connotes a clinging to H’Shem in the sense of one who is dependent on Him for his sense of well-being.

Deveykut is necessary for hitbodedut (Jewish meditation).  Within the practice of hitbodedut, one pours out his heart to H’Shem, hoping for an answer to all of his prayers.  Yet, in complete deveykut, one lives his life in constant acknowledgement of the L-RD.  Furthermore, he is able to speak to H’Shem from within in his heart in the quiet moments of the day. May we avoid the secular deities of modern society, so that we can cleave to the L-RD in our own lives.

shabbos reflection: Blessings Abound

This evening begins the month of Av, as well as the last nine intensive days of the three week period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, leading up to the ninth of Av – the day when both Temples were destroyed about six hundred years apart from each other in history. The Rafael fire brought much consternation to the local residents of the many communities in Northern Arizona; and, seemed like a reminder to me of the tragic nature of the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and its subsequent demise by fire about 1,900 years ago. As a result, even though the state of Israel has been reborn (see Isaiah 66:8), we are still in exile until the time that the third Temple is built. May that day arrive soon.

As erev Shabbos draws near, I take stock for the blessings in this life: tonight begins Rosh Chodesh. So, the coincidence of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, simply means that there are extra blessings derived from the day. By way of explanation, although we already receive an extra portion of shefa (divine flow) on Shabbos in and of itself, Rosh Chodesh also brings additional shefa. Traditionally, it is actually explained that each individual receives an “extra soul” on Shabbos. Otherwise, figuratively speaking, as symbolic of a boost in spirit on the day. The neshama yetera is like an extra portion of the spiritual side of the soul, elevating one’s sense of ruchniyos (spirituality) on the day.

A more detailed explanation can be found elsewhere; what seems important to me, is the connection of one’s soul to the day, through prayer, study, and festive meals. A day to nourish the soul; for when the soul is edified, for example, by reading a book that has to do with higher aspirations, the body also benefits. This opportunity for a heightened spiritual experience should not be squandered. Rather, we should feel inspired to pursue spiritual activities on a day where we cease from work. The Shabbos connotes, as a day of rest, a slower pace, where we can appreciate the countless moments of our lives, as opposed to letting everything pass us by in a flurry of activity. The frenetic pace of the week is set aside, and we welcome the Shabbos in joy and expectation of the even Greater Shabbos, when we enter into Olam Haba (the World to Come).

Heritage: Part Five

Shavuos commemorates Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. A spectacular event, the Revelation at Sinai, when the L-RD gave B’nei Yisrael the Commandments. This was the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. Being made a people unto the L-RD our bond to Him was signified with the commandments, presented as a ketubah (marriage contract) to the Bride (K’lal Yisrael). Our sovereignty as a nation begins here; the declaration being made first, with Matan Torah, then, we were brought into the Land: a people first, then, we were given a country.

Today, the Torah should still speak to our everyday lives; otherwise, Mattan Torah, becomes a glorious event, disconnected from our current times. When we learn Torah, we should feel compelled to incorporate these ideas into our lives; inasmuch that the Torah still has relevancy after so many generations. The Ten Commandments are a good place to start; perhaps, simply by naming them; then, reflecting on each one in relation to our lives.

Although we may believe in G-d, the additional question to pose to ourselves is whether or not we have accepted His Sovereignty. In this sense, as mentioned in commentary (Baal Halachos Gedolos), the first commandment is a call to believe in the existence of G-d; subsequently, accepting His authority as the source of the commandments. When we accept G-d’s Sovereignty, then the commandments become authoritative; otherwise, the commandments could be misconstrued as relative.

Consider as well, that here is a difference between accepting the commandments for ourselves, because we recognize the inherent wisdom in them, akin to the moral perspective that we uphold, versus accepting the commandments as the divine words of G-d; and, as an expression of His expectations of us, regardless of our own perspective. The Jewish people are bound to the commandments, regardless of whatever our perspective may be; therefore, the primacy of the first commandment is that the authority of all of the other commandments are hinged upon the first.

“I am the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

– Exodus 20:2

Heritage: Part Four

When the Revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, B’nei Yisrael were cautioned against drawing too close to the mountain. When the L-RD was present at Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, the status of the mountain was akin to a level of kedushah (holiness), whereby the people were compelled to keep a distance. Afterwards, when the long shofar (trumpet) blasts were sounded, the verbal barricade was lifted. Apparently, there was no inherent holiness present within the structure of Mount Sinai in and of itself. Only when the L-RD’s presence rested on the mountain, in the visible form of the spectacular firework display that surrounded His presence, were the people forbidden to draw near.

Religion itself, may seem barren to us at times, like the landscape of Sinai, when its truths are put upon a pedestal, repeated as dogma without explanation, and upheld without inquiry. Their initial appeal may encompass our attention for a while; yet, their significance may become diminished, unless explored, enhanced, and reviewed. The Talmud mentions that when a soul appears, at the time of Judgment, it is asked, whether it examined the truths of wisdom by asking questions, subsequently, gaining a practical understanding, capable of being applied to one’s life (Shabbos 31a).

Yet, the spiritual, religious, and scriptural truths that we claim to uphold, especially when professing a traditional religious belief system, may become disconnected from our lives, like a balloon that becomes untethered from the string in one’s hand, floating aloft in the sky, unless we can articulate the relevance of those truths in our own lives, and the lives of others. This is essential, in regard to walking on the derech (path) of our ancestors, albeit, in a postmodern world.

As per the thinking of Abraham Heschel, there is an imperative need to make religion relevant in our lives again, even in this very present moment. Otherwise, there may continue to be a disconnect, wherein the truths of belief and practice are not integrated into the actuality of our lives. If we lose sight of the existential significance of our religious tenets, then religion may lose its immediacy. The burden is placed upon mankind to re-establish a connection to G-d. To make truth relevant again, as Heschel advocates, by asking meaningful questions about life, then, searching our religious perspective for the answers.

“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

– Deuteronomy 30:14, JPS 1917 Tanach

Heritage: Part Three

Why were the Commandments given in a desert? Because of its scarceness, wherein there was nothing to interfere with the receiving of G-d’s commandments. Had the commandments been given within civilization, there would have been too many competing factors, vying for the attention of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). This brings to mind, how it is all too true today, that there are many distractions, ideologies, and belief systems, that vie for our attention. With the proliferation of the Internet, the Age of Information has the potential to overwhelm the sensibilities of man’s soul, and spirit. We live in a different kind of wilderness than the desert, wherein B’nei Yisrael received the Torah; we live in a wilderness wherein the light of truth can hardly shine through the fabric of ideas woven into our existence, by way of pixels, optic wires, and Internet cables.

Every year, we stand on the precipice of Shavuos, the culmination of an intense focus on ourselves in light of the self renewal, that we hope to obtain over a period of forty-nine days between Passover and Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). Yet, even after our personal experience at Sinai, we may continue to receive Torah anew, each and every day of our lives, inasmuch that we have the opportunity to increase our understanding of G-d every day. He reveals Himself, within the everyday events of our lives; additionally, He guides us through our intuition, and the various circumstances that we encounter throughout our lives, even on a daily basis, if we are able to tune in to our inner vision. There is a heightened sense of awareness that may be gained, when we take the time and make the effort for every day to count; moreover, that every moment has the potential to reveal what was previously unseen. “I answered thee in the secret place of thunder” (Psalm 81:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).