Chavarah- Jewish Community Learning

A blog of Jewish study and traditions. Notes from classes: Torah Study with Rabbi Marder, Toledot and Shabbaton as well as other details found of interest.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Noah to Terrah to Avram

9/26 Torah Study with Rabbi Marder

Genesis 11: 26-32 - from Terrah to Avram

There are many ideas about Abraham as a child and his family history.

As we enter "historical" time with Abraham the names and the places are documented. There is no physical evidence of Abraham himself.

The introduction of 'characters' that show up again. Lot

3 women:
Sari = princess = queen (Acadian)
Milka (Malka) = queen = daughter of moon god (Acadian)
Ischa ( Milka's sister) - mentioned but no definite information on who she is.

Rashi: Iscah is the same as Sari - this is another name for Sari because she can see into the future.

Who is Sari's father? The problematic question. It is not clear here but later when Abraham takes her to Egypt and says that she is his sister may just be partially true? Many midrashim on this one...

Sari is "barren" she has no children. The term is not that she in infertile necessarily. Some commentators say that she was infertile and that is why the miracle of Isaac is even more important.

Leon Kass: The childless relationship of Sari and Avram is an indication of the importance of the marriage relationship where 'love' exceeds the desire for children. This is also an indicator of Avram's special qualities. He is not ordinary in this way, it shows his potential for compassion and ability to learn and lead people.


Remember there has been no communication from God for 10 generations.

Terrah's family was already on the move - some indication that they were traveling toward Canaan. When Avram leaves it is not clear if he is making a complete break from his father OR if he is continuing the journey.

The numbers show that his father lived a long time after Avram leaves.
- 60 years more approximately
Rashi interprets this as Avram not honoring his father properly as he left him and did not stay to take care of him.

Haran - the place where they were - a center for moon worship

Eli Munk interprets the Zohar commentary on the travels:
The journey of Avram reflect the inner turmoil, he is moving around to seek the truth over the period of 75 years before God speaks to him.

It was Avram's efforts to search for the truth that made him the one chosen by God. He was a spiritual pioneer before he was chosen.

Regarding Sari being barren, Munk points out that this induces prayer by the women. Because God yearns for prayer, the matriarchs were not blessed with children until they prayed.

Another thought was that they had to go to the new land first. They had to break from the past to get a 'fresh start'.

Avram & Sari are held as a model of a good marriage.
Children are just a transitory part of life.

"the tree is judged by it's fruit" You can tell things about the parent from the children.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gibberish and Gates / On to Avram

Torah Study Notes Sept 12

R. Marder Genesis 11:8-9

The name Babel
derivative from Babylonia

They thought: Bab El (Babylon) - Gate to/of God
God named: Babel - Gibberish

interesting etymology here.
Language accentuates the differences between people.
It is a double edged sword.

Samson Raphael Hirsch on the nature of Hebrew.

In his translation and commentary on Genesis, the great nineteenth century German Neo-Orthodox rabbi and scholar, Samson Raphael Hirsch, provides what is perhaps a more accurate translation of this very difficult passage. Working from an elaborate system of Hebrew philology that attempts to establish the true meaning of the Biblical text from within itself based on the etymological and phonetic relationships among the words of the Biblical lexicon, Hirsch makes a compelling case that the Hebrew text in Genesis 10:5 is saying that the proliferation of dialects (literally "tongues") was a consequence of the dispersion of peoples, not its cause. He further points out that the Hebrew word for "language" used in Genesis 11 is not the same as the word for "tongue" used in Genesis 10:5, but describes something much more general. He argues that what is being described in Genesis 11:7 is not a confusing of language in the sense of dialectification so much as a "withering away...the thought that is conveyed by this passage is that when God comes down, language is detached from its formative source." (The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, Feldheim, New York and Jerusalem, 2002; English translation of the 1867 German edition by Daniel Haberman, pp. 252-280).

the English word for "have" is not in Hebrew
What belongs to a person in English is 'alloted' to a person in Hebrew. Private property or the notion of ownership is not a concept in Hebrew - it was introduced in other languages.

The concept of multi-lingual people having a deeper understanding of things was discussed.

Yiddish Folktale - the feminist version:

(need details)

End of the story has a repetition or redundant line: Scattered is noted twice and that must have hidden meanings.

Rashi says they were scattered once in this world and again in the world to come.

There is confusion in figuring out the punishment for human behavior when comparing the flood punishment to the Babel punishment:

Flood - people were bad to each other and the punishment was death.
Babel - people actually worked together well but the rebelled against God - punishment was to be scattered and diversified.

Thus peace among people is given greater importance and less drastic of a punishment.

Verses 10-32 give another lineage from Shem to Avram
10 generations -
similarly there are 10 generations from Adam to Noah

Comparing the structure of this line to Chapter 5 - after Adam -
The life spans get shorter.
Younger when they have children
And in Chapter 11 it doesn't say "and they died"

Eli Munk points out the the importance of this lineage shows that the patriarchs are human and not divine. Which is important when considering the ancestry of the messiah.

Midrash on the younger life of Avram from this: how Terrah saw his youngest son die based on Nimrod throwing Avram into the furnace.

And another story on how Avram smashed his father’s idols and tried to blame it on the ‘bigger’ idol to show him that idols have no power.

(more updates soon)

Shana Tova!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Human Needs: Outside Guidelines and Humility

Finish Chapter Genesis 11:4 - 9 Torah Study with Rabbi Marder

end v5 God "comes down" to investigate - last word = children of Adam

Introduces the concept that the building project is human - and they have limits and humility of Children of Adam

Rashi - Torah didn’t need this phrase (sees humor) Who else built it? (the animals?)
why give this - vene adam - descendants of the first Adam who was ungrateful to God - per garden of Eden - when Adam blamed Eve... and blamed God for giving Eve to him. These descendants of Adam are also ungrateful and are rebelling against God for saving them from the flood. A characteristic of humans

Midrash modern Hasidic interpretation - quotes Rashi - then the characteristics in a person carry over for several generations. Family patterns. This characteristic of Adam followed through the generations to these people. From this if people improve attributes then that will be continued for generations. - a message of “hope’.

v 6 - if one people with one language then this is what they will do... their power will be infinite.

Rashi reads as an interrogative - And now should not all they propose to do be withheld from them? as a question. God not threatened. They are using their benefits, unity, for destructive purposes. God Questions if he should intervene so they don’t get into so much trouble...

v7 let us go down ... (reminder - Rashi ran a yeshiva) God consulted with his ‘bet din’ because of humility.

Confound language - what happens when they no longer understand each other.
One person asks for a brick and another person brings limes instead. Makes the person angry and the situation becomes chaotic. Communication problems cause failure of the tower building project.

Humility - comes up in different ways on this text.

Hasidic commentary:

Creation not finished - God wants humans to use our intelligence to continue creation. Part of plan. BUT generation of Babel - denied God and said they had created it all on their own.

What was the sin of the generation? Traditional thought: They denied God.
Other interpretations were more politically driven.

3 books by Kushner referenced:
  • Who Needs God -
  • How Good Do We Have to Be -
  • Overcoming Life’s Disappointments

Question: What is the Necessity of God?

Leon Kass - prof Univ of Chicago - Trace what had happened to this point. Early chapters outline 4 conditions :
1. Simple Innocence - (Eden)
2. Anarchy - life without law - should know right and wrong - (Cane Abel)
3. Life in Primordial Law - State of Nature - (Noah) - law passed by generations
4. Dispersion of People - each under it’s own law.

God keeps trying new plans.
People realize that the previous methods don’t work. So cannot rule from within. Need help from outside to have laws to live by. Instinct not strong enough. Therefore we need God.

First failing of people of Babel - lack of piety - they begin to believe in their own superiority.
They see no eternal horizon. This is the theme of the story and the danger.

relationship to the High Holy Days:

Gates of Repentance: addresses the same question as Babel

comment before Avenu Malkenu in the Yom Kippur service
- “hundreds of people have done this before” - - - “we are of the generation who had fought to dethrone You” “men and women grow smaller without You” / God...

Refer to the love of God as the love of a parent - regardless of what we do.

Avenu Malkanu -words
Have mercy on us
We are of little merit -

Avenu Malkanu -
the prayer lists all the sins we have done collectively.
Shared act of humility - so if you as an individual didn’t do this sin, someone in the greater congregation probably did - it is acknowledging our flaws as a group.

Humanism is not enough:

People cant make it on own instincts alone, humans keep getting us in trouble - this is why we need Torah, the book of wisdom, to guide us so we have a decent world to live in.

We need a source of wisdom from outside ourselves.

Compare the Christian view presented by Paul - Conscious of sin and the overwhelming feeling of guilt. Jesus lifts the burden of this guilt and the need to always follow the ‘laws’.

Jewish answer - you are capable of making a real mess or of doing good. You can do better with work and following the guideline and ability to ‘do better’. We are capable of good but also we can make big mistakes.

Tshuvah - not repentance - it is going back to true authentic self, the goodness inside us.

Issue of humility: Always two sided in Judaism - the two notes - one “for my sake the world was created” other “we are but dust” - balance these two consciousnesses at all times.

Kushner about humility - acknowledging something larger than self.
Humility - Not self effacement nor false modesty. Not everything in life is about you. Recognizing that you are not responsible to run the world.

Why so hard to accept this? When a child we are the center of the world. As we grow the child learns to leave this concept behind for the satisfaction of sharing with others. Teens who learn to manipulate others around them. And bosses who abuse employees. Terrible spouses who need to win every argument. Humility is the cure for these faults. The essence message: “leave a little to God”

This interpretation is less about needing wisdom and more about recognizing that the world doesn’t exist for you alone.

Commentators reacting to “let us make a name for ourselves” - About the belief that we don’t need anything beyond ourselves.

There is a standard for ‘right and wrong’ that started within religion, but it can be separated from religion.

Connection between humility and the ground. We are the earth - source of humility.

Check R. Marder’s sermon from 9/4/2009 for use of language.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tower Interpreted Across Ages

Genesis: 11 1-9 Torah Study Class 8/29 with Rabbi Janet Marder

Many interpretations of the story

Gadal (Hebrew root) = big tall – what is the significance?
What is wrong with this?
How can we understand the consequences?

most interpretations: “Make name for selves” indicates a rebellion against God – idolatry.

Story has been construed as a satire and a mocking of Babylonian culture. A parody.

More modern interpretations

Abravanel – 15th century -
Urbanization brings corruption and violence
“journey from East” (v2) Kedem means East and before – interpretation based on these words – moved from how the world was to technological production by man.

Rousseau– 18th century – On the Origin of Inequality
man who fenced in an area and said “this is mine” - and others believed him – the beginning of inequality. - No one owns the earth!
Once people congregate there is the strong who abuse of power and dominate the weak. Cynicism of people getting together to build the city.

Erich Auerbach - compares the Bible to Homer – Biblical style leaves out the details

Bricks = technology of its day.

Netziv: Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin – 19th century of Volozhin (now Belarus Russia)
“top in the heavens” - not plan for one city in the world – but this city would be the dominate city – with a watch tower to see others. To make sure no one would break away.
concern – that the ideas of people should be the same – builders of the tower were to be sure no one would change their way of thought. Sees a denial of independent thought.
“Big Brother” concept.

Midrash quoted: Years building tower – took a year to climb to the top – brick was more precious than the life of a human. If a brick fell they wept but not if a man fell.
About the inhumanity of its time – refers to the time of Roman building projects.

“God came down” “God descended” verse 3
Suggests human-like image of God

Ibn Ezra on anthropomorphisms
But accepts as a description. Human language.

David Kimze – also of the middle ages
Describes the lowly man- scripture calls this descent – language of spatial movement – when God wants to examine human deeds.

Rashi – to teach judges not to condemn an offender until they have reviewed all the details - personal investigation. (a teaching point)

Eli Munk – quote: Nachmanades – Kabalistic reading - descend when applied to God – says that it refers to the scale of divine attributes. Still God that comes down – metaphorical way God moves from love and compassion down to strict justice.

Satire – God had to “come down” but they were building a tower – not tall enough!

Samson R Hirsch – describes as a society that is determined that they don’t need God. Problem was in the attitude that motivated the builders. Structure to remind

Community must act in service to God. Problematic that the act of building the monument is the ‘end’ rather than a ‘means to an end.’

Seen as an act to ‘dethrone’ God – an act of arrogance.

- - -
Another theme of Torah: ending of divine intervention

Tower of Babel is the ‘last direct intervention’ by God. Concept that end of Bible the earth is given to humans.

Men don’t learn their lessons.

Another interesting parallel to Jacob's ladder - link

- - -
“Let us go down” Who is “us”?

1. Majestic / Royal “WE”
2. God consults with the angels.

Significance – God is humble – takes cognizance of other opinions. (team of Rivals)

Value of humility – act of humility.

V7 – Let us… Hebrew ‘Hava’ – first word
V3 – same word/phrase used when humans are talking. Symmetry

Word for Confound- Wordplay on the word for brick also – the consonants are reversed.

V8 – scatters – stopped building – story based on the ruins 100 bce of a ziggurat

Question is it a punishment or not?

Benno Jacob - 20th century reform Jewish commentator
Misunderstood story – Name Tower of Babel misleading it is about the city.

Not like the story of the Titans… not an attack on heaven.

About the building of the city as an act of unification due to anxiety and fear. Want to gather together not to get lost. The scattering of the nations is a consequence of population growth and a fulfillment of the mitzvah.
"The tower was to bring them fame and glory. their mistake was to use their technology for pride and vanity instead of using it to improve quality of life in their society."

Earth given so we will spread out and become diverse!

Story is a protest against uniformity.

Poem by our classmate Nora Buys:

The tower has gone
Its rubble smoothed away
By winds and rains and wars
Even so, the whisper
“You can be like God”
Still lures, still tempts,
Still seduces

Responding arrogance builds new towers
Seizes new powers
Grabs new riches
Creates new empires
Always to crumble into oblivion
The sighing, murmuring, siren voice lies
For we cannot be like God

© Nora Buys