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.

IF you want to be part of our Chavarah email group let me know at

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Motivation to Go...

Torah Study 10/24

Genesis 12: 4-6 - review with Rabbi Marder

Continuing the story of Abraham as he set forth to Caanan

Leon Kass – exploring Avram’s motivation for going on this journey.
Noting the immediate obedience and questioning if the motivation is based on the promises or his faith alone.

This is one of the elements in the evolving understanding of Abraham’s character.

Eli Munk – There is a struggle of good vs evil from this question.

A Hassidic approach (v4) Avram goes because he is ‘just commanded’ to do so.

He does not need the recognition or glorification.

BOOK REFERENCE: Forgetting Yourself On Purpose
Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition
~ by Brian J. Mahan & Robert Coles

Peter Pitzele – compare Abraham to Odysseus ...
Both on a Quest! Both ‘men of the world’.
Contrasting the motivation and questions if they go on their mission for fame and privileges or not?

Abraham – a hero of silence. “listens to win”
“ordeals of imagination!”

Questions the meaning of life!

"Humbition"- want everyone to know you are humble!

Richard Freidman — emphasis on obedience rather than faith

Peter Pitzele - “history gave obedience a bad name!”
Ambivalence and fear may have also been evident in Avram’s motivation.

The Word Obedience – means more ‘pay attention’ or listen to the call.

BOOK REFERENCE: Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles
Never forget the compassion of children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Great Nation Blessed

Genesis 12: 2-5 - Torah study 10-17 Rabbi Marder

Continuing the story of Abraham
Great Nation – what is that?

Rashi – a different view - Daily prayers say “God of Abraham” - at end of Avot prayer - “magen Avraham” - single out Abraham for special blessing.

Bal Shem Tov – repeat “God of___” - each forefather came to an awareness of God in his own way.

Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg – contemporary scholar – Genesis – Beginning of Desire. - Abraham will be redefined / reborn / transformed to another – “Shredding of destiny” – to change and to move to a new place – an act of kriah. Needs to go through a destabilizing process to change from Avram to Abraham.

Midrash: “a two sided coin was made with Abraham’s image on it” one side Avram & Sari other side young boy and girl who might be the ‘rejuvenated Abraham & Sarah’ - Hassidic interpretation that the drive for money remains throughout life young to old.
OR the coin of Abraham message that he was generous when he was young and when he was older.
OR could represent the transfer of things from one generation to the next.

“And you will be a blessing”
Can read 2 ways – future tense or command form to BE a blessing
Rashi – “Blessing are placed in your hand” - Abraham now has power to bless others.
Commentators read it differently – Riches kept for their owners only will hurt themselves – must share wealth and goodness.
I will bless you and you will be a blessing – I will bless you and you will bless others.

Other interpretations:
  • People will ‘flock’ around you to be blessed.
  • You will succeed whatever you do
  • You will be the standard of blessing – become like Abraham
  • Where you go – be an inspiration for others
  • Sharing of wealth and ideas that are ‘blessings’

“Those who bless you ... Those who curse you”
Iben Ezra – you will have many friends and those who curse you will be few.
Hassidic – “try to have many who like him and few who dislike him...” “try to have few enemies”

2 verbs for cursing -
Kalal – action of the offender
Aror – God’s response to the offender
SR Hirsch – God will accompany Abraham to the new nations and will judge them by how they treat Abraham.

“all the families of the earth – shall bless themselves by you” or “ bless through you”
(7 promises Abraham received)
Mystical interpretation – Eli Munk – As he leaves home he is blessed with 7 benedictions – like the newlyweds beginning a new life.
Zohar – Souls of righteous – exists with God when sent to the body it is given 7 blessings. Soul function in body is the same as Avram is in the land where he is going. Speaking to the soul of Avram.
Peter Pitzele – compare Abraham to Odysseus ... (next time)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Jewish Story is Launched

Summary of topics/highlights – will fill in details later...
Torah Study 10/10 Genesis 12:1-3

About Avram - Abraham
  • • The special relationship between God and Avram/Abraham - Avram picked - not because he was perfect - probably because he was faithful and willing to stand his ground.
  • • Why did he have to go from one pagan land to another? - Your message is better heard away from home - people listen to 'outside consultants'
  • • The beginning of the patriarchs of the Jews - Why wasn't Terrah the beginning instead? (other than he made idols)
  • • Problems with traveling and why it is significant according to Rashi
  • • about children, wealth and fame - Avram had to be in a new place for this (his fate) to happen...
  • • "Bless you ... Great Nation" - what does that mean?
  • • "to a land I will show you" - why not tell him where he was going? Why is God so vague about the instructions?
  • • Connection to Eretz Israel. - a review of views.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sukkot and Joy!

Notes from Howard Selznick

Sukkot, on the heels of that most somber and reflective of Jewish days, Yom Kippur, is supposed to be joyous (Leviticus 23:40, Deuteronomy 16:14). In Rabbi Janet Marder’s study session at Shabbat-Sukkot services, congregants reflected on the meaning of “joy.”

What kind of joy is in the sukkah? Is it physical pleasure of backyard or fire escape camping?
“Look at us! We’re outdoors eating in our sukkah – woo hoo! “
“Yeah, but it’s freezing out here and it looks like rain. Vay iz mir! You call this joy?”

Indeed, how is it possible to be happy by eating outdoors in a flimsy “booth” when it’s turning cold and rainy?
Sukkot joy is not about “woo hoo, we’re camping in the city; isn’t this fun?” If you think about the immediate environment and personal comfort, then the point is missed.

The Sukkot festival is celebrated for the booths in which the Israelites lived after the Exodus in Egypt (Leviticus 23:43). Living in booths is a link to Jewish historical myth. For those living in Eastern European ghettos, it was a link across time and space from their tenuous existence in less-than- enlightened regimes to a time when Jews were free from slavery.

According to poet Charles Reznikoff [ below], being in Sukkah is a journey from barrenness to garden. To those ghetto dwellers, it was 51 weeks in a crowded, chilly, dank environment and one week of joy somewhere else where life was better, where lush plants and fruits grow –- palm, citron, willows.

The wilderness experience during the Exodus simulated in the sukkah lets imagination run wild. This was especially relevant in those Eastern European ghettos, where living was stateless and rootless – always strangers in someone else’s country. Living in the sukkah recalls the journey to a place of stability; it was your own land where crops grow plentifully and you’re in control.

We go outside physically to the sukkah, but once inside the sukkah, we get spiritual. We may prefer to stay indoors in stable, warm, dry structures; but inside in the sukkah, a fragile structure where it may be cold and windy, we connect to our ancestors who wandered in temporary, flimsy structures, all for the goal of getting to a better place, the land of Israel.

As Samson Raphael Hirsch puts it, our homes may be sturdy and seem permanent, but it’s an illusion, a temporary structure, especially in earthquake country; if this were written in the Midwest, it would be tornadoes; in the southeast, hurricanes. This is Rabbi Janet’s extrapolation of Hirsch’s idea; Hirsch probably didn’t know about earthquakes or North American weather extremes. We need to be in a Sukkah to remind us of the temporary nature of human existence. It may seem “joyous” to be under a roof with lots of furniture, appliances, and books. You may be calm but it’s a house of cards. Instead, the Sukkah brings out an inner joy based not on “stuff” but on a connection to Jewish history. It’s an inner calm being connected to God.

“Feast of Booths,” poem by Charles Reznikoff
From the Kol Haneshama: The Reconstructionist Siddur, Shabbat Vehagim, page 809.

This was the season of our ancestors’ joy:
not only when they gathered the grapes and the
fruit of the trees
in Israel, but when, locked in the dark and
stony streets
they held—symbols of a life from which they
were banished
but to which they would surely return—
the branches of palm trees and of willows, the
twigs of the myrtle,
and the bring odorous citrons.

This was the grove of palms with its deep well
in the stony ghetto in the blaze of noon;
this is the living stream lined with willows;
and this the thick-leaved myrtles and trees
heavy with fruit
in the barren ghetto—a garden
where the unjustly hated were justly safe at last.

In booths this week of holiday
as those who gathered grapes in Israel lived
and also to remember we were cared for
in the wilderness—
I remember how frail my present dwelling is
even if of stones and steel.

I know this is the season of our joy:
we have completed the readings of the Torah
and we begin again;
but I remember how slowly I have learnt,
how little,
how fast the year went by, the years—
how few.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Lech Lecha - 2 words to many words!

Torah Study 10/3 Genesis 12
Rabbi Marder

The Call To Abraham/Avram - Lech Lecha

Two words and so much commentary!

Go Forth - the two words that launch the 'Jewish enterprise'.

Torah themes: Home and Homelessness - a pervasive theme throughout
characters in Bible always seeking a home but then they must leave their homes.
Always looking for our identity and yet always a 'stranger in a strange land'.

Lech Lecha - continues the theme of being driven away. Being told to 'get out'.

These are the words that break God's silence for 10 generations.

The word "lecha" 'demands interpretation' as well as the repetition.

Rashi: "go for your own benefit" Lecha implys 'for you'
he focused on the 'IF you go God will make him a great nation"
IF you leave 'you can have children'

Contradictory to the image of Avram with his strong faith that implies he would go only for his love of God.

There is a link also to the later event with the binding of Isaac - starts with the same two words: Lech Lecha

Hassidic interpretations comparing to Noah - the Noah part begins with praise for Noah. Abraham is not praised, he is just told to go. Abraham is not chosen because he is righteous because of what follows. God's reasons are unknown. The Israelites are CHOSEN - not necessarily because they are righteous.

"God is just nuts about Abraham and who knows why!" (R. Marder)

Rashi: another interpretation - "so I will make known your character in the world"

Midrash compares Abraham to a bottle of perfume:
"The Lord said to Abram: 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1) What did Abraham resemble? A bottle of perfume closed with a tight fitting lid and lying in a corner so that its fragrant smell was not spread. When it was moved, however, its fragrance was spread. Similarly, god said to Abraham: "Travel from place to place and your name will become great in the world." (Bereshit Rabba 39:2)

God needed a broader arena to show the talents of Abraham, so he was sent out into the world.

Sampson Raphael Hirsh: 19th cen Germany - "Go by yourself" " Go your own way" "be by yourself" - Lech Lecha is a command to be different. It is fundamental to being a Jew - to be different and to walk apart from centralization of thought.

To 'go away from the spirit of the times' was essential in SRH time. Abraham becomes a metaphor for protest against what is currently accepted. He was willing to walk away in order to be faithful to God.

Philo: (from the Plaut Gleanings) - reads Lech Lecha in a more 'Helenistic' way - to separate himself from the material world. To 'escape the body' and focus on the spiritual.

Hassidic reading: "Go for yourself" Go for the benefit of Eretz Israel.
It is all about the motivation:
You should be willing to go to the land - even if it means economic sacrifice.
Lech Lecha - is seen at the first commandment to go to Israel.

Jonathan Magonet (20th cen): Links the first 'lech lecha' here with the 'lech lecha' of the binding of Isaac. It is a similar starting point. Which is harder to leave home and family or to sacrifice your child? (Compares Abraham's leaving home to Don Quixote) We do not see Abraham's thoughts on leaving. He does not argue with God on the command "lech lecha".

However, Abraham is know for 'arguing' with God when it is for the benefit of someone else - as in the Sodom case.

What is a 'great nation'? We are so few by comparison.
Greatness is based on the relationship with God, based on quality not quantity.
The greatness of the Jewish nation is measured more by our contributions to the world.

This is why the shofar is blown from the small end to make a great sound.

Lech Lecha - from a psychological view -

Aharon of Karlin: "go to yourself" - seek your own roots.

R. Zusya: "go for your essence" accomplish what you can - follow your own skills a you are responsible to give this to the world.

When Rabbi Zusya was about to die, his students gathered around him. They saw Rabbi Zusya's eyes break out into tears. "Our master," they said with deep concern, "Why are you crying? You have lived a good, pious life, and left many students and disciples. Soon you are going on to the next world. Why cry?"
Rabbi Zusya responded, "I see what will happen when I enter the next world. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Moses? I am not expected to be Moses. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Rabbi Akiba? I am not expected to be Rabbi Akiba. They will ask me, Why was I not Zusya? That is why I am crying. I am asking, why was I not Zusya?"
The greatest tragedy of life is not death. The greatest tragedy is dying without having completed our mission, dying before we know why we lived. Each of us has a responsibility to search our own soul and ask the ultimate question - "why did God place me on this earth?"

R. Nachum: "go for yourself" for benefit and pleasure.
Abraham needed to wander to better understand other people and lifestyles. It made him a better 'host'.

Rashi: A person is appreciated more outside his own home.
(thus the need for an outside consultant)