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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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Go Down to Go Up

That's Not What the Good Book Says by Yair Zakovitch Avigdor Shinan
Compares the Story of Avram & Sari going to Egypt to the Book of Esther.

The Genesis of Ethics by Burton L. Visotzky

Chapter 13 - Going UP from Egypt

Refers to both geographically and spiritually ‘going up’

Eli Munk – on the spiritual journey of Abraham. Avram held his high moral standards and was not influenced by the moral attitudes in Egypt but he had to be exposed to this so he would be able to rise higher:

Thanks to Jack Goldberg for the appropriate song:

Mipney ma, mipney ma, yoredet han'shama l'mata
Mipney ma, mipney ma, yoredet han'shama.

Hoy, hoy yerida, yerida tsorech aliya (2)

Why does the soul go downward?
Because descent is required for rising up.

Aaron Copland used the melody in his piano trio Vitebsk, Studies on a
Jewish Theme He heard it when attending a performance of The Dybbuk,
by S. An-Sky. A Google search on [mipney ma copland] will identify
many references, many of which use Ladino in the second verse. Mine
uses Hebrew for both verses.

You can preview it at this site

Abraham was exposed to the dangers in Egypt. Parallel to the story of the Israelite people when they went to Egypt. They had to experience Egypt to rise higher after they left.

Talmudic quote: “the repentant sinner stands higher than the high priest”

A bad experience can be the “booster rocket” to better experiences.

Burt Visotzky’s book accepts Abraham as flawed.

Karen Armstrong – contemporary teacher at Leo Beck School -
The ethics is not the primary teaching of Torah, it is more about the progressive separation between man and God.
“Ethical fashions” change over time. All the patriarchs were a failure in their family relationships.

What Avram took with him:
His wife is mentioned separately from his other possessions which is significant.
And the way Lot is mentioned is also significant – important because of what happens later.

Avram was wealthy – The question arises – where did his wealth come from?
Lot also had possessions – where did he get his wealth?

The word for wealth also means “heavy” - which allows for many interpretations.
Rashi – He was laden with the burden of wealth!
“wealth weighs you down”
More wealth = More worries

There is also a parallel with the episode in Exodus – the fleeing Israelites ‘borrow’ wealth from the neighbors.

The word also is related to Kavod = respect.

Avram returned by the same route that he came to Egypt. (to the tent where he was before)

Two interpretations:

  • Rashi – this is proper conduct because it shows that he had been satisfied with his lodgings before and he is showing loyalty to those who helped him previously.
  • Hasiddic – he was content with what he had before – money didn’t change him.

A lesson in frugality!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sari - a Princess - Avram Not So Cool!

Gen 12: Review of the Overall Story with Rabbi Sarah Wolf

Details and Generalizations about Avram and Sari and their venture into Egypt were explored this week.

Sari = Princess – word play in Torah. Whose Princess was she?

The Morality of Avram Question:
Per Leon Kass – Avram was just clueless.
God intervenes and makes the situation right without the knowledge of Avram.
God intervenes often when it comes to situations with women.
Avram needs to learn how to treat a wife.

Per Mark Brett – Avram needs to learn about dealing with foreigners.
It is a lesson in understanding and not fearing foreigners.

Per Robert Altar – this is one of the ‘conventions’ in Torah – repeating themes
- a literary style that repeats itself throughout Torah:
meeting the wife at the well, baren wife later has a son, mistaken identity, opportunity for God to save the people from disaster...

Another theme: Women to the rescue – but the men get the applause!

Does Avram pass his wife as his sister to “save his skin”?


Per Randi – was the whole adventure Sari’s idea?

Per Samson R. Hirsch – No human is the model for proper behavior – God is the model we should follow.
The Patriarchs are ‘not whitewashed’

Irony – The first time Avram speaks in Torah is not very ‘flattering’.
He is not trusting, he doesn’t treat his wife well and he seems very selfish. We question again why he was chosen.

This was one of the ‘tests of Abraham’ - So, did he pass?
This depends on who you ask!
To better understand the message you need to better understand the ancient audience for words of Torah.

“the story keeps our attention but the commercial is the important message here”

This is the predecessor to the Lot story where the women also are ‘expendable’.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lies and Gifts and Avram's Character

Torah Study with Rabbi Marder Gen 12:10 - 20

Many possible ways to interpret why Avram got all those gifts from Pharaoh. AND why was Pharaoh was so eager for Sari and Abraham to split and take all those gifts with them.

Why did Avram tell Sari to say she was his sister? On the surface this seems very unethical and selfish.
David Kimke – 13th Cen. France offered 2 options
1 – The “lie or die” suggestion – Avram would have a better chance to survive if she lies.
2 – The “marriage isn’t important” thought – as Avram has so little trust and faith at this point he believes he must compromise the honor of his wife to survive.

Verse 14 – Entering Egypt – it only says that Avram Enters – no mention of Sari or the others who traveled with him at this point.
Problematic wording.
Rashi says that this indicates that Avram hid Sari in a box to smuggle her in but it backfired when the Egyptians inquired to the content and he said it was garments. (or spices) and he was quick to agree to pay the tax on the garments which arose suspicion and the found Sari when they opened the box.

And there is the romantic version of the story – In Avram’s eyes Sari was still beautiful even though she was older.

When Sari was taken to Pharaoh's house – text is missing from the story to describe the ‘parting’.

Eli Munk – says that Avram was just “buying time” and didn’t think that Pharaoh would want Sari himself. He was obliged to accept the payment. But they both resort to prayer and God answered – Pharaoh returned Sari and told them to leave.

Sari’s abduction was one of the 10 trials of Abraham.

Midrash is troubled by Avram’s behavior – thus there are many different explanations.

Samson Raphael Hirsch says that Avram was desperate and felt he had no alternatives. He says there is a reason for his morally ambiguous behavior.
On the list of gifts he was given – the listing is haphazard in order indicating that Pharaoh was in a “frenzy” to gain Avram’s favor. One of the ‘gifts’ was a maidservant – but spelled without the vav – so not plural – midrash says this was Hagar – the same servant that later bears his son Ishmael.

Nahum Sarna on Camels – An anachronistic interpretation – Camels in the Bible are associated with women – here with Avram getting camels, again when they are taken to find a wife for Isaac ... They are rare and a sign of wealth.

Eli Munk – Avram is later shown as not being materialistic – he shows characteristics of generosity and lack of greed for things. Here is was obliged to accept the gifts.

There is an explanation of Pharaoh’s actions that there were plagues – a parallel to the Exodus story – In this case it is speculated that Pharaoh was plagued with a debilitating skin disease that made it impossible for him to have sex with Sari. This might explain his response a bit.

Another possibility is that the term Devar = Word – thus Sari had words with Pharaoh – She did reveal to him who she was.

And it does indicate that they prayed to God – Their prayers were answered!

And another question: Why didn’t Avram return all the gifts? “This is a great miracle in this story!”

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Promise - Takes a Long Time to Fulfill

Gen 12:7-9 Torah Study 11/28
with Rabbi Marder

God will give this land to Abraham's offspring. - "to your ‘seed’ I will give this land."
A line that is the foundation of the idea that the land is divinely promised.
This seems an absolute promise from God – but caused a lot of problems.

Cannot have a rational dialogue on this today.

In original context:
relates to Beginning Chapter 12 ‘make you a great nation’
Here the promise is for a specific 'territory'.

Long time between the promise to Avram and the fulfillment that doesn't happen until the end of Torah. Avram continues to wander and doesn't settle there.

The theme of Jewish history is to live in the interval between - maintain hope, not to give in, and to believe the promise will be fulfilled.

What happens to Avram / Happens to the Jewish people throughout history.

Commentator 12th Century - from France - () - Avram was never commanded to *live* in the land - God said he "may" dwell there.

Orthodox response is that this is a commandment to be in Israel.
Ohr Somayach - Ask The Rabbi - notes that you have to be a sufficient and productive person in Israel to live there.

Avram built an altar - in gratitude to God near the tree.
When patriarchs worship it is private and build their own altar. Never see that any altars or worship is noted outside of Israel. No group worship. Private model of religion of the patriarchs.

What is an 'altar'? Means by which you make an offering.
An altar is a symbolic way to 'lift up' things to God.

Book by Mark Brett - Melborne - Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire
no hint in Genesis of the ideology of dispossession as in other Books
Avram builds altar near a tree. This flaunts the concepts presented in Deuteronomy. Avram is NOT worshiping the tree, but the tree becomes a landmark.

Why build an altar?
There is an intrinsic impulse of the human spirit to give thanks to God.

Eli Munk - Says that Avram was able to worship with his whole spirit.
Another concept is that the altar built is a symbolic way for Avram to claim the land. It is his 'mark' on the land.

Avram goes to the mountains:
Hebrew Ha Harah - hey - at end of word- going to the mountains.
Why go to mountains two thoughts:
1. Getting away from the fighting. There were problems within the Canaanites who were battling for the land.
2. fanciful reading: read the 'hey' as a symbol of God. Says that he went to the mountain of God - Mt. Moriah - where he builds the second altar - (some say this is where the temple is built in Jerusalem and also where the binding of Isaac happens)

Zohar - commentary on the altars built by Avram.
1. dedicated to God - the one that appeared
2. dedicated to the God 'the invisible' - Kaballah - the God that we cannot know.

Mountain East of Bet El - Geography noted is problematic. Not everyone says it is where the Temple will be built - the Zohar does.

Where he goes: Bethel - House of El - Cannanite Diety - near a pagan center Avram builds his own altar. Later this is where Jacob has his dream.
Ha Ai -a Ruin - Identified as a 'tel' - associated later with Joshua and the military conquer of the place.

Rashi - says Avram knew that this place would be the site of misfortune in the future. Avram comes back to this place again.

Richard Freedman - says this is another indication that the books were edited later - which explains the connections between the places and the significance into the future. Shows that the influence is there from our ancestors even though we don't directly know it.

v8 - Move to the south and 'pitched his tent' - in Hebrew the word for tent ends in 'hey' which can be interpreted as the feminine. Rashi says that this means that Avram always pitched his wife's tent first.

end of v8 - "He called to God by name"
*Nachmanades - interprets that Avram started preaching about God.
13th Century Spain - later Nachmanades was forced to defend his faith and then he was exiled from Spain.

*Eli Munk - Where Jerusalem will stand - Avram begins a missionary effort. The patriarchs 'spread the word of God'.

"There was a famine in the land"
As soon as he gets to the land - things turn bleak.

What is famine? - Death - serious matter-
Famines do not happen often in Israel - 5 famines mentioned in Bible.
Why is there famine? - Lack of rain in a place dependent on rain for water.
Why did they go to Egypt? Egypt is not dependent on rain.

Nahum M. Sarna commentary:
Land not have milk & honey in Genesis -
Israel dependent on rainfall... Egypt not - has the Nile.
The few times there famine are mentioned:
Here, the time of Joseph, in the time of David, the time of Joshua, in the story of Ruth.
The people were aware of their need for divine protection.

Famine in the land is one of the 'trials of Abraham'.
Book by Rabbi Michael Ozair: The Ten Trials of Abraham

The Rambam, (Maimonides) in his explanation of the above Mishna enumerates the ten trials:

1) the “Calling" of Lech Lecha, leaving behind a situation that is no longer working in order to surrender to the unknown.

2) the famine in Canaan, especially after G-d has promised blessing and prosperity – economic security of the entire region is threatened. Feelings of abandonment and perhaps betrayal from Life itself.

3) the injustice he faced in Egypt concerning Sarah – government sponsored injustice.

4) the war between the four kings and the five kings – being at the mercy of the turbulent political climate of the times.

5) the marriage to Hagar that came as a result of having no children with Sarah – family drama and relationship challenges

6) the command to circumcise himself at his advanced age – carrying out G-d’s Will can be painful.

7) the injustice and deception suffered at the hands of Avimelech of Grar when he also took Sarah – people could be cunning, manipulative and self seeking at the expense of others

8) the sending away of Hagar after having impregnated her - family drama, heartbreak, and pain.

9) The sending away of his son Ishmael – family drama, heartbreak and pain.

10) And finally, the binding and attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak, his beloved son, Isaac – testing the limits of sanity itself

Rashi - Famine 'in the land' - means ONLY in that land - to test Abraham. God told him to go there and now He has to leave there.
Will Abraham hold his faith in trying times?