Rushing To Help: Abraham’s Model

This week we read parshat Vayera. The parsha opens with three guests visiting Abraham in his tent. Abraham greets the guests and feeds them, also giving them milk to drink. Abraham didn’t know that the guests were angels sent to tell Abraham that Sarah would have a baby.

One thing that I found interesting was that Abraham rushes to greet his guests. He also washes their feet for them, even though he has never met them. He rushes his wife, Sarah, into making them a meal. He also rushes to make them feel comfortable, which shows he has a lot of hospitality. In the Hebrew text, this “rushing” is shown by the use of verbs. Action after action after action shows Abraham’s focus on — and eagerness for — doing things for his guests. Some examples of his actions are “hastened,” “ran,” “took,” “prepared” and “waited on.”

There are many things that we can learn from this, one of them being hospitality. We should all be like Abraham and be more hospitable to our guests. In today’s world, we aren’t exactly rushing to wash our guests’ feet, but we could do other things to show hospitality, such as showing some kindness by having a smile on our face when we greet guests. We could also make food that our guests will enjoy and sit them in chairs that are comfortable.

These guidelines for hospitality are great today when we invite guests we know. What’s amazing about Abraham’s actions is that he did all these things for strangers. Maybe the parsha teaches us also about how to care for people we don’t know personally. Abraham becomes a role model for the way we are expected to treat strangers. In the Bible, there are many references to remind us that we, the Jewish people, were also strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah instructs us to provide food and shelter for the stranger. In fact, because of this time of slavery, we are commanded to take care of others who might be suffering. Every Shabbat and holiday, we are commanded to remember the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Abraham’s actions in parshat Vayera give us an early model of how our entire people should learn to behave.

Sarah Rosenthal is a seventh-grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.

The Journey That Matters

Lech Lecha is a Torah portion of journeys, of beginnings. It is a portion dedicated to setting the course of history.

Avram is commanded to go forth from his ancestral home. Together with Sarai and Lot, he travels as far as the land of Canaan and receives God’s blessing that the land will belong to his seed in perpetuity. Although they arrive together in the land, they don’t stay still long; in this portion alone, their wanderings continue through Egypt, around the land of Canaan, facing famine and war, infertility and conflict, evil leaders and righteous kings, name changes and eternal covenants.

In order to understand the journey of Abraham, we must look back before the journey to see what set the stage.

Abraham is the first Torah personality for whom we know much of the life of his father. At the end of last week’s portion, we read of the line of Shem, Noah’s son. Issuing from that line, we learn of Terach, the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. The narrative shifts suddenly from recording births and deaths to the question of journeys. Parshat Noach concludes:

“Terach took his son Avram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, wife of his son Avram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach came to 205 years; and Terach died in Haran.”

This yields a clear contradiction in the Biblical text.

Lech Lecha sees God commanding Abraham to leave his “native land” and “father’s house” to set out toward Canaan. What we find is that Avram actually begins this journey together with Terach.

Abraham is not created out of a void. His journey does not begin from a blank slate. He is a product of his father.

What can we say about Terach?  Some recall the story of Abraham’s father being an idol maker, the young iconoclast smashing the statues. But that is Midrash, a story intended to yield an important lesson, not a Biblical “truth.”

Terach, we learn from the Torah, began the journey toward the land of Canaan; he left his home, brought Avram, Sarai and Lot along, but in Haran his journey ends.

Tradition speaks of the 10 trials of Abraham.  Most will say the greatest trial is the binding of Isaac, the Akedah. The exact list of what constitutes the 10 trials is a source of debate, but I would like to assert that beginning this journey, following God’s call, is perhaps the most significant — because from it, the entire rest of the story flows.

To understand Abraham’s journey, to understand our collective journey and the individual journeys that each of us is on, they must be seen in context. Pulling the lens back on Abraham, we see the greater picture of his journey. Terach takes steps of faith toward a brighter future.  Though he never makes it there, Abraham continues that journey. We see beyond the journey of Abraham, as Isaac continues that path, charts his own road but unquestionably extends his father’s journey. With the lens pulled back even further, we see ourselves in this journey, this ongoing quest to fulfill the mandate of Abraham — to make of our journey a blessing.

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.

Dan L’Kaf Zechut

“Monday we’ll be having a math test on fractions and integers,” said Mr. Stone to our sixth-grade one Friday morning.

“Not much time to study,” I whispered to my friend, Katz.

“You’ll each be paired with a phone study partner,” the teacher said; he began assigning partners.

I was paired up with Katz.

“Call me after you get home today, Zach,” said Katz as he waved goodbye.

When I arrived home a short while later, Mom broke the news to me.

“Surprise! Run up and quickly pack your suitcase,” she said.

“We’re going to Philadelphia for a long Shabbat, to Leo and Gretchen’s house.”

“I’m already packed, slowpoke,” said my younger brother, Dave, in his best showoff voice.

“Ten minutes, and we’re driving away,” Dad said.

Even leaving quickly, we arrived in Philadelphia a half-an-hour before Shabbat.

It was a great weekend of eating, playing board games and telling jokes. On Saturday night, we all went out to eat in honor of my cousin’s birthday. Sunday, we spent the day at an amusement park.

It was very late Sunday night when we returned home. I barely unpacked and put myself to bed.

The next day I overslept, and Mom drove me to school a few hours late. But I was just in time for math class.

“Hi Katz!” I said, as I entered the classroom. He turned away.

“What’s up with him?” I thought.

And that’s when I remembered the math test. I had totally forgotten —and totally forgotten about my buddy.

My stomach hurt, and I held my head in both hands. Would he ever forgive me? I can’t believe I forgot to call him.  As we took the test, I could see he was struggling.

After class, he ran out to talk to other friends. For a whole week, he didn’t talk with me.

The next Monday, we got our tests back. He got an 80. I got a 90. Katz approached me.

“How could you have ignored 10 of my phone calls?” His eyes glared at me.

“Katz, listen, there’s an explanation.” My voice cracked.

“And you didn’t pick up your cell or answer the doorbell. I spent hours trying to call you and to find you,” he said,

“Listen, we went out of town last Friday.” I looked up at him from my locker. “It was a surprise, and we were on the road and away the entire weekend.”

“I forgot all about the test,” I continued. “I even overslept last Monday and almost missed it.”

I could tell his jaw was loosening; he smiled.

“OK,” he said. “But you owe me.” We shook on it and walked down the hall to our next class together.

Discussion Questions

The Torah expects us to give people the benefit of the doubt.
1. What are some of the ways we can learn to give the benefit of the doubt?
2. How would things have been different for Katz had he given Zach the benefit of the doubt?

The Holy Mentch

Noah and Abraham were two men in the history of the world who stood up for what they believed, against their entire generation, and won.

They emerged as fathers, Noah asfather of all mankind and Abraham as father of the Jews.

Noah stood up against an immoral generation. It was socially, sexually and fiscally immoral. His generation spiraled into a state of anarchy and dysfunction. The flood was not as much a punishment as it was the natural destruction they brought upon themselves. Noah survived and became the father of all futurehumanity. The new humanity he hoped for was going to be morally upright. The Torah’s seven laws for Noah, the Noachide laws, governing all humanity, are designed to create a moral, just and thus functional society. These demand no idolatry, no murder, no adultery, no theft, no cursing God, no eating of a limb from a living animal and the positive commandment to set up a system of justice. In short, they are designed to create a mentch.

Noah’s aversion to idolatry was a moral one. Immoral people thrive by hanging their evil ways on the idols of subjectivity they make out of wood and stone. The Talmud comments that the Jews of ancient times only served idols in order to permit sexual immorality in public.

Abraham came 10 generations later and fought another battle. He fought for an active relationship with the one and only God. Abraham also stood up against idolatry but in a very different way to Noah. Abraham introduced the world to the living God. His legacy crystallized when the entire Jewish nation stood at Sinai and heard the words, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” The most powerful and positive affirmation of the relationship between the one living God and his chosen people. Abraham and his children will be the bearers of this message until b’yom hahu (on that day) when it will be revealed to all mankind that our God is the one and only God.

The covenant of Abraham, the Torah’s 613 laws for Jews (which include the seven Noachide laws), is designed to create a holy people. The all-encompassing system of Jewish law leads its adherents to a life of close proximity with God.

It was because of a Noah that it was possible for there to be an Abraham.

Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah, morality and good behavior are necessary prerequisites to Torah. It is senseless to grasp for Abraham’s helping hand from the pit of immorality; rather it is Noah who will pull you out. Once on firm ground, however, it is a great shame for a Jew to remain there and not ascend the ladder of holiness. Ein Uma Ze Ela B’Torah, the uniqueness of the Jewish nation is only through Torah (Rav Sadia Gaon, 882-942).

The Midrash states: “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.”

The Midrash explains that Noah walked with God, whereas with respect to Abraham, God tells him, “Walk before me and be perfect.”

The idea of Noah walking with God means he needed God’s constant support to uphold him in righteousness. But Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself. We have all afforded the help of being a mentch, but it takes an extra step of courage to become a holy mentch.

Deceived By Potential Greatness

I’ve often compared my life to one of those plate spinners. I have 10 plates spinning at all times, and all is going well. Then someone comes by and nonchalantly adds another five plates, and over the next few minutes my heart is pounding, sweat’s dripping down my face, everyone’s giving me disappointing looks as some plates start to slow. Finally, one comes crashing down to the floor … and all everyone cares about is the darn broken plate.

OK, I admit it: I blunder. I make mistakes. Sometimes I crack under pressure. But I’m willing to look back and forgive myself because I know how hard life can be sometimes. But does everyone really have an excuse? For generations people have tried to figure out how Adam and Eve could have messed up when they only had one thing to worry about. How can someone hyper-focused on only one task — and, frankly, not the world’s most complex task — possibly justify any error whatsoever?

The simple answer is that Eve was tricked by the serpent. But how does one convince a person who stands in perfect knowledge of the existence of her creator to defy His one wish? The answer to that question is what makes the Jewish people tick.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch stated that the serpent deceitfully and spitefully convinced Eve that God was afraid of sharing His abilities and that to eat of this fruit would cause Eve to be just as knowledgeable and able as God himself. Neither Adam nor Eve could stand for such a thing. They couldn’t fathom allowing anything or anyone to hold them back from accomplishing their full potential in this world. They were sick at the thought and thus proudly consumed that which they thought would be their catalyst to greatness.

Adam and Eve were tricked and faulted for their gullibility and lack of trust; however, the sentiment and the depth of their yearning for self-perfection are among some of the most profound everlasting lessons of the narrative. In essence, what they sought is what every Jew is supposed to seek.

Rabbi Hirsch, commenting on the Chapters of Our Fathers, stated that Judaism is perhaps the only religion in the world that seeks to render its clergy superfluous. What this means is that every teacher among the Jewish people has the express goal of imparting everything they have to offer upon every one of their students. If a student surpasses the teacher, the only appropriate reaction is unadulterated joy. The rabbis are not intermediaries between the Jews and God. They themselves seek to get close to God, and they seek to help others figure out the proper path to get close to God. But we’re all in the game. Everybody needs to accomplish everything through their own means, everyone has the potential of rising to the top, and no one is exempt from trying, not even for a moment.

Eve was tricked, it’s true. And she and her husband could have done more to make the situation less dire. But that doesn’t change the fact that the serpent’s methodology was embedded in flawless and timeless logic. Adam and Eve desired to reach their full potential — every one of us should do so as well.

Under The Sky

On Sukkot, we read the troubling text, Ecclesiastes. This megillah addresses the futility of life, a potentially incongruous theme for a holiday referred to as “time of our joy.” I searched through the book for a lesson on Sukkot, and I found some of the wording reflective of a larger message. We’ve all heard of the famous line: “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the Heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1; and made popular by the Byrds’ version of a Pete Seeger song, “Turn, Turn, Turn”). However, when I read the entirety of Kohelet, I noticed a lot of references to occurrences “under the sun,” as well. So what exactly is the difference between what people do under the sun and under Heaven?

Yaakov Astor interprets the sun as “a metaphor for physical existence” in his article “The Sukkot/Ecclesiastes Connection.” We can see this in phrases such as “I saw justice replaced with wickedness under the sun.” In this world, there is unfairness and cruelty because the world does not acknowledge Hashem’s sovereignty. On the other hand, we are reminded, if only a little, that one should still enjoy the physical through the words “there is nothing better for man under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry.” These two verses temper one another, reassuring us that while we are allowed to enjoy the physical, we should be reminded of the spiritual.

Meanwhile, the word shamayim (Heaven or sky) is used in the context of Hashem, wisdom and truth — we “apply [our] heart to inquire and to search with wisdom all that was done under the Heaven … that God has given to” humankind. What happens under the Heavens is part of the ultimate meaning of life and involves only the purest intentions.

So this year, as you look up to the sky through the schach of your sukkah, consider whether you are sitting under the sun, under Heaven, or both.

Helyn Steppa is an 11th-grade student at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

True Repentance

We have seen many examples this year of confession, vows and promises made in public.  Sports figures, politicians, entertainers. Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner, Paula Deen and Ryan Braun — just a few among the many who come to mind for their acknowledgments of wrongdoing this past year. The majority fall short from the perspective of true contrition, because most have two features in common.

First is the desire to do some “damage control,” to protect their public image, not to mention their corporate sponsors, donors or shareholders.

The other element often seen is a feeling of anger at having been caught and at being held accountable for actions that might have been going on for quite some time but are only now revealed under the intense spotlight of media attention and scandal.

Maybe I’m taking a cynical view of these public confessions. Admittedly, it cannot be pleasant for the celebrities who are forced to make them. But it usually seems they’re simultaneously apologizing for past transgressions and planning their glorious comeback, with little commitment to change.

From a Jewish standpoint, words truly matter. Think of all the words of the machzor that have crossed our lips this High Holy Days season, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  “Ashamnu” (we have sinned …). Al chet (for our wrongdoing …). Shlach lanu (forgive and pardon us …).

But it is not only the words that count. Words can be convenient. Emotions and feelings are easily faked. It is the deeds that demonstrate true contrition.

There is a hint to this process of teshuvah (true repentance) in the Torah portion read in Reform practice on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Deuteronomy 29 to 30 speaks of the Torah that is “not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in Heaven that you should say, ‘who will go up for us to Heaven to bring it down. …’”

Then comes a critical statement: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (la’asoto).”  Literally, what we need to do is close to us.  It’s in our mouths, the words that we say in our worship and beyond.  It’s in our hearts, the thoughts that we have, which maybe go even deeper than the words that we bring to our lips.

The big question is whether we will be able to complete the statement. La’asoto, “that you may do it.”  Yom Kippur is a day of many pledges, of myriad promises.  It is crucial that words lead to action. The Kotzker Rebbe put it this way: “You do not fulfill your obligation by that which is in your mouth and in your heart. That which is in your mouth and your heart is for you to do.”

The Prophet Isaiah urges us in the Yom Kippur haftarah to move from words and rituals to action: “Is not this the fast I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.

You Are A Soul

Eureka! The moment a new idea comes to mind, a new project, a new way of doing things, a new understanding of a situation, is one of the most thrilling sensations possible. All the potential energy of the idea encapsulated into a moment. It’s the big bang of starting something new.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the yearly Big Bang of creation. Our mystical tradition says that the word shana, year, also means to repeat. Time, as we experience it, is cyclical. The Almighty creates the world each year anew on Rosh Hashanah with the same energy of the Big Bang.

Literally, Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year. We call it the head rather than the new or the beginning because this renewal takes place, as it were, in God’s head. He thinks about the entire world and each and every person and decides each person’s lot, what blessings and challenges he/she will face in the coming year.

Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate the Big Bang of the first day of creation, rather the sixth day, the creation of man. Man is the most prime of all creations, and everything else revolves around man to help and serve him to fulfill his mission.

The Chasidic commentators exp-lain that when God said, “Let us make man,” He was speaking to man himself. “I’ll give you everything you need,” he said, “all you have to do is be righteous, recognize me and keep my commandments.”

The Almighty therefore decided that the yearly cycle should revolve around man.

As with all festivals we are given mitzvoth, commandments through which we can tap into for our greatest benefit.

The mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar.

I found in the writings of Rav Yaakov Emden a remarkable idea about the shofar.

When God made man, He gave him life by blowing a soul into him through his nose.

The shofar is typically shaped like a nose. When we blow the shofar we are symbolically returning our soul to God in the hope that he will once again return it to us for another year. It’s our opportunity to start anew, to have our own Big Bang. Turn over the page on our failings and sins and resolve to live our best possible life. The soul is the source of all human good. It is the light that illuminates the mind and heart to do that which is good and follow in the Almighty’s ways. It’s the true self. It’s not that you have a soul, you are a soul!

Rosh Hashanah is our opportunity to dig deep within and find our true selves. What is it that we stand for? What is really important in life? What does this world lack that I can help fix? It’s a day on which we can achieve clarity of mission, re-orient ourselves to live for that which is important and in fulfillment of our mission as unique human beings. It’s a day on which we can experience our own Big Bang.

I wish you all a very happy 5774. May this New Year bring peace, happiness and good fortune to all the Jewish people.

Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

Hidden Star

Stepping forward one night at choir practice, 11-year-old Talya felt her head spin. When it came to solos, Talya’s voice came out sounding like a mix between a kazoo and a flute. She stood still, blushing.

“You can do it,” Talya heard her older sister, Dini, whisper. Dini who was only three years older, seemed leap years more talented and wiser. She stood one row behind her sister in the production, and she had already been up to the microphone five different times for solos.

Talya thought back to all of the times when her sister outdid her. Talya could be up half the night studying for an Algebra exam and still only make a B-plus. Dini barely studied and made straight As in all her subjects.

“Why can’t I be like Dini?” Talya screamed inside. “I can’t get anything right.”

And the harder Talya tried to be like Dini, the more she failed. So when it came to the girls’ choir production at the end of the summer, Talya was thrilled to have a part in her sister’s singing group. In fact, it was a miracle that she got in — only the best voices were let into the group. Talya figured it had to do with her singing teacher, Ms. Richter, who practiced with her the entire school year to help Talya prepare. She had spent hours practicing and singing around her house. And then came Talya’s audition. She climbed three wooden steps onto the stage in the shul auditorium. With three judges watching from the front row, Talya let out a half-perfect rendition of “Ma Ma Rochel.” That is until her coughing fit kicked in. Talya knew it was nerves, and luckily the judges still accepted her into the group.

“When you get nervous,” Ms. Richter’s soft voice flowed in her head, “keep breathing and singing.”
“That doesn’t happen to Dini!” Talya exclaimed, tears filling her eyes.

“Stop comparing yourself, and start looking at what you do well,” said Ms. Richter.

Talya began to think of some things she was good at. Like sports — she was the best at racing and jump rope, while her sister seemed to have two left feet. But Talya never really got to use her talents; she was too busy trying to copy her sister.

Choir practice increased to three times per week before the production. Miss Kayla decided to add some dance with the songs. A few girls couldn’t handle it. One of them was Dini. Talya, on the other hand, was a natural.

“Count the beat in your head while you sing,” she told Dini. “Dig your heels in.”

With Talya’s help, Dini got better.

The next day, Miss Kayla approached Talya: “How about helping me with the dance routine? You could be a dance coach.”

Talya was shocked. She had spent so much of her time trying to be just as good as her sister that she never recognized her own talents.

With Talya’s help, the Shalom Girls’ Choir danced and sang for a packed audience at the Farewell to Summer production.

Discussion Questions
1. In what ways do we compare ourselves to other people?
2. Why is it important for us to learn about our talents?
3. What are some ways we can learn about our skills and talents?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

Be An Innovator

062113_Etan_MintzBack in the early 1950s, a large shoe consortium with stores across the U.S. and Canada decided to take its business venture into the emerging continent of Africa. They sent two of their salesmen there. After just one week, they received a cable from the first salesman, “I am returning at once. No hope for business. Nobody here wears shoes.” They did not hear from the second salesman for four weeks. Then one day, an urgent cable arrived: “Send 15,000 pairs of shoes at once. I have leased space in five locations. We’ll open a chain of stores. This place is full of opportunity. Nobody has any shoes!”

The way companies typically approach risk assessment is to focus on managing the downside. This analysis weighs risks against returns, but it does not encourage managers to look outside of this narrow frame to see opportunities.

Interestingly, psychological research has identified a number of ways in which entrepreneurs and innovators differ from others. A key difference is their ability to see opportunity within the risk. So too, the difference between the two salesmen.

This month, we celebrate the creation of the world with Rosh Hashanah, as is the constant refrain in the prayers, “Hayom harat olam” (Today the world was created). What we are really celebrating is the greatest risk that was ever taken — the very creation of humanity. Creating people makes the world a complicated and risky place, but like the shoe salesman, God looked into a world without any people and saw endless opportunity.

Of course, the downside risk was evident immediately, when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, only to be followed by his son, Cain, killing brother Abel. Perhaps it would have made sense for God to pull back and mitigate any further risk. Instead, God affirms the decision by continuing to create. Not only does God re-create the world after the flood, but God re-creates each day and every moment, as we pray “Hamichadesh b’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’ase breishit” (God, in his goodness, renews creation each and every day). And what is true for God is the case for humans as well. For to breathe and to live entails constantly taking risks. This is exactly what we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah, the fact that God took a leap of faith and created humanity. We aspire to imitate God and seize the risk of living.

This Rosh Hashanah, as I reflect upon my first year as the rabbi at B’nai Israel, “The Downtown Synagogue,” I am inspired by this message of seizing the opportunity within the risk of unchartered territory. Fewer and fewer people are surprised when I tell them that I am the rabbi downtown. But I still get occasional confused looks and questions, “Are there Jews downtown? Is there a shul there”? In truth, it is precisely those questions that make the work so exciting and fruitful. Not only are we creating a thriving community downtown, but the opportunities are endless. Thank God, we have seen a marked increase in membership and activities, and dozens of young families and empty nesters who have previously been unengaged Jewishly are becoming social leaders by actively creating vibrant Jewish life downtown. Instead of seeing nobody wearing “shoes,” these Jewish entrepreneurs, young and old, are seeing a vast landscape of people who are looking for “shoes.”

Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue.