Student Teaching in the New Millenium

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5771 Lech Lecha

In Genesis on October 26, 2010 at 4:03 am

What does this mean, to go out? To leave your parents? “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother”? (Gen. 2:24)

What does this mean, to go out? To leave the nest of your family? “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred”? (Gen. 12:1) Is it significant that Abram didn’t leave all of his kindred? “And Lot went with him.” (Gen. 12:4) “And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.” (Gen. 20:12) Is it also significant that God didn’t “show” Abram the land until Lot had left Canaan? “Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the Plain, and move his tent as far as Sodom…And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him: ‘Lift up now thine eyes, and look…for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Gen. 13:12-15)

What does this mean, to go out? To find a place to call home? “And they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.” (Gen. 12:5) “And he removed from thence unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east.” (Gen. 12:8)

What does this mean, to go out? To learn how to survive? “And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt.” (Gen. 12:10)

What does this mean, to go out? To learn to face fear? “‘And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive. Say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister; that it may be well with me for thy sake, and that my soul may live because of thee.'” (Gen. 12:12-13) Did Abram ever truly learn his lesson? “And he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah?” (Gen. 20:1-2)

What does this mean, to go out? To learn to protect you and yours? “And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed…And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men…and pursued…and also brought back his brother Lot.” (Gen. 14:12-16)

What does this mean, to go out? To learn humility? To pursue justice? “‘I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine…save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me.” (Gen. 14:22-24)

What does this mean, to go out? To make mistakes? “And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.” (Gen. 16:4) What is Abram’s mistake here? By our standards, taking Hagar as a “wife” while she was also a slave? Talmud states sex was a valid way to take a wife; this was outlawed later but legitimate in Abram’s time. This is an interesting contradiction: The Torah’s ideal is monogamous marriage, but this is clearly a polygamous practice. In fact, Jacob marries Leah and Rachel. How do we reconcile this? Back to the Parsha, did Abram exalt Hagar over Sarai? Did Abram love Hagar? “And Sara said unto Abram: ‘My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes; the Lord judge between me and thee.'” (Gen. 16:5) Is this not simply the behavior of an unhappy master? Or the behavior of a scorned, angry, frightened woman? Abram did not go out of his way to correct the situation. “‘Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes.’ And Sarai dealt harshly with her.” (Gen. 16:6) Why not? Was this just “she’s your servant, do what you will”? Or something else entirely? We make a big deal about Isaac disappearing from the narrative for a time following the Akedah in Vayera. What about Sarah? She is not heard from again after demanding Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. (Gen. 21:10) Why? Did Hagar create a rift?

What does this mean, to go out? In all these things, to venture into the unknown? “Fear thou not, for I am with thee, Be not dismayed, for I am thy God” (Isa. 41:10)

What does this mean, to go out? To learn to stand up for yourself? “He giveth power to the faint; And to him that hath no might He increaseth strength.” (Isa. 40:29)

What does this mean, to go out? To discover yourself? “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham.” (Gen. 17:2)


5771 Noach

In Genesis on October 18, 2010 at 5:08 am

This parsha raises some interesting questions. Why spare Noah? What makes Noah so special? Was anyone else worthy of saving? Why save anybody? Why destroy the world in the first place if the end is the same? Why reboot the same problems?

The parsha says God decided to destroy all life on earth by Flood, on account of the corruption of the earth, “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.” (Gen. 6:12) “The earth was filled with lawlessness.” (Gen. 6:9) Earlier, Genesis 6:1-2 refers to men beginning to increase on earth and “divine beings” taking wives from the daughters of men. Whether divine beings refers to other men or something “other” than man is unclear. The Plaut Torah offers a number of interpretations (e.g. fallen angels, the sons of Seth, “the sons of God”). Regardless, the offspring of these unions “were the heroes of old, the men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4) Is it significant that man is immediately condemned following these passages? (Gen. 6:4-5) Is it significant that Noah’s lineage is delineated separately? Is it significant that Noah, apparently, was neither a hero of old or a man of great renown? Did these heroes – and their ancestors, the so-called “divine beings” – enjoy divine favors that Noah (and his line of ancestors) did not have? The haftorah states “The children of the wife forlorn Shall outnumber those of the espoused.” (Isa. 54:1). Could these people have been the children of “the wife espoused,” that is, where wife can mean “nation” or “nations” in the biblical sense, nations God favored before Noah and the Flood? By choosing lawlessness, did they fail their divine obligations?

Is it also significant that the line leading up to Noah is always traced through the first named child? From the Torah’s perspective, we know these are the first named children, but were they the first children themselves? We don’t know. You can support either conclusion. On the one hand, Adam and Eve bore Cain and Abel before Seth. Seth was the third child and ancestor of Noah. Isaac and Jacob are both second sons, themselves. On the other hand, Shem, ancestor of Terah and Abram, was likely the eldest of Noah’s sons. “Noah…was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Gen. 6:9-10). Abram and Terah are themselves introduced as the first of the named children. (Gen. 11:24-26). To this day, lineages are recounted on paper from the eldest to the youngest. Yet, the Torah again is unclear. “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Gen. 9:18) “Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber and older brother of Japheth.” (Gen. 10:21). Were there sons of Noah who didn’t come out of the ark? Was Shem the only older brother of Japheth? Or just an older brother of Japheth? If Terah worshipped other gods (Josh. 24:2), can we assume he engaged in sex worship? Could Terah have had other children from these unions? We know Terah had other wives after Abraham’s mother (Gen. 20:12); were there any before?

The Torah singles Noah out in a very special way, with little preamble. Certainly, little introduction to Noah besides being righteous and walking with God (Gen. 6:9). How did Noah become the man he became? Were his forebears distinct from the rest of the world in some way? Were they among the “heroes” and/or the lawless? Were they in some “righteous” minority? Or were they not, but had God-worship, or at least God-respect, in their family (Enoch, Gen. 5:22)? Were they “children of the wife forlorn”? Could this seemingly disjointed tradition have been carried on by Noah?

How fascinating the implications on the environment today! Mankind, in the ongoing work to “master” the earth, causes a lot of violence. Natural disasters increase as this continues. Can we cast mankind as the “wife espoused” and nature as the “wife forlorn”? Can we expect nature’s upset to escalate as our activities continually escalate? Are we headed towards cataclysm, possibly a life ending one? This causes a problem with God’s promise to never again destroy all life (Gen. 8:21). If we are destroyed on account of our own actions, such as destroying the world (our basis for life) or causing nature to adjust itself in ways hostile to us, is God to violating his promise? Or is this simple causality? Is God even involved? Regardless of God’s promise, can we destroy ourselves? If we fail to uphold our end of the Covenant, can the consequences be free of God’s influence? Or, can a distinction be made between different people? Can we call those causing the damage, those with the power and popular support to do so, that is the power majority, the children of the “wife espoused”? And those trying to heal the world (and ourselves) from destruction, that is the power minority, the children of the “wife forlorn”? If we take this another step, does this passage imply an eventual triumph of peace over violence?

Was anyone else worth saving? Torah is mum on this subject. The Plaut Torah points out that Noah’s flaw was a lack of compassion. In modern times, we (or at least I) think of righteousness and compassion as going hand in hand with each other, so I’m not sure I can accept this. On the other hand, Plaut has a point: Noah does not argue with God, as Abraham does, over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra. So, is this argument valid? Or is there another way to look at this. Perhaps, could Noah have lived in isolation with his family? Judged through the lens of rabbinic Judaism this might not have been a good thing, being that Judaism can be seen as equally about personal piety and communal salvation through acts of lovingkindness. Maybe in his effort to be a right and good man, Noah cut himself off from the peoples around him, rather than lead by example. In this way, preserving his practice at the expense of those around him? This does not require a lack of compassion, but maybe selfishness? Or simply a different idea? Perhaps the “community” engaged in practices he found objectionable, so Noah isolated himself and his family? I think the Torah gives evidence of isolation. Noah builds the ark and gathers the animals and supplies seemingly on demand. Noah just did as asked with no drama on seven day’s notice (Gen. 6:22). This implies a certain degree of self-sufficiency; was Noah able enough to handle this all on his own, or only with his family’s help? Was Noah already accustomed to this lifestyle? Was Noah’s experience on the ark, living on his own, not so foreign to his life experience? What is Noah’s failure here? Did Noah not plead with God out of a lack of compassion, or did Noah not plead with God because he felt he was doing the right thing? Perhaps Noah didn’t lack compassion, but simply didn’t get it right? Here’s another possibility: is it possible Noah felt the rest of the world was better off destroyed? All of the violence and suffering around him would be alleviated. Does this qualify as “compassion”? Another point: Abraham pleads for the lives of the righteous, not everyone. He does not plead with God about the suffering of the wicked. If compassion is concern for and a hope of an alleviation of suffering, does Abraham’s act qualify? Is Noah’s failing a lack of compassion, or a lack of interest or insight in pointing out a “flaw” in a proposed course of action? That being, the righteous suffering with the unjust?

Do the righteous stand with the righteous? Did Noah fail to stand with the righteous by not asking God for their lives on the eve of the Flood? If someone righteous does not stand with the righteous, meaning, that person doesn’t recognize righteousness, is that person righteous himself? Was Noah not really righteous? Or were there really no other righteous people on earth? Was anyone else worth saving?

Why save anybody? Why reboot the same problems? If man is predisposed to violence, or at least making the same mistakes, why set the stage for the same things to happen? “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) Why get angry with a loved one who will repeat his or her mistakes? Is this a universal acceptance of people being flawed? Is this a message of forgiveness? Like a husband and wife forgiving each other after a fight? Or an injunction of loyalty? We’ve erred before, and will err again, but our loved ones stand by us, and so should we stick by them. Or, loyalty that comes from marriage vows? (Isa. 54:6-8)

Here’s another question: we’ve erred before, and will err again, but our loved ones stand by us, and so should we stick by them. We know what this means for us. What does this mean for God?

5771 Noach – Haftorah (Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5)

In Genesis on October 12, 2010 at 2:12 am

54:1: Connection to Abram and Sarai here. You said we are a Frozen people. Are we barren as well? If we do not question, and we idolize the past, how can we thrive? Is modern idolatry debasing? Or a form of death? Are the truths of the past true today? Or are they idols? Is the past an idol? The ancient Israelites were in physical exile; are we in spiritual exile? So many Jewish people today are disconnected from the basic mores, text, and mission of their tradition, like we were from Judah millenia ago. Others, instead of moving forward, try to bring a dead past forward. Old truths we cling to are no longer true and are no longer Torah. Are we in diaspora from Truth? If Truth and Torah are one, are we in diaspora from Torah too?

54:9 What you said about a flood never coming again, understood. What about the promise “So I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.” Understanding the Noahide covenant as universal between mankind and God, what about all of the suffering from natural disasters lately? The tsunamis? The hurricanes? The bee illness? Cancer? Climate change? How do we rule out God being angry? Were the righteous in Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared? If we set the universality of Noah’s covenant and focus on the personal aspect of this verse, between God and the Jewish people, why was there a holocaust? Why is anti-semitism becoming fashionable again? Floods of pain, suffering, hatred and anger? How do we know God isn’t angry?

54:10 Does this answer my questions about 54:9? The Gates of Repentance are never closed.

54:11-12 Can we apply this to us? We are at sea, searching for landfall. Nothing satisfies. Is this a reason for questioning? Similar to Noah questioning “Is there dry land yet?” by sending out the birds? He did not stop until he was satisfied.

I have a problem with this verse. Today, a carbuncle is a blemish, a nasty one. This is the first definition that comes up in Google. Further research says that a carbuncle was a rare precious stone, but this definition is obsolete. A potentially worse definition is an ugly building. Sesame Street teaches us that the precious stone definition fits in with the theme of sapphires and rubies. Does Isaiah mean another precious stone, or is the modern translation of the term equally valid? Does this present the wrong idea? If we take this as a promise of renewal, how good of a renewal is it if our altars are seen as blemishes and our Temples as ugly buildings? How good a renewal is it if all of these great things we are trying to do – heal the world, find new meanings, find new truths – are perceived as built with rotten flesh?

54:13 What about people who don’t want to be happy?

54:15 Has God consented to harm? Examples abound in the Tanakh. In fact, God tells us to kill entire nations without mercy or regret. Why?

54:16 Why would a God of love create instruments of havoc?

54:17 A lot of our heritage has been lost to wars and the Holocaust. Abraham Joshua Heschel was the last survivor of a great Jewish tradition wiped out in World War II. Arguably, World War I killed Romanticism, and World War II nailed the coffin shut. Artists struggled with the concept of God allowing that kind of destruction. I know many Jews did the same. Did these sentiments influence modern Judaism? In the state of Judaism now the true horror of the Holocaust? In this way, did the Holocaust succeed?

55:1-3 Is this what we are doing? Are our questions the food, wine and milk? Or is this a metaphor for engaging Torah? Is all the distraction and detachment and certitude, non-truths, “what does not satisfy”? We were and are the People of the Book, but we were at our most innovative when we were the People of the Question. This is the source of the Rabbis’ genius. We no longer question. Can we read “Hearken, and you shall be revived” as “Question, and you shall be revived”?

55:5 What nation? Is this verse another expression of the promises made to Abraham? Is the nation our children? What does this mean?

5771 Bereishit

In Genesis on October 11, 2010 at 2:59 am

This post is a bit of a catch-up.  Rabbi’s answers are in italics. I’ve added some supplementary questions in bold.

In the beginning…what comes before the beginning? We credit God with the creation of the universe, but the text clearly says otherwise. Little e earth and water were around at the beginning. Where did they come from? For that matter, where did God come from? From a historical perspective, God could have been derived from other traditions (e.g. El, the sky god). For the Torah’s purposes though, where does God come from?

The imagination. A given. How is this a given?

Is the presence of water and earth a credit that they are necessary for life? Is this backed up by God creating the sea creatures first? The text suggests that some of these creatures crawled up on land “those that creep.” Is this a biblical support for evolution? This seems anathema to creationist opinion, a viewpoint that “champions” the religious point of view here.

They know not how to read or think or question.

Is there a pattern to the first narrative, like we discussed about the decalogue? What is it? How does it break down? How are the different phases related to one another? How do they support one another? Did God create the world in order? That is, did God create food, and then create those creatures that would rely on the food? Lots of talk about concepts of time…did everything just spring up? Or is a “day” a longer period of time? Unless everything just sprang up, animals that lived off the land would have been pretty hungry on those 5th and 6th days. What do the Rabbis say? Are there midrash?

Ten Utterances of creation
Ten Commandments

Ten of Redemption.

See Haftorah

Hmm. I see Isaiah affirms the order of the first narrative (world, sustenance, life). Having trouble seeing the connection between the Parsha, the Haftorah, and the Ten. Little help?

My attempt:

1 (Let there be light)

“I am the Lord, your God.”

2 (Let there be an expanse…)
2 (Let the water below…be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear)

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make yourself an idol.” (Exodus 20:4)

3 (Let the earth sprout vegetation)

Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.  I take this from the verb acquit, which can mean “satisfy.” As it is written.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.  (Exodus 20:7)

4 (Let there be lights in the…sky)
4 (Let the waters bring forth swarms…)
4 (…and birds)
4 (Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature)

Remember Shabbos and keep it holy. If you don’t notice the stars on Shabbat, you’re not keeping it. If you don’t notice the fish or the birds, you’re not keeping it. If you share in the day with other living creatures, you’re not keeping it.

Hmm, all of these creatures live in harmony with the world around them. Man does not; we try to conquer the world around us. On Shabbos, we are commanded to surrender master behavior. We are commanded to return/surrender to equilibrium. Animals see the skies above and the other creatures around them, and just are. We are commanded to do the same. Is this to say, on Shabbos, if we are not appreciating the world in the same way as the animals do, in a completely benign, harmonious, and appreciative way, we are not honoring Shabbos? Animals exist as they did at the creation. Are we to try to do the same on Shabbos? If we do not appreciate the world with the same ongoing consciousness as animals…ever appreciating, ever experiencing everything the world offers us…how can we honor Shabbos? Are we to rejoin the animals on Shabbos?

If we do not let go of time past and time to come, how can we renew ourselves? If redemption and forgiveness (release from “sin”) are incumbent on us moving past those things that hold us back, we must either let go of those things or be doomed by them. Animals are constantly engaging this activity by always experiencing the NOW. They are always engaged in the activity of creation by being a new creation every moment. Then, is just appreciating these creatures not enough? Do we have to become as they are, in the NOW, in renewal? Join them in the activity of creation? Leave the past behind, and the future unmade? A paradox: we engage creation by not creating, but by creating we shut out creation?

If Shabbos is the crown of creation, is the world recreated every seven days? After Shabbos we, refreshed, turn to the new week, a blank slate, as the world at the beginning of creation?

We’ve been provided all we need. The world will go right on without us. On Shabbos.

5 (God created Man…male and female he created them)

Honor your father and mother.

6 (Shabbos)

You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…or anything of your neighbor.

These are all destructive activities that man can effect on the world around him. Arguably, aren’t all our creative activities destructive, because they in some way subjugate the world around us, and ourselves? Many of these creative activities are benign to others; these are malignant to everyone. So, is this a way of defining malignant activity? Can you say that any destructive activity that violates “love thy neighbor” is malignant? During the week, as we draw further away from the last Shabbos, the last clean slate, the last renewal, the Law, do we grow more likely to commit these “higher order” destructive activities? By desensitizing ourselves to creative activity, do we naturally escalate our creative activity from the workaday to the hurtful? By drawing nearer the next Shabbos, do we grow less likely to commit these higher order destructive activities in renewing/refreshing/redeeming ourselves?

By ceasing from all destructive activity (i.e. work) on Shabbos, do we place ourselves even further away from performing high-destructive activities? Is this a way of putting a fence about the Torah?

The second narrative changes things around. The second narrative explicitly says man was created before other plants and animals. Why is this? It goes further to portray man as God’s partner in the creation, naming everything God created. This is conceited! We talk a lot about how we aspire towards God and these ideals we affirm every Shabbos. In this story Adam is treated like a prince. He certainly isn’t being set up to be humble or righteous. God doesn’t seem to be a good parent here. Really, what’s up with this?

Heschel says the crowning event of the creation is Shabbos. I see this in the first narrative. Not the second. If Shabbos is supposed to be the crowning achievement, why place it right before a narrative that obscures it’s importance? In fact, the second narrative reinforces the idea that man is master of God’s earth, not a steward as the covenant makes clear. Or is this to say that some men will master the earth (in both the best and worst sense), and it falls to others (i.e. the Jewish people) to be the caretakers? The reinventors and rejuvenators? Is this a setup for good versus evil? Those who would destroy the world against those who would save it? How can we stress the primacy of Shabbos when these passages seem to stress the primacy of man? Shabbos comes first in the narrative; shouldn’t it come last? If we think of this temporally, Shabbos ends our week. Shouldn’t Shabbos be mentioned after man’s other responsibilities are enumerated as the crowning responsibility if it is the crown of creation? That, regardless of what we are or think we are, we honor this day?

God says if Adam and Eve eat of the tree of eternal life they would be like “us.” What is this us? We affirm God is one, and the only God. The Isaiah establishes this concretely. Who is “us”? Is this the royal “we”? Also, is God saying we would be gods if we ate of the tree of eternal life? Isaiah says God won’t share godhood with anyone or anything. No other gods and no idols. Why would God create the means to godhood if he has no intention of sharing? Why create the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and eternal life if he has no intention of sharing. What is the risk to God? Would Adam and Eve be granted Godlike powers? The book says God created man, but did he create man and woman human? Were they created as something other from this world? Or not entirely of this world? Were they created with Godlike powers? Did they lose these powers when they were ejected from Eden? Does Adam and Eve having knowledge and eternal life upset a balance? Is there a balance to upset? What is the point after man has unambiguously been made God’s partner in creation? If man is already Godlike in his power to create and give meaning? Is this a big gotcha? A setup? I don’t buy this. What is this supposed to be? What is the Torah saying here?

An orthodox Rabbi visited and said the theme of the first narrative is justice. There is a justice in creation. A just order of things. He said the second story conveys Gods mercy with which He tempers his justice. That man stumbled and was punished, but was still allowed to live a good life, is an expression of this. Is it mercy to elevate man so high just to bring him so low?

He also said that God realized that man, being of the earth, couldn’t start and live his life in heaven, but had to start on earth and strive towards heaven. This raises an interesting question. Why build heaven first?