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October 27, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Lech Lecha

The first few paragraphs of this week’s Torah portion are all about place- quite fittingly for me, since I traveled to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon this weekend, the first time in my life I was ever in the far Southwest of the United States (not counting Amarillo which is sort of southwest and sort of south, or Los Angeles which has a very different climate).

The portion begins with God’s pledge to Abram (not yet Abraham) to make him “a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great.” (Gen. 12:2).  Why does God bother to make these promises?  Isn’t the voice of God enough?  Maybe not, since Abram never heard of Judaism and has no reason to take this deity seriously (assuming that he believes that it IS a deity speaking).  So maybe he needs a bribe from God.

Rashi has a different but also interesting explanation.  According to the Soncino Chumash, he says that “Travelling hinders the building up of a family; it also diminishes one’s fortune and fame.”  In my life, at least some of that has been true.  I have lived in 13 cities in the 27 years since I graduated from law school, and held about that number of jobs.  It has certainly hindered me from getting married, since few of my jobs were in major Jewish population centers, and because it is hard to date when you don’t know where you will be living in a year or whether you will be employed (at least, it has been hard for me).   I’m not sure its hindered me much financially, since I haven’t been unemployed for more than a year or so during those 27 years.  Travelling has certainly hindered my “fame” since it takes time to become civically active anyplace; and since some of my jobs had term limits I wasn’t that motivated anyhow.  So Rashi is pointing out that the difficulties of moving meant that Abram needed extra assurance from God.

Another place-related issue is posed by 7:6, which states “the Canaanite was then in the land.”  Assuming arguendo that Moses is writing the Torah, isn’t the Canaanite still in the land?  Nachmanides is creative, stating that, as President Clinton might say, it all depends on the meaning of the word “land.”  The Torah doesn’t mean the entire land of Israel, just Shechem (from which the Canaanites were eventually ousted by Jacob).   Of course, this still leaves open the question: what happened to Shechem after Jacob left for Israel?  Was it retaken by the Canaanites, and does that weaken Nachmanides’ argument?

October 21, 2014 / conservadox

more on Noah

After the Flood, God pledges “neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.  While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest time, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:21-22).

Some right wing extremists interpret this language to mean that climate change is nothing to worry about.  But the medieval commentators interpret this language pretty narrowly; Rashi and Ibn Ezra intepret it to mean that the seasons will continue to exist, that day and night will continue (Rashi) and that there will be no more floods as big as this one (Ibn Ezra).  Obviously, these generous concessions are perfectly consistent with some pretty large scale catastrophes, and maybe even with the extinction of mankind.  (Sforno suggests that even these limits on Divine destruction are conditional, arguing that if murder becomes rampant enough, the Earth is toast).

Personally, I think that if natural disasters killed, say, 10 percent of the world’s population, that would still be a pretty big deal (since that would be 600 million people, or 100 times the number of Jews killed in the Shoah).  Even one percent would be 10 times the number killed in the Shoah.

October 20, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Noach

This week’s portion involves the infamous Flood, including God’s command that Noah bring both clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:8).  This seems a mite confusing, since the Torah does not list “clean” and “unclean” animals until the days of Moses many centuries later.

Soncino lists two very different explanations.  Nachmanides has an explanation that makes sense; God told Noah which animals to sacrifice, and the Torah is being succinct as it often is.  Rashi has a much more fanciful explanation; he claims that Noah studied the as-yet-unrevealed Torah.  For some reason, Rashi seems to prefer the most off-the-wall explanations of the Torah, and rabbis (especially, in my experience, yeshivish rabbis) tend to prefer those explanations.

I don’t quite understand why; do rabbis think that people will accept traditional Judaism only if they are encouraged time and again to suspend their common sense?  More likely, they are just passing on the mistakes made by their teachers, who got them from their teachers.  But when did this love of nonsense start?

October 12, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bereshit

This is a really long Torah portion, and there are two things that struck me as interesting in Soncino’s commentary.

Early in the portion, God says that man shall have “dominion” over other life (Gen. 1:26).  Soncino cites Rashi’s statement that vyirdu (“dominion”) sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for descent, indicating that when man is not worthy “he descends below [animals'] level and the animals rule over him.”  I realize Rashi was not thinking about climate change, but this passage makes me think of rising sea levels and other possible problems.  If man is not worthy of addressing the climate change problem, it won’t just be the animals that rule over him, but the seas and other inanimate objects.    Unfortunately, the political process seems paralyzed not just in the U.S., but also in China, India, and other major emitters of greenhouse gases.  So humanity is looking pretty unworthy right now.

On a not-so-global note, the story eventually turns to Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel.  Cain’s name is pretty flattering; it means “possession” (according to Soncino) and Eve says “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1).  By contrast, Soncino calls her other son Abel, derived from “vanity” (hebel).  So one son is a possession from God, and the other is just vanity?  It seems to me that as early as the baby naming process Eve is setting her children up for sibling rivalry, which of course ends badly.  Of course, this story also foreshadows the sibling rivalry among Joseph and his brothers; the difference is that the story ends somewhat less badly.

What’s going on?  First, the Torah wants us to keep this idea of sibling rivalry in mind.  But also, the Torah wants to show positive evolution, as the sibling rivalry situation goes from murderous (Cain/Abel) in the case of primordial humanity, to almost-murderous (Jacob/Esau, then Joseph/brothers) with pre-Torah proto-Judaism, to not-so-bad (after the giving of the Torah, when sibling rivalry becomes a weaker theme).   In other words, we are learning that covenant, and even more so Torah, can mitigate the natural urge of brothers to kill each other.

October 12, 2014 / conservadox

Introducing… Soncino

This week I am finally done with following the Scharfstein chumash (yay!)

For the coming year, I am following the Soncino chumash, edited in Britain in the 1950s; it was commonly used in Orthodox synagogues before Artscroll (though it was less popular, I think, than the Hertz chumash).   Like Artscroll, Soncino relies on the work of the major medieval commentators.  Unlike Artscroll, it is limited to seven major commentators: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, Nachmanides, David Kimhi, sforno, and Rashbam.

Side note: my (used) copy has the following handwritten note in front:

“To my dear son,

Who has to raise a family away from Jewish community, astranged [I assume she meant estranged] from Jewish tradition.  Please, remember who you are and who you came from.

Mother Haya.”

The book apparently was in the Tuscon public library at some point, so I am guessing that Haya’s son got the book from his mother and quickly regifted it to the Tuscon library- not quite what Haya had in mind.  On the positive side, Tuscon has half a dozen or so synagogues of all denominations so maybe this story did not end as sadly as I suspect.

October 8, 2014 / conservadox

The good old days are now (in comparison)

When I was a youngster growing up in small-town America in the 1940s, the only sukkah in town stood behind the synagogue. It did service for the entire congregation. Even my father, the rabbi of our Conservative synagogue and devoutly observant, never seemed to entertain the idea of putting up a sukkah in our backyard. In those days, people had less time for domestic rituals and shied away from any public display of their Jewishness. The synagogue in Pottstown, a large, handsome, basilican structure on the main street, had become the last arena of individual and collective Jewish expression.

The same was true for the lulav and esrog, two or three sets in the synagogue for rabbi, cantor and interested lay persons. Again, no one ever thought of acquiring a personal set, perhaps because of cost, though, I suspect, more so because Judaism had increasingly been reduced to a religion that was done for you.

- Ismar Schorsch

October 3, 2014 / conservadox

pre Yom Kippur fast meal

The key words today are bland and hydrate- eat low sodium, bland food to avoid thirst and get hydrated with watery fruits and water.

For bland I had lentils, low sodium tuna and sardines (because I figured some animal protein might prevent me from feeling too hungry).  Also a few almonds.

For hydrated I will have plums and dried dates.

Also I made kreplach (really pancakes since pan fried not boiled) with strawberry jam and dried dates.

September 28, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vezot Haberachah

The last Torah portion mentions that God “appeared from Mt. Paran and came from numerous angels.”  Scharfstein quotes some midrash by Rashi about God asking the Ishmaelites to accept the Torah.

This is my last Torah portion with Scharfstein, and this remark illustrates why I am glad to leave him.  Scharfstein is quoting a midrash which, if taken literally, is completely nuts.  The notion that there were in fact mass revelations to non-Jews a) doesn’t actually seem consistent with the Torah’s text and (b) contradicts one of the most common arguments for the Torah’s truth (the so-called Kuzari proof).  But the relentlessly simple-minded commentator treats Rashi as revelation.

After Simchat Torah I am using the Soncino chumash, which I hope will be better.

September 28, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Haazinu

(Sorry I did this after Yom Tov; I forgot that last week was a double portion)
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay them” (Deut. 32:35)

Scharfstein writes that here, God “promises that He will take revenge against the enemies of Israel. History has proved [God] right.  The ancient enemies of Israel- Babylonia and others- are footnotes in history books, while the modern state of Israel is alive and well.”

Scharfstein seems to have forgotten about the Muslims, who are hardly “footnotes in history books”.  And I’m not sure how “well” Israel is, given that the numerous Arab and Muslim nations out to destroy it, all of whom are sending immigrants to Europe and America and are busy turning non-Israeli Jews into hostages in their own countries through anti-Jewish violence.  Admittedly, Christian European civilization is arguably in decline- but the chief beneficiaries of that decline seem to be Muslim extremists, since nations like France seem to have difficulty keeping order or protecting the Jews from the Muslims.

September 28, 2014 / conservadox

2nd day of Yom Tov dinner

The first night dinner was in shul (neighborhood Chabad) so I won’t talk about that.  I tried to have some of the ritual foods, but without fish heads (this not being NYC) it wasn’t as much fun.

apples and honey of course


ground pumpkin

pomegranate seeds

sauerkraut w/bbq sauce

dill herring (too sweet for me, wouldn’t do again)

turkey roll in rice/beans mix with bbq sauce (not a ritual food but I thought it would be nice to have some meat for yom tov)\

chocolate coin for dessert


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