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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayera

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5777)
BEING A HEALER

“Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maidservants, and they bore children.” (Genesis 20:17)

The election was painful, but finally it is over. Donald Trump will be president. My first prayer for him is that he become a healer; God knows, our country needs healing. How does one become a healer? Let us learn from someone great, our father Abraham. From Abraham, we can learn three great insights about healing.
The first insight Abraham learned from his teacher, God Himself. At the beginning of this week’s portion God appears to Abraham. Abraham is still recovering from his circumcision and comes to fulfill the mitzvah of biker holim – “visiting the sick.” The first step of healing is simply to be there, to show up. When three visitors show up, Abraham literally leaves God to encounter them. Healing means being present.
Of course, being present also means listening. When Job was tested by God and sat on the ground in mourning, his three friends came to comfort him. They sat in silence and waited for Job to speak. Before they spoke a word, they listened. Healing begins with listening.
I have met doctors who have great technical skills, but who never listen to their patients. I want to tell such doctors that they need to listen to their patients before they can heal their patients. I think of the father who tells his rabbi, “I don’t understand my daughter. She never listens to me.” The rabbi replies, “Perhaps it is time for you to listen to her.” Healing must begin with being there and listening.
The second insight is to seek compromise whenever possible. Unfortunately, the lack of a willingness to seek political compromise is a big part of the negative feelings Americans feel towards political leaders. The Torah itself teaches “Justice, justice pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why is justice written twice? Sometimes we need to pursue pure justice. But often it is better to seek compromise. To seek compromise is for two sides to give up something in order to find a common ground.
Compromise means negotiation. And this week’s portion contains the greatest negotiation in the Bible. God wants to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham wants the Judge of all the earth to do justly, to rescue the cities. And so the bargaining begins. Will God save the cities for the sake of fifty righteous people? Forty? Thirty? God and Abraham seek a compromise. In the end the cities are destroyed, but one must admire Abraham’s attempt to find a compromise.
There is a third insight from this portion. The healer must focus not on his or her needs but the needs of the other. Abraham and his wife Sarah suffered from painful infertility. Yet Abraham prayed for the women of Abimelech’s household and their wombs opened. Abraham set aside his own pain to focus on the pain of others. Rabbinic tradition learns from this that if you seek healing for someone else, God then sends you healing. Immediately after these events with Abimelech, God opens Sarah’s womb.
There are three insights into healing – be present and listen, seek compromise, and focus on the other’s needs. I am writing these words from Washington DC where I am attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations. We just heard Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak, talking about some of the issues that divide the Jewish community. He said that if you think diplomacy between Jews and Arabs is tough, try diplomacy between Jews and Jews. Whether among Jews or among Americans, may we know healing.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5776)
A BABY BOY CONTINUED
“The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” (Genesis 21:8)
Last week I shared the exciting news of the birth of our grandson, our first grandchild Judah Jeffrey Simons. Sunday I flew up to Maryland to be the sandek (hold the baby) during the bris (ritual circumcision.) I spoke about the symbolism of a bris. Seven days celebrates the completion of creation. We view the newborn baby as the handiwork of God. But on the eighth day we recognize that God’s work is done but our work is just beginning. Circumcision symbolizes the message that we humans need to perfect God’s creation. God’s creation is “very good” but not perfect; our job is to perfect it.
This idea of leaving nature alone or improving on nature is related to the issue of nursing a baby. In this week’s portion we read of the birth of Isaac. Abraham throws a great feast but not at the circumcision. Rather he celebrates the day that baby Isaac is weaned. I am still trying to picture Isaac’s mother, ninety years old, nursing baby Isaac. When the child was successfully weaned from his mother, it would certainly be a cause for celebration.
My daughter had a lactation nurse who met with her to help her nurse the baby. She had some success although it was not always easy. I spoke to the lactation nurse who was quite charming. I asked her about bottle feeding. She answered, “Tell me rabbi. Would you rather eat an artificial strawberry or a real strawberry?” She drove home the point that breast milk is real and natural, part of God’s creation. Formula is man-made and artificial, not desirable. I did not tell her that we fed our daughter formula and she grew up just fine.
I did share a Talmudic story with the lactation nurse that she enjoyed. The Talmud (Shabbat 53b) tells the story of a man whose wife died after giving birth to a newborn son. The man did not have the means to hire a wet nurse. Therefore a miracle occurred on his behalf and his breasts opened up, allowing him to nurse his baby. The Talmud continues with an argument between two of the rabbis. Rav Yosef said, “Come and see how great his man was, that a miracle was done on his behalf. Abaye said, “On the contrary, come and see how inferior this man is, that God would change the natural order for him.” Whenever I have shared this story with people who know something about lactation, they tell me that a man nursing could happen. I remain skeptical.
Is changing nature a good thing as Rav Yosef would say? Or is changing nature a bad thing as Abaye would say? In a perfect world nature would take its course, and all women would fully nurse their babies. But we live in an imperfect world and many women have difficulty. I am pleased that human ingenuity has created infant formula, allowing those who cannot nurse to feed their babies. In fact, infant formula allowed me as a dad to feed our infants. But I know that many advocates of nursing would be upset that I have something good to say about formula.
As I mentioned last week, there is a back to nature movement popular today. In a benign way, this movement says that mother’s breastmilk is the only way to feed a baby. It also calls for natural childbirth and natural food. In a less benign way, this movement says that vaccination of children is wrong. And in an extremely controversial way, this movement challenges the right of parents to circumcise their children. At the heart of this movement is the message that nature is good and everything man-made is inferior.
There are three ways we can look at nature. The first is the pagan view. The ancient pagans worshipped nature. Many of the pagan religions becoming popular today such as Wiccan are built on the worship of nature. The second view is that of Plato and the ancient Gnostics, but became somewhat influential in Christianity. It taught that the natural, material world is tainted with evil, unlike Plato’s perfect World of the Forms. Whenever someone says at a funeral that “so-and-so is in a better world,” they are quoting Plato.
The third view is Judaism. This world is good, in fact it is very good. But it is not perfect. We celebrate this world as God’s creation, imperfections and all. Then our job is to perfect this world as a kingdom of God.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5775)
GROWING THE MORAL COMMUNITY
“Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father. The older one bore a son and named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites today.” (Genesis 19:36 – 37)
At the dawn of humanity, people lived in small clans of hunter gatherers. The world was divided into two types of people. There were members of one’s own clan, who must be treated with dignity and respect. Without such respect the clan would fall apart. Then there were the others, non-members of the clan, strangers. They were simply the enemy. No dignity or respect was owed to them.
Ethicists call the circle of people who must be treated with dignity and respect the “moral community.” At the beginning of time the moral community was extremely limited. Most people dwelt outside that moral community. Over time the moral community grew. One owed dignity and respect to one’s own community, at least the male non-slave members of one’s own community. Biblical scholars teach that the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) originally referred to one’s actual neighbor, members of one’s community. Foreigners were the other, outside the moral community.
When the United States was founded, the moral community was mostly white, property owning men. In the original Constitution, slaves were counted as three fifths of a person. Women were under control of their husbands. The moral community had expanded but still had a long way to go. The Biblical mandate “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) still needed to be taught. It would take a Civil War, civil rights legislation, and a long history of conflict before people of color were recognized as part of the moral community. And the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the moral community is just beginning in our own generation.
Human history at its best is the expansion of the moral community to include more and more human beings. One can see such an expansion in the Bible itself. We can begin with the strange story of Lot and his two daughters who survived the conflagration of Sodom and Gomorrah. The three hid in a cave, thinking that they were the last three surviving human beings on earth. The two daughters get their father drunk and become pregnant with his seed. Out of those acts of incest the nations of Moab and Ammon are born. Moab literally means “from my father.”
Moab and Ammon become the lowest of the various tribes surrounding Israel. No Moabite nor Ammonite may marry into the congregation of Israel for ten generations. They are condemned for not allowing Israel to pass through their land and not meeting the Israelites with bread and water. Moab is also condemned for hiring Balaam to curse the Israelites. (see Deuteronomy 23:4 – 5) Moab, the son of incest, became the consummate outsider and stranger, not part of the moral community. A Moabite is not deserving of any kind of respect.
But later in the Bible there is a radical change. Ruth is a Moabite woman. She becomes a widow from her Israelite husband, but then expresses a deep loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth the Moabite tells Naomi in one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Jewish tradition teaches that Ruth converted to Judaism. She follows Naomi back to the land of Israel, where she marries a kinsman Boaz of her late husband. Ruth gives birth to a son who becomes the grandfather of King David, the progenitor of the Messiah. The salvation of humanity is dependent on a person born from a Moabite woman.
The story of Moab is the story of how a group of outsiders, born of incest, after many generations becomes the father of the Messiah. Even Moab, this lowliest of tribes, becomes part of the moral community. The message of these Biblical passages is clear. The moral community is always expanding.
Our job is to grow the moral community. We pray for the day when every human being will recognize the moral worth of every of human being. Then we will have truly reached the Messianic age.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5774)
WELCOMING GUESTS
“The Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground”
(Genesis 18:1 -2)

The wedding weekend is over. Last Sunday I did not lose a daughter, I gained a son. And slowly this week, life is turning back to normal. One part of the weekend I did not quite expect was the number of guests we had in our home. From Thursday afternoon when the first out-of-towners arrived until Monday afternoon when the last out-of-towners left, our home was filled with people. The food kept flowing. We brought the wedding joy into our home.
One of the messages I shared with my daughter and son-in-law under the huppah (marriage canopy) was the invitation to open their home to guests. I remarked how the huppah is open on all sides, surrounded by family and friends, the people they love. Jewish tradition teaches that it is in imitation of Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which had openings on every side. They could see whenever wayfarers wandered by, in order to go out and invite them in. I told the bride and groom that in the same way, the home they establish should always be open to guests.
Perhaps the best example of this hospitality occurs at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. God appears to Abraham while he is resting in the tent. Tradition teaches that Abraham was recovering from his ritual circumcision and God was coming to visit the sick. Suddenly three men appear in the distance. Abraham immediately gets up and runs out to care for their needs. I can imagine Abraham saying, “Excuse me God. I must interrupt our conversation. There are visitors coming who need my attention.” Abraham and Sarah provide water to drink and food to eat. (Later commentators were concerned that the food was a mix of meat and dairy, forbidden by Jewish law. But that is another issue for another time.) Abraham showed his commitment to welcoming guests took priority even above being in God’s presence.
The Jewish tradition of opening one’s home to guests (hachnasat orchim) is an ancient one. But it is part of how modern Jews are expected to conduct their lives. At the beginning of the Passover Seder we open the door and call out to the street, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” On Sukkot, as we sit down to the evening meal in the sukkah, we say the ushpizin, prayers that welcome different Biblical figures each night. At all times, but particularly on the Sabbath and festivals, we invite people to join us for a meal. If they need lodging, they can sleep over. (Our wedding guests took over twenty five rooms at the local Marriott Hotel; there is a limit to how many our house can hold.)
This tradition of opening one’s home to guests has been lost today. Privacy has become a major American value. We live in gated communities. We fence off our backyards and double bolt our front doors. Obviously much of this has to do with security. But sometimes we lose touch of that idea that our homes need to open. We have tried to teach this to our children. Whenever our children have friends over, they are invited to stay for dinner, and often to sleep over. Several times we have had young people move in with us for periods of time while their living arrangements were up in the air. That ought to be the norm.
One of my favorite memories of my Rabbinical School days was being invited to spend Shabbat in a very Orthodox home in Far Rockaway, NY. I was given the children’s bedroom, told that on Shabbat the children share a bedroom so that guests will have a place to sleep. We went to different synagogues Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon. From each synagogue, different guests walked home for the Sabbath meals. Two days after the Shabbat, I received a thank you note in the mail. “Thank you for allowing us to perform the mitzvah of welcoming guests.” I learned something deep and valuable that weekend – a tradition that goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. It is tradition we need to hear in our day.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5773)
DID ABRAHAM PASS THE TEST?
“And He said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
This week we read one of the most important and difficult stories in the Torah. God tests Abraham by asking him to take the beloved son of his old age, Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice. Abraham rises early and travels to Mt. Moriah with Isaac in order to fulfill God’s command. Father and son walk together up the mountain where Abraham binds his son to the altar. (The story is called in Jewish tradition the akedah, the Hebrew word for “binding.”) At the last minute an angel of God stops Abraham, who sacrifices a ram instead. According to the simple reading of the Torah, Abraham has passed his most difficult test.
This story resonates deeply in Jewish history. The spot where the akedah took place became the site of the great Temple in Jerusalem. The story is read in every synagogue in the world on Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the New Year. Generation after generation have seen these story as an example of unwavering faith, a faith so strong that one would sacrifice his own son. Abraham is considered a great hero after this story.
Growing up in various synagogues, I heard more than one rabbi use this story as an example of the willingness to give one’s self totally over to God. Abraham exhibits perfect faith without question. He was put to a test that few of us have to face, and he passed the test.
When I was young, the rabbis asked what we would do if we were in Abraham’s shoes. And of course, we wondered whether we would have the faith of Abraham.
No one raised a question about the ethics of the situation. If God asked us to do it, how could it be wrong? Already the ancient Greek philosopher Plato had introduced a character Euthyphro, who taught that goodness is whatever the gods want us to do. Right and wrong are totally in the hands of the gods. This became known in ethics as “divine command theory.” An act is ethical if God tells us to do it; it is unethical if God says not to do it. For Abraham, sacrificing his son was the ethical thing to do.
The philosopher who truly developed this idea was the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling. For Kierkegaard, Abraham was the ideal man because he was willing to take a “leap of faith.” (Kierkegaard coined that phrase.) He was not bound by the conventions of his culture. It is a view that moves beyond ethics to a life doing the will of God. This is the classical view for religious Jews and Christians through the ages. And yet there is something truly bothersome about the story.
Is it possible that there is a different way to understand God’s test? Perhaps Abraham was supposed to argue back with God. After all, Abraham had argued with God to save the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Could he not argue to save his own son, the promise of the future? Maybe God expected something more from Abraham.
There are hints in the story that Abraham failed the test. In the beginning God speaks with him. In the end, only an angel speaks with him. Twice the Torah says regarding Abraham and Isaac, “the two of them went together.” In the end, Abraham walks down the mountain alone. In fact, he never speaks with Isaac again. Where was Isaac at the end of the story? (The Midrash teaches that he went down in a different direction to learn in an academy. Some medieval commentators taught that Isaac actually died on the mountain, and was later resurrected. Such comments are clearly a reaction to the Christian story of Jesus.) After these events Sarah dies. Could Abraham’s actions have killed his beloved wife?
Quite possibly the meaning of the story is that we humans have ethical obligations that even a command from God cannot overturn. If God commands us to take a life, our job is to argue back and protect that life. Or to put it in a more contemporary way, perhaps those who use religion to behave in an unethical manner have failed the ultimate religious test.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5771)

THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF HEALING
“God appeared to him at the terebinths of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Genesis 18:1)
At the end of last week’s portion Abraham circumcised himself as a sign of the covenant between him and God. At the beginning of this week’s portion God appears to Abraham. The Rabbis of the Midrash learn from this that God was keeping the commandment of visiting the sick (bikur holim). Just as God visits the sick, so each of us has an obligation to visit the sick. In fact, the Rabbis later said that each time someone visits a sick person, they take away one sixtieth of the illness (note – that does not mean that sixty visitors will take away the illness altogether. Work out the mathematics.)
In our religious tradition, as in most religious traditions, there is a spiritual side to healing. Visiting the sick can take away illness. In a similar way, we pray for the sick. Each week, from my synagogue in south Florida, I say a prayer for those who are ill, some of them in hospitals thousands of miles away. Does my prayer make a difference? Certainly it gives comfort to family members and friends who hear the prayer. But I believe it does more than that. I believe there is a spiritual aspect of healing; my prayers in Florida can reach across the continent to help heal someone in a hospital room in California. Allow me to explain.
We human beings are not machines. We are more than mere bodies. Let us suppose that our bodies were mere machines – very complex and amazing machines, but machines nonetheless. And like all machines, all material objects for that matter, these machines do break down. Things can go wrong. So we go to a doctor who gives us medication. Or perhaps we go to a surgeon who uses his or her skills to get the machines working properly again. All can be very mechanical.
There is no spiritual aspect to fixing a machine. When my car breaks down, I have a wonderful mechanic who gets it running again. But I would not dream of visiting my car while it is in the shop to give it a spiritual boost. My computer is a mere machine. When my hard drive crashed a couple years ago, I did not pray for its recovery (although at the time, I did say some unseemly words). Again I was fortunate to have an expert with the ability to fix the machine. There is no spiritual aspect to fixing a machine. And when a machine finally breaks down altogether, we throw it away and buy a new one.
We humans are different than cars and computers. We have a spiritual dimension. Traditionalists would call that dimension a neshama or soul. And the neshama cannot be located in space and time. It is more than our brain. It is that dimension of our being which was there before we were born and will be there after we die. Part of healing is touching that part of us which goes beyond our body. We do that when one soul visits another soul face- to-face during a time of illness. (Think about the phrase “face-to-face.” It is not about physically touching one another, but rather a spiritual encounter. Face-to-face is when two souls connect.)
We can also touch the spiritual part of someone even if we are separated by a large distance. Our souls are not located in any one space but exist in a reality beyond our body. We have all had the experience of knowing someone was trying to get in touch with us even when they are a great distance away. Someone comes into our mind and suddenly the phone rings and they are there. We can touch one another over distances. That is why my prayers can perhaps affect a sick person across the city or in another part of the world.
The spiritual aspects of healing certainly do not replace classical medicine. But even doctors are starting to realize that there is more to healing than medicine than pills and surgery. Doctors have written books about healing energy and alternative practices such as acupuncture. In this week’s portion we learn about the importance of visiting the sick. God is the healer. And that hints to the spiritual side of healing.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5770)

DOES GOD NOTICE?

“The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken.” (Genesis 21:1)

There is a story about an elderly man, well into his eighties, who used to go to synagogue every day. Suddenly he stopped going. The rabbi called to see if he was all right, and he answered, “Rabbi, I am fine. I am getting old, I have lost many of my friends, and I kept waiting for God to take me. As the years went by, I thought that maybe God forgot about me. I am perfectly happy that way. I stopped going to synagogue because I do not want to be in a place where God notices me.”
Does God notice us? Does God care about us? Part of this week’s Torah reading is also read on the first day of Rosh Hashana. It speaks of God noticing Sarah and blessing her with a baby son. One of the great themes of Rosh Hashana is called zichronot – remembrances. God remembers us, cares about us, needs us. Each of us has a role in God’s plan for the world.
One of the great modern theologians of Jewish life was Abraham Joshua Heschel. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to study with him. He died as I was going through the interview process to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was teaching. But I certainly read his books, and his influence was powerful among the rabbis who learned at the Seminary.
Heschel’s theology is built on the idea of divine pathos. God, if I can use such language, is emotionally drawn towards the human beings God created. God needs us and desires us as much as we need and desire God. In fact, one of Heschel’s most important books was entitled God in Search of Man. It is not the classic medieval image of a theistic God, unchanging and unmoved by what happens in the world. It is not the deist God who set the world into motion, but afterwards does not care. Rather it is an image of a deeply emotional God who calls out and waits for humans to respond.
The Bible is filled with images of God calling out and people responding, “Here I am.” It is a God Who cares deeply. Of course there are moments when it appears that God’s face is hidden. There is even a Hebrew term for such moments – hester panim – literally hiding the face. I must use the analogy of parenthood. There are moments when parents must let go of their children, leaving them to their own devices. But parents still have a deep pathos, an emotional bond to their children.
The Biblical view of the world is that God needs us. We must do God’s work in the world. I recently had a conversation with someone who had been through painful tragedy in her life. She often cried out, “Where is God?” She said she soon realized that God was there for her, in all the people who came forward to help her during difficult times. God waited for people to come forward.
In our portion God remembers Sarah. But God also remembers Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman Sarah drove out of her household. At the end of the portion, as Abraham is about to offer his son Isaac as an offering, God remembers Isaac. Over and over we share the image of a God who looks down and notices, a God who remembers and cares.
There is a Hasidic story of a little boy who runs home to his parents crying. His father asks him what is wrong. The boy replies, “I was playing hide and seek with my friends. I found a really good hiding place. But soon I realized that although I was hiding, nobody was seeking me.” The father hugged his son and replied, “No matter how hard you try to hide, there is always someone seeking you.”
There is always someone seeking us. We simply have to answer, “Here I am.”

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5769)

THE SIN OF SODOM
“Then the Lord said, the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave.”
(Genesis 18:20)
Much of this portion speaks of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God would have rescued the cities if ten righteous people could have been found there. But there were not even ten. Only Abraham’s nephew Lot and two of his daughters escaped. (His wife also escaped but looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.) What was the sin that would cause such a massive destruction?
The first answer most people would probably give is that the sin of Sodom was unnatural sexual relations, particularly homosexuality. After all, the term “sodomy” comes from events in this story. There is a very ugly scene in the Torah where a group of men try to rape visitors who were living under Lot’s protection. But here the sin was an attack on the visitors more than homosexual rape. (By the way, many anti-gay rights people cite this story to give a Biblical basis for their belief that homosexual behavior cannot be countenanced. The story is about rape, not about the kind of homosexual relations between consenting adults we speak of today when we speak of gay rights. I believe this story has no wisdom to shine on the often contentious gay rights controversy.)
So if the sin of Sodom was not about sex, what was it? The answer from Jewish tradition is that the people of Sodom were selfish about their money. “What’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine, this is the way of Sodom.” (Avot 5:10) There was an attitude that my wealth is my wealth, and I will not share it. I will not steal from you, but do not ask me to share what is mine. Poor people, visitors, those in need were not welcomed into Sodom. Lot was allowed to move there because he was a wealthy man. But for the poor and needy, there was no place in Sodom. It was the world’s first exclusive gated community.
There is a long and fascinating passage in the Talmud that speaks about the evils of Sodom. Allow me to quote part of the passage, which shows the Rabbinic imagination at its best. (Warning: this passage is a bit graphic.) “Now they had beds upon which travelers slept. If the guest was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out. Eliezer Abraham’s servant happened there. Said they to him, Arise and sleep on this bed. He replied, I have vowed since the day of my mother’s death not to sleep in a bed. … A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and bees came and consumed her.” (Sanhedrin 109b) This is just a little taste of a long Rabbinic legend regarding the evils of Sodom.
What were the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash trying to say? In my book The Ten Journeys of Life I came up with a phrase for the people of Sodom. They had a scarcity mindset. They were constantly frightened that there was not enough wealth to go around. If wealth was ever shared with another, then everybody’s share would be diminished. The pie was only so big, and each person had to hoard what they had. To apply this kind of thinking to our society, if Bill Gates had more money it must mean that I have less. It was a tragic way of thinking and it led to the eventually destruction of the cities.
I think about these insights as I consider what our nation is going through today. Pundits say that the first issue President-Elect Obama must deal with is the stagnant economy. With house prices falling, banks going out of business, people’s retirement accounts diminished, and so many unemployed, people are deeply worried about money. They are spending less and they are donating less to worthy causes. In such an economy, it is easy to develop a Sodom-like scarcity mindset. “There is not enough to go around and I better hoard what I have.”
How do we turn our economy around? Perhaps the greatest challenge is to change our mindset, to develop an abundance mindset once again. The pie can always grow. Giving to others does not diminish what we have. On the contrary, our tradition teaches that in the long run, the more we give the more we have.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5768)

FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT

“The two of them walked together.” (Genesis 22:6, 8)

“Abraham then returned to his servants.” (Genesis 22:19)

Last week I gave a lecture in Detroit entitled “Do You Have to Love Your Family?” Both during the question and answer session and following the lecture, numerous people raised issues about family breakdown and family estrangement. “My children refuse to speak to me.” “I have not spoken to my brother in five years.” “My parents favor my sister over me.” I could feel the pain in all of these questions.
This is an appropriate week to discuss family estrangement. One of the hidden messages in the story of the akeda, Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice, is the relationship between father and son. As they approach the mountain, the Torah twice mentions how the two of them walked together. One senses the deep relationship between Abraham and Isaac. But when the events were finished Abraham walked down the mountain alone. Where was Isaac? (The Midrash (Rabbinic tales) tries to provide an answer – he went off to study at a yeshiva (Jewish academy of learning.)
When I read this passage, I wonder if this is really a story about an estrangement between a father and a son. Abraham and Isaac are never together again following these events. The next time they appear at the same place is when Isaac and Abraham’s other son Ishmael, also estranged from his father, come to bury him. The Torah speaks about estrangement of children and parents so serious that they do not come back together until the funeral. (In a similar way, the Torah speaks of estrangement between siblings. Jacob and Isaac do not see each other for twenty years.)
What wisdom can I give to people in pain because of estrangement from family members? Let me share seven thoughts:
1. The Torah commands us to love God, love our neighbor, love the stranger, but never to love our family. Rather, the Torah speaks of obligations towards our family. We must honor our parents (even if they were not such good parents), be our brother’s keeper, teach our children. Even marriage is not simply about love but about mutual obligations. When love between family members breaks down, each of us needs to ask, what are my obligations towards my family?
2. Nobody should ever destroy himself or herself to fulfill a family obligation. There are some family relations that are so toxic (such as a deeply abusive parent) that is permissible for self-protection to avoid contact. Sometimes, with careful counseling, a person can learn to cope with toxic family members in a way that allows contact to be reestablished.
3. Learn to say, “I’m sorry.” So often pride causes us to avoid these simple words. The Bible teaches, “Pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Pharaoh brought destruction on Egypt because he could not mouth the words, “I was wrong and I am sorry.” Usually when there is estrangement there was wrong on both sides. An apology goes a long way in rebuilding a relationship.
4. Learn to forgive, even if the other person never apologizes. I recall a recent Yom Kippur when I was seething with anger at a perceived wrong of someone I knew, while fervently praying for God to forgive my sins. Then it dawned on me – how can I expect God to forgive me if I am unable to forgive others? If someone in our family has wronged us, remember that they are human with all the weaknesses and foibles of every human. If we see their humanity, we can learn to forgive.
5. Keep the door open to reestablish a relationship. I tell people to send a card to an estranged family member three times a year – at Hanukkah, Passover, and most important, before the High Holidays (the traditional time for forgiving.) Send the bar mitzvah or wedding invitation, even if there is no response. At least they know you did not close the door.
6. If the estrangement continues, pray for the family member. There are spiritual connections in the universe that are often surprising, and prayer does work.
7. Finally, find comfort in the fact that everything changes, including human hearts.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5766)

INFERTILITY

“For Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.” (Genesis 21:2)

Infertility is a theme that runs throughout Genesis. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Rachel, all are unable to have children. In the end, each couple is blessed with a child. And in the end, each has lessons they can teach couples struggling with infertility today. These lessons hit home, because my wife and I, like our Biblical ancestors, struggled with infertility. I eventually wrote my first book, And Hannah Wept, about our struggles with infertility and the insights I learned from Judaism.
When Sarah was unable to conceive after ten years living in the land, she arranged for her maidservant Hagar to have a baby in her stead. Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, became the world’s first surrogate mother. And like many surrogate mother cases today, it did not turn out real well in the end. But the idea is a powerful one. Sarah chooses to have a baby using another woman’s egg and womb. This introduces the idea that you do not need to be a biological mother to be a mother. Later Jewish law will introduce the notion of a Levirate marriage, where one man has a baby in another man’s name. This introduces the idea that you do not need to be a biological father to be a father.
Lineage is important in Judaism. But ultimately, parenting is not about lineage. The Talmud speaks of Michal who raised the five children of her sister Merab. “Merab gave birth to them and Michal raised them, therefore they are called by her name. This teaches that the true parent is the one who raises a child, not the one gave birth.” (Sanhedrin 19b) This is the basis of adoption in Jewish tradition, the path my wife and I chose to build our family. It makes sense that parenting is about far more than biology. As I have often said, in the animal world when a baby is born, the parents’ work is almost done. In the human world when a baby is born, the parents’ work is just beginning.
We also learn from the story of Abraham and Sarah that after ten years of trying, a couple cannot wait any longer. It is fascinating that this law eventually fell out of practice. The Midrash tells the story of a couple who divorce after ten years of marriage because they could not have children. They decide to celebrate their divorce with a party. The husband gets a little too drunk and tells his wife, “Take whatever you want from our home.” He falls asleep and wakes up in a strange home. He sees his ex-wife, who tells him, “You said to take whatever you want. I wanted you.” They remarry and eventually have a child.
Isaac and Rebekkah were married twenty years before giving birth to twins. The Talmud asks the question, why did they not go their separate ways after ten years? It answers that in their case, the infertility was Isaac’s problem as well as Rebekkah’s. Infertility is a couple’s issue, not just a woman’s issue. That is why the Torah pictures Isaac and Rebekkah praying across the room for each other. Even in our modern society, we still often see infertility as a “woman’s issue.” We speak of “the barren woman,” when half the time it is the man who has the medical problem. We need to treat infertility as a couple’s issue, and use it as an opportunity to strengthen marriage.
When Rachel could not have children with her husband Jacob, she cried out “Give me children or I’ll die.” Jacob became angry at her. And later sources blamed Jacob for his poor treatment of his beloved wife. Rachel gives us insight. Infertility is a kind of a death. And like any death, people need a chance to mourn. Words like “you can always adopt,” “God must have a reason,” or “You’re lucky you don’t have children; they are so difficult” are not helpful. (My wife and I heard all three comments when we went through it.) People need to mourn. But like any other death, there comes a time when we must move beyond mourning. “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) At some point we must move beyond mourning. We must move on to the next stage of our lives, with the prayer that, like Sarah, God will remember us.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5764)

ABRAHAM’S FINAL TRIAL

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
(Genesis 22:2)

The most powerful story, some would say the most difficult story, in the book of Genesis comes at the end of this portion. God put Abraham to the test. God told Abraham to sacrifice his long awaited son and heir Isaac. Abraham awoke early in the morning, traveled three days to Mount Moriah, bound Isaac on the altar, and prepared to offer him as a sacrifice. An angel of God interrupted him and showed him a ram to be used in place of his son.
The question that cries out to us is, did Abraham pass the test or fail the test? Certainly according to traditional commentators, this was Abraham’s supreme moment of glory. Abraham proved his faith by his willingness to suspend the ethical in order to fulfill God’s command. The Danish philosopher and Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, speaks of a leap of faith, even if it means putting aside ethical scruples. Jewish tradition sees the willingness to obey God as so central to its vision that it ordained this reading for Rosh Hashana. Both Jewish and Christian tradition see the willingness to offer Isaac as the greatest act of virtue. (The Koran contains a parallel story of Abraham’s willingness to offer up Ishmael as a sacrifice.)
However, there is another strand of thought running parallel to this one that condemns Abraham and feels that he failed the test. It is a father’s job to protect his son. It was up to Abraham to take a very public stand that the days of child sacrifice are over. If Abraham was willing to stand before God in defense of Sodom and Gemorrah with his words, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25) how much more so should he defend his son Isaac.
We have a hint of this point of few in the language of the text. Speaking of Abraham and Isaac journeying to the mountain, twice the Torah emphasizes how “the two of them went up together.” (22:6, 22:8) The Torah does not repeat such words unless it wants to make a point. There was an intimacy between father and son as they quietly walked together up the mountain. Their souls were joined together as one. This intimacy would be lost forever by the events that would take place on the mountain.
After the near sacrifice, the Torah teaches that “Abraham returned to the servants, and they departed together for Beersheba.” (Genesis 22:19) Where was Isaac? Abraham walked down the mountain alone. Never again would Abraham and Isaac appear together in the Torah. Isaac (and his other son Ishmael) would again see their father only at his funeral. Isaac was estranged from his father, just as earlier Ishmael had been estranged from his father. As happens too often today, it took a funeral for two sons estranged from their father to appear at his side.
Perhaps the story is in the Torah to teach us a powerful lesson. It is so easy to destroy the delicate relationship that holds a parent and a child together. Part of a parent’s job is to protect his or her children. When a parent endangers a child, whether physically or emotionally, there is a rupture in the relationship that is difficult to repair. The guidance that a child needs is no longer present. Abraham and Isaac must go their separate ways, as do too many parents and children today.
To his defense, Abraham lived in a world where child sacrifice was a common part of day to day life. But Abraham was a Hebrew, a word meaning “stands across” or apart from the norm. The message Abraham needed to tell the world, and one we need to say today, is that parents have an obligation to protect their children. In this sense, God tests each of us in every generation.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5763)

GOOD AND EVIL

“The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.”
(Genesis 19:1)

If you read my book or heard me lecture on The Ten Journeys of Life, you know that I have always been troubled by Lot’s behavior. Why would Abraham’s nephew leave his generous uncle to live in an evil place like Sodom? Why did he seek out evil neighbors? Certainly Lot carried on the Abrahamic tradition of inviting wayfarers into his home, an act deemed illegal in Sodom. But why did he choose to live amongst evil?
In my book I judged Lot harshly. But after reading an essay by A.Hadas that appeared in the magazine Shabbat Shalom (a publication on Jewish-Christian relations put out by Seventh Day Adventists), I am rethinking my view of Lot. Hadas writes that Lot did not choose Sodom to join in the wickedness, but rather to raise up the goodness of the city. To quote him, “A life separate from wickedness still seems to us morally superior to a life among the wicked. And yet we forget something. We forget that goodness lives not as a recluse. Goodness seeks not isolation nor withdrawal but spreads everywhere. Otherwise it is not goodness. Goodness spreads, yes, even to the wicked plains of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
This contains a powerful thought that is also reflected in the kabbalah. There is a potential for goodness everywhere. Even the greatest evil contains holy sparks which need to be lifted out. Sometimes we simply need to touch evil in order to raise up the holy sparks of goodness buried there.
These ideas have been on my mind these past weeks as I reflect upon the growing evil I see in the world. I am not simply speaking of the terrible events of murder and mayhem – the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, the ongoing terrorism in Israel, the shooting of innocents by a sniper in the Washington suburbs. There is also a more subtle evil in the world. It is shown by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and South America, and right here on college campuses. It is evil when a former prime minister of Israel is prevented from speaking by an anti-Jewish riot on a campus in Canada. It is evil when Israeli professors, many of them active in the pro-peace movement, are told that because of their nationality, they are no longer welcome to publish in European academic journals. And it is sad when the president of Harvard University accuses his own faculty and students of evil in their demand that Israel be singled out for divestiture.
Some would say to separate ourselves, avoid places where such evil exists. The Torah teaches that Abraham was called a Hebrew from the word Ivri which means across, he stood across, separated from the evil. Lot on the other hand was willing to settle in the midst of evil, with the hope that he could lift out the sparks of good, and be a source for renewal and change.
There is an old legend that thirty six righteous people live secretly among the rest of us (known as lamed vavniks), raising holy sparks and being sources of goodness. Without these thirty six secret righteous, the world could not exist. They often live in the least expected places. Goodness must live among evil; only then can it bring out the good.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5762)

LOOKING BACK ON TRAGEDY

“Lot’s wife looked back and she turned into a pillar of salt.”
(Genesis 19:26)

God destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorrah with fire from heaven. Only Lot, his wife, and their two unmarried daughters were allowed to flee. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Why such a dreadful punishment?
Rabbinic Midrash teaches that she sinned with salt and was therefore punished with salt. Lot had welcomed guests into their home and told his wife, “Give the guests a bit of salt.” She was opposed to having guests at all, and mocked her husband, “You want to introduce our guests to the vile custom of seasoning food.” She went to everyone’s home in the community and said, “Give me salt, we have guests.” Visitors were not permitted in Sodom, and soon the community gathered against Lot and his guests. Thus was she punished. (Genesis Rabbah 51:5 and 50:4)
I find this midrash unduly harsh. Lot’s wife looked back because her two married daughters stayed behind and were victims of the conflagration. She probably lagged behind and was covered in the ashes and soot. One can feel a certain sympathy for this poor mother who lost her home, two of her children, and was forced to flee with her other two children. Still, why does the Torah speak about her punishment?
I came across a wonderful commentary by Judith Antonelli in her book In the Image of God; A Feminist Commentary on the Torah. Antonelli mentions that it is wrong to look at a tragedy while it is happening. It is somehow inappropriate to watch other people in pain, especially when one is surviving that same tragedy. To watch others going to their doom while one is escaping is improper.
There are two other cases in the Torah that suggest the same idea. When Noah built the ark, there was only one window on top with none on the sides. Noah and his family could not sit in the safety of the ark and witness the flood and destruction happening around them. Similarly, when the tenth plague struck the Egyptians, the Israelites were commanded to stay locked in their homes. They were forbidden to witness the tragedy that was striking their neighbors.
I find this idea compelling as I think of the tragedy in New York on September 11 being played over and over on television. We watch those planes striking the World Trade Center, those buildings collapsing, the smoke and fire and tragedy. We can almost imagine what it must have felt like to watch the destruction of those ancient cities. Will we also be turned into a pillar of salt?
When tragedy hits, sometimes we need to say, “I cannot watch.” We need to give the victims some modicum of privacy. I have had some sad moments in my Rabbinic career when I have been called to the home of a victim of violence. Part of my job was to keep the press away and allow the family their privacy so they could mourn. Certainly there is a right to know, to see, to witness. But there is also a responsibility to protect the family of victims.
Perhaps the story of Lot’s wife is teaching us that it is not healthy to witness sadness and destruction. Certainly the victims deserve their privacy. In addition, when we witness too much violence, do we become immune to violence? When our children witness too many killings in the movies, do they become indifferent to the violence in our society?
Lot’s wife looked back when she should not have. We can understand why a mother might look. But maybe the Torah is teaching that as a society, sometimes we have to avert our eyes.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5761)

VISITING THE SICK

“The Lord appeared unto [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.”
(Genesis 18:1)

The Torah speaks of God appearing before Abraham as Abraham sat resting by his tent door. Why was Abraham sitting home in the middle of the day when he should of been working? And why did God appear to him? What did God say?
Rabbinic tradition filled in the blanks. Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, the last event of the previous chapter. God simply came by to visit Abraham when he was sick. From this story came the mitzvah of bikur holim, visiting the sick. The Talmud teaches, “As God visited the sick, so you should visit the sick.” (Sota 14a) When we visit and comfort those who are ill, we are imitating God .
Visiting the sick plays a role in healing. According to a Rabbinic source, each visitor takes away one sixtieth of the illness and suffering. (Nedarim 39b) (Would sixty visitors take away all the illness and suffering? Not really, but it would sure help!) People can help other people heal.
Why do visits help in healing? The answer is that we humans are not merely machines. It is tempting to see medicine as just a way to get the parts of the body working properly once again. Find the right drug, give the right surgery, replace the right body part, and there will be healing. After all, when our automobile breaks down, we take it to a mechanic. The mechanic’s job is to replace the parts, clean out the system, do some physical change to get the car running once again.
Would it help the broken car if some healthy cars stopped by the garage to pay a visit? One cannot imagine such an image. When cars or computers or appliances break down, we fix them. When humans break down, treating them as mere machines is not enough. We are far more than machines.
The Torah teaches that we humans are a mix of the physical and the spiritual. We contain the dust of the ground; part of us is material, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. We also contain the breath of God; part of us is spiritual, beyond the reach of the surgeon’s scalpel or the pharmacist’s drugs. Our spiritual part can be touched by another spiritual being. Humans can help heal other humans.
As a rabbi, a major part of my day to day duties include hospital visits. Parking is difficult at many of the hospitals I visit. Sometimes I have to search for a spot in the visitor’s lot, sometimes there are a few spots up front reserved for clergy which are occasionally even empty. In my favorite hospitals, I am permitted to park up front in the doctor’s lot.
I remember receiving a suspicious look from one physician who pulled up next to my old Ford in his fancy Mercedes. “Why are you parking here?” I smiled at him and said, “I guess we are both healers. You heal bodies; I heal bodies and souls.”
Whether it is a rabbi, a relative, or even a stranger, when someone visits the sick, they see beyond the body to the soul of that person. The soul is the part of a human being that cannot be touched by the illness. Often by visiting the person, touching the soul, in a strange, mysterious way they help heal the body. For our bodies and our souls are intimately joined together.
The commandment to visit the sick is a way of saying that we humans are more than machines. We contain the breath of God. And it was God visiting Abraham who taught us humans the importance of person to person contact – a touch, a hug, a gift, a prayer – in healing the sick.

PARSHAT VAYERA
(5760)

A SCARCITY COMPLEX

“The people of Sodom were exceedingly wicked.”
(Genesis 18:20)

This portion contains the destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. What was so evil about these two cities? The rabbis taught that their evil ways were based on their attitude towards money.
We learn that someone who says “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours is a mediocre person, but many would say these are the qualities of Sodom.” (Avot 5:10) The people of Sodom hoarded their money. When Abraham’s nephew Lot moved into town, they certainly welcomed him. He was a wealthy man, and they saw an economic advantage having him as a neighbor. But poor people, beggars, visitors without money to spend, were not welcome in Sodom.
According to the Rabbinic midrash, a poor man came into town and one young woman was kind to him and shared her money. When the people heard this, they attacked and tortured her. Helping the poor would set a bad precedent for the community; beggars and poor people would move into town. The Torah teaches that “God heard her cry,” the cry of a generous young woman attacked by her wicked neighbors.
The people of Sodom had a scarcity complex. There was only so much wealth to go around, and if people shared money each would have less. It is the way of the animal world. If a group of dogs has a fixed number of bones, and if more dogs come, each dog will receive less. This scarcity attitude towards money is not the way of human beings.
The Sodom story is in the Bible to teach us a different attitude towards money – wealth is to be shared and passed on. “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours, this is the way of the righteous.” Or, as a Buddhist leader taught, “Money is round so that it will keep rolling.” Many great teachers have taught that when we share our wealth, in the end we often receive more. Our charity comes back to bless us.
Rather than a scarcity paradigm (wealth is limited and the more I give away, the less I have), we ought to live by a prosperity paradigm. This teaches that wealth is unlimited. If one person has more, it does not mean that someone else has less. Because Bill Gates is a multibillionaire, does not mean that the rest of us are poorer. (If anything, his wealth created more wealth.)
The people of Sodom were bitter and unhappy, hoarding their money and constantly frightened that someone would take it away. The Biblical lesson is that wealth is unlimited, and is given to us on condition that we constantly give some away. We humans are different from the animals fighting over limited scraps of food. We live in a world of unlimited wealth. Let us switch from a scarcity to a prosperity paradigm.