Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thrice Daily / Parshat Vayeitzei

There’s an old joke about a Jewish astronaut who is part of a successful space mission. When it returns to earth, his colleagues look wonderful—vital and healthy—but the Jewish astronaut looks exhausted and haggard. “What’s wrong?” people ask. He responds, “Every ninety minutes, Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv; Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv.”

Jewish tradition prescribes three daily prayer services: morning, afternoon, and evening. The source of these is found in the daily Temple sacrifices and the requirements to recite Shema evening and morning,[1] yet the Rabbis sought to connect the three daily prayer services with the three patriarchs, grounding them in the personal, spontaneous prayers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they prayed determines when we pray, the Rabbis tell us, but why they prayed may give us clues about the purpose of prayer.

Parshat Vayeitzei begins with a leave-taking. Jacob, having cheated his brother Esau out of their father Isaac’s blessing, flees the home tent in Beersheba and heads to Haran. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob needs a safe hideout, which he will find with his uncle Laban, the brother of Rebekah.

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָהוַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He encountered a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:10-11)

Va-yifga ba-makom — What does “he encountered the place” mean? The Rabbis read much into two Hebrew words. The term “makom” is among the stable of favorite terms the Rabbis use to connote God, the Place of the universe. That night Jacob encountered God for the first time and was inspired to pray to God. His prayer established Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. As R. Yehoshua b. Levi explains, Abraham established Shacharit, the morning prayers; Isaac established Minchah, the afternoon prayers; and now Jacob establishes Ma’ariv, the evening prayers:

R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “The first fathers established three prayers. Abraham established the Shacharit (morning) prayer as it says, Abraham woke up early in the morning to go to the place where he had stood before God (Genesis 19:27) and there is no standing (Amidah), except in prayer, as it says, Pinchas stood and prayed (Psalm 106:30). Isaac established the Minchah (afternoon) prayer, as it says, Isaac went out to converse in the field (Genesis 24:63) and there is no conversation aside for prayer, as it says, I will pour out my conversation in front of [God] (Psalm 142:3). Jacob establish the Aravit (or: Ma’ariv, evening) prayer, as it says, he encountered the place (Genesis 28:11) and there is no encounter aside for prayer, it says, do not raise a cry of prayer on their behalf and do not plead with Me… (Jeremiah 7:16).” (Genesis Rabbah 68:9)

The Rabbis derive each set of daily prayers based on a term in the verse cited, and then prove  that the term actually means “prayer” by its use in yet another verse. We will explain each in turn, and as we do, let us also consider the situation and emotions that inspired the patriarchs to pray.

We begin with Abraham: When Genesis 19:27 says that Abraham “stood before God,” the term “stood” refers to the Amidah (standing prayer). This is reinforced by Psalm 106:30, which says that Pinchas “stood and prayed.” Abraham has been through a lot with and for God. He left his homeland and family in obedience to God’s call, settled in a new and foreign place, circumcised himself and all the males in his household to forge a covenant with God, and negotiated with God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 19:27, Sodom and Gomorrah have been annihilated with sulfurous fire from heaven. When morning dawns and Abraham arises and stands before Adonai, imagine his horror and terror as he looks over the plain of destruction, smoke rising “like the smoke of a kiln.” It is in this moment, at dawn, R. Yehoshua b. Levi tells us, that Abraham feels the need to pray. Thus Abraham is credited with establishing Shacharit, the morning prayers.

 Isaac “converses” in the field just before he meets Rebekah (Genesis 24:63). R. Yehoshua b. Levi explains that “converse” connotes prayer, as we learn from Psalm 142:3, where Pinchas’ conversation is with God is termed prayer.  Isaac, who lived his life quietly in the tent of his mother until his father took him on a “camping trip” and came close to sacrificing him on an altar—which the Rabbis say so traumatized Sarah that she died upon learning what happened— awaits the arrival of his bride, whom Eliezer is bringing from abroad. Isaac’s prayer derives for his longing for a wife, made all the more poignant by this grief for his lost mother.[2] Since it is “toward evening” (v. 63), Isaac is credited with establishing Minchah, the afternoon prayers.

Jacob provides the third instance of prayer. R. Yehoshua b. Levi understands Isaac's “encounter” with God to be an act of prayer, supported by Jeremiah 7:16, where the phrase “do not encounter [meaning: plead with]” is parallel to “do not pray,” thereby establishing “encounter” as a synonym for prayer. Jacob is running for his life, keenly aware that he has cheated his brother out of the birthright and stolen from him their father’s blessing. Jacob is carrying a heavy load of guilt with him when he reaches out for God in prayer. Since this happened “after sundown” (see Genesis 28:10-11 above), Jacob is credited with establishing Ma’ariv, the evening prayers.

Anne Lamott wrote that there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow. R. Yehoshua b. Levi, however, suggests a different three essential prayers: I’m scared; I need; and I’m sorry. Abraham turns to God in terror, horrified by the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac turns to God out of his longing and need for a wife to comfort him. Jacob turns to God when he is mired in guilt. Fear, longing, and guilt are all impetuses to prayer, emotions that inspire us to look for help, strength, and comfort. R. Yehoshua b. Levi is telling us that when our emotions overwhelm us, when they are a burden too heavy to carry alone, we can share them to God.

There is a prayer I often recite prior to El Malei Rachamim or Kaddish at a funeral, whose origin I cannot recall, but one particular sentence of it is germane here: “In life and in death, we cannot go where You, O God, are not, and where You are, hope endures.” We reach out to God when we are afraid, when we are long for something, and when we are wracked with guilt, because God offers hope: hope to hold strong and not be overcome by our fear, hope that our worthy desires may be fulfilled, hope that we can repent and be forgiven. The thrice daily formal prayers offer us ample opportunities to pray, but in truth we can at pray any time, in any place, because as this same midrash also reminds us: “God is ha-Makom the place of the universe, but the universe is not God’s place.” (Genesis Rabbah 68:9) God is not limited by time or space and therefore God is all the time and everywhere available for us.

[1] The daily Tamid and Minchah offerings in the Temple were “replaced” by Shacharit (morning prayers) and Minchah (afternoon prayers). Torah requires that Shema be said “when you lie down and when you rise up,” hence Shacharit includes a recitation of Shema. Ma’ariv (evening prayers) also includes a recitation of Shema to cover nighttime requirement to say Shema, but since Ma’ariv does not correspond to an offering in the Temple, the Rabbis debated whether it was optional or obligatory (and eventually decided it was obligatory). This notwithstanding, there is a formulation of the Shema to recited at bedtime.
[2] Rebekah will be Isaac’s wife, but she will also take the place of his mother: Isaac then brought [Rebekah] into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67-68)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Athens and Jerusalem / Parshat Chukkat

My husband has somehow gotten me see movies I would never have imagined I would have the slightest interest in seeing. In the past few years I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface: there are dozens of them out and more being released every month. So I’ve been thinking about the worldview and values that undergird these movies and how deeply they contrast with biblical and rabbinic worldview and so much of Jewish values.

As recounted in this week’s parashah Chukkat, in the aftermath of Miriam’s death, the Israelites find themselves bereft not only of Miriam, but also of the well that followed them through the Wilderness for her sake. They are scared. They panic.

וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן
The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  

וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר, וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai!” 

וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ
Why have you brought God’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּהלֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת
Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron retreat to the Tent of Meeting to ask God to solve things. God instructs them to assemble the people where, in the sight of all, God will produce water from a rock. Moses, however, furious and fed up, accuses the people of rebellion and strikes the rock twice with his rod. Water comes out—plenty of water—but God condemns Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness and never enter Eretz Yisrael. This, Torah tells us, are the Waters of Meribah, the waters of bitterness.

Here is a story in which Moses stands up for God in the face of the people’s yet-again turning against God. He acts forcefully and decisively to secure for them water to prevent death and destruction. Yet…not only does God not appreciate Moses’ efforts, but God punishes him most severely. What’s going on here?

The late 2nd/early 3rd century Church Father Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertllianus, if you like full, formal names) was the first person to write about the two major streams of Western Thought and compare them. His shorthand, still in use today, was “Jerusalem and Athens,” employing the two cities as emblems of two entirely different cultures, worldviews, and value systems: the Greco-Roman world and the Hebrew world, which some call the Judeo-Christian world.

The 19th century poet-philosopher Heinrich Heine described the different between Athens and Jerusalem this way: For Athens, beauty is truth. For Jerusalem, truth is beauty. The 20th century German-American political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss expressed it this way: Athens represents the life of free intellectual inquiry; Jerusalem represents the life of humble obedience to God’s law. The 20th century philosopher William Barrett expressed it this way: the Greeks idealized philosophical speculation as the height of human accomplishment; for the Hebrews moral and ethical conduct marked the summit of human achievement.

For Athens—the Greco-Roman world—power and conquest are of ultimate importance. The virtues of power, strength, and courage, toughness and righteous indignation were, accordingly, revered. God’s like Zeus and heroes like Achilles embodied these values. 

For Jerusalem—the Hebrew world—what has been termed the “cooperative virtues” are prized: compassion, humility, love, faithfulness, forgiveness. Of Abraham, God says:

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
For I have singled out Abraham, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to see the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right…

In the world of Athens, heroes emulated gods, gods who were conceived in the human image, combative, competitive, jealous, and violent. In the world of Jerusalem, the righteous emulate God, and the Rabbis are clear about what this means. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) they ask: What is the meaning of the verse from Deuteronomy, “You shall walk after Adonai your God”? It means you shall emulate God’s character traits. Then the Rabbis supply us with four examples of God’s character: God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the bereaved, and buries the dead. This is what it means to be godlike, to act in a godly manner. This is Jewish strength, Jewish courage.

The dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem is played out, day in and day out, in our lives. These two sets of values, two sets of virtues, are played out on Capitol Hill and on the Southern Border. Will we put on a show of strength? Or compassion? Will we project toughness and righteous indignation? Or will we exhibit the humility to consider the ideas of others? Is our goal conquest or cooperation? The conflict between Athens and Jerusalem has been playing out day in and day out for two millennia. We, the children of Abraham, who understand our mission to be the priests and teachers of humanity, seek not conquest, but redemption. The world needs our perspective, our values, our world view now more than ever. Shabbat shalom.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Harvest of Hypocrisy / Parshat Shemini 2018/5778

It is like opening an oyster and discovering within a gleaming pearl when  a sublime and profound spiritual lesson springs from the interpretation of a seemingly unrelated matter, in this case, the halakhah of kashut (the laws concerning what is kosher to eat and what is not). Much of Parshat Shemini is devoted to the laws of kashrut. With regard to mammals, Torah’s standards are simple: an animal that chews its cud and has cloven hooves is permissible:
 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, לֵאמֹר אֲלֵהֶם.   דַּבְּרוּ אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹרזֹאת הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכְלוּ, מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֶץכֹּל מַפְרֶסֶת פַּרְסָה, וְשֹׁסַעַת שֶׁסַע פְּרָסֹת, מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה, בַּבְּהֵמָה--אֹתָהּ, תֹּאכֵלוּ
Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves and that chews the cud—such you may eat. (Leviticus 11:1–3)
Accordingly, cows, sheep, goats, deer, and gazelles are acceptable as food because they both chew the cud and have cloven hooves. However, dogs, which possess neither attribute, are not kosher (I can hear many of you heaving a sigh of relief). 

The criteria—requiring rumination and cloven hooves—seem clear enough, yet Torah proceeds to specify animals that have one of the two attributes, but not the other. 

אַךְ אֶת-זֶה, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה, וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָהאֶת-הַגָּמָל כִּי-מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא, וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס--טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הַשָּׁפָן, כִּי-מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא, וּפַרְסָה, לֹא יַפְרִיס; טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הָאַרְנֶבֶת, כִּי-מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה הִוא, וּפַרְסָה, לֹא הִפְרִיסָה; טְמֵאָה הִוא, לָכֶםוְאֶת-הַחֲזִיר כִּי-מַפְרִיס פַּרְסָה הוּא, וְשֹׁסַע שֶׁסַע פַּרְסָה, וְהוּא, גֵּרָה לֹא-יִגָּר; טָמֵא הוּא, לָכֶםמִבְּשָׂרָם לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ, וּבְנִבְלָתָם לֹא תִגָּעוּ; טְמֵאִים הֵם, לָכֶם
The following, however, of those that either chew the cud or have true hooves, you shall not eat: the camel—although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; the daman—although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; the hare—although it chews the cud, hat has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; and the swine—although it has true hooves, with the hooves cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:4–8)
We could understand the list as a clarification of the important religious distinction between permissible and impermissible animals and move on. The Rabbis, however, single out the example of the swine to teach an important lesson about hypocrisy.
Just as the swine, when reclining, puts forth its hooves as if to say, “See that I am kosher,” so too does the Roman Empire boast as it commits violence and robbery under the guise of establishing a judicial tribunal. This may be compared to a governor who put to death the thieves, adulterers and sorcerers. He leaned over to a counselor and said, “I myself did these things in one night.” (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5)
Mammals with only one of the two requisite attributes are like hypocrites who cry, “I’m legitimate—see how my hooves are cloven!” or “I’m permissible—see how I chew my cud!” to distract us from the truth of their disqualifying attributes. 

Rabbi Ephaim Shlomo of Lutzshitz (1550–1619, author of the commentary K’li Yakar, whose title became his sobriquet) takes the midrasnhic lesson one step further, revealing in Torah’s seemingly unnecessary listing of animals a pearl of sublime truth and deep wisdom. The K’li Yakar observed that Torah might have more efficiently noted the missing attribute that disqualified the animal and left it at that. Yet it includes the seemingly superfluous information concerning the “kosher” attribute each animal does have.
The camel that chews the cud. The text should just have said, “it has no true [i.e., split] hooves" since this is the real principle of its impure status, and so, too, for the daman and the hare. This is a difficulty. Also, too, with the swine it says, “although it has true hooves" but it should just have stated "because it does not chew the cud.” Why does the text begin regarding all these animals with the signs of possibly being kosher, and then add later the sign of their non-kosher status? This is because both signs add to its non-kosher status. This is like what [the Rabbis in the midrash Leviticus Rabbah 13:5, cited above] said: the pig is a symbol for Esau [i.e., the Roman empire] in that the pig extends his hooves as if to say it is kosher, while inside it is filled with deceit and fraud, and this teaches applies to everyone whose insides are not like their outsides, such as the hypocrites that pretend to be kosher but are without doubt worse than the complete scoundrel, since [the scoundrel's] insides are like his outsides, all devoted to evil… And so the split hooves of the pig are a sign to its impurity since because of those hooves it can mislead people, pretending it is kosher…
K’li Yakar goes so far as to say that people who make no effort to hide their dishonesty are in some regards more trustworthy than people who pretend to be honest although they are not. The latter—hypocrites—are far more dangerous because their modus operand is fraud and deception. As Nobel laureate André Gide pointed out in his novel The Counterfeiters, “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”[1]

The world abounds in hypocrites. The latest “pig” who “puts forth its hooves as if to say, ‘See that I am kosher’” is Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who began her journalistic career at Dartmouth College by outing gay students in her role as editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review. She sent a reporter undercover to a confidential LGBTQ meeting to secretly record the conversations. As The New York Times  reported in 1984 shortly after the incident, Ingraham outed them, publishing excerpts of the conversation at the Gay Students Association meeting and even printing their names.[2] Ingraham claimed that “freedom of the press” trumped the oath of confidentiality everyone present at the gathering had pledged. She went on in her career to 
    • compare same-sex marriage to state-sanctioned incest
    • mock migrant children fleeing violence in Central America
    • claim that Mexican immigrants “come here to murder and rape our people”  
    • suggest that those who reenter the country after being deported should “be shot crossing the border” 
    • attack civil rights leaders and organizations
    • claim that the NAACP is “a push organization for racist sentiments” 
    • counsel us all to wear Depends rather than share bathrooms with transgendered people 
    • exhort Muslims to “stay in the Middle East” 
    • criticize voter registration as “the politics of division.” 
(To hear audio for all these and more outrageous claims, click here.)

Apparently, once a troll always a troll.[3] Recently, Ingraham revealed in a tweet that David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and leader of the student protests, was rejected by four colleges to which he applied (despite, by the way, a 4.2 GPA). It was a malicious ad hominem attack, typical of a troll. Hogg called on Ingraham’s advertisers to boycott her show to demonstrate that her behavior was unacceptable. The response was swift. Bayer, Nestle, Wayfair, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson, TripAdvisor, Nutrish pet food, Stitch Fix personal style service, Expedia, and Atlantis Paradise Island all announced that they had pulled their ads. While I am not a fan of boycotts, I understand the desire to exert pressure. In this case, Ingraham’s response reveals the depth of her cynical hypocrisy.

What did Ingraham do? Just what you would expect a “pig" to do: She proffered a public apology, the hypocrisy of which she did not even attempt to conceal: “On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland.” How many ways is this apology wrong? It’s clear that her “apology” was a business move to lure back her advertisers. It was not a sincere apology. Want more proof? She did not apology for her behavior, but rather for any “upset or hurt” her words caused. In other words: Those who are offended are the problem, not me. A sincere apology notes what the one offering the apology did wrong. Next: She offered her so-called apology “in the spirit of Holy Week,” which has absolutely nothing to do with the need to apologize when one has offended. Were it not Holy Week, would she not need to apologize? The mention of Holy Week was a slick and slimy attempt to suggest to those who read her tweets that the onus is on Hogg to forgive her, forgiveness being a major theme of the Christian Holy Week. Furthermore, Ingraham extended her “apology” by public tweet, not by calling Hogg and talking to him directly and privately, which a sincere apology would require.

Ingraham’s coldly cynical hypocrisy is the sort K’li Yakar had in mind. Recall André Gide’s words: “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.” These are the most dangerous liars and hypocrites. Sadly there is no shortage of them today. There are, happily, legions of people—from superb journalists to idealistic high school students—who ferret them out and reveal them as the hypocrites they are, helping us all see through the thick much of their lies. Our job is to keep our antenna tuned to the truth-tellers.

[1]  André Gide, The Counterfeiters, trans. Dorothy Bussy (1973: Vintage Books), p. 427.

[2] Also

[3] See Rabbi David Seidenberg’s piece in “Dorf on Law” at

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman