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Parsha Post: VAYEIRA

This week’s Torah portion brings much controversy and family drama!

Vayeira, in which Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, our authors threaten their fathers with a knife and feel crushed in the synagogue. Hagar, however, gets to see G-d.

As usual, we provide you three handpicked tidbits from books we published, to enrich your weekly Torah portion experience… …or feel like you are not the only one about to run screaming from the synagogue.

The Binding of Isaac, Church of Narga Selassie, Dek Island, Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Photo by A. Davey

Also, we are glad to showcase this week not only one, but two bilingual poets who write both in English and in Hebrew! (We are going to share the English.)

We’re going to start with the poems, because they are more tension-filled, and then the discussion of Hagar speaking to G-d will bring a bit of an emotional resolution.

(OR NOT)

(I MEAN)

(FAMILY STRIFE INCOMING)

The first poem is by Herbert J. Levine, from his English/Hebrew poetry collection An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion. This book explores through poetry how one can relate to Judaism while still having a non-theist perspective. This is a longstanding enterprise of Herb Levine’s – there are two volumes so far that we published, and they can even be bought in a bundle:

From Generation to Generation by Herbert J. Levine

How can I forget
that my son threatened me with a shovel,
swore he had been falsely accused over money
his sister had stolen?

How could my father forget
that I once raised a knife
to his face when he stood behind me
showing me how to carve the Thanksgiving turkey?

After the ram was slaughtered,
how could Abraham forget
the devouring knife that Isaac seized
and held against his trembling throat?

The second poem is about Sarah – to have something to match a poem about Abraham (I feel there’s always more about Abraham, though that’s changing!). Technically it is set on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but there is no earlier or later in the Torah 😉

It is also a poem about going to synagogue and feeling that it is DIFFICULT. Which is a legitimate feeling to have! But often underdiscussed too. I think this Torah portion especially provides material to struggle with / feel uncomfortable about.

It’s from NOKADDISH: Prayers in the Void by Hanoch Guy-Kaner. (This book is in English, but he also writes in Hebrew.)

“[A] startlingly honest exploration of what it means to be a person living with the Absence and Presence of God.”

Wings by Hanoch Guy-Kaner

Let us magnify his holiness,
lovingkindness and compassion.
How lovely his tents are.
Beloved Sarah is under the divine wings.
Let her be bound in the garland of lives.
How fortunate is Sarah,
Born on the first day of Passover
Died on the second day of Rosh Hashanah,
When the gates of heaven are wide open as on Yom Kippur.
Angels chant soft hymns,
Ascending and descending ladders of light.

Mourners bathe in compassion, memory,
winter’s soft light coming through
stained glass windows.

The more Rabbi Linda piles up thanks to god,
recites his compassion and kindness,
The harder I am smothered by wings,
Crushed by the closing gate.

I just really like this – beauty, compassion, repentance, and the poet goes I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. (Relatable content.)

And now for Hagar – This short excerpt is going to be from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold, a book that explores the spiritual challenges of every weekly Torah portion (+ gives exercises to focus on them). It shows the journey to the Promised Land in the Torah as a journey you take within yourself (so you don’t have to physically go anywhere!) and how the events of the Torah illustrate personal spiritual growth.

The name Hagar means “the stranger.” She represents the stranger in our midst. When we cast Hagar out into the wilderness, her offspring becomes our enemy. When the stranger is banished, our opportunity for seeing God is squandered. The ability to see God passes instead to the stranger, to Hagar. “At the moment of deepest despair, God opened her eyes.” She is blessed with a vision of God who appears at the living waters of life.

In receiving the blessing of Vayera, we are both the one who banishes the stranger, and the stranger herself. In finding the compassion to welcome the guest, to open our heart to the one who is different, the best tool we have is our memory of being the stranger ourselves.

I skip ahead a bit, because the next part is going to be especially interesting – and it’ll also show the power of midrash as fix-it fic 😉

Much later in the story, Abraham takes another wife named Keturah, which means “spice.” The midrash says that this new wife is Hagar, returning, the-stranger-welcomed-home. She is transformed from a bitter, desperate stranger into a source of sweet fragrance.

Welcoming Hagar back into our hearts bestows on us the blessing of seeing God once more.

By the way, we have a whole book that explores midrash as fix-it fic, and we suspect it predates the term “fix-it fic”. It’s from 1977! The new & updated reprint edition of Tales of Tikkun – New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World:

It retells classic Bible & Talmudic stories, and it also has a (different) story about Hagar & Sarah. (I feel this story just makes people feel “that CAN’T be it, right? RIGHT?”) That story is long, so I chose not to include it here, but you can get the book.

Which classic Bible stories would you fix? This Torah portion has more than one tempting stories, I feel. But we can always go beyond that… (C’mon, Avraham! C’mon, Sarah!!! C’mon, THE ENTIRE CITY OF SODOM!!)

Thank you for following along, and make sure to check out our entire series of Torah portions!

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This week’s Torah portion: Nitzavim

It’s that time of the week! Welcome to our post on the weekly Torah portion.

This time around:

🌳 NITZAVIM 🌳

Trees will be happening. Talking trees. Delightful trees. Get to know the Talmudic proof by flying tree! (We would like to take this time to reassure you that hurricanes and other extreme weather events are not involved.)

A photo of a tree and a red bench by the seaside, Crete, Greece. Image by Marc Ryckaert.

This parsha includes a very famous section about how the Torah is not in the heavens, and not beyond the seas either…

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?””

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11)

(Sea provided above ⬆️ )

So for our first Torah tidbit of the day, I picked something that involves this quote!

It’s from our book AN ANGEL CALLED TRUTH AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TORAH by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon & Emma Parlons –

It has short, illustrated parsha stories for all ages!

I’m going to put here images of the pages so that you can see the illustration too 🌳 but I’ll also type up the text below…

(yes, a FLYING TREE is coming!)

This Tree Shall Prove I’m Right

A verse from this week’s reading, which states that the Torah is not in the heavens, appears at the heart of one of the most famous arguments in rabbinic literature. The argument is between Rabbi Eliezer, who claims that a particular kind of oven doesn’t need to be demolished, while the rest of the rabbis think that it does.

If you’re wondering if this is a typical topic for the Talmud, yes it is…

Rabbi Eliezer proves his point time and time again, but the rabbis simply don’t accept his arguments. This is our retelling of that Talmudic passage.

“If you still won’t listen to me,” Rabbi Eliezer said, pointing in the direction of a carob tree, “then this carob shall prove I am right.” The rabbis shook their heads in resignation. That Rabbi Eliezer – you could almost hear their scorn – how does he think a tree is supposed to prove anything?

The sidebar helpfully tells us:

The carob, or Ceratonia siliqua, is native to the Mediterranean region. Some people say carob fruit tastes like chocolate. But who do they think they are kidding?

So, back to the story, how does the carob prove Rabbi Eliezer is right? Oops!

Then the tree uprooted itself from the earth and flew through the air. Rabbi Eliezer nodded quietly to himself. Surely – he thought – he would have their attention now. But no. Oh no. These rabbis were not about to accept proof-by-flying-tree.

Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am right, let this stream of water prove it.” The water began to flow upstream, but the rabbis were not accepting proof-by-backwards-flowing-stream.

Rabbi Eliezer tried a third time.

And now, in unison, let us say NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Rabbi Eliezer, NOoooooo~

“If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it.”

It’s going to be JUST FINE…

…right?

And the walls of the study hall started to lean in and fall.

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua stood up and told the walls, “When rabbis argue, who are you, walls, to get involved?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, the walls stopped falling inwards but, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they didn’t right themselves either.

Very Jewish solution, but I guess they were the walls of the study hall after all….

Rabbi Eliezer summoned the powers of heaven. Looking upwards, he called on God to settle the debate. A voice came from the heavens. “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right.”

Rabbi Joshua rose again, “The Torah itself says that the law IS NOT IN THE HEAVENS. It was given to us!”

And – to this day – the walls still stand and lean. Neither siding with Rabbi Eliezer nor with Rabbi Joshua.

And we should note a very important detail, namely that G-d did not kill Rabbi Joshua for the ALL CAPS either… Though that might only be because Hebrew has no capital letters 😉 But to be honest, G-d has a high tolerance for people yelling at Them.

We also have some discussion questions to go along with the story:

Rabbi Eliezer was in the minority, so should he have sided with the majority? When have you agreed with a majority, even though you thought that position was wrong? When should you agree with the majority?

Rabbi Eliezer attempts to prove his point with miracles. Do you think Rabbi Joshua was right to refuse to accept miraculous proofs? If so, why?

Is it good to be the odd one out? Why? Do you tend to stand alone or with the crowd?

The story ends here, but I should add that it actually goes on even further in the Talmud. Wikipedia has a summary, with some interpretations too! But now we’re going to segue to our next tidbit, which also includes trees.

(I have to say it’s easier to do this with trees than with cats. The Torah doesn’t include very many cats. For that, you’ll need our Jewish Cat Calendar.)

This one I’ve picked from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS: A Companion for All Seasons by Jill Hammer. (Incidentally, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award!) It has something for each day of the Jewish calendar – and for some mysterious (or not so mysterious) reason, for this Shabbat, it includes a fascinating midrashic quote about trees.

It is from the midrash collection Genesis Rabbah (or Bereishit Rabbah) and it’s a commentary on the very beginning of Genesis, where all manner of plants and trees are created. You probably already know this one from Genesis, but do you know the midrash that goes with it? Genesis Rabbah tells you………

*dramatic suspense*

R”All trees speak with one another. All trees speak with other creatures. All trees were created for the delight of other creatures.” (13:2)

You heard it here first! I mean, this was written ~1500 years ago, but still.

So let’s see what Rabbi Hammer says about this quote and why she picked it for this day:

Those of us who are raised around trees are used to a certain whispering in the leaves. For those of us who grow up where trees dry out in the autumn, the leaves’ rustlings grow particularly intense at this time of the year. In the imagination of one midrash, the trees actually are speaking, to one another and to us.

On the third day of Creation, the Divine creates plants and trees. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah focuses not on the things trees do for us by giving fruit, wood, sap and medicines but on their companionship. The aliveness of trees feels like friendship to us. We celebrate the plants that are our companions on earth.

Some plants will grow all winter. Some plants have died down to a bulb, yet they will come to life again in spring. Some seeds have been torn away by the wind to distant places. At the new year, we may feel like any one of these plants. In that sense as well, the plants are our companions, showing us the way to renew ourselves.

And for our last tidbit I chose one of Rachel Barenblat’s Elul poems from Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems.

This one has a LOT of High Holiday poems (and prayers!) so I’ve been quoting from it a fair amount…

Rocking chair (for Elul)

The exalted throne on high
   is a gliding rocker.
      God watches us with kind eyes

rejoicing when we figure out
   how to fit two pieces together
      and create something new

looking on us with compassion
   when we struggle for balance
      and thirst for what we can’t name.

The sages of the Talmud knew
   more than the wobbly calf wants to suck
      the mother yearns to give milk

God is the same way
   overflowing with blessings, and yet
      we turn our faces away and wail.

When will we learn?
   God’s lap is always open
      all we have to do is return.

Thank you for following along, and stay tuned for multiple surprises coming up and a lot of new things during the holiday season. When we are not away, we will be here with double the intensity 😀 G-d willing, but this is the plan.

In the meanwhile, you can browse our previous parashah threads on Twitter – with a lot of fun stuff (and some weird, and some terrifying…).