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D’var Torah Vayeira - from Rosh Hashanah Day II

09/28/2022 11:03:11 AM


Allan Grady

Shana Tova!

Cantor’s theme this year is “courage” and “bravery.” To avoid competing with (or contradicting) her, I decided to start with the opposite side: “fear;” or in this case, “fear of God.” The angel says to Abraham: “I know you are one who fears God, (y’rei Elohim) because you did not withhold your son whom you love.”

So what does it mean “to fear God?” Let us go back to Abraham’s story just two chapters before this. Abraham settled in Gerar and let it be known that Sarah was his sister. The king, Abimelech, took Sarah into his palace, whereupon, God visited Abimelech in a dream and told him that he was a dead man. Abimelech summons Abraham and bitterly reproaches him, saying: “What have I done to you that you should bring such great guilt on me and my kingdom?” Abraham’s answer: “I thought, Abraham said, that there is no ‘fear of God’ in this place.” Rabbi Plaut says in his comment on this verse that Abraham is saying that the ethical moral standards of his kingdom were very low and therefore would surely allow him to be murdered.

Next let’s look and Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus. The pharaoh ordered them, when delivering Hebrew women, “if it is a boy you should put him to death.” The midwives “feared God” and did not do what the pharaoh ordered, and they let the Hebrew boys live. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani says that “they let the Hebrew boys live” is saying that the midwives “kept the boys alive.” So not only did the two women not murder the babies, but their ethical and moral standards were such that they did deeds of kindness for the infants they saved by going to the houses of the more well-to-do mothers and collecting food and water for the needier mothers.

Let us go back from that story just a little bit, to the story of Joseph at the end of Genesis. Joseph has risen to rule Egypt, second only to pharaoh; the famine that he foretold is not just in Egypt but throughout the whole world, and Joseph’s brothers have come to buy food. Joseph interrogates them and learns that he has a brother born after he was sold into slavery and whom he has never met: Benjamin. He accuses his brothers of being spies and of course they deny it. He offers them a way of proving their innocence, they must bring this youngest brother to him. Joseph throws them all into prison and demands that one of them volunteer to return home and bring back Benjamin. When nobody volunteers to go, Joseph changes tack. He says “you all may go but I will hold one of you hostage until you return. He seizes Simeon and puts him back into prison; but he tells the others to go back to their homes, fetch Benjamin and return to Egypt. He tells them that they should not worry about Simeon’s safety, because Joseph says: “I fear God.” As the Ramban pointed out, Joseph was saying that his moral and ethical standards were such that he would not keep them all in prison while their families were starving; that he would release most of them to take the provisions home. Furthermore, Simeon would be safe in his hands while this happened.

Torah tells us to be God fearing; and that being God fearing means to have high moral and ethical standards. So how do we have high moral and ethical standards? We do that by obeying God’s mitzvot. Midrash says that the purpose of the mitzvot is the refinement of God’s creatures. The Talmud says the purpose of mitzvot is preserving the world. In other words, the mitzvot are not arbitrary, but rational and good and lead one to lead a moral and ethical life. Maimonides said: “Every one of the 613 precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations to society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners, or to warn against bad habits. Nachmanides said that Torah expects us to use our ethical reasoning because it does not and can not address every possible scenario. He said: Even regarding what God did not command, you should set your mind to do what is good and just in God’s eyes, because God loves the good and the just.” The commandments are a set of tools with a higher purpose that be discernible by the human mind, independent of God’s direct voice. God has given the ability to distinguish right from wrong and the responsibility to use it.

While Torah says that to fear the Lord is to obey all the commandments, there is one that I want to focus on this morning. That is to do justice for the widow, the orphan and the sojourner. That’s from Parashas Eikev, But we get the same commandment in Exodus, where in Mishpatim we are told “Do not oppress the stranger,… do not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” Then during the month of Elul we are given the same message. In Parashas Re’Eh we are told to feed the sojourner, the widow and the orphan within our gates. In Ki Seitzei we are told to set aside portion of our olive and grape harvests for the sojourner, widow and orphan. Then in Ki Savo we are told “Accursed is one who perverts a judgement against the stranger, the widow or the orphan. These words are found coming from the prophets. Isaiah says: “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Jeremiah says do not oppress the stranger or orphan or widow.”

Why am I beating the drum about the widow, the orphan, the stranger? It begins to sound like just a cliché, doesn’t it. But what Torah is saying is that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. And during the time of Torah, the most vulnerable meant the widow, orphan and stranger.

But this is also what bothers many of us about this test that God gives Abraham to perform. There is no one more vulnerable than one’s own child. Your child trusts you; your child obeys you. And God says Abraham must slaughter him, this son whom he loves. And Isaac is so trusting that all he says to his father is to ask him why they aren’t taking the animal to sacrifice with them, and he accepts his father’s vague answer without protest.

Is there anything more unethical, unmoral, unjust than to put your own child to death? But God himself spoke to Abraham and told him to do this. So my next question is: Does God speak to us?

The ancient rabbis taught that after the last prophets, Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi died, no one has heard the divine voice directly from Hashem. However, other rabbis have disagreed with that, and suggest that perhaps once in a generation there might be a person of such holiness that God might speak directly to him or her.

Rabbis disagree with each other. Who would have thought that even possible? But I have a story from the Talmud that highlights what I have been talking about: how do we follow Torah, how do we maintain an ethical society, and what if God does speak directly to us and what should we do if God tells us to do something? It’s called “The Oven of Achnai.” Early in the second century of the common era, a new type of oven is brought to the rabbis and they debate whether or not this oven is susceptible to ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer the Great, argued that the oven is ritually pure while all the other rabbis argued that the oven is impure. When none of Rabbi Eliezer's arguments convince his colleagues, he says, "If my opinion is correct, this carob tree will prove it." The carob tree leaps from the ground and moves to the other end of the garden. The other rabbis say “no,” a tree offers no proof in a debate over law. Rabbi Eliezer says, " If my opinion is correct, the stream will prove it." The stream begins to flow backwards, but again the other rabbis point out that one does not cite a stream as proof in matters of law. Rabbi Eliezer says, " If my opinion is correct, these walls will prove it." The walls of the study hall begin to fall, but Rabbi Joshua scolded the walls for interfering in the rabbi’s debate. Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, they do not continue to fall, but out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they do not return to their original places.

Rabbi Eliezer finally cries out, " If my opinion is correct, Heaven will prove it." From Heaven, Hashem’s voice is heard, saying, " Rabbi Eliezer is completely correct"

Rabbi Joshua responds “No!”, "It (the Torah) is not in heaven" We read this portion just last Shabbat, "It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe"

Rabbi Joshua says the Torah, which was given by God to mankind at Sinai, specifically instructs those who follow it that they are to look to the received Torah as their source and guide. His view is that the study of God’s laws is our duty. The Torah is not a mystery which must have its meaning revealed by someone, but it is instead a document from which meaning must be found through the human activity of debate and consensus.

The other rabbis tell Rabbi Eliezer that, since Hashem has spoken on your behalf, that makes the vote three to two, and the consensus remains that the oven is not to be used.

When we hear the words of Isaiah in the Haftarah on Yom Kippur, he will not be saying care for the orphan, widow or stranger; his words will be slightly different but will mean exactly the same thing. He will be reminding us of exactly the same vulnerable, oppressed people we encounter in our lives today. He will say care for the homeless; we have homeless, people sleeping on the streets. He will say care for the hungry; we have the those who, in modern parlance, are food insecure. He will say, care for those who are enslaved; we have people who are enslaved by drugs and mental illness. And Isaiah says, “let the oppressed go free.”  

Which brings us to my third and last question. Why is this story the most important one for us to hear every year? After all, everything that happens in the story of the Akeidah is refuted by what follows in Torah. Abraham takes Isaac up on the mountain to put him to death. Torah commands us to protect the vulnerable and tells us that God hears the cries of the oppressed and powerless. God commands Abraham to slaughter his son, but then we are told that we have been given the Torah as our roadmap to a just, ethical and moral society, without God whispering in our ears how to follow it.

My answer to “Why the Akeidah?” is based on an essay by Rabbi David Segal, a member of the CCAR editorial board and founder of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Those who decided to place this story before us every High Holy Days knew that we in the diaspora would be living surrounded by people of other faiths. The story of the binding of Isaac inoculates us, so to speak, against the dangers of faith-based fanaticism. Our tradition teaches us that we cannot have a justice system or even a social contract if everyone has a “God told me” escape clause.

The sages from long ago knew we would be among people who will say, “God told me!”  We have learned the lesson taught in the Akeidah that, as Professor Aaron Koller says: ”one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another.” And we see that harm every day. We see it when a baker say’s God told me not to bake a cake for a gay couple. Next week the Supreme Court will again take up a case of a web-site developer who said that God told him not to develop a wedding web-site for a gay couple. And in Texas, two weeks ago a judge ruled that a firm did not have to provide medical insurance that covered drugs to prevent HIV because that might encourage homosexual behavior which was counter to their religious beliefs.

Rabbi Segal points out that it is our job to oppose discrimination under the guise of religious freedom and point out that real harm is done to human beings by religiously motivated behavior. We learn from our tradition that saying, “no, God didn’t say that”; or conversely “my God told me…” is unlikely to persuade anyone. We must keep in mind that sincerely held beliefs and moral commitments do evolve and that we can help this happen by advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable. We need to be prepared to do the patient work within the larger community to open people’s eyes to the faces and stories of those who are suffering harm. And it’s not just hurt feelings, it’s true harm. LGBTQ community suffers higher rates of self-harm and suicide far higher than any other group. As Rabbi Segal summarizes, with Torah, our own moral and ethical standards, and our tradition for developing consensus across great divides, coupled with our commitment to social justice, we can do what is right and just and keep the way of the Eternal.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

D’var Acher

In the centuries following the Talmud, the commentators who discussed the story of the Oven of Achnai mostly remarked that this is a story about rabbis for rabbis. However, I think there’s an important lesson for all of us. The story reminds us that even when we are absolutely, positively, certain that we are right, even to the extent that we know that we have Hashem on our side; we are still required to listen to those around us who have different opinions.

Lastly, remember Paul Harvey? He always told a story and then at the very end of his show he’d have “the rest of the story.” I didn’t tell you the whole story of the Oven of Achnai. Would you like the hear the rest?

The Talmud tells how God responded to this incident. We are told that upon hearing Rabbi Joshua's response, God smiled and stated, "My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me."

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784