Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)



We Must Not Be Noah

A blog post at Times of Israel


Unrequited Love

A blog post at Times of Israel


Fruit for fruit

Genesis 4:3

And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

Why motivated Cain to bring an offering of the fruit of his land to God?

Many answers could be given, but in the dozens of Bibliodramas I have done with this story, one intriguing suggestion pops up quite frequently: Cain had heard all about the wonderful Garden of Eden in which his parents started their lives, standing in stark contrast with the laborious, demanding life they were now living. He wished to get back to that Garden; he wished to get back into God's graces. 

So he reasoned: God became upset when my mother took a fruit. I will give back fruit. 

This has logic. Yet he is not successful - God ends up accepting Abel's offering and rejecting that of Cain. Again, many explanations for this may be offered. But perhaps one message emerging from this is that you cannot fix things simply by reversing them. If you have hurt someone with offensive words, you cannot simply say to them the opposite or "I didn't mean it" or "I was joking". Rather, a process of apology and genuine conciliation, and a true process of repentance, must take place.

This was Cain's mistake. He ought to have tried to rectify the root cause of his parents' sin inside himself. Instead, he thought a technical action would do the trick.

Abel, on the other hand, brought the choicest of his flock. In this he was putting God above his own desires; and this, perhaps, was a (partway?) rectification of Eve's sin in priveleging her desires above God. Hence, his was accepted.



Make Shabbat Your Partner

Shabbat. I could barely live without it. In today’s insanely connected world, I need one precious day to peel my eyes away from screens and place them instead onto people, books, the sky! To reboot my fried brain. People all over the Western world are realizing the need for unplugging. They’re doing “analog weekends”, refreshing themselves before the week begins anew.

But Shabbat is hard for some populations – including people who are single, or lonely inside a bad relationship. For them, unplugging, disconnecting, can mean feeling very alone. I offer an idea that I hope is more than pleasant words or a flimsy bandage for a painful wound. And it is this: to make Shabbat our partner.

The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 8:11) says,

Now why did God bless [Shabbat]? R. Berekhia and R. Dostai said: Because it has no partner. The first day of the week has the second, the third has the fourth, the fifth has the sixth, but Shabbat has no partner… R. Simeon b. Yohai taught: Shabbat said before the Holy Blessed One, “All have a partner, while I have no partner!” God said to her, “The Community of Israel is your partner!

Knesset Yisrael, the collective of Israel, is the marriage partner of Shabbat. “V’yanuchu bo kol Yisrael” – the national soul rests on Shabbat. The beauty of Kabbalat Shabbat reaches its heights as communities sing Lecha Dodi in unison, greeting the beloved bride. We get ready for Shabbat, writes the Rebbe of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, as we get ready for marriage. We speak about it, buy and prepare food in honor of it, spend time beforehand reviewing our deeds and cleansing ourselves in preparation. We do our best to make the day exciting and special – by learning Torah, sanctifying it, putting on lovely clothes, having festive meals.

When we let Shabbat in as a real presence, spend time with her and greet her return with joy, then she can fill up our empty places, she can hold us in her embrace. She is there faithfully, week in, week out, through all the fluctuations of season, mood,  life. We might have a flesh-and-blood partner, or we might not - but by our very birthright, Shabbat IS our partner. Eternally so, G-d's gift to us all.

To me, Shabbat has a real presence, she is there with me, palpably.

Authenticity is not "Take Me as I Am." 

A well-known Midrash (Sifri Devarim 343:) recounts how God took the Torah around to all the nations to offer it to them.

Each one asked "What it is written in it?" and when they were told,  'You shall not murder.' 'You shall not commit adultery.' 'You shall not steal.', Esau, Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael respectively all replied  'Master of the Universe, it is in our nature [to do those things], therefore, we cannot accept Your Torah.'

And thus with all the nations of the earth, until finally God came to Israel and asked them: 'Will you accept the Torah?' They said, 'We will do and we will obey.' (Exodus 24:7).

I'd like to read this Midrash through the frame of two important keywords: Authenticity and Lack.

In the conversations with the nations, each nation felt that the Torah's commands would compromise their authenticity. It is in our very nature to do those things, so we cannot agree to it - we would simply not be us without that.

That was how they viewed it. But actually, the opportunity God was presenting to them was to hold up a mirror to their faces and show them that, in fact, these traits and actions they were clinging to were not their true authentic nature, and that on the contrary, these sins and indulgences masked a חסרון - a lack, shortcoming or flaw, that they did not wish to face.

Rather than confronting their shortcomings, the nations preferred to proclaim, "Look that's just me, take or leave it." So they could not even take the first step on the path to change and growth.

Authenticity does not mean just being who you are now. It means working to sense who is the greater you, and moving towards that with everything that you are. It is not standing still; on the contrary, it IS growth.

Our lacks and flaws, the Hasidic masters tell us, are the gateway to our service of God. If we can't handle seeing them, we can't even start.

Israel, that stubborn, downtrodden, complaining people, did one thing right: they said, we are willing to take a look at our shadow side, and grow from there.

Anyone who is willing to step into the service of God through their lacks, can receive the Torah. Anyone who isn't, can't.

* With thanks to Naama Menussi, in whose shiur this insight arose (February 2016 ).