Divrei Hillel (Words of Hillel)

            Our patriarchs and matriarchs were not perfect people.  Among the stories in this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, one of them shows Abraham, and another shows Sarah, not at their best.

            The parasha begins with God telling Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a land which God will show him, that will be an inheritance for his descendants.  But even after Abraham and his family arrive in Canaan (later the Land of Israel), they don’t settle down; a famine is in the land, and they continue on to Egypt where food is expected to be more available.

            But Abraham is worried; he knows that Sarah is considered to be a beautiful woman, and he is a concerned that, if the Egyptians know they are husband and wife, they will kill him in order to take possession of Sarah so that she can become a consort to the Pharaoh.  So instead, he tells Sarah that they should represent themselves as brother and sister; Pharaoh may still take her, but Abraham’s life will be spared.

            This is all very well for Abraham; but it puts Sarah in a rather difficult position, to say the least.  In the end, God intervenes and informs Pharaoh that Sarah and Abraham are married, and Pharaoh, acting more righteously than Abraham (!), returns Sarah to Abraham, and expels them from Egypt.

            Abraham does the same thing again when they go to the land of Gerar!  Despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah really are half-siblings (see Gen. 20:12) as well as husband and wife, commentators have always been bothered both by Abraham’s dishonesty and lack of faith that he shows in these stories, and in his endangering of Sarah.  Although elsewhere he is called righteous, here he doesn’t seem so righteous to us.

            Sarah is never described as righteous, but she is our umpty-great grand-mother, and we would like to think well of her.  But in chapter 16, part of this week’s portion, she, too, does not come out looking very good.

            We are told when we are first introduced to Sarah, back at the end of Chapter 11, that she has no children.  She and Abraham are now past normal child-bearing age, and still have no children, even though God keeps promising them many descendants.  So, in what appears to be an accepted practice at the time, she tells Abraham he should take her maid Hagar as a surrogate mother, and Hagar promptly becomes pregnant. 

            The maid, succeeding at something that her mistress has never been able to do, starts ‘taking an attitude’ toward Sarah; and although Sarah was the one who suggested to Abraham that he impregnate Hagar, Sarah says her troubles are all his fault!

            Sarah in turn makes life miserable for Hagar, to the point that Hagar runs away.  An angel tells Hagar she should return, and that her son will be the father of a great nation, and she goes back to Sarah.  

            In a later Torah portion, Sarah forces Abraham to throw Hagar and her then-adolescent son Ishmael, out of the camp, and Abraham again does what Sarah asks.  With regard to Hagar, neither one of our spiritual ancestors looks terribly righteous!

            Despite these flaws, we still see Abraham and Sarah as out spiritual ancestors, not because they are flawed but because they are human!  Those of us who have grown up on cowboy movies (white hats vs. black hats) or war movies (American good guys vs. anyone with an accent as bad guy) have been made accustomed to expect clear delineations between good and evil; but, when we actually stop to think about it, we know the world is not black and white, but is made up of many shades of gray. 

            As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it in his most recent book Not In God’s Name:  Confronting Religious Violence, “It is this honest confrontation with complexity that makes Genesis so profound a religious text.  It refuses to simplify the human condition.”

            How much easier it would be if everything were clearly marked as good or bad, right or wrong.  Having lived in the world, we know better.  And having the Torah as our foundational text, with its realistic views of human nature, is a great blessing to us.  We are asked to learn from and emulate Abraham and Sarah and our other spiritual forebears, not because they were perfect, but because the were trying to understand a complex world, and how to live in it according to God’s teachings.

            From that we can definitely learn much!

            Our journey through the High Holy Day season has concluded, and we now take up the more prosaic journey through the year just begun, the year 5776 on our ancient calendar.

            Most rabbis and commentators track the High Holy Day season beginning with the month of Elul, leading up to the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur.  The holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, although not officially part of the High Holy Days, come so closely on the heels of those Days that they feel a part of it.

            Rabbi Alan Lew, in his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, sees the start of this season three weeks earlier than Elul, at Tisha B’Av.  That observance commemorates the destructions of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e., and of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e. 

            As Lew puts it, the Temple, called Beyt HaMikdash in Hebrew, meaning House of Holiness – God’s House – in which we felt secure, crumbles around our ears on Tisha B’Av; after a journey through a renewal of our relationship with God during Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, we end the season sitting in a flimsy house that isn’t a house – the sukkah – but feeling more secure than ever.  The lesson of this more than two month journey is that our security lies not in the physical structures that we build, but in the spiritual structure of our relationship, as individuals and as a people, with God (whatever that means to each one of us!).

            Now, as we resume our yearly journey, we take that lesson out into the world with us:  the world of work, of school, of marriages, parent-child relationships, friendships and casual interaction with those around us.  Almost as if to emphasize the contrast (havdalah) between the holy season just ended and the more prosaic time that comes after, Ḥeshvan, the month that follows Tishre and the High Holy Days, has no holidays or special observances, other than, of course, Shabbat.  It is the only month on the Hebrew calendar about which that is so. 

            Perhaps our tradition somehow (intentionally or serendipitously) gives us this quieter liturgical month so that we can rest from the many holidays of Tishre; or perhaps we can see this hiatus from holidays as an opportunity to take what we have learned from the High Holy Days, out into our ‘normal’ world and see if those lessons really do help us to live a better life, and to contribute to making a better world, as the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur seemed to promise. 

            In that light, perhaps this period can be seen as the true beginning of the new year; after all, every day, every moment, is a new beginning.  Today is the first day of the rest of our year; indeed, as the saying goes, of the rest of our lives!

            So for the final time as this holiday season comes to an end:  Shana Tova!  Let’s go out and make this a truly good year!

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God –

your tribal heads, your elders and your officials,

all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp,

from woodchopper to water drawer –

to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.

Deut. 29:9-11


I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. 

Choose life – if you and your offspring would live –

by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.

Deut. 30:19-20

            Even as we make our last-minute preparations for the High Holy Days, which begin on Sunday evening, the regular cycle of Shabbat Torah readings continues.

            The two passages above, one at the very beginning of this week’s portion, Nitzavim, and the other near its end, serve as brackets around the theme, not only of this portion, but also of Rosh Hashana:  our lives as Jews consist of being in covenant with God, and God’s teachings; all of us, even the resident stranger; and that covenant consists of choosing life!

            The first passage is, in its all-inclusiveness, revolutionary!  Covenant ceremonies in ancient times were generally between the god and the king, sometimes with the priests, but never extending beyond the men of a society – in other words, those in positions of power.

            In ancient Israel, however, those members of the society who were deemed of less power – women, children, the resident alien – were explicitly included!  This suggests a recognition that, if every member of a society is not included in the covenant, then the community as a whole will not be able to truly live up to the demands of being in covenant with the Essence of the universe.  Each individual has a role to play in the life – and fate – of the group.

            And in fact the command, or exhortation, to “choose life” is directed, not to the community as a whole, but to each individual.  We know this because the Hebrew word calling on us to choose life is in the singular – it is up to each individual to make that choice; and, again, the suggestion is that, if each individual does not make that choice, the community as a whole will not succeed.

            The command to “choose life” is not limited to any one question or issue:  its not specifically about abortion, for example.  It is about the individuals that make up the community, and the community as a whole, living in conscious covenant with God and God’s teachings.  Not doing so will lead to a much poorer spiritual life in the short run; and in the long run, it could mean that the society will not survive as a community!  It is God’s teachings and commandments that give us the wisdom, the skills, and the common dedication to a goal, that will enable us to sustain our community over long periods of time.

            On Sunday evening and Monday, as we reconsecrate ourselves to the sovereignty of God during our Rosh Hashana services, it might be helpful to recall these passages from Parashat Nitzavim:  may all of us choose to live – in covenant with God and with each other, that our community may – in the words of that well-known Jew, Mr. Spock – live long and prosper.

            L’shana tova tikatevu:  may be all be inscribed in God’s Book of Life for a year of peace, health and well-being in all things; that is to say, a year of true shalom.

            One of the recurring themes of the upcoming Rosh Hashana holiday liturgy is the enthroning of God as king/sovereign.  There is a whole section of the service titled Malchuyot, traditionally translated as ‘Kingship’, and more modernly as ‘Sovereignty.’  The central concept of the section is that, every year on the first day of the New Year, we re-coronate God as King/Sovereign over our lives, our world, our universe.

            We Americans are not used to ‘king’-talk.  This nation began as a rejection of the idea of a single person holding power over the wishes of the majority of the people.  From a colonial system based on sovereignty vested in an individual, our founders established a system in which sovereignty was vested in the people.  In theory, at least, our constitutional system vests sovereignty in the people.

            So what is a ‘sovereign’?  The sovereign is the entity (person or group) in whom supreme and ultimate authority to govern is vested.

            Based on our conversation in our Sunday Chat about God, it seems appropriate to recognize God as Sovereign.  One of the attributes of god-hood in general, as we discussed, is that God is – or gods were –  the central element in the lives of the people. 

            One of the ways we talked about for understanding the God concept, especially when we are trying to get past the many anthropomorphisms of the Bible, is that God can be, among other things, a label for that bundle of values and ideas by which our Jewish tradition encourages us to live our lives.

            And when we look at these two concepts – ethics and values important to how we live our lives, and enthroning of God at the center of our lives – then it makes perfect sense to combine them.  We can now understand the Malchuyot prayers of the Rosh Hashana liturgy as metaphor:  once again, we mindfully put our ethics and values at the very center of our lives.  We ‘enthrone’ them as the source of how we live our lives.

            This is a very good example of what  can become a general rule for our finding meanings in the Bible and the liturgy that we haven’t found before.  So much of it doesn’t work for us when we try to understand it literally.  But when we take it as metaphor, it can suddenly make a lot of sense, and bring new and powerful meanings to our lives.

            Thus, Rosh Hashana becomes one of the many tools that our tradition provides to us for waking up from our daily routines, and remembering that we are human being, created in the Divine Image, and partners with God in bringing order out of chaos, in completing the ongoing process of tikkun olam, fixing a broken world and completing Creation.

            Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how…he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  Therefore…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  Deut. 25:17-19

            I have always found the somewhat convoluted language of this passage at the end of this week’s Torah portion a bit amusing:  remember to forget Amalek!

            Who is Amalek?

            In Exodus 17, Amalek is a tribe of nomads in the Sinai desert, who attacked the Israelites, who have just been freed from four hundred years of slavery.  According to the tradition, the Amalekites did not confront the Israelites directly, which would have allowed young men of military age to defend the rest of the people; instead, they preyed upon the weak, the infirm and the aged who, because of their conditions, lagged behind the main body of the Israelites.  This went on until Moses instructed Joshua to gather a force of men to go after the Amalekites and defeat them.

            Because of the cowardly actions of the Amalekites, who were “undeterred by fear of God,” the name of this tribe was to be blotted out of history as not worthy of being remembered – a terrible fate to the biblical mind, to be forgotten forever.

            Of course, the name of Amalek was not blotted out of history, as witness its presence in our Bible!

            But this idea of blotting out the name of Amalek has an echo in our customs in, of all  places, the Jewish festival of Purim! 

            Purim is the story of Esther, the Jewish young woman who hides her identity when she is chosen out of all the beautiful women of Persia to be the queen.  When a new prime minister, by the name of Haman, is appointed, he manipulates the King into allowing him to kill all the Jews.  In order to save her people, Esther reveals her Jewish identity to the King, telling him that Haman is threatening her, too, when he threatens the Jews.

            So what does this have to do with Amalek, you ask?

            Well, in the Scroll of Esther (3:1), Haman is described as an Agagite, a descendant of one Agag.  Agag was the king of Amalek when King Saul was commanded to wipe out the Amalekites for what they did to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt centuries before (1 Sam. 15).  Saul leaves King Agag alive, but is then confronted by the Prophet Samuel for not obeying God and wiping out all the Amalekites.  Samuel kills Agag with Saul’s sword; but the damage seems to have been done:  Agag leaves descendants, one of whom will be Haman the Agagite of the Book of Esther.

            This is the origin of the custom of booing loudly when Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading of the Scroll of Esther, on Purim, in order to drown out his name.  We thus fulfill the commandment in this week’s Torah portion to wipe out the name of Amalek from history.

            Moral of story:  because Saul didn’t fulfill God’s command to wipe out the Amalekites, the Jewish People faced possible annihilation almost a thousand years later.

            The lesson for us:  we can’t know what the ultimate impact of even our least actions will be in the future.  We are therefore called on to live by God’s teachings, so that – at least hopefully – there is a better chance of a good result.

            So – don’t forget to remember to forget!