“Getting it all backwards” | November 18th
I have been preoccupied with the notion of memory and legacy as of late, and for appropriate reason. It is timely to reflect on this concept for a Torah portion entitled the Life of Sarah that ironically begins with her death.
Oddly, when people die, we begin to extol their virtues and remind the world how they lived. We douse ourselves in memories and reflections and share their life story. The obvious question is why do we wait until liminal moments and most notably death to share the values of one’s life?
I would contend that in moments of vulnerability our hearts become softened and the things that are harder to say, the feelings that are more challenging to admit and the walls we too often build come down. These moments of illness, sadness, suffering and death allow us to see life in a different perspective and with kinder and more appreciative eyes.
The compelling part of the Torah to me is the realness of the characters within it. We can learn from the example of mistakes our ancestors made as well as moments when they hit the mark.
The life of Sarah and the extoling of her virtues after her death is a reminder to us to soften our heart and seize the moments of vulnerability while our loved ones are alive to share and speak and express the love, admiration and gifts they have enriched us with. Were Abraham to have done that before he took Isaac to the Altar or banished Hagar or departed from Sarah, perhaps she would have left the world with a fuller heart and he would have lived his last days with less regret.
May we learn from that mistake and grow from their experience.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
“Run, don’t walk!”” | November 11th
“Rambam’s Tzedakah Ladder”, dating back to the 12th century is the system that remains the standard for instructing how we give to others. Rambam lists eight different ways of giving from most preferable to least preferable. This list teaches us that when it comes to our generosity, it is not just about the amounts we give, but perhaps more importantly, about our attitudes when we give. And while Rambam’s ranking remains the core text when it comes to charity in a Jewish context, I would argue that a close reading of this week’s parsha, Vayera, is actually the first place we learn the importance of the way we give.
As we open this week’s Torah reading, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He picks up his head, shields his eyes from the sun, and sees three mysterious figures approaching him off in the distance. He has no idea who they are, but he doesn’t wait to find out. Without hesitation, he runs up to greet them. And, because it was a hot day, his natural inclination is to provide them with food and water. So, he runs back into his tent, where he instructs his wife Sarah– “Quick! Begin preparing all the finest cakes for our three guests!” And then Abraham is on the move once again! He picks out a calf, and tells his servant, “Hurry! Prepare that meat!”
It is a mad rush to get everything ready and we can picture Abraham, Sarah and their servant all scrambling to make sure these three guests feel warmly welcomed with a feast–even though they are complete strangers who showed up without warning.
We learn from this story’s repeated use of words like “running” and “hurrying” that it is not just what Abraham and Sarah provided–it is how they provided it. Their mad dash to tend to their guests as expeditiously as possible teaches us the importance of acting on behalf of others quickly when they need us. There is a lot to be learned from the way that Abraham and Sarah greet their guests so willingly, but one of my favorite lessons is that when we see others who can benefit from our generosity, we happily spring right into action.
Rabbi Gabe Cohen
“More than just a physical journey” | November 4th
This week we read God’s famous instruction to Abram, “lech lecha“ Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. And without hesitation, Abram did just as God had commanded. Abram went off into the great wide open without a clue as to what was next–trusting only in the promise that God had given him that everything would work out for the best. But we all know that there is more going on here than him simply packing up and leaving his home. God’s instruction to Abram is about so much more than a mere physical journey. He is not just going from one physical place to another. Abram makes a decision that will change the course of his life. Rashi remarks that had Abram stayed, if he had never heeded God’s word and instead stayed right where he was, it would have been impossible to achieve his eventual greatness.
And this growth after leaving home is one we will see echoed in many of the great characters of modern literature and film. Think for example of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter –all unlikely protagonists who were otherwise unspectacular, but went on to achieve greatness once they accepted the challenge of leaving the confines of their homes. For all of these characters, it all started with leaving behind everything they had ever known, stepping out into uncertainty and embracing whatever came next. Or as the wise old sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker after he trains with his lightsaber for the first time, “you’ve taken your first step into a larger world”.
If we don’t step out of our comfort zones, we can never truly grow. Abram makes the decision that many of us have had to make in our own lives in ways both big and small leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar with no clear picture of what is next, only trusting in the word of others that things will work out. Abram gives us a model for taking the first steps on life’s hard journeys, and trusting that we will grow from whatever happens along the way.
Rabbi Gabe Cohen
“Remembering Those In Need” | October 28th
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Noah to see the world around him disappear. As he and his family sat alone in their giant ark, with only two of every animal to keep them company, everything was wiped away–drowned out to make way for a new world that would have to be rebuilt. In this week’s Parsha, Genesis chapter 7 ends as the floodwaters reach their 150th day, and the Torah tells us the devastating extent of the destruction. All living things were blotted out–except for Noah and those on the ark. What must have he been thinking as he said his goodbyes to everything he had ever known? There is no way to measure fear of the unknown on that scale.
But then chapter 8 opens with one of my favorite lines in the whole Torah– “God remembered Noah”. In that moment of distress, as Noah sat in the uncertainty of not knowing when he would get off the ark and, more importantly, what would be there to greet him on the other side, it must have been an incredible comfort to have been remembered by God. God was there for our seafaring protagonist in this moment of his greatest need. And the Etz Hayim commentary on this verse explains further that in the Bible, “to remember” is not merely to recall something. Rather, it is to focus on the object of memory and to then act on it. God demonstrates that here by remembering Noah and then stopping the rain as a result.
There is so much to be learned from that simple act of God remembering Noah while he was in the midst of such turmoil. We can follow the example that God sets here by showing that we too remember those who are going through difficult times. A text message, a phone call, or a note just to let a person know that we are thinking about them can make all the difference in the world. Those small acts of kindness go a very long way. Unlike God, we may not be able to bring the end of a flood for others. But we can at least let them know that we care and that we remember them in their moments of need.
As we enter Shabbat, I encourage you to ask yourselves: who are the people navigating storms in their own lives that we need to remember?
Rabbi Gabe Cohen
“Carrying the weight of the World” | October 21st
Hanging on my fridge at home is one of my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoons. In it, Atlas, the legendary Greek Titan of myth, is struggling to carry the entire world on his shoulders with a grimace on his face. But it is not the tremendous heft of the globe that is causing him to exert such effort–it is the shopping bag dangling from his arm. And off to the side, Atlas’s wife is chastising him. The caption reads: “Don’t be such a martyr. At least let me carry the groceries!”. We can all relate to that feeling of having to hold up the entire world on our own. And even then, we still try to add just one more responsibility. The reality, however, is that tasks as big as holding up the whole world are not meant to be undertaken alone.
This week in Parashat Bereisheet, we read about God creating the world–an undertaking so massive that not even God can complete that task alone. It is for that reason that the work was not completed by God alone, but continued with humankind creating along
with God. Rabbi Neil Gillman, z”l writes that we partner with God in creation every day. Think, for example, about the processes for making bread or medicine. In each case, we take the natural resources that exist in the world, process them, and ultimately turn them into something usable. We engage in the process of building on what already exists in the world. These are but two small examples. We also have opportunities to create and add to the world’s beauty in constructive ways every day. Something as big as welcoming a new child into the world or as seemingly little as planting a tree are ways to partner with God in adding beauty to the world.
By building with God, we engage in one of Judaism’s core values, Tikun Olam, or literally repairing the world. We play our human role in making the world a better place. As we begin another year of reading the Torah, it is important to remember that while we read about the creation of the world once a year, creation happens daily. May we take advantage of every day as a new chance to beautify and better our world.
Rabbi Gabe Cohen