Tag Archives: Abrahamic Religions

Parshat Vayeira (2011)

Parshat Vayeira
Genesis 18 – 22

Political Terminology Aside, Avraham Avinu Was the First Progressive

Abraham and Three AngelsAs we begin this weeks parsha it is important to look at the very reason we go through the Torah on a circuit; week by week, making our way through the designated section. The reason is because context is everything. Though the Torah is given to us as a great story, it was written in an ancient time where both writing medium and method were not easy to implement, so it does not concern itself so much with normal narrative. It was important first off to be concise. One of the ways of being concise is grouping things of relevance together, in order to give meaning to the narrative and the common concepts. It was not important for the authors to necessarily be historical, as much as it is to convey the ethic that is at the heart of the story.

When this parsha begins we are immediately thrown into an encounter between Abraham and G-d’s messengers, melachim. We figuratively understand these to mean angels but it is true that this word means nothing more than a messenger. In fact, the suggestion of a malach (angel) does not appear until chapter 19. Here it only refers to the visitors that Abraham encounters and anashim; men, nameless and anonymous men.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this point, but Abraham as the master of Semitic virtues of hospitality did not concern himself with the identity of these men, nor his own situation when he takes in these strangers. He felt obligated to care for the wandering stranger. In fact when these travelers come upon Abraham it is immediately after his circumcision, we are told in Talmud Bava Metzia 86b that this is just three days after Abraham’s circumcision while he is still in pain and caring for his wounds. In the Talmud the story is related that Abraham feels so driven by his ethic of caring for the traveling stranger that he sends his servant Eliezar to look for other nomads. When he comes back with no one to host Abraham decides to prop himself up at the entrance of his tent and look for visitors himself. Though deterred by the heat of the day and his physical limitations Abraham had no intention on slacking on his responsibility, so G-d sends the angels in the form of men to visit with him.

We have a picture of Abraham as the angels appear, wrapping his bandages around himself, barely able to move, prostrating himself on the floor and begging for their patience as he provides basic accommodations for them. Though they seemed ready to move on so as not bother Abraham in almost embarrassment of his humility, Abraham begs for them to stay with him. To the merit of our father Abraham he did more than just provide the bare necessities, instead he waits upon them bringing multiple courses both of a nourishing dairy meal and then even a feast of a fattened calf. This is the example that is set before us of how one is to care for a guest and a stranger. This is why this is presented to us. Though the announcement of Isaac’s birth is mentioned in this encounter it is not the primary topic that we have moving into this parsha, the promise of making Abraham a father of many nations is already a given.

This is clearly stated within our text. For as often as our scriptures go out of their way to not waste unnecessary words on redundant phrases, here twice in chapter 18 alone we see the certainty of the promise to Abraham. First during the meal it is stated by one of the messengers of G-d that “Shov ashuv aylecha kaeit chaya / Certainly I will return to you at this season / v’hinai ben l’Sarah ishtecha / and behold Sarah your wife will have a son” (v.10) and again in verse 18 it is mentioned among the messengers themselves “v’avraham hayu yehiyeh l’goy gadol v’atzum / Since Abraham will become a great nation, that is enormous/numerous…”. This visit might have been the setting in which the announcement of Isaac’s birth was presented but it was not the central reason for this encounter, it’s the symbol of the hospitality which take up about 10 verses, the discussion about Isaac’s birth takes up only about 5 verses. This encounter is about showing us the moral context of that age and culture, not interested in giving us a chronological story. Because notice that one year later when Isaac is born we do not see in the scriptures any mention given of the angel returning; it’s not an error on the part of the writer, it’s just not important in comparison to the central theme which is going to be the treatment of a sojourner in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Later in the story Lot is going to show he still maintains his cultural sensibilities in welcoming in strangers, which is going to result in the inhabitants of Sodom showing total ethical decay in seeking to harm these visiting strangers. Their disregard for the stranger in their midst is spelled out for us in their cry of “ha-echad ba la’gur vayishpot shafot / this one came as a sojourner, and now he must sentence us as a judge?” But it is precisely because Lot was a sojourner that he knew what the experience of being a stranger was. And being a nomad most of his life he offered hospitality to guests as the custom required and out of sympathy. This commandment to care for the stranger would be one of the most often repeated commandments given in the scriptures, being made even more personal for the people of Israel later on in the words, “You shall neither mistreat nor oppress the sojourner, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:21. You will also see this echoed in Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Deuteronomy 27:1, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Zechariah 7:9-10, and Malachi 3:5.

This is an ethic that is going to be firmly maintained throughout Jewish history and will be clearly summarized in prophetic judgment against Jerusalem by the prophet Ezekiel some 14 centuries later:

“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister |

Sodom: pride, |

fullness of bread, |

and careless ease was in her |

and in her daughters; |

neither did she strengthen |

the hand of the poor and needy. |

They were haughty, |

and committed abomination before Me; |

therefore I removed them when I saw it.” |

הִנֵּהזֶה הָיָה, עֲו‍ֹן

סְדֹם אֲחוֹתֵךְ:

גָּאוֹן שִׂבְעַתלֶחֶם

וְשַׁלְוַת הַשְׁקֵט,

הָיָה לָהּ וְלִבְנוֹתֶיהָ,

וְיַדעָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, לֹא הֶחֱזִיקָה.


וַתַּעֲשֶׂינָה תוֹעֵבָה לְפָנָי;

וָאָסִיר אֶתְהֶן,

כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאִיתִי

Ezekiel 16:49-50

Now you might wonder why I seem to disparage the name of Lot. Quite frankly I don’t really see him as all that impressive of a person. I surely would not, in my own personal opinion, count him as someone who is a saint (the title which he holds in Catholic tradition for example). Lot is mentioned here not necessarily for his goodness, but almost as an example of one who is mediocre in his morality and still seems to benefit in spite of himself. In last weeks parsha we learned that Lot was the nephew of Abraham, and was one of the few people to leave the homeland with him (Gen. 12:4-5). At the time when Abraham left he was already 75 years old. Lot, his brothers son, became like a son to him. They would journey together and reach the land that was promised to Abraham. And at that time, despite the promise that Abraham had of becoming a great nation he still considered Lot as his only possible heir. For this reason Abraham granted him an inheritance and split the promised land, Abraham going to north and west of the present day Dead Sea toward Hevron and giving Lot the inhabited lands of the south and east. Lot wanted the city life, so Abraham took the plains.

However, we quickly learn that Sodom, where Lot had settled, was invaded and he was taken as a captive slave along with his possessions. (Gen. 14:11) This should not come to too much as a surprise because in chapter 13 verse 13 we are told that the inhabitants of Sodom were very malicious and sinful people, it appears that trouble had quickly come knocking at their door. Abraham then rescues Lot and liberates the land, subsequently Lot returns to Sodom and does not join again with Abraham. So disgusted with the ways of Lot Abraham must have been. He apparently didn’t think Lot was going to make it to be much of an heir so he began to consider the fact that Eliezar his slave could end up being his only heir, and then considered even naming any male born in his house as heir (chapter 15). But nonetheless Abraham loved Lot and it was well established by the example that he had set earlier that he was going to rescue this kinsmen of his at any risk to himself. This is why the Torah went out of the way to tell this story of Lot’s rescue earlier, to show the motivation of Abraham’s heart to save his beloved relative.

When the angels arise in verse 16 and start to head towards Sodom, Abraham is said to escort them along the way, all the while Rashi tells us he still believed they were just nomadic travelers. At this point the narrative changes:

“And Hashem said,

‘Shall I conceal from Abraham

that which I am doing?'”

| Va’Hashem amar

| hamechaseh ani me’Avraham

| asher ani oseh

Genesis 18:17

At this point we see a truly remarkable move, one that stands out as an astonishing moment in the history of interaction between G-d and man. G-d begins to consult with man, He begins to reveal His ways to Abraham. But something more dynamic is happening here than just that, we have seen G-d speaking to humans many other times leading up until now. The truly interesting part is that G-d is actually considering the reactions of Abraham to His plan, and even more exemplary Abraham is responding with true conviction of his position.

In verse 19 we have what appears as a verse of praise of Abraham’s directing his clan towards living a life of righteousness and doing justice, but it is also an indication that Abraham had his people always ready, on command, like a standing army to act in the aid of others. At the first indication of trouble in Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham would send help. Verses 18-19 are a very complicated way of saying that if G-d does not warn Abraham he is going to take his clan in a rescue and risk getting carried away in the destruction. Therefore he needs to be advised what is going take place.

This is what I find so amazing about this story, that Abraham was so reckless in his pursuit of doing righteousness and justice that G-d needed to plan around Abraham’s reactions. Abraham was living up to the call made on him by G-d in chapter 17:1,

“I am the Almighty,

walk before Me and be wholehearted.”

| Ani el shadai

| hit’halech lifnei vehayeh tamim

Genesis 17:1

Walk Before Me

Now, I’d hate to sound trite in bringing up the often considered distinction made between the righteousness of Abraham and that of Noah; but it is needfully important for us to consider it. All you faithful Torah students, humor me just for a while as we look at this once again.

In the face of the past cataclysmic form of judgment we saw enacted by G-d through the great flood, we see the description of Noah as “Et elohim hithalech noach / Noach walked with G-d.” Actually it says a bit more, it first says “Noach ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav / Noach was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation.” And this is where our frequently mentioned Midrash takes over. It’s not just a best loved point in our day, it was so in the Talmudic age as well because we see it mentioned in Sanhedrin 108a, Midrash Rabbah 30 and Midrash Tanchumah 5; which is likewise noted by Rashi, which is why most of us know this point. The point being that understanding the nature of Noah’s level of righteousness was held in the words “in his generation.” It’s noted that the best that can be said concerning Noah is that if he had lived among other righteous people he might have been a better person, but for his generation he wasn’t such a bad guy. But Rashi seems of the opinion that it is blatantly derogatory towards Noah, saying “but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”

If we go back to the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 108a we are told that the School of Ishmael is of the opinion that G-d was sorry he made all flesh on account of their corruptness, and the judgment being carried out rightfully included Noah; but nevertheless Noah was shown favor by G-d that He should save him, in spite of himself. Noah is one of the sinners.

Midrash Rabbah 30:9 makes the most interesting of descriptions when it comes to Noah, trying to sum up opinions presented in the Talmud section mentioned above us tries to bring this home to us in the age or Torah living, saying: “Had he lived in the age of Moses, he might be compared to a tightly closed vial of perfume lying in a graveyard, which nevertheless gave forth a fragrant odor; how much more then if it were outside a graveyard!”

In fact in all the commentary of Noah there is only one Rabbi that comes to the defense of Noah, Rabbi Yose of Cesaria who claims that Noah as a righteous man surely reached out to the people in order that they repent and to save them from judgment. But in unison the Rabbis reply that they don’t see it, that is precisely what he did not attempt to do at all.

What we have is the image of a Noah that once the destruction was pronounced by ha-elohim, G-d using His name of judgment and authority, Noah is in step with it and never challenges it nor questions it. There is no intercession on behalf of the people, nor is there any evidence of an attempt to save anyone else. Not to get sidetracked, but that was one of the interesting things about Noah’s situation was that all he had to do was create the ark. Everything else would be taking care of by G-d Himself. In fact that was one of the stipulations of the covenant that G-d made with Noah in return for his obedience for building the ark, that He would cause the animals and his family to come into it and be saved. He didn’t need to do any saving, G-d was going to do the saving he just had to make the room (Gen. 6:18).

Our Midrash, brings us back to Abraham now in contrast to Noah saying:


Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nechemiah, |

Rabbi Yose said: |

This may be compared to a king |

who had two sons, |

one grown up and the other a small child. |

To the child he said ‘walk with me,’ |

but to the adult, ‘Walk before me.’ |

Similarly, to Abraham, whose |

[moral] strength was great [He said] |

‘Walk before Me’; |

of Noah, whose strength was feeble |

[it says], ‘Noah walked with G-d.” |

את האלהים התהלך נח

ריהודה ורנחמיה

רי אמר

משל לשר שהיו

לו שני בנים

אגדול ואקטן

אמר לקטן הלך עמי

ואמר לגדול בא והלך לפני

כך אברהם

שהיה כחו יפה

התהלך לפני

והיה תמים אבל נח שהיה כחו רע

את האלהים התהלך נח

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 30:10

Noah is presented as being a feeble, almost sickly child needing to be helped along. But Abraham in contrast is one that goes before G-d as an mature adult, leading the way of morality.

Our Rabbis come to this conclusion of Abraham, though without directly saying, because of his vigorous debate with G-d at this point concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact even before we get to the debate it appears that the messengers needed to try to get the shake on Abraham because he’s not gonna like what he has to hear.

The messengers get up to go and one of them stops to speak with Abraham, revealing who they are and what the plan is. G-d spells it out for Abraham, not just the judgment, but also that but he is going to “descend and see, have they done everything implied by the outcry that is coming before Me? If not, I will know.”

As Abraham is being distracted in conversation, we read, “vayifanu misham ha-anashim / and the men turned from there / vayahlchu sidomah / and went toward Sodom.” We are told that messengers had to divert their path. Why? “v’Avraham odenu omed, lifney Hashem / because Abraham stood before Hashem.” Though G-d is revealing He is going to send His messengers to know for certain and witness the situation, Abraham is still not satisfied and tries to stand in front of them. The angel speaking with Abraham disappears, the others have left so now he takes up the issues with G-d directly referring to Him by His name of mercy and in a personal tone as “adonai.” (note: not YHVH, though that is who is being addressed he only calls Him “adonai,” showing He understand the nature of the coming Torah and relationship even though it isn’t fully revealed yet)

Abraham begins to plead on behalf the souls of the people within the five towns of Sodom, that G-d forgive the entire population on behalf of a small number of upstanding people. And so begins a process of persistent haggling between G-d and Abraham, beginning with him considering 50 righteous people. Notice there is no attempt for them go look for these people, they stay there as though they are considering the names of people. As Abraham is unable to come up with that count he decreases the number to 45, 30, 20, and 10; they can’t even come up with an average of two righteous people per city of Sodom! Here the haggling ends. The angels continue on their way; one angel to rescue Lot and his family, and the other to enact judgment on the towns.

Though Abraham’s appeal did not have the result of saving the towns as he desired, he is credited forever for putting up a fight before G-d Himself to act justly, using the words “Far be it from You to do this thing, to slay the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You, shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly (mishpat)?” Abraham is so bold to say that G-d is the ultimate Judge, and since the ultimate knowledge of the law is in Him, He should reconsider the case. He understood that part of being a judge is to adjudicate (mishpat) which is not just to sentence but to also acquit; G-d should find a way and he, Abraham, is going to try to help Him find the way.

With this in mind we reach the heart of the message I take away when reading this parsha at this time, here in the second clause of Midrash Rabbah 30:10. As is the case most often in rabbinic discourse the best is save for last, as Rabbi Nehemiah is quoted as comparing Noah to a man who is the friend of a king, the man is wandering in the darkness of an alley and stumbling in filth. So the king says to his friend to come and walk with him instead. Noah walk’s with G-d because he needs to find his way, to hold him up. G-d is his crutch.

In contrast, the Rabbi says of Abraham that the example is in the opposite manner. It is as though the king, who we clearly understand as being G-d, is the one that is stumbling in the darkness. He calls to His friend who has a candle to come out and help Him find His way, to go before Him and help Him and guide the correct path.

And this is the remarkable point of the story that G-d is calling Abraham, and us as extension by being children of Abraham, to walk before Him. Not just to be in step with the morality of G-d but to also exceed it, to go before it.

Now liberal scholars will point as this being a maturing point in the development of the scripture’s description of G-d. I’m not much of a liberal in that regard, but I will agree with the likes of those who would see this as not so much a development on the part of a personal G-d but a development of the state of godliness in man, that we reflect as being made in the image of G-d (betzelem Elohim). However I think, that here Abraham having a personal experience with G-d through mercy, likewise expected such justice to be shown to others.

Maybe the minority is right. Maybe Noah isn’t such a bad person, he lived in a terrible age and among terrible people. It was a dog eat dog world. Survival of the fittest was the rule of the land. As with the previous description he was perfume in a cemetery, a treasure in the most obscene smelling place imaginable.

The problem though, in my understanding, is that Noah was a bottle that was sealed tight. There is no issue of not being strong enough to overpower the funk of the smell of the rotting around it, but there is a big problem in that as a vial of perfume the last thing one should be is sealed tight with no ability to have an impact on it’s surroundings. It’s existence is sad, in that it doesn’t even live up to it’s true usefulness. Is that how we are going to be? So afraid of wasting and tainting ourselves, by mingling with the putrid around us, that we have no impact for the benefit of others? If so the midrash identifies the type of person that we are, the kind that uses religion as a crutch.

Or are we going to be as Abraham. A person who goes before G-d. A person who persistently pushes the bounds of justice and mercy. How I wish that there were more of us, willing to take this Torah so seriously and the promise of Abraham, that we are not embarrassed to be spazzed; running after G-d, standing in His way, pleading with Him and bartering with Him on how to show mercy to those that are under judgment and oppression.

Parshat Lech Lecha (2011)

Parshat Lech Lecha
Genesis 12–17

Was Abraham the First Monotheist?

As we come into this weeks parsha we step quite abruptly into the thick of a story. Suddenly the narration of genealogies ends and G-d begins to speak once again for the first time since Babel, this time not to a heavenly court but to Avram himself. And here is were we get the powerful words that are the birth of the Jewish people, the foundation of Israel, the start of our religious journey as a people:

“And Hashem said to Avram

‘Go away from your land,

from your birthplace and your father’s house

to the land I will show you.’”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Avram

| lech lecha me’artzecha

| umimoladetecha umibeit avicha

| el-ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Genesis 12:1

When we begin to tell this story for the novice, for the child, we most often begin simply by saying this is the start of our people, we even say this is the start of monotheism. We over simplify in terms of describing from a position at this point in history. We say this because all religions that hold to be monotheist aside from Judaism have degraded to the point of flagrant dualism and forms of polytheism. It serves our purposes to look at it this way.

Then there is the view of the simpletons who see the story of the generation after Noah being more related to an understanding of the origins of racial grouping. They can only do so because at this point in history religious variances among the nations have also generally coalesced along ethnic and regional lines. But this is a gross generalization. Not that the Torah is not making a generalization, its just not making a racial one.

The story of the generations after Noah are more concerned with explaining the degradation of cultures, not into ethnic groups but instead into world views. The three archetypal groups that our fathers were concerned with is of a religious understanding. The nations of man instead had degenerated from a place of assumed monotheism to breaking into three cultural world views; pantheist, polytheist and animist.

How can I claim this? First off, notice there is no issue of idolatry ever mentioned in this Genesis story even up until this point. Certainly, the people going back in time are assumed to have descended from people who knew the true nature of G-d and had to have deviated at some unknown point along the way. And this rings true in what we know from archeology and history, from China to the Cape of Africa, from India to Iceland the concepts of pure deity with no anthropomorphism and intermediaries lays at the furthest roots of their cultures, only to deviate over time as pure religion sought to explain specifics of their spiritual world in ways that fragmented their view away from a Divine Unity. But this was only generally the case. Zulus and Native American cultures for instance often shocked Christian missionaries with monotheistic values that were even more pure in their understanding of the all encompassing One than even they possessed. This is a fact, read the works of Budge, Horn, Faber, Rawlinson, Waddell, etc.; all the major experts in archeology and history agree on this.

But even our scriptures knows it is making a gross generalization because it explicitly tells us there still remain small pockets of these unadulterated cultures left. One of these remaining pure thinkers is Melchizedek, the king and high priest of Salem; or as we understand him in the Talmud and Aramaic translations of the scriptures, to be Shem the son of Noah, now king of Salem in the land of Canaan; which was the citadels of the prehistoric city of Jerusalem. Though there were those who had not perverted their way, this was generally not the case; most of the people had lost their way.

Instead this story is going to be concerned with explain to us how our ancestors lost their way. And they did so more than just in a philosophical and religious way. These decedents of Shem, our Semitic ancestors were also embarking on a very physical path on the way to a land of promise even before it was guaranteed through a promise. And that is what I want us to talk about today.

Even though the opening command of our parsha begins by G-d telling Avram to get up and go to the land that He will show him, the path to get there had already been embarked on. Let us turn for a second to the closing of our previous parsha (Parshat Noach) and we will read the following:

“And Terach took his son Avram,

and Lot the son of Haran his grandson,

and Sarai his daughter-in-law wife of Avram

his son, and they left together

from Ur Kasdim

going towards the land of Canaan

and they came as far as Charan

and settled there.”

| Vayikach Terach et-Avram beno

| ve’et Lot ben-Haran ben-beno

| ve’et Sarai kalato eshet Avram

| beno vayetze’u itam

| meUr Kasdim

| lalechet artzah Kena’an

| vayavo’u ad-Charan

| vayeshvu sham.

Genesis 11:31

We need to understand that the scriptures are not necessarily telling us a chronological history, and those of us who study rabbinic literature are well aware of this.

The Journey of Abraham from Ur to the Promised Land

Aside from looking at the wealth of midrash we have related to the intermediate years between Noah and Avram, we have a great deal of simple clues to show us that we are only talking in the general sense in this as well. Just as there are ten generations between Adam and Noah, there are ten between Noah and Avram. The meaning of why it gives us this list of generations is apparent if we start at the beginning with the first decedents born in the lineage of Noah; Arpachshad, which is a name of a place today in Turkey that was a nomadic encampment. Names continue to be tied to locations several times along the way (notice other names and seemingly corresponding places are Sereg, to Sarugi; Terah, to Turahi; Nahor, simply to Nahor) until we find that these Semites, decedents of Ever (from which the name Ivri, meaning Hebrew is derived) making their way until they stop in a place that kind of sounds like a person, a place named Charan. I say sounds like because Haran (הָרָן) and Charan (חָרָן) are not the same. Actually they are quite different, Haran the name bares the suffix “har” meaning hills, probably referring to the hilly places the people originated; this is the son of Terach and brother of Avram. Charan though means a dry or parched place; this is a well known city.

Though Haran is not responsible for the establishment of the city of Charan as one might assume from erroneous juxtaposition of the names (this is the case for most Christians, and always the case for Muslim scholars), he does however seem to be responsible for why the family settled in Charan. What we know is that Haran was born in Ur Kasdim, in the assumed Chaldean city of Ur; this would place their journey as far as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Haran dies in the place where he is born, there in Ur Kasdim (Genesis 11:28). Then the family, as we read, continues on but doesn’t make it any further then Charan, which takes them probably back to present day Turkey, a distance of a good 550 miles. Despite the name, this path via Charan provides the water necessary to make the journey by following the Euphrates as far as they could instead of having to face the vast dry deserts of present day Iraq and Jordan. And then Terach suddenly stops and settles in holy city of moon worship know as Charan, were he then dies. Terach’s stay could have been there as long as 60 to 100 years in Charan, before he dies; just about 700 miles from the final destination of Canaan.

Though we are not explicitly given a reason for why the journey to Canaan stopped, if we look purely at the composition of the text we are given a clue. There is a setumah break, a pause and break in the text after verse 25, which makes verses 26 through 32 one entire clause. What this sections tells us is that Terach has three sons, the youngest of them is Haran. Haran dies in the presence of his father in the place that he was born, after taking a wife and having a son named Lot. Terach takes the rest of his family, except for Nahor his middle son and his household, and journeys to Charan. We can only assume that because the tragic death of Haran is such a major piece of this section concerning how they got to Charan it must have been Terach’s grief that paralyzed him too much to go on. If we look at it this way, the mentioning of Haran’s death is not out of place at all, as it would appear so otherwise.

Though our midrash is heavy-laden with stories of Terach’s succumbing to idolatry, there is nothing explicitly mentioned about it in the Torah text. However, if we look at the name of the wife he chose for Nahor, for instance, we will see that she outright has a pagan name; Milchah after the goddess Malchatu (the daughter of the god Sin; corresponding to Ishtar or Isis). Terach seems to have lost his way and found himself more at home here in shadow of the ziggurat of the moon goddess, never to move on again. Though if you do the math, and look at the text we see that when Avram moves on Terach is not yet dead. However, our midrash also enlighten us to why Avram, the true master of all Semitic values could do the unthinkable and seemingly abandon his father; our sages tell us because he is as good as dead, there is no use in hoping Terach will continue.

When we look at this story of the travel of Avram, on his path to become Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – we see the story of Abraham starting out in the land of Ur Kasdim; this literally means “the light of the astrologers,” it was the Chaldean land of the magi and mystics of the orient who worshiped the stars. He would make his way to Charan, the sacred city baring the pylons to the moon goddess; he would then journey to the land of Egypt, and travel in the shadow of the pylons dedicated to the worship of the sun god. But he would succumb to none of them, in face of all these beliefs he stayed true with his dedication to the all encompassing G-d.

When Hashem speaks to Avram alone and says to him “lech lecha,” to get up himself and go, Avram is not the first to set out on this journey. Avram is the last to continue in pursuit of this aim. Likewise when G-d calls Avram, the last Hebrew true to his ancestral ways, he is not the first monotheist here at this point during his lifetime; instead he is the last. Avram alone has not lost his way, so G-d speaks to him to go and continue on. He continues on the path for us both physically and spiritually.

Yes, I know our midrashim throughly. I clearly understand that we reckon Avraham Avinu as being the father of monotheism, that Avraham was the only one to come to the understanding of G-d as being The One and Only because he ascended to this consciousness from his own reasoning, there was no one left to teach him even in his household of the ways of monotheism. I do not disagree with this midrash at all, however even citing this our tradition points to others who ascend to this knowledge independently as well. One of them being king Hezekiah, the king of Judah who returned to true worship of Hashem even though his forefathers were idolaters, he came to this conviction on his own without any upbringing or direction from his kin in this matter. Through from this side of history its easy to see them as being firsts, instead of being the lone dedicated and faithful of their clan that they truly were.

Though it seems that simpletons and novices of all faiths that hold these scriptures to be holy seem to misunderstand the message of this story, we should be patient with the elementary reader. Quite honestly, even the secular “scholars” tend to fumble over this story only noticing the underlying message that has always rang true in established Judaism, to separate ourselves from foreign heresy; they too look from this point in history and try to write the story backwards. Their hack approach tends to miss the actual intentional message, that the purpose of this journey is to follow through and see our dreams through to fruition. And secondly, as we make this journey its not just about not loosing our way but about not loosing who we are in the process.

For Abraham, finding his way to the promised land was not just about him finding his way to his dream, it was also a journey with him having to find his way without loosing who he was along the way. Abraham was not just finding his way to his homestead, he was finding his way back to his true self.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2011)

Parshat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“My Father was a homeless Aramean.” The story of the Jew, both born and converted

Our parsha begins with the words “vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz / and it shall be when you have come into the Land,” derivi ng its name. In this parsha, we continue with discussing the laws related to the people coming into the Land. But here we are talking about once they already have come into the Land to possess it and settle it.

We are told that the people are to take the first fruits of the Land and to put them in a basket and go up to the place “vehalachta el-hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Eloheicha leshaken shmo sham / to the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His Name to dwell there,” meaning the Beit haMikdash The Temple. What we learn from the sages is that during the first season of fruit it was to marked by a reed rapped around it to identify it as the first fruits, then when they were ripe they were to be collected in a basket and brought to Beit haMikdash, and as our text says presented before the altar. This was done during Shavuotthe festival of first fruits, which was spring barley festival also known as Pentecost (see Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26). Settlement would happen bit by bit as we are told (see Deut 7:22), and eventually the sanctuary of the MiskanThe Tabernacle, would give way to a permanent home, just as the people each find their own home. This was their moment to celebrate not only did they have a home, but also a parnasa – a way to support themselves. They really had it all now, they were complete.

So when this happened they were to go up to the Temple and present themselves before the priests, whoever it is in those days (obviously meaning it was gonna be at a different times for different people).

For a person like me who loves the siddur (prayerbook), this is lovely because it goes step by step through a process of the ritual and how it was officiated by the priests. I don’t want to spend to much time on the process because its beautifully clear. But one part we must take notice of is the statement the man makes to the priest, he says to him:

I affirm today

before Hashem your G-d

that I have come into the land

which Hashem swore

to our forefathers to give us.”

| Higadeti hayom

| l’Hashem Eloheicha

| ki-vati el-ha’aretz

| asher nishba Hashem

| la’avoteinu latet lanu.

Deuteronomy 26:3

The basket is taken by the priests and presented before the altar, then a declaration is made. Now it’s a little bit long so we should assume it was read by each person. In fact the Mishnayot tell of this, as we learn how the people who knew what they were doing and were literate went first to make their declaration to get out of the way, and then those who didn’t went next so that they could be helped through the process. It’s a very beautiful way of showing that we should be concerned to help our fellow through the joy of a mitzvah too, if we are good at something we are then more than able to help another along too. But I digress…

The declaration started with the statement:

My father was a wandering Aramaean.

He went to Egypt

and resided there as an immigrant…”

| Arami oved avi

| vayered Mitzraimah

| vayagor sham bimtei

Deuteronomy 26:4

The statement made would go through how the Hebrews became a great people in Egypt, and how they became persecuted and were enslaved. It goes into great detail about the suffering and afflictions, and then how G-d saved the people with terrible signs and wonders. And then how they were brought into the land flowing with milk and honey.

The statement concludes with the basket being taken once again and presented in keeping with the words:

And now, behold,

I have brought the first of the fruit of the land,

which You Hashem have given me”

| Ve’atah hineh

| heveti et-reshit pri ha’adamah

| asher natatah li

Deuteronomy 26:10a

Then the fruits were finished being presented and he would prostrate before the altar.

Now back to this statement being made, as I said it goes through a very strong description of the type of sufferings the children of Israel went through. It doesn’t just say they suffered, it says it in many colorful ways just how much they suffered. Yet they also went on to speak amazingly about the deliverance from bondage and how they were brought to a prosperous land. Why are they to do this though?

You shall rejoice in all the goodness

which was give you to you by

Hashem your G-d

and unto your household;

and the Levite and the convert

which is in your midst.”

| Vesamachta vechol-hatov

| asher natan-lecha

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uleveitecha atah

| vehaLevi vehager

| asher bekirbecha.

Deuteronomy 26:11

The reason we are to go through this whole declaration is so that we can rejoice, because G-d has taken us from being children of a wandering Aramean to now be a people who possess a fruitful land. Though telling our story comes with a lot horrible scenes, we came from nothing to having it all; so we rejoice in this.

Every so often I speak with my family about the horrors of the shoahthe holocaust and the stories surrounding the families I know that are survivors. Though my family has been here in California for many many generations, they remember the early days of Los Angeles and the Jewish community of Boyle Heights, the original immigrant Jewish community. They watched on as may people after the war came to join family members already here, swelling the neighborhoods with new enterprise and energy. My grandmother speaks to me fondly of shopping in the farmers markets and shops. But they confided in me one of the things that perplexed a lot of them, like most American people, was what the stories were surrounding these earlier pioneers and then the immediate survivors of the Shoah. They had to ask as the people still had an awkwardness present in their personality and attitudes, along with a resolute spirit worth noticing. But the bearers were not willing to speak about what refined such a temperament within them. Of course these Ashkenazim also married into my family, but they still were left wondering

I had to remind them that not to long ago these people were not so well off, many of them came with nothing and not but a few pennies to rub to together. I put it bluntly, these immigrants were strangers and poor and were really taken advantage of on top of all their suffering, most didn’t want to talk about it as living it was hard enough. Those who did really didn’t start speaking of the horrors of the shoah, for instance, until well into my childhood. In some way I can understand, in some way that’s the way it always is that people can only really get beyond the anguish of it all when their joy is complete and they are looking back at it from a better place. It took at lot of hard work, but as we see these Jews often did very well for themselves in this prosperous land. Now a lot of Jews openly talk about their struggle, but it took a long time to feel secure enough to be that open.

I think about this as I sit here and read the declaration of the first fruits being made, it starts out with a pretty sad start “my father was a homeless Aramean.” This is not just exaggeration. Its not a story of “I walked to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Our father Abraham was a wandering nomad. And being a wanderer is something us Jews certainly understand well, often doing it ourselves. But the reason we should give our story is to rejoice. And as we see, it’s a compulsory mitzvah that we rejoice.

But it makes me think. How do I tell my story, am I beaten down and angry? Or do I have the spirit of a mitzvah maker? Either you can think of it as “My father was a homeless Aramean…” and tell “…see how far I have come” or you can be negative and ungratefully ignore just how good you really do have it in the here and now. How do you tell your story, what is your declaration?

The Honor of the Convert: Who’s Your Daddy?

As we see everyone is required to bring first fruits, once they have land and the trees produce they are to bring the fruit and declare. Everyone is to do so, including the Levite priests and the gerimconverts, the people who were formerly strangers in the land. The obvious questions arises when we read the statement that this is about the children of Israel and their subjugation and redemption. The point of this strikes us in the very first words “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continues on with all kind of lines relating us calling out and being saved by “Hashem Elohei Avoteinu / Hashem G-d of our fathers.”

One really has to take notice because even before the convert is directly mentioned we can already start asking the inevitable question. Everything begins smooth as the statement to the priests first used the words, “Hashem Eloheicha / G-d of your fathers.” But what happens when a person gets a few lines into it and the statement is made that we have come asher nishba Hashem la’avoteinu latet lanu / Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” and the person is a convert; meaning their forefathers were not so promised? Can one say this? It sounds like they are making an untrue statement.

This is an issue that is presented to us as early as the Mishnah:

These bring [first fruits] but don’t

recite [the declaration]

The convert, since

he cannot say:

‘[I have come to the Land] which Hashem

swore to our fathers

to give to us’ (Deuteronomy 26:3).

But if his mother was an Israelite

he brings and recites.

When he prays [shemonah esreh] in private,

[instead of saying: The G-d of our fathers]

he says: ‘The G-d of the fathers of Israel’

and when he prays

in the Beit Keneset (synagogue)

he says: The G-d of your fathers.

But if his mother was an Israelite

he says: The G-d of our fathers.”

אלו מביאין ולא |

קורין |

הגר מביא ואינו קורא, |

שאינו יכול לומר |

אשר נשבע ה‘ |

לאבותינו |

לתת לנו” (דברים כו,ג); |

אם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

מביא וקורא. |

וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, |


אומר אלוהי אבות ישראל; |

וכשהוא מתפלל |

בבית הכנסת, |

אומר אלוהי אבותיכם. |

ואם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

אומר אלוהי אבותינו |

Mishna, Mesecta Bikkurim 1:4

I don’t want to spend too much time on the topic of conversions (we dealt with that last week, in Parshat Ki Tietzei). But the statement comes across with an honest point. One should not say the statement because the promise was not made to their forefathers. This small section is a well known passage, taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud.

But the part that continues on related to the mother is present for pretty obvious reason to a Talmud student but often missed otherwise, at this point in history Jewishness is passed through ones mother already. True inheritance is through the father as declared in the Torah, but religious linage is defined by the mother. Because of rape during war and such it could become impossible identify lineage in a very definite way. In a male oriented society, linage submitted to matrilineal descent by reason that the although father could be in question, the mother was almost always known. What is suggested here in this continuing section is that if ones mother was Jewish, then he was properly descended and the statement is still true. A convert who had a Jewish mother, could say this. But it says otherwise the convert should not pray this way, but instead in private say “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and then only “G-d of your fathers” when in shul.

The discussion doesn’t go any further here in the Talmud Bavli – the Bablyonian Talmud which is the standard, due to it’s general comprehensiveness; as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud which did not have the benefit of and extra 150 years for compilation which was afforded the sages in the east. People being more familiar with Bavli often cite this source as halacha (law) because in general we posek (rule; decide) according to Bavli (even more so in the Ashkenazi world), and it has found itself into many scholarly works.

However, when it comes to citing the halacha most often people will cite it differently than presented above, though still affirming the source. This is because both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam state that one is indeed commanded to bring first fruits, but a converts is not to make the declaration so as not to make an untrue statement. From here it appears the heavy weights have spoken and the issue is settled.

However, this very position by the wise Rashi in the 11th century is quickly opposed even by Askhenazi poskim such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Yitzhak haLevi immediately after him the 12th century (see Ravyah 2:253–6). This position would even be opposed by Rashi’s own grandson, Rabbeinu Yitzhak mi-Baale ha-Tosafot (Rabbi Yitzchak haZaken bar Shmuel) who stated that a convert should indeed declare the statement (see Tos. Bava Batra 81b).

Now how would powerful Talmudists come to this conclusion? Rabbi Yitzhak cited the Talmud Yerushalmi.  This might seems strange to some as there is no real difference in the Mishnah, they share the same text except for a couple changes. First the the word shainu of Bavli is exchanged with sh’ain, and the omission of the section related to unique phrasing of “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and to pray differently in the synagogue; but aside from this it is very much the same. Sure it could be looked at from a different angle, but in full honestly the statement of prohibition sounds resolute.

However, the Talmud Yerushalmi, unlike the Bavli has a Gemara (original commentary on the Mishnah); this is very unique, we often would expect the case to be the other way around. And in this commentary we find one amazing turn of law as the Gemara goes directly against the Mishnah. Once again I’ll provide my own translation:

Converts say ‘G-d of our fathers’

as if to indicate if his mother was from Israel

he would say ‘G-d of our fathers,”

even though his ancestors

were not foreigners.

Said Rabbi Yossi, affirmed by

Benyamin bar Ester

sustained by Rabbi Chiyyan bar Bo.

Rabbi Chezekiah

in the name of Rabbi Bar Bo affirmed

bar Ester established

for when a gentile violated

a daughter of Israel;

Matnita [Baraita] (outside the mishnah).

Rabbi Zarkon said Rabbi Zaira,

want to hear something

revealed to me:

For Avraham, Yizchak and Yaakov

was it not so;

Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,

their ancestors did not have anything

to swear upon but

but the Holy One, Blessed be He;

however their males perhaps declared.

I was taught in the name of

Rabbi Yehudah:

If a convert comes between you and declares

what is his grounds?

‘”Because father of many nations (goyim)

I have made you.” (Genesis 17:5)

Before you were father

of man, and now from here I will make you father

of all the nations’

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

stated this law

as Rabbi Yehudah

It was authenticated and established

by Rabbi Avehu

as indicated by Rabbi Yehudah.”

גרים אומרים אלהי אבותינו |

. והא תנינן אם היתה אמו מישראל |

אומר אלהי אבותינו |

הא גרים בני |

גרים לא. |

אמר ריוסי קיימה |

בנימין בר עשתור |

קומי רבי חייא בר בא |

רבי חזקיה |

בשם רבי חייא בר בא קיימה |

בר עשתור קומינן |

בגוי שבא בעבירה על |

בת ישראל |

היא מתניתא. |

רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא |

בעי כלום |

הוא מתכווין לא |

לאברהם יצחק ויעקב |

וכי |

אברהם יצחק ויעקב |

אבותיהם היו [כלום] |

נשבע |

הקבה |

אלא לזכרים שמא לנקיבות. |

תני בשם |

רבי יהודה |

גר עצמו מביא וקורא |

מה טעם |

כי אב המון גוים |

נתתיך. |

לשעבר היית אב |

לאדם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב |

לכל הגוים. |

רבי יהושע בן לוי |

אמר הלכה |

כרבי יהודה. |

אתא עובדא קומי |

דרבי אבהו |

והורי כרבי יהודה: |

The Gemara Yerushalmi Mesecta Bikkurim 3

And in a striking statement we have our halacha laid out for us from the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi. We find that if one’s mother was an Israelite then he could make the statement even if his father’s fathers were not Israelites. However, it points out that even the forefathers were converts, who had no one to mention as their fathers, they could merely swear upon G-d alone and yet seem to have made the declaration. But Avraham was made the father of many goyimnations, also the term we use for gentiles as the term merely means they are from among the other nations. This halacha is laid down for us in the name of Yehudah bar Ilai and as we see it is properly certified to be true, thus this is the law; even though this is in opposition of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.

Though there seems to have been some debate upon the subject between many great rabbis of Rashi’s age and immediately after, by the time of the Rambam (Maimonides; mid-to-late 12th century) this issue would begin to narrow.

The Yerushalim would be set down for us as law in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah. In the first part of chapter four we learn that a woman and the androgynous [note: I’m walking right past that one, not even go bite at it!] do bring first fruits, but do not declare. Why? Because they are women and women cannot own land at this point in history, remember land ownership for women is even relatively a new concept in western society. Also woman is also not bound to have to keep time related mitzvot, so it is very similarly to when doing such a mitzvah; a woman can perform it but without need to say the blessing (to not say a blessing in vain, and because it includes G-ds name also means using G-d’s Name in vain). And then we read:

Nor does a guardian, a slave, or an agent declare,

because they

can not say ‘which

You have given me, Hashem’ (Deut. 26:10)

However, a convert brings and declares,

considering it is said of Abraham

‘Father of many nations I have made you.’

(Genesis 17:5)

Indeed he is father of all the world,

all who come under the wings of the

Shechinah (Divine Presence).”

וכן האפיטרופין והעבד והשליח אינן קוראין,

לפי שאינ ן

יכולין לומר אשר |

נתת לי, ה‘” |

אבל הגר מביא וקורא |

לפי שנאמר לאברהם |

אב המון גויים נתתיך” |

(בראשית יז,ה) |

הרי הוא אב כל העולם |

כולו שנכנסין תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Bikkurim 4:2, Halacha 3

The Rambam states that for a man, the only time he can not read and declare the statements is when he is not the actual owner; it cannot be done by proxy, because the words “which You have given to me” are not true. But he says a converts both brings and declares, hinting that there is no contradiction about it being promised to ones fathers because Avraham is the father of the nations of the world, and even more so for those who come into the Kahel HashemCongregation of Hashem (see Parshat Ki Teitzei) and come to roost under the Shechinah. A convert can refer to G-d as “G-d of our fathers” because truly Avraham is his father.

How is that the Rambam, a Sephardic sage, and Rabbi Yoel the Ashkenezi came to this opinion. Quite frankly I believe they both had experiences with people that forced them to look at the situation intently. Rabbi Yoel befriended a convert from Würzburg, who despite the halachic opinions to the contrary he permitted lead the prayers as a shliach tzibur (cantor) and ordered not alter the text; a topic he would note in his letters to Rabbi Epharim ben Yitzhak.

The other note worthy note is an infamous letter made by the Rambam to the convert Ovadiah. Now understand the issue for a moment. The statements about promises being make and kept by G-d of our forefathers not just made when making these declarations, they are also in the Amidah and in the Birkat haMazon. If one could not make these statements they should not lead the grace after meals because they could not say the statements as truths, and people could not properly agree with “amein.” The same problem would arise when leading prayers in shul. And if even if one did not lead, by altering their prayers they could be distinguished as different and feel embarrassed. This is a real problem,

Our tradition is very sensitive to not shame or embarrass anyone, we are not to remind them nor tell anyone they are converts. This should be taken seriously, because to tell other that someone is a convert is considered lishon hara – evil speech, gossip. Reminding the person that they are a convert is considered ona’at devarim – hunting one down with words, which means verbal abuse. Do this in a congregation your could be breaking two mitzvot right off the bat!

And as we see the Rambam, who is to Oral Law what Moses was to the Bible, would not tolerate this, as we see in his letter of Ovadiah he bluntly sates:

You must say everything regularly,

and without changing anything

only as all citizens of Israel prays and blesses

should you too bless and pray

when praying alone

or if you happen to be the shliach tzibur.”

יש לך לומר הכל כתקנם, |

ואל תשנה דבר. |

אלא כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל, |

כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל, |

בין שהתפללת יחידי |

בין שהיית שליח צבור |

The Rambam walks past the issue of if a convert could lead prayers all together, its not even worthy of discussing so he just states that when you are the leader you can’t change anything. He goes on to talk about Avraham being the father of truth and true religion. How the way of Avraham overcame idolatry, and enlightened the world. He even tells us that Abraham was not only a convert himself, but he converted his other children/ And that Abraham also taught others and took on converts, who also fathered children among the nations; whom he was spiritual father to. In summation he charges:

Therefore, you have to say

‘our G-d and G-d of our fathers,’

As Abraham, peace be upon him,

is your father, and you have to say as

endowed “our forefathers”….

…but the “brought us out of Egypt”

or “You did miracles for our ancestors,”

it you wanted to change and say

“You have brought Israel out of Egypt”

and “You did wonders with Israel “, say it.

And if not, again your not harming anything,

since you came under the wings of

the Shechinah,

and are accompanied by it.

This is no difference between us and you.

And all the miracles that were made for us

were made for you

After all, He says in Isaiah:

“Neither let the foreigner, that has joined

himself to Hashem, speak, saying:

‘Hashem will surely separate me from

His people'” etc. (Isaiah 56:3)

There is no difference at all between us

and you in all matters.”

לפיכך, יש לך לאמר |

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו” |

שאברהם עליו השלום הוא |

אביך, ויש לך לומר |

שהנחלת את אבותינו“…. |

אבל שהוצאתנו ממצרים” |

או שעשית נסים לאבותינו“, |

אם רצית לשנות ולומר |

שהוצאת את ישראל ממצרים” |

ושעשית נסים עם ישראל“, אמור. |

ואם לא שנית, אין בכך הפסד כלום, |

מאחר שנכנסת תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

ונלווית אליו, |

אין כאן הפרש בינינו ובינך. |

וכל הנסים שנעשו כאילו לנו |

ולך נעשו. |

הרי הוא אומר בישעיה: |

ואל יאמר בן הנכר הנלוה |

אל הלאמר |

הבדל יבדילני המעל |

עמווגו‘ (ישעיהו נו, ג) |

אין שום הפרש כלל בינינו |

ובינך לכל דבר. |

The Rambam has a striking and clear position. This would be enough to settle the issue for Sephardim permanently. It would later be affirmed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Sephardic master), and would not be objected by the Rema (who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses). And thus the issue ends in the 16th century.

Those opinions that arise now are merely out of step based on a minority opinion who are not aware of the halacha due to the uniqueness of its source. In my estimation the only real resistance left is a few Ashkenzi sources that are not accustomed to poskim of Yerushalmi as much as Sephardim who widely rely on it, and thus have a very different world view of “Minhag mevattel Halakhah – custom nullifies law” which is prevalent in Talumud Yerushalmi, but resisted in Talmud Balvi despite its often tendency to deviate from this position; but thats not what I’m here to talk about. 😉

I write all this to say that within Judaism it is established as a fact of law that our brothers and sisters who are converts are completely equal. We are not to distinguished between ourselves and them at all. After all we are all children of a convert, his name is Avram Aveinu – Abraham our father; the “av hamon goyim / the father of many nations.” He is the father of all who to dwell among the people and Presence of the G-d of Israel.

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