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November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Chazal’

Life is in Its Struggles: Dealing with the Tough Questions

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Throughout the works of Chazal, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Achronim, we encounter giants of Torah knowledge, spirit masters of the soul, and gladiators of moral struggle. Perhaps this is why it strikes us as so odd that some of the statements of these greats seem so offensive to us. In particular, there are quite a few statements about women that defy our modern understanding of biology and female potential.

Certainly, there are many positive comments in the Talmud and beyond about women. However, when it comes to a woman’s cognitive abilities, several rabbis in the Talmud take an arcane approach. Famously, it is said that women have a thin capacity for “daat” and that anyone who teaches women Torah is teaching licentiousness.

Another possible example is sourced in last week’s parsha. Rabbi Eliezer is quoted as saying that “women have only one area of wisdom, the spindle.” The Jerusalem Talmud compounds this statement by including his subsequent comment to his son that “it’s better for Torah to burn than to teach Torah to a woman.”

It’s possible to reinterpret the offensive statements through a variety of methods. Not every statement can be reinterpreted, but I think a reinterpretation has been offered for every one of these statements. We are extremely uncomfortable with taking these statements literally. This is for two separate reasons. First, we don’t want to be restricted by the consequences of these statements. We want to teach Torah to our daughters. If we take these statements literally, teaching our daughters Torah is forbidden. Second, we simply don’t agree with the literal interpretations of these statements. We know that women are actually as smart as men. We know that women can do a lot of things that these statements seem to imply they are incapable of doing. So we reinterpret the statements in order that our modern understanding of women is not at odds with the rabbinic understanding of women in Late Antiquity through the Age of Enlightenment.struggle-with-life

These offensive statements do not bother me at all. Not even a tiny bit. It’s not because I agree with the statements. It’s also not because I think the statements were really hidden messages of praise toward women.

The reason these statements do not bother me at all is because when these statements were stated, no one thought they were offensive. It is only in the last 100 years that we have come to accept, in most parts of the world, that these ideas are incorrect. Just 101 years ago, Sir Almroth E. Wright MD wrote the following argument against women’s suffrage:

“[...]the woman suffragist takes it as a matter of course that she would herself be able to construct a system of workable laws. In point of fact, the framing of a really useful law is a question of divining something which will apply to an infinite number of different cases and individuals. It is an intellectual feat on a par with the framing of a great generalisation. And would woman–that being of such short sight, whose mind is always so taken up with whatever instances lie nearest to her–be capable of framing anything that could pass muster as a great generalization?”

Should it surprise us that rabbis living 2000 years ago agreed with this idea? Of course not. Galen said 2200 years ago that “in all respects,” less perfect than man. This was authoritative science in the era of Chazal. It was their reality.

I think the offensive statements are in fact offensive. I think they were meant the way they were recorded. I think they reflect the way men thought about women until very recently. Yet, none of this bothers me because I am comfortable holding Chazal to the standard of their milieu. They lived in a world where this was commonly held belief and so there is no crime in their acquiescence to these beliefs.

Further, awareness of the historical context makes reinterpretation even more difficult to accept. In order to suggest a liberal or progressive interpretation of a statement that is offensive in its simplest reading, the following assumptions are required. A) We must say that the author of the statement meant to say something positive about women. B) The author chose to make this positive statement using language that on its face sounds offensive. C) The simplest interpretation of the statement is that it was offensive. D) Everyone at the time the statement was made would have read it as offensive and agreed with the statement. E) Then one day, we starting being nicer to women and we realized that the original statement that sounded so offensive really had a hidden meaning that was positive all along. F) Further, all the great Torah scholars who read the statement literally for the last 2000 years and built religious laws and practices based on this literal interpretation mistakenly believed the statement was literal but it was really some sort of metaphor or idiom that we only figured out very recently. (You see, how in order to make one rabbi look better, we make hundreds look worse, but I digress.) This logical structure seems quite farfetched and I see no reason or benefit to invoking it in these situations.

Instead, let’s own it. Yes. Our rabbis understood women differently than we do today. That’s okay. They understood all social and scientific conditions as they were in their day and so do we. It’s not a big deal.

This all leads to a more pressing question that I was asked in several different ways and by several different people during two separate discussions of these ideas over the weekend.

“Why talk about this? Isn’t there better stuff to discuss? Isn’t there a risk that people will see this stuff and it will cause them to be turned off from Judaism? Don’t we prefer that these things be broached in a safe, quiet place and not in public?”

This is a valid question. I have two things to say about this issue and this is the real reason I am writing this article. Both are really two sides of the same coin. (Of course there are other reasons to discuss these issues as well.)

Life is in its struggles. If we are not struggling, we are not growing. If we are not growing, we are dying. People think that it’s best to avoid struggles. They says we can build ourselves up by focusing on the things that provide no resistance. They claim that life is happier when we are comfortable. I strongly disagree. Life does not happen where things are easy. Life is in its struggles.

There is great value in engaging in struggles. That is how we grow. When I see something that makes me struggle or that might cause others to struggle, I see an opportunity. It’s a chance to get into the trenches and do some work. We will grow from the struggle. This is true even if we don’t come to a happy resolution. The act of struggle is in itself a form of growth.

When we see a selection in the Talmud that pushes our buttons, we should not push aside our question and go to our happy place. We should seize the opportunity to grapple with our question. It’s a gift and we should treasure it accordingly.

Which leads to the second point. I have found that the overwhelming complaint of people who leave Orthodox Judaism (or even those who are disenchanted but stay) is that legitimate questions were dismissed or ignored. Note, their complaint is not that their legitimate questions were unanswered. Their complaint is that the questions were not acknowledged.

Our knee jerk response to tough questions is to go to our place of safety where there are no questions. Call it the Abie Rotenberg Zone. I love Abie and his music, but to me his songs with English lyrics are mostly representative of a place where things are simple. The struggles are superficial. Answers are readily available and sometimes to simplistic. To the genuine asker of the question it can seem dismissive.

It’s more important to acknowledge that the question is indeed a tough nut to crack than it is to wave a hand and give a dismissive “answer”. It is better to enter into the fray and struggle even without a resolution than it is to ignore the struggle. When we acknowledge the struggle we are saying “you are not alone.” “We are struggling together with you.” The feeling of knowing that we not alone and that we can engage in this struggle together is so empowering. It can literally be life saving.

So when I see something that I have struggled with at some point, or that someone else has told me they struggled with at a certain point, or that I am struggling with right now, I think it is much better to address it than to ignore it. I prefer to engage in that struggle or at least provide a place for others to engage in that struggle. That is so much more valuable than the alternatives. Not only is not destructive, it is empowering.

I think the Orthodox Jewish community needs to work on this particular idea. We have an aversion to conflict and we have a fear of engaging in the struggle. I think we need to embrace the challenges we encounter in our Jewish journey. We will grow from the ensuing struggle and by acknowledging the struggle we will validate its place in our discourse providing ourselves and others the comfort in knowing that we are struggling together. And together we will persevere.

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Chronicles Of Crises In Our Communities

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Dear Rachel,

As a long time resident of Far Rockaway, I count my blessings that Baruch Hashem we’ve been spared flooding and water damage — though our power was down for a whole two weeks and was no minor inconvenience.

Rachel, it is so sad to see how many families have to pick up their lives again and rebuild. People lost washing machines, dryers, Pesach kitchens, furniture, and many memories that had been put away in storage. It breaks the heart to see piles of people’s belongings along the curb, waiting to be hauled away by the garbage trucks.

Cars were seen floating away; people’s back yard gyms were flung down the block; boats from Atlantic Beach landed in people’s yards and fallen trees are everywhere. The whole thing is totally mind-boggling!

And just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, a snowstorm felled more trees. People who already had their electricity restored went down again. What does Hakodosh Baruch Hu want from us? I think we all have to make a din v’cheshbon and look inside ourselves. What can we do better? How can we fix what needs to be fixed? What should we take upon ourselves to expand our growth in a spiritual sense?

Everything happens for a reason. We have to make sure that we draw some lesson from all of this destruction, devastation, and heartache — and increase our emunah and bitachon in Hakodosh Baruch Hu.

Just venting

Dear Rachel,

In response to your column’s recent letter from Mi k’Amcha Yisroel, I just want to say that it is just one example of the wonderful middos the effects of Sandy brought out in so many. And though there was much destruction and heartache, there were miracles at every turn and we have much to be grateful for.

I know of at least one man, a grandfather who lives in one of the “beach” boroughs that had a mandatory evacuation in place, who refused to leave. His wife heeded the warning, but he stubbornly insisted that he’d be fine staying put for the duration of the storm.

When the lights went out, he didn’t consider it a big deal. But when he looked out his window and saw the water covering the sidewalk and moving toward the front steps of his home, he sobered up. He called his son to come and get him, but at that point their street had already become inaccessible to cars, and so Dad was advised to don his boots and walk to the intersection to where his son would be waiting for him.

The homeowner decided to go down to his basement first, to pick some stuff up off the floor in case of flooding. As he was fumbling about with flashlight in hand, the wind suddenly blew the windows in and a flood of water gushed in to fill the basement knee high and was quickly rising.

The poor man could hardly catch his breath or see around him. He frantically searched for the stairs and luckily found them in time to scramble out of there. By the time he got out, the basement was completely submerged.

The prearranged spot where he was to meet his son was already deserted by then, but a patrol car picked him up and he was soon reunited with his family. Despite sustaining substantial material loss and damage, this man must realize how lucky he was to have escaped a worse fate.

One miracle of many

Dear Readers,

The stories of miracles and chessed abound and will no doubt fill a volume or more down the line. But as we ask ourselves how such a thing can happen and what is Hashem’s message to us, we should be reassured that the tremendous positive response set in motion by this horrific occurrence is exactly what is expected of us, and perhaps we were in need of that extra fix to prove ourselves worthy of G-d’s compassion in this topsy-turvy world.

No human being can pinpoint a cause for the disaster, as much as some cast the blame on climate change and global warming, and others draw a parallel to Sodom. With regard to the former, none but Hashem is in charge, and “climate change” can only affect us to the extent that G-d will allow it to. As for the correlation to Sodom… to the best of my knowledge, Sodom was so saturated with evil that Avrohom Avinu was hard-pressed to find any righteous individuals who might have saved the day.

‘Hurricane Season’

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

It’s been a rough few weeks. It began with the news of a heinous crime just blocks from where I live on Manhatan’s Upper West Side: a nanny viciously took the lives of her two young charges. Hurricane Sandy came next, contributing additional loss of life and financial devastation of a magnitude never before experienced by our East Coast brethren. A week later many in our community were disappointed with the decisive outcome of the presidential election and the realization that we are truly a minority both in number and outlook within the United States. Finally, there was the precarious situation in Eretz Yisrael, hundreds of rockets raining down on daily and the threat of another major war. The saying goes, “when it rains, it pours.”

The book of Beraishis focuses on our Avos. Avraham is the trait of chesed or kindness. To me, this is an illusion to the first month of the Jewish calendar. Tishrei is all kindness from Hashem, His accepting our teshuvah, cleansing us and allowing us to sit in the sukkah under His watchful eye.

Then we shift to the stories of Yitzchak and the aspects of judgment or intensity of his persona as exemplified in the Akeidah experience. The letters of “Yitzchak” spell “Ketz Chai” “or end of life as he represents the transition into a higher world and the finality and magnitude of death. Yitzchak reflects the period that we most recently have experienced the endless flow of disappointment, anguish and pain.

We now transition to the parshiyos of Yaakov Avinu, with a prayer in mind – that Hashem be inspired by the Yaakov’s trait of tiferes. That Hashem look toward the integration, balance and synthesis Yaakov created and use it as a model of tempering His strict justice, din, with divine mercy, rachamim. Just as Yaakov integrated the chesed of his grandfather and the din of his father, we pray that by the end of Beraishis, Hashem will also integrate mercy within His judgment.

We live in an “age of anxiety” and that was even before the recent flow of events. Many of us strive for an equanimity or psychological stability in our lives. This goal has been made most difficult to achieve by the ongoing economic ills and the general challenges of living in the technological age. There is a quiet tension that lurks inside many of us. If I have emunah, faith, so why all the anxiety? I think that’s like asking, if I have yiras Shamayim, why do I ever sin? The answer is we all have lapses, but we add to our stress levels when we are self-critical, thinking that we aren’t authentic or genuine in our avodah. We often forget that many great people have had these common setbacks and challenges.

I saw an insight regarding Sarah Imeinu that resonated deeply considering the challenging backdrop in which we are living. The Reszher Rav, Rav Aaron Levine, commented on the life of Sarah being 127 years and the fact they were, as Chazal teach, “all equally for the good.” He suggests that she was an archetype for balanced, emotionally healthy living. She remained even-keeled despite numerous challenges: She is uprooted from her homeland and abducted by a foreign king. Yet, she also experiences great affluence and is the recipient of an enormous and miraculous Divine gift via the birth of Yitzchak. Amazingly, her basic decency and humanity isn’t impacted by either course of events. As Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, she “walks with kings without losing the common touch.” All her 127 years were “equally for the good.”

This maybe explains why death and marriage, a re births of sorts, as reflected in a wedding day being Yom Kippur for both the chassan and kallah. This is echoed by the sevens in Sheva Berachos and Sheva Yemi Aveilus and well as the juxtaposition of the burial of Sarah and the finding of a wife for Yitzchak. A wholesome spiritual life requires equilibrium. At the wedding, the pinnacle of joy, we reflect on the Churban, the destruction of the Temple. In mourning, we have limitations that don’t expand beyond a year. We balance and temper all emotions because when we are out of sorts, we can’t service the Divine in the requisite inspired fashion.

Asking For Advice

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

“These are the chronicles of Yaakov: Yosef was seventeen years old, and he watched his brothers.” – Bereishis 37:2

At the age of seventeen, Yosef was wise in the ways of the Torah and in the ways of the world. He was called a “ben zikunim” because even at such a young age he showed the brilliance of an elder scholar. He had already absorbed all the Torah Yaakov had learned in the many years he had spent in the yeshiva of Shem.

For that reason Yaakov chose him to be the leader of the family. The Sforno explains that the coat Yaakov made for Yosef was to be a sign that he was in charge. The brothers were to listen to him in matters of the household. They were to follow his direction in of business. His was to be the final word. Clearly, Yosef was brilliant.

Yet the Sforno points out that despite his brilliance, Yosef did something quite foolish. Whenever he found his brothers doing something wrong, he would immediately report it to his father. Because he was young, he didn’t focus on what his brother’s reaction to him would be, and this caused them to resent him. This, explains Sforno, is why we don’t seek advice from those who are young.

This Sforno is difficult to understand. If Yosef was so brilliant, how is it possible he overlooked something as elementary as thinking about what his conduct would lead to? Didn’t he recognize his actions would cause his brothers to hate him?

The answer to this can be best understood with an observation about maturity.

Understanding the Child

In the past hundred years, psychologists have come to understand that children aren’t simply grown-ups with short bodies. A child’s way of thinking, his frame of mind, and his entire emotional operating system are unlike those of an adult’s.

One of the manifestations of an adult’s viewpoint is the ability to see consequences. What will this lead to? How will I feel about this five years from now? How about ten years from now? The more immature the person, the more he lives in the immediate present. To a kid, there is nothing more valuable than that shiny red fire truck with the working siren and whistle.

Ask a five year old, “Would you rather have a thousand dollars or the fire truck?” It’s not even a contest! Many a well-intending grandparent has met with disappointment at his grandchild’s reaction when the child found out that this year’s Chanukah present was an investment in a mutual fund. The child doesn’t care, because he isn’t thinking about the future. He lives completely, totally, now. Tomorrow is too late, next week will never come, and the summer might as well be a million years away.

As a person matures, he is able to see more into the future. He can see himself in other settings and in different roles. He begins to understand that the very same person who sits here now will one day be responsible for making ends meet. That sense of seeing the future as if it were here now and recognizing emotionally that it really is going to happen is a function of maturity.

Maturity isn’t dependent on intelligence or education. A child prodigy might have a very high IQ and be capable of performing brilliant mental feats yet still behave like a kid. Maturation is a process, which occurs over time. Like a fine wine that ferments, the human mind acquires a certain ripening with age – a widening of scope. With maturity often comes wisdom.

One of measures of wisdom is how far into the future a person can see – not in a clairvoyant, supernatural manner, but as a consequence of insight. If you do this, it will lead to that, which will lead to this, which will lead to that…

The Brisker Rav, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, was once lamenting the loss of his father, Rav Chaim “The world doesn’t know what it has lost. My father could see fifty years into the future, and me, I can barely see ten years forward.”

This seems to be the answer to the question on the Sforno. At seventeen Yosef was brilliant. But it was the brilliance of youth. The wisdom that comes with age wasn’t yet there. As a result, he did things that lacked foresight. He acted in a manner that was unwise because he wasn’t focused on “what this will lead to.” On an intellectual level he might have been gifted, but he lacked the vision to see the consequences of his ways.

The Scholars Of Brodi

Friday, November 30th, 2012

A famous scholars of the beis midrash in the city of Brodi was Rav Avraham Gershon of Kitov. This modest and unassuming man possessed such wondrous qualities of goodness and knowledge that the great Nodah B’Yehudah referred to him, in part, as follows:

“The complete and all encompassing scholar, the hallowed pious one, light of Yisrael, the pillar of the right hand, mighty hand….”

Rav Avraham Gershon was, as were all scholars of Brodi, a strong opponent of the Chassidus the Baal Shem Tov advocated at that time. Ironically, however, it was his sister who became the wife of the Baal Shem Tov. At first this made no difference to Rav Avraham Gershon, but as the days passed and he came to know his brother-in-law intimately, he began to behold the great and noble qualities that made the Baal Shem Tov the leader he was. It was not long after that that Rav Avraham Gershon became one of the staunchest supporters of the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings. Indeed, it was he who was sent to Eretz Yisrael to lay the foundation for Chassidus there. The tale of how this came about follows.

Rabi Chaim Ben Atar

In those days Rabi Chaim Ben Atar went up from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisrael. This gaon, known to the wise men of his generation as “similar to an angel of the Lord,” was a man of firm views, who never flattered or bowed to any man. Nevertheless, when it came to the community of Yisrael, he maintained an attitude of respect and awe.

He would always say, “The verse says: ‘These are the words that Moshe spoke.’ All the 40 years that Moshe led Bnei Yisrael in the desert he never spoke harshly to them except for this one verse. Here you should ask the question: ‘Does it not say that Moshe declared: Listen rebels?’ The answer is that Moshe did not say this to the entire community, but rather only to a small group who rebelled against the teachings of the law.”

Patience

Despite his refusal to bow to people, Rabi Chaim was a humble and patient man and forgiving to those who insulted him. It is related that he was involved one time in a case of law. He patiently heard both sides and carefully went over the evidence. Finally, he ruled that the defendant was liable for damages.

When the defendant heard this he flew into a rage and began to insult the rav, even going so far as to impugn his honesty. Rabi Chaim sat quietly, never growing angry or answering the man. Later his students, who were shocked by the affair, asked him in amazement, “Rabi, where is the staunch spirit for which you are so famous?”

“What, in your opinion, should I have done?” he asked

“We feel that this man deserved to have been condemned and driven out of the house and a ban placed on him until he apologized,” the students answered.

Rabi Chaim laughed and replied, “And yet, consider this. The man has been found guilty and his soul is bitter because of it. Nevertheless, the general public will understand this and certainly not suspect me of anything. They fully believe that I have judged the case fairly. What would happen, however, if I placed him under the ban?

“If I did that, if I angrily punished him for insulting me in his time of bitterness, then the people would begin to question my objectivity and my judgment.”

Rav Avraham Gershon Sent To Eretz Yisrael

The great name of Rabi Chaim reached as far as Poland, and the Baal Shem Tov longed to meet him and create with him a center of Torah in Eretz Yisrael. However, certain obstacles arose that prevented the founder of Chassidus from fulfilling his greatest dream. Instead, he turned to his brother-in-law, Rav Avraham Gershon, and asked him to go in his place.

This great scholar was only too willing to comply. His love for Eretz Yisrael was enormous and he left immediately to settle in the city of Hevron. His love for the Holy Land was embodied in the following statement:

Chazal in Gemara Menachos 44a said, ‘One who rents a house in the Diaspora is free from the obligation of affixing a mezuzah for 30 days. Only after that period of time is he obligated. If one, however, rents a house in Eretz Yisrael, he must affix a mezuzah immediately.

The One Chapter Book – Ovadiah

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I always wonder about Jewish names. Some make it and some don’t. Some have mazel and others don’t. Some Biblical personalities’ names are very popular amongst the members of Klal Yisrael and then there are those personalities whose names never seem to be used.

Know anyone named Merari? Neither do I. But why should one of the sons of Levi, Gershon, be popular, and another remain ignored? I don’t know. It’s all hashgacha.

But I do have a sense that if not for this week’s haftorah, and the amazing fact that it is an entire sefer of its own in Trei Asar, the book of the Twelve Prophets, though it is a one perek sefer, my sense tells me that the name Ovadiah would not be the semi-popular name in Klal Yisrael that it is now.

Who was Ovadiah? Chazal tell us, as brought in the first Rashi, that Ovadiah was a convert to Judaism from the nation of Edom, the descendants of Esav. Actually, he was not only a righteous convert but a person who reached such as to amazing spiritual heights that he become a navi, a prophet in Klal Yisrael!

Rashi wonders about the phenomenon that is Ovadia. He prophesizes just once in Tanach—in our haftorah. HaKadosh Baruch Hu sent him to deliver a message to the nation of Esav, Edom, that because of their spiritual failure as a nation, manifested by their being a thorn and sword in the side of Bnei Yisrael, Hashem was going to punish them.

This is the basic thrust of our haftorah. Ovadiah is a person who came from a wicked nation and grew up in an evil environment, saw the light and came close to Hashem and Torah. This is the type of person who can go out and lecture his former nation about their failings.

As mentioned, sefer Ovadiah is but one perek.

Question: Why did Chazal give Ovadiah, with his one perek-long nevuah, the status of a complete sefer in Trei Asar? It could easily have been a perek in one of the other sefarim? Why have a one chapter sefer?

This question is reminiscent of another similar phenomenon.

Rav Yosef Karo spends an entire siman, an entire section in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 300) describing the concept of Melava Malka. Now, it could be because of the length of information the mechaber wanted to discuss. But there is only one se’if, one sub-section, and only one sentence in that section! For those of you who do not know, there are many simanim in the Shulchan Aruch which are very long. Sometimes there are 30-40 different se’ifim, sub-sections, all in one siman. The Shulchan Aruch could have easily put the brief halacha of Melava Malka at the end of the siman about Seudat Shilishis. Yet, despite its brevity, Rav Yosef Karo decided to give Melava Malka its very own siman. Why?

Explains Yalkut Gershuni (brought in Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, Volume 2, Chapter 63), Rav Karo understood that already in his times, people were not careful iin fulfilling the mitzvah of Melava Malka. It was for this reason that he gave the mitzvah its very own siman in the Shulchan Aruch so it would get “prime-time” attention.

The same can be said about the mitzvah of seudas Rosh Chodesh which also has its own siman (419) and is also a very brief one sentence. Whenever the Shulchan Aruch felt that there was a weakening of a particular important mitzvah, he would give that mitzvah its own siman no matter how short it would be.

In B’Mechitzas Rabeinu, brief Torah thoughts and anecdotes from the life of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky z”tl, (page 127), Rav Yaakov mentioned a sharp statement (derech tzachus) in relation to this. The pasuk says (Melachim 1, 18:21) “Ad masai atem poschim al shtei hase’ifim, for how long will you jump between two ideas.” In that pasuk Eliyhau HaNavi is criticizing Bnei Yisrael, asking how long they will continue to go from Hashem to worshipping the idol Baal. But, Rav Yaakov says, it can also refer to these two se’ifim, the se’if regarding Melava Malka and the se’if of Seudas Rosh Chodesh. How long will you Jews skip over these two mitzvos which the Shulchan Aruch hoped to focus attention on by giving each one its own siman?

Thoughts On Hurricane Sandy

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

The following is a revised version of the speech Rabbi Rackovsky gave in his shul on November 10, Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah

Usually, when I begin a speech, I start with something interesting, lighthearted or funny – to get your attention and lead into the speech itself. Permit me to deviate from that this week, because there is nothing funny, lighthearted or interesting about what so many of us are experiencing, and if not us, than our friends, loved ones and neighbors, and if not them, than people a few miles away from us in Long Beach or Far Rockaway who have lost everything to 14 foot waves, or a little farther away where helpless Senior Citizens are living without water or power in high rises on the Lower East Side. The scope of the utter devastation, the loss of so much – property, money and memories – is too much to comprehend. So what is there to say when perhaps it is more appropriate to say nothing? I’ve been struggling with this for the past few days, so permit me to share some of what I’ve been thinking of that may give us a framework. I hope my words will be accepted, and apologize in advance if they are somehow simplistic, insensitive or inappropriate.

This morning, we read the incident of the Shunamite woman’s encounter with the remarkable prophet Elisha. On his way back from saving the family of the wife of one of the prophets, who was in danger of having her children taken into slavery by creditors, Elisha stopped in Shunam at the home of a self effacing woman who was so desirous of such an illustrious guest that she built an addition onto her home so he could rest there on a regular basis, and that is what he did.

On this particular trip, Elisha asked his assistant, Geichazi, to find out what this woman wanted. Geichazi perceived that she had no children so Elisha promised her that within a year, she would be hugging a child of her own. That is what happened. Then the Navi tells us that some time later, that child began to feel sick, and in his mother’s lap, he passed away. She lay him down and then sent for a young man and a donkey so that she could go to Elisha.

Her husband was surprised – after all, it was not a time that one would normally go to visit a prophet, but she said, “Good bye, I’m going.” The Haftorah ends with the child being resurrected by Elisha, but that is only in one tradition. If you look in your Chumash, there is another custom, that of Sephardim, Yekkies (German communities) and Chabad Chassidim. In their mesorah, they end the Haftorah reading when the Shunamite woman leaves to see Elisha.

I can understand the former custom, the one we adhere to here and in many other congregations. It brings the narrative to a satisfying resolution; a woman faced with the tragic loss of her only child is given that child back. But what is the meaning of the second custom? Why end there, right in the middle of the story?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Pittsburgh suggested that that is precisely the point of the pause. When we read biblical narratives, we know how they end. We know that Yitzchak, in the end is saved from the Akeidah, we know that Korach and his followers were all swallowed up by the earth, and we know that the Jewish people are saved from Haman. But we only know that because we have the benefit of hindsight, where we are privy to the entire narrative. But to really understand what the protagonists are feeling, we need to put ourselves in their place, and understand that to them, the narrative was far from over. The Shunamite woman was grasping at straws, and she had no idea how the story would end, whether Elisha would be able to help her at all during her darkest moments, but she turned to something and someone greater than her for help. It is in this unfinished ending, and where it leaves off, that we can learn some powerful lessons.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/torah/thoughts-on-hurricane-sandy/2012/11/23/

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