Monday, October 26, 2015

Parashat Vayera 5776 The Chief Rabbi Of Sodom

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayera 5776
The Chief Rabbi Of Sodom

When Terach began his trek from his hometown, his destination was the Land of Canaan. The Torah never explains this migration, never gives us any insight into Terach’s motivation. The only information we are offered is the make-up of the travelling party: Terach uproots his son Avraham, his daughter-in-law Sarah, and his orphaned grandson Lot, only to stop short of his stated destination and remain in Charan.

At some later juncture, Avraham heeds the Divine call and heads for an unknown destination – which turns out, ironically, to be the land of Canaan. Although Terach remains in Charan, Lot tags along with Avraham and Sarah. Once again, we have no information regarding Lot’s reasons for this second relocation: Was he merely an adventurer, always eager to explore new lands and new cultures? Perhaps Avraham’s personal charisma or the holiness and spirituality of Avraham’s household attracted Lot, or perhaps Lot simply choose to maintain his ties with his closest living relative, his sister Sarah.[1]

Whatever his motivation may have been, as they continue their travels it becomes clear that Avraham and Lot are incompatible, and that they must part ways. Avraham suggests that Lot establish his own homestead, offering him the length and breadth of the Promised Land. Instead, Lot choses neither the north nor the south, as Avraham had suggested, opting instead to travel east and settle in Sodom, a place that reminds him of Egypt. [2]

What is the nature of this similarity? The Torah describes the terrain and the abundance of water, but was there something more about Sodom that attracted Lot? Could he perhaps have been nostalgic for the things they had recently experienced in the kingdom of the pharaohs? Although their visit there had made Lot and Avraham rich men, they had just barely escaped intact from the corruption and immorality, from the system of power and cruelty that had nearly cost Avraham his life and Sarah her freedom and honor: Shortly after their arrival in Egypt, their hosts took an unhealthy interest in their female guest, and snatched her away from her family.[3]  It seems this sort of behavior was a deep-seated Egyptian characteristic; years later, Yosef was subjected to very similar treatment.[4] Could this have been what attracted Lot to Sodom?

It should come as no surprise that the consequences of Lot’s choice are tragic: By choosing Sodom, Lot turned his back – literally, in a geographical sense, as well as figuratively, in the moral and spiritual sense – on the greatest man alive. He distanced himself from Avraham and Sarah, and instead sought out a place that represented the very antithesis of Avraham and Sarah’s tent. At one time, Lot might have been considered Avraham’s heir-apparent, but from the moment Lot departs for Sodom, that is no longer an option: When Avraham pours out his heart to God and laments his infertility, he mentions his chief steward Eliezer as his only potential heir;[5] Lot, his ne’er-do-well nephew/brother-in-law, is no longer part of the equation.  

Eventually, Lot’s poor choices rebound on him, with a vengeance: Even when he tries to imitate the hospitality he learned from Avraham and Sarah, the results are a grotesque caricature of true hesed: Rather than a wholehearted invitation, Lot’s heavenly guests are shown the door out before they even step in.

Please, my lords, turn aside to my house. Spend the night, bathe your feet, and then continue on your way early in the morning. (Bereishit 19:2)

Lot invites the guests to stay, yet strongly hints that it would be best for them to leave early in the morning. His invitation seems perfunctory, half-hearted, lacking warmth and conviction. Once the guests acquiesce, Lot’s neighbors demand to “get to know” them (in the biblical sense).[6]

I have two daughters who have never known a man. I will bring them out to you; do as you please with them, but don’t do anything to these men. After all, they have come under my roof!' (Bereishit 19:8)

Lots pathetic attempt to mimic Avrahams hospitality is nothing short of bizarre: He readily sacrifices his daughters to the marauding crowd, perhaps seeing himself as the hero of an alternative Akeida.

The crowd responds with an interesting and unexpected accusation:

This man came here as an immigrant, and now all of a sudden, he has set himself up as a judge! (Bereishit 19:9)

Here, then, is the crux of the matter: Lot came to Sodom to be a judge.[7] When measuring up his options, he decided that it would be preferable to be chief rabbi of Sodom rather than play second fiddle and live in Avrahams shadow. Sharing such close quarters with a spiritual giant can make a certain type of person feel small and inadequate; Lot preferred to strike out on his own, to settle in a place where expectations would be lowest, a place devoid of spirituality, a place that would make him look good in comparison to those around him. In Sodom, Lot could shine.

Unfortunately, Lots plan backfired. By choosing to live in a corrupt and immoral environment, Lot became estranged from both his immediate and extended family, and eventually became the victim of his childrens failed education and the warped morality they had internalized in their hometown. Lots daughters, who clearly had no feelings of tenderness or loyalty toward the father who was willing to throw them to the wolves, displayed their own version of Sodomite morality: When their father was most vulnerable, they used him for their own purposes, plying him with drink and raping him. The image of Lot with which the Torah leaves us is of a drunk, humiliated and violated man but one who, we might well imagine, still took pride in the highlight of his resume - his position as judge or chief rabbi of Sodom.   

                                                   Echoes of Eden

[1] See Rashi, Bereishit 11:29.
[2] Bereishit 13:10.
[3] Bereishit 12:15.
[4] Bereishit 39:7-13.
[5] Bereishit 15:2.
[6] Bereishit 19:5.
[7] Lot is described as sitting “in the gate of Sodom,” which connotes a judicial position, or, at the very least, a position of civic importance.  See Rashi, Bereishit 19:1, and commentaries on Rashi.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Parshat Vayera Essays and Lectures

Parshat Vayera Essays and Lectures
New – Echoes of Eden Project:

The Akeida Challenge

"After these things..."

Never Crossed my Mind

Parshat Vayera // the Elevation of Yitzchak

The Akaida and returning from the Dead

Parshat Vayera 5772

Parshat Vayeira // The Akaida and Resurrection

Parshat Vayeira // Akaidat Yitzchak and Yishmael

Parshat Vayeira // Welcoming Guests

Marchesvan in Halacha and Aggada

The Purpose of the Akeida AVRAHAM'S VIEW OF DEATH


The Matzah of Lot

Father and Son

The Binding

It Never Crossed my Mind

Monday, October 19, 2015

Parashat Lech Lecha 5776 Covenant

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

The relationship between God and man is asymmetrical: God is infinite, omnipotent, and man is limited and flawed. Nonetheless, God reaches out to lowly man, offering His hand, as it were, in friendship. So it was with Avraham: God speaks to him, and promises him a future filled with blessings. However, in what may seem some sort of quid pro quo, the promises come with a price: Avraham must uproot himself, leaving behind everything and everyone he knows, and set out on an uncharted course to an unspecified destination – to leap into the unknown on faith alone.

As the narrative continues, more blessings are forthcoming, but these blessings are often accompanied by new commandments, additional responsibilities. Avraham’s relationship with God seems to have “strings” attached: In the Brit bein Habitarim [The Covenant of the Pieces], God promises the Land of Israel to Avraham and his descendants - but the road to this inheritance will be long and arduous: Hundreds of years of persecution and slavery stand between the promise and its fruition. Again, there is a price to be paid.  

After years of infertility, after years of wondering how his legacy would be carried into the future, after years of wondering how the message of monotheism would be transmitted, God promises Avraham that Sarah will bear him a son. This, the greatest blessing of all, the blessing that most occupied Avraham’s thoughts and prayers, also came with a price: Avraham is given the commandment of circumcision – and then, perhaps the most difficult commandment of all: Avraham is called upon to be willing to sacrifice that very son as an offering to God.

The moment Avraham lifts his hand, at the moment he proves himself ready and willing to follow God’s commandment without question, his relationship with God makes a quantum leap. God, for His part, proves to Avraham that He requires human devotion, not human sacrifice, and blesses Avraham by reiterating the promises he had already made in each of His earlier communications with Avraham.

And the Angel of God called to Avraham from heaven a second time, and said, “God declares, 'I have sworn by My own Essence, that because you performed this act, and have not withheld your only son, I will bless you greatly, and increase your offspring like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring shall inherit their enemies’ gate. All the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants - all because you obeyed My voice. (Bereishit 22:15-18)

God has the ability to bless as He sees fit; there is no limit to the bounty or blessing in God’s storehouse. Additionally, it is a basic tenet of our faith – first established by Avraham himself – that God has no needs; He lacks nothing, and therefore does not “require” anything man can offer. If this is so, why does God’s relationship with his first adherent seem to be based on this strange, lopsided “give and take?” Why does each blessing God confers upon Avraham come with a price tag? Why must Avraham take upon himself ever more demanding obligations in order to merit the blessings God wishes to confer upon him? 

Perhaps we might find a resolution to this question by considering the problem from Avraham’s perspective, rather than from God’s perspective: When God first spoke to him, Avraham was told to leave his home town, his birthplace and his father’s household. In fact, his home had become unbearable for him long before God suggested that he pull up stakes: Avraham espoused belief in one God - a God of kindness and mercy, a belief that undermined the concepts of power pagan worship of the society around him. He was a persona non grata in his own homeland – so much so that his townsfolk had thrown him into a furnace to rid themselves of his presence. When God suggested that he move on, Avraham may have perceived this as sound advice, and drawn the logical conclusion that God was motivated by concern for his safety and wellbeing. As time passes and the relationship develops, God’s instructions become more and more demanding. Yet even as the tests of his dedication become harder and harder, Avraham never seems to waver. In fact, the text seems to indicate that Avraham reacts with greater enthusiasm with each passing day. How can this be?

In fact, the Torah tells us what was going through Avraham’s mind as his responsibilities grew: “And he believed in God, and considered it an act of charity [on His part]”: Avraham understood that with each commandment, God was, in essence, extending His hand, allowing Avraham to reciprocate, to be a partner in the ever-growing relationship, and to somehow compensate for the impossible chasm between the two partners in the covenant between himself and God. Avraham understood that each mitzvah presented him with an opportunity to be an active party to the covenant, and he understood that the fact that God was giving him this opportunity was, in and of itself, a tremendous act of kindness.

As descendants of Avraham, we are given this very same gift: Through mitzvot, we are able to compensate for the asymmetry of our relationship with God, and to reach up and accept the hand He offers us. Each task, each challenge, each commandment that we fulfill allows us to feel that we are somehow deserving of the kindness with which God treats us. Although God is omniscient and omnipotent, and man may see himself as small and inconsequential, in His benevolence, God allows man to make these gestures of commitment that allow us to become invested in the relationship, and to be deserving of the blessings He showers upon us. While we must always remain mindful of the chasm that separates us from God, we should not lose sight of the immeasurable kindness God continues to perform by reaching out to us, by giving us tasks to perform, by challenging us. This is what Avraham understood as God continued to give him opportunities to build a covenant with Him: In His ultimate act of tzedakah, God allows us the illusion that we are deserving of a relationship with Him, and deserving of the blessings He first bestowed upon Avraham. 

                                                     Echoes of Eden

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lectures and Essays Lech L’cha

Lectures and Essays Lech L’cha

New Essay - Covenant
Follow the Money
Becoming Holy

The Enlightenment of Avraham

The Acts of the Fathers (and Mothers)


Deconstructing and Reconstructing Abraham

Avraham -From the Universal to the Particular

Love and Fear

The Development of Avraham


Deconstructing and Reconstructing Abraham

Love and Fear

The Universal and the Particular

Four Against Five

Acts of the Fathers

Abraham's Discovery

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Parashat Noah 5776 Cleansing Waters

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Noah 5776
Cleansing Waters

Many of us first heard the narrative sections of the Torah when we were children. “Bible stories” are so deeply embedded in our early learning that they are a part of our collective memory and consciousness, and this familiarity is surely an advantage. On the other hand, because we learned these stories as children, often we are familiar only with a sanitized version of the text; the age-appropriate version we were taught as children is often all we can recall as adults, and elements of the story that are too harsh for children’s ears are lost.

One such text is the story of the flood. The version that every child hears turns the story into something closely resembling a Dr. Doolittle tale: All the cute, cuddly animals came onto the ark two by two, where they were looked after by the hero of the tale, Noah/Doolittle, who was uniquely capable of caring for them. This idyllic picture is a far cry from the sordid tale of sin and destruction that the Torah presents, to say nothing of the redemption and cleansing with which the story ends.

The introduction to the story of the flood, found at the end of last week’s parasha, paints a backdrop of sin and corruption, of violence, of sexual liberties taken by men of power, perhaps members of the more illustrious families or even genealogies, who took advantage of the “daughters of man” – women of the lower, weaker classes.

These powerful men are called “sons of Elohim,” a word which in this context most likely means “judges” (as it does in several other places in scripture). Thus, the most privileged members of society, those with the most education, those of whom we would expect the greatest affinity for justice, were the very people who misused their position of power. These powerful men of the ruling classes exploited those less powerful, victimizing the weakest and most vulnerable and subjecting them to the worst type of abuse: sexual violence.

The judges themselves, the Elohim, took no action to stem this fetid tide of immorality; at the very least, they were impotent in the face of the corruption of the next generation, the sons of the Elohim – which calls to mind an unexpected parallel: Generations later, as a new chapter in history begins to unfold and the next of the Five Books of the Torah begins, there is another ark.  This time, a young child, victim of the racist policies instituted in Egypt, is placed in an ark, a flimsy vessel that is the only chance a male child born to an Israelite family has of survival. This child is saved; he is given the name Moshe, and is raised in the palace.

Some time later, Moshe, the son of the powerful daughter of the Pharaoh, wanders out to see the “real world” and the fate of his brethren, and what he sees is abuse: An Egyptian taskmaster beating a defenseless Israelite slave. Rabbinic tradition supplies us a more detailed account of the altercation: The Egyptian master had set his sights on the wife of this particular Israelite slave. Taking advantage of his position of power, the Egyptian had the slave summoned from his home in the middle of the night. In the darkness and confusion, the taskmaster climbed into the warm bed of the wife of the slave, and had his way with her. When the slave returned and discovered the outrage perpetrated upon his wife, he confronted his master, only to be ridiculed and beaten nearly to death.

Moshe witnesses this scene; he sees and understands what has transpired, and he stands up for justice. He is a son of the most powerful people in the land, yet his biological roots are with the weak, defenseless slaves. Moshe stands up to the powerful taskmaster, and metes out justice.

It is, therefore, no mere coincidence or quirk that Moshe is found in an ark: As was the case in the generation of Noah, the ark was created because an entire culture had become based upon violence. It had become defiled. The waters of the flood, like a giant “mikveh,” cleansed and purified a corrupt world; generations later, when the world once again became corrupt, Moshe arrived in his ark. True to his promise never again to destroy the world with water, God revisits the flood at the Red Sea, but this time only the perpetrators are punished. Moshe leads the Jews to Mount Sinai, where a new cleansing element is introduced: The Torah, often described as the “water of life,” will both cleanse and educate man as it teaches us to care for the weak, to protect the vulnerable, and never to fulfill our own base desires at the expense of others.

                                                                    Echoes of Eden

Essays and Audio Parashat Noach