Archive for the ‘MIDRASH’ Category


When you teach, you learn. I spoke a few words at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church two weeks ago. I’d been asked to invite the congregation to a joint study program with my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel. I told a story about Rabbi Hillel. Early this week, the lesson came back to me.

Some background: Several years ago, Calvary welcomed Sherith Israel to hold our Yom Kippur morning services at the church as we prepared to undertake seismic-retrofit construction. Our building suffered minor damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (it survived the 1906 quake, too), and the City demanded that we bring it up to the new code. Calvary proved a wonderful host. Last spring we completed phase one of our retrofit construction. In September, we held Yom Kippur morning services in our sanctuary. But a relationship had begun. Both institutions wanted to expand it.

As a result, Sherith Israel and Calvary will conduct a joint adult-education course, Let Us Reason Together: Jews and Christians in Dialogue. My invitation to register included Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Then I went to Hillel, who antecedes Jesus, for the big finish.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates a gentile telling Hillel that he will convert to Judaism if the Sage can teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel offers a three-part reply. “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” He then adds, “All the rest is commentary.” Many Jews, unfortunately, forget the third part: “Now go and study.”

The congregants at Calvary were appreciative. I hope to see many of them this Sunday at a brief 10:00 a.m. introduction before our eight-week course begins on Tuesday evening. But my mention of Hillel struck me. I read the Torah portion each week and with it commentary. It takes a grasp of two millennia of commentary to begin to get a grip on so many puzzling concepts. As I told the folks at Calvary, we Jews don’t just read our texts. We cross-examine them.

As it happens, I found in Etz Hayim, the Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary, an explanation I had previously overlooked. On Shabbat evenings and mornings, we often conclude the Amidah, the Silent Prayer, by singing, “Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.” “May the one who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us (here on earth).” I always wondered what strife there could be in the heavens. I discovered that the Midrash links this prayer to Genesis 1:8 and the Creation story. The word for heaven is shamayim. The Midrash considers shamayim to be composed of two words—aish (fire) and mayim (water). Only God can make the two coexist.

It’s a small thing, really. And yet this Rabbinic thought offers a beautiful explanation to a puzzle often overlooked. Moreover, it suggests that we emulate God and make peace where peace is difficult to achieve yet within our capabilities.

There’s a whole lot of aish and mayim butting heads from Washington to Libya, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and drought-stricken Somalia. May we use our capacity to learn to begin to do and make peace—even a little—where there is none.

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With the summer solstice on the horizon, we can’t help thinking about what the recent Arab spring has meant. Protests and revolutions developed from Algeria to the Persian Gulf. Some deposed tyrants—Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Others keep trying in Libya and Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where Bashar al-Assad seeks to maintain his family’s forty-year stranglehold with bloody force.

I’d like to tell you that democracy will bloom—that green shoots that appeared several months ago will turn into a garden of fragrant flowers and delicious fruits. But I’m doubtful. Not that I don’t think democracy can flower in the Middle East eventually. Ardent supporters of democracy can be found almost everywhere in the region. But I’d hate to have to define “eventually” because I believe in the Humpty Dumpty syndrome. Or to put it another way, sometime’s the media is the message. Here’s what I mean.

In the June 13/20 double issue of Newsweek, the historian and author Niall Ferguson offers a column, “The Revolution Blows Up.” Ferguson questions whether Egypt’s deteriorating economy is undermining the hope created in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that a new Middle East at peace with itself and the rest of the world would be born.

Ferguson asks what the West is doing to help Egyptians—and others—climb out of their deep economic hole. “The answer is,” he offers, “not enough.” Now, that may be a fair assessment. But here’s what strikes me. In an article of roughly 1,000 words, Ferguson—a brilliant man—offers not one word regarding a solution. He describes the Middle East’s various dire economies, suggesting that we must help them grow, but never declares how we should do this and why financial institutions and corporations should disregard the considerable risks their investments would run in such unstable environments. Egyptian money is, after all, fleeing the country.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing Ferguson because he didn’t come up with a detailed program to make the Middle East a garden spot of democracy and free enterprise. But it’s easy to day, “Do something” when the real task involves providing some form of concrete guidance. This is where Humpty Dumpty comes in.

We know from our childhoods that Mr. Dumpty had a great fall, and that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again. There’s a lesson here. Think of a few people fueled by sufficient pizza and beer demolishing an old, rotted house. They can do it in days. Maybe only hours. But how long would it take to rebuild that house—and turn it from a run-down building into a beautiful, weatherproof home?

In the months ahead, Americans will keep asking for fixes to all sorts of problems from our involvement in the Middle East to the sluggish economy. Many will be quick to pick up sledgehammers and crowbars. I hope we’ll all consider what it means to patiently draft blueprints, carefully pour foundations and take a craftsman’s approach to using our saws, hammers and drills. Anyone can destroy. Building demands attention to detail.

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Mysteries abound in B’reishit, the Book of Genesis and name for the Torah cycle’s first weekly portion. Where, for example, does Cain’s wife (4:17) come from? Midrash—a story or comment that fills in textual gaps—provides answers. Cain, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) explains, marries his sister.

Okay, that’s cleared up. But questions remain. Like where did the water God uses to fashion the world (1:2) come from? The Sages take a pass. They have bigger fish to fry. But here’s one that puzzled me until recently: How do Adam and Eve respond to the garments of skins God fashions for them—founding the rag trade in the process—after they eat the forbidden fruit and find themselves naked (3:21)? Fortunately, I discovered a long-lost midrash.

Adam, it states, checks out his new clothes and offers the thumbs-up sign. “Cool, Lord. I can really kick back in these. Can you create beer now?”

Eve throws eye-darts at her contented husband. Of all the men in the world! At least, that could have been. “Lord,” she says, flipping her long, dark hair. (Blondes will come later.) “This outfit is very nice, but the color doesn’t do much for my eyes. And the hem… I know I have nothing to go on, but the length seems so last year. Not that I know what a year is.”

God shrugs. He hasn’t exactly anticipated this.

“And where,” Eve continues, “do I find shoes and a bag to match? And you don’t really expect me to wear the same outfit two days in a row!” She smiles. “The day-and-night thing. You’re so clever.” Her lips purse. Her eyes narrow. “It’s all about accessories. Lord, you have work to do.”

God’s face (the Garden of Eden scene presents an anthropomorphic Master of the Universe) reflects neither mirth nor bemusement. “Spare the rod,” He mutters. “Look, Eden isn’t the real world. There’s more to life than shopping. Or hoisting a cool one.”

“I was thinking,” Adam interrupts, “it would be nice to have a pocket. Something big enough to hold a brewski. Maybe two.” He looks away. “Is Eve putting on weight?”

“Don’t get me started about kids,” God counters. “Long story short… You want beer? I’ve given you barley, malt and hops. Plenty of clean water, too. You want a new outfit? Check out the sheep. I’d go wool this winter. Looks good and keeps you warm.” God comes closer. “I’m just saying, use your imagination and make good choices.”

“We’re empowered!” Eve responds. She glances past Adam scratching a now-private area and spots a pool of black shiny stuff near a date palm. “We can do anything, can’t we? Like learn chemistry and create plastic. Then discover money and use plastic.”

God rolls his figurative eyes and points eastward. “There. The real world. Go. Yala. Charge!”

And so they do. But that’s another story.