The Big House – Parshat Lech Lecha 5782

As a college student at the University of Michigan, some of my best memories were in the Big House. (The “Big House” is the nickname of Michigan Stadium.) Saturdays in the fall in Ann Arbor are an experience like none other. There is an electric energy around the city, and deep-rooted traditions abound. As a college freshman, I received a single ticket in the end zone about 50 rows up. I sat with a group of fans who had become family with one another, as they’d had the same seats for nearly three decades. This was “their house.” The stadium, while regularly the largest live crowd watching a college football game on a given Saturday, felt homey and familiar. It certainly is the “Big House” as it united each of us as Wolverines for those four quarters of play, unless you were rooting for the other team, in which case . . . boo!

With an attendance capacity of more than 100,000, it’s easy to see why it was nicknamed the “Big House,” but it always led me to wonder if this “house” was also a home. At what point does a house become a home? Is it enough to be a gathering place? Does one need to feel a connection to it? Is there some uniting cause that represents the house? While I certainly never slept in the Big House, I do still count it as one of the many homes in my life. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we are first asked to consider what makes a house. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.

As this parshah begins, we read the verse “Go, take yourself, from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I’m struck by the notion of the specifics in saying “from your father’s house.” Of course in the ancient world, people were identified as coming from this family or that family. And since families generally lived together, it would make sense to specify “from your father’s house.” But why from the “house” instead of simply “from your father” or “from your father and mother”? Later, we see the word bayt (house) used to talk about places of study, like “the house of Hillel” and the “house of Shammai.” What does it mean to use “house” as your identifier?

In recent years there’s been a shift in how we identify ourselves and others. For example, we’re normalizing the use of identifying pronouns like she/her or they/them on name tags and Zoom IDs. However, Hebrew is a gendered language, and as such, it makes it much harder to move into a non-binary identity system. One prominent example comes from when we use our full Hebrew names. The traditional formula is your name, then son or daughter of your parents’ names. We use this on Jewish legal documents for weddings, and we use it when we’re called to the Torah for an aliyah. But, what happens when something other than that binary distinction is preferred?

One way we’ve addressed this is by starting to use mi-bayt, which means “from the house of,” in place of “son of” or “daughter of.” What makes this an appropriate fix? For one, it goes back to the Torah; we are all from the house of Abraham and Sarah in one way or another. Also, your “house” is the one of your choosing. It can be the house or family you grew up in, or the house you’ve made with your own family. It can even signify a global house (a “big house,” if you will). Mi-bayt olam means “from the house of the world,” and that certainly applies to all of us. 

What you consider a home or house may look different from everyone else’s. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we all come from somewhere, whether your “somewhere” is a specific block in a suburb or the whole planet, but even more important is the somewhere you make for yourself. 

The Two of You – Parshat Noach 5782

The phrase “nature versus nurture” seems to imply that there’s a struggle between these two factors. It suggests that one needs to win out over the other. I disagree, though; I think we can be influenced by genetics and by our surroundings at the same time. I believe each of us becomes a mix of these two individuals: the one with innate traits and the one with learned behaviors. Take the story of Noah, for example.

This week we read Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel, we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly covers the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our biblical history takes off.

As the second parshah of the Torah begins, we’re met with a peculiar linguistic construct. The text begins, “This is the line of Noah. Noah was blameless in his generation.” The oddity comes with the repetition of the name Noah. After all, any English teacher would suggest it could’ve been more efficiently written, “This is the line of Noah, who was blameless in his generation.” However, as close readers of Torah, we understand that words – especially repeated words – are meant for emphasis and deeper meaning. So, why repeat the name Noah?

What if, in fact, the names refer to two people instead of one: the person who was born as Noah, and the person whom Noah chose to be? They aren’t literally two different individuals, but it’s the idea that Noah had to make a choice about who he would be, especially when you consider the world around him. He could be without morals or values, or he could be kind and upstanding. Based on the rest of the verse and what we know happens later, it appears that he made the choice to be an upstander.

Reading this parshah close after the High Holidays is our yearly reminder that how we act in the world is up to us and not where we come from. We are not fully defined by the generations before us. Instead, like Noah, we are fully capable of doing the hard work to change patterns, hold ourselves to higher standards, and make our example the one that future generations want to follow.

The Blame Game – Parshat Bereshit 5782

Like lots of children, I had an imaginary friend when I was young. In fact, I’ve written about this friend before. His name was Petey, and he was a ghost. This was before I had a sibling, so in those years as an only child, I could be a bit mischievous on occasion. I know, shocking, right? I have a vivid memory of messing with the clean, folded clothes in my dresser drawer and my parents asking me who did it. I answered innocently, “Petey did it.” How could they blame me, perfect little Eve, for the mess? It was the perfect story: this ghost who could not be seen by anyone but me was the ideal scapegoat. Eventually, Petey became the joke of the family when things would be misplaced or accidents would happen. “Just blame Petey.”

While this worked as a laughable family mantra, it’s not exactly a great lesson as we work to create a world of responsibility for actions and deeds. The real lesson is as old as time, and apparent in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, especially the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as God wanted. We learn about the first people and their experience in the Garden of Eden, including how they learned to build, grow, and be together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the first sibling rivalry gone terribly awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. At the very beginning of the Torah, we’re also introduced to God as the parent, creating life and making sure everything has its own place.

The first few verses of the Torah are focused on God as creator. However, as soon as there is more than one human being on the earth, the blame game begins. It takes only until the third chapter of the Torah before someone starts to look for someone else to blame for their own actions. In chapter 3 the snake goes “in for the kill” on Eve. The serpent convinces her to eat from the banned tree. She does, then Adam does, and the minute they do, God comes out again to find out what happened. Adam is quick to first blame Eve, then he blames God for creating Eve. Eve blames the serpent, and both humans are punished for this violation of trust.

However, this blame game doesn’t end there. A few chapters later Adam and Eve’s children have a fight. Cain kills Abel, and when God comes to ask where his brother is, Cain is quick to respond with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Once again, refusing to admit guilt or take the blame.

Why does our Torah begin like this? Why is there blame right off the bat? It’s likely because admitting guilt and accepting blame is downright difficult. We don’t like being “in trouble” or feeling like we may have messed up. That’s human. The Torah also begins here because these early chapters are a cautionary tale about how our actions and deeds can influence the behavior of others. Imagine if Eve or Adam had admitted blame. Perhaps they would’ve then set an example for Cain to also own his behavior. If he knew he would be expected to own his actions, perhaps he would not have been so reactive.

In reality, my parents never really let me get away with blaming Petey the Ghost. Similarly, Adam, Eve, and Cain aren’t let off the hook for trying to assign blame elsewhere. As we contemplate new beginnings, let us be aware that our actions have consequences. The more we learn to take responsibility for those actions, the better those consequences become.

From a Distance – Parshat Ha’azinu 5782

Until the vaccine became widely distributed, it felt like we were living life from a distance. We got to know new neighbors on our street from a distance. We made people smile with window art from a distance. The kids even maintained their friendships from a distance using Zoom and Google Classroom. They were taught and entertained, and they learned to mute and unmute themselves (if only they could do that in real life too). However, we quickly found out some things just aren’t the same from a distance. As part of my job as a rabbi, making physical contact with mourners and holding them in their time of need was one of those things. For the kids, going to the playground behind our house (because what fun was it to just stare at the playground equipment) was one of those things.  

This week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu, which has the special honor of being the last section of Torah read on a Shabbat morning. Parshat Ha’azinu is a poem which warns of the negative behavior of the Israelites and explains the blessings that will befall them with the good behavior they are capable of. The text ends with Moses ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

This section of text ends with Moses standing on the mountain and God reminding him, “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it, the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” In essence, Moses is much like my children during our “stay home, stay safe” order. He is standing on the edge of the playground, the place he wants to go the most, and being told he can look but not touch. But it’s in this very moment that Moses shows his leadership. He doesn’t go into the land. He doesn’t have a tantrum. He turns to the people in the next and final section of the Torah and simply offers up blessings.

Why did Moses need to see the Promised Land at all? We’re told it was a different generation that entered anyway, so wouldn’t it have made more sense and been much easier for Moses if he had died before being able to see what he was missing? Sometimes I can’t even have certain foods in the house because even just seeing them in the pantry is too much of a temptation. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be Moses and not be able to go into the Promised Land after all this time leading the people there.

Being a leader sometimes means making difficult decisions even when easy decisions are staring you in the face. It means taking a step back and putting some distance between you and something you want deeply because it will benefit the greater good. I’m certain it wasn’t easy for him, but Moses trusted in God and modeled the behavior of what it means to move forward. We won’t be able to fully enjoy the world we leave for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren either, but it’s our responsibility to lead them to it and leave it in their hands.

Hide and Seek – Parshat Vayelech 5782

Last year during the containment days, as we waited out one of the upward curves of Covid-19, we played our fair share of games of hide and seek. One hide and seek benefit for the parents? When it was our turn to hide, we’d get to hide in a dark room and have a few minutes of solitude while still giving the kids something fun to do. And on the kids’ turn to hide, we could sit down with a book or a cup of coffee for a few minutes, and “pretend” we couldn’t find them. When everyone was home all the time, this would give us a few moments of reprieve to recharge ourselves before we had to return to what seemed like an endless stream of education, entertainment, breaking up fights, and fighting boredom. I’m proud to say only once did the kids get so bored of hiding that they actually gave up on the game and revealed their own location. 

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayelech, recounts something similar to hide and seek with God and the Israelites. This week we read of the difficulty leaders have in transferring over their power, in particular the final days of Moshe and the gift of life he had in living 120 years. The Israelites approach the land promised to them and witness the transfer of power to Joshua. Finally, Moshe writes the words of the Torah and passes down the commandment to the Kohanim to read the Torah. Moshe’s final moments with the Israelites are near, and he prepares for this by coming up with a transfer of legacy, tradition, and history.  

In chapter 31, verse 17 we read that God speaks to Moses and says, “I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them.” Basically, God’s presence depends on the Israelites living by the laws that have been given to them, and if they don’t follow in God’s ways, God will hide from them, and terrible things will happen. What would happen if people stopped looking for God and then stopped following the mitzvot altogether? It could lead to the breakdown of the beautiful society God worked so hard for the Israelites to build and maintain.

The concept of hide and seek goes beyond physically hiding. Whether you’re searching for a person or a solution to a problem, it’s the discovery that keeps us engaged. Without finding answers, without learning, we lose interest and life becomes chaotic and depressing. Without the interaction and mutual understanding to be in partnership, our entire relationship with God would fall apart. Parshat Vayelech is the reminder that our relationship with God is not static. It changes and grows based only on how we continue to seek and find holiness. and connect. In order to go, to move forward on our path in life it is essential not to be passive in looking for that which brings us meaning, but to engage, to look and to connect in any way we can.