NOACH

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12th

Much of Parshat Noach is taken up with genealogies.  The first line of the parshat “These are the begettings of Noah,” is the classic introduction for a genealogy throughout the book of Bereishit (see Ber. 10:1, 11:10, 11:27 for some examples).  Here though, instead of being followed by an enumeration of Noah’s children, or an account of his own birth, as we might expect, the verse stops to tell us about Noach’s moral and spiritual qualities—that he was a righteous man, that he walked with God—before going on to tell us about his children.  “Noach was a righteous whole-hearted man in his generation; in accord with God did Noach walk.  Noach begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Yefet. This structure is a bit surprising.  Why this detour before moving with the genealogy?

Rashi suggests two possible explanations.  First, he suggests the mention of Noach’s righteousness is purely parenthetical.  Since Noach was such a righteous man, the verse can’t mention Noach without telling us that, following the principle of Zekher Tzadik Livrakha “the mention of a righteous person should be a blessing.”  This explanation is a little problematic, since this is far from the only mention of Noach, and is not even the first mention of Noach, but it’s only here that the Torah talks about his righteousness.  This perhaps motivates Rashi’s second explanation—that the verse is telling us the essential, or primary legacy or “begetting” of a righteous person is not their biological offspring, but their actions.

Our tradition is a very pro-natal one.  Having and raising Jewish children is an important part of our how we perpetuate the life of our people, but Rashi is telling us that how we behave, how we act, can be just as important.  Not everyone is blessed to raise children of their own, but all of us, whether we have children or not, can have an impact on future generations through our actions.  This isn’t just true for those who serve as caretakers and educators for the next generation. All who contribute to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of our community and the larger world, have a “toldot,” a legacy, that will live on after they are gone.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

KI TAVO

FRIDAY, August 31st

Our Parsha this week includes a long passage enumerating the blessings that await us if we serve God and the curses that will follow if we do not. Among these is the warning that if we fail to obey God, “In the morning you will say, ‘if only it were evening,’ and in the evening you will say ‘if only it were morning,’ because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (Dev. 28:67) Rashi explains that this means that in the morning we will be longing for the previous evening, and in the evening, the previous morning, always longing for the past, because each moment things will be getting worse and worse. Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) disagrees, saying the plain meaning is that when the curses come upon us, we will be waiting impatiently for the future, like someone sick, wishing time would pass more quickly. Whether Rashi or Rashbam have the correct interpretation, in effect the curse is the same. Dissatisfaction with the present, expressed as longing for another time, is a curse in and of itself, regardless of external circumstances.

The great 19th century scholar, the Natziv explains that the last part of the verse, “because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see,” describes two different sources of suffering:  “the sights that your eyes shall see” refers to real dangers, while “the dread that your heart shall dread” means that we will imagine dreadful things even where there are none. Interestingly, the Torah mentions the imagined fears before it does the real ones. Perhaps this is because our own internal assumptions, prejudices and dispositions influence our perception of reality, more than concrete facts and experiences. This means that the curse about longing for night when it is morning and longing for morning when it is night is as much about our own state of mind as it is about negative circumstances.

When we spend our lives oscilating between nostalgia for the past and looking forward to (or dreading) the future, an experience that is all too common, we are actually experiencing one of the worst curses that can befall a human being. Dwelling on the past or future blinds us to the infinitely precious gift that is each moment, each experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  Thankfully Judaism provides a cure for this curse, in the following instruction: “A person is obligated to bless over the bad just as they bless over the good” (Mishnah Berakhot 9:5).    When, instead of longing for better times or worrying about what will happen when the good times end, we are able to express our gratitude to God for the reality of each moment, we can subvert this curse and find ourselves one step closer to redemption.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

KI TEITZEI

FRIDAY, August 24th

his week we read about the prohibition on ever intermarrying with the Ammonites and Moabites “because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam, son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.” (Devarim 23:5) While the Egyptians, who actually enslaved us for centuries and oppressed us violently are allowed to convert to Judaism and marry into the Jewish people eventually, and are even singled out for a special prohibition  against “abhorring” them (ibid, verse 8), the Moabites and Ammonites are permanently excluded when it seems their only crimes were a lack of hospitality and a failed attempt to curse us.  Rashi explains that the reason the Egyptians are not to be abhorred, while the Moabites and Ammonites are, is because unlike the Moabites and Ammonites, who refused to give us food and water, the Egyptians took us in and provided for us when we were hungry.  However badly they may have treated us subsequently, their initial kindness is not to be forgotten.

It seems from this that the failure to share food and water is a crime greater even than violent oppression, or that, conversely, hospitality is so great a virtue, that it can overshadow the most heinous crimes.  We know that one of the salient characteristics of the city of Sodom, for which it was punished with fire from heaven was selfishness and an antipathy to hospitality.  The ethos of Sodom, according to Pirkei Avot was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”  A society without kindness cannot survive, any more than a society without justice.  Tellingly, Lot and his daughters, the ancestors of the inhospitable Ammonites and Moabites, were refugees from the city of Sodom, spared from the fate of their neighbors by the merit of Lot’s hospitality (and his kinship to the famously hospitable Avraham and Sarah).

During the fast-approaching holiday season, let us ensure that our own celebrations reflect the values of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, and not (God forbid) those of the Ammonites and Moabites.  I strongly encourage everyone who is planning a holiday meal to make sure the guest lists include not only family and close friends, but newcomers and outsiders, especially those who might not otherwise have a holiday meal to go to.  To facilitate this, if you have extra space at your Yom Tov table, or if you are seeking hospitality yourself, I encourage you to let me know, and we will try and match people appropriately.

SHOFTIM

FRIDAY, August 17th

Some weeks ago, I joined with several dozen other Orthodox rabbis in the US and in Israel to sign a letter denouncing recent instances of dangerous and hateful speech used against some of the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community–LGBT Jews. Because of the very real danger that derogatory and hateful speech poses to the life and well-being of LGBT people, the Torah commandment of “lo taamod al dam reiekha (do not stand idly by your fellow’s blood),” compelled my colleagues and me to speak out.

In the wake of that letter, while I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from many members of this community, I have also been made the target of abuse and insults from a few individuals, who responded to our call for treating all human beings with respect by doing exactly the opposite.

I relate this experience not to garner sympathy for myself; on the contrary—it is a sign of how privileged I am that I have not been subject to that kind of insulting language before. I imagine that for many people, especially in the LGBT community, that kind of abuse is a regular experience. Thus, a few people’s hostile reactions to my joining the call to treat LGBT folks with dignity and respect served to confirm for me how necessary that statement was.

In light of this, I invite you to join me in recommitting to making our community one that welcomes and embraces all Jews, regardless of their level of observance or Jewish education, regardless of their political or religious affiliation, and regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in the region, we have a tremendous opportunity to help Jews of all backgrounds grow in Torah and mitzvot. We are best able to do that when all Jews are able to feel welcome and accepted in our community.

Therefore, I propose to organize a series of learning events focused on openness and inclusivity. If you are interested in taking a leadership role in that initiative and helping to shape what it will look like, please reach out to me at rabbi@kitcsacramento.org.