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Congregation Brothers of Israel

L'dor Vador—From Generation to Generation since 1883
לדור ודור

 

Chaired by Dr. Ellier Russ with the assistance of the Rabbi, this committee coordinates programs and classes to engage members in lifelong learning. Events include our yearly Scholar in Residence program, Talmud Study, Mah Nishtanah: What’s Different About Today’s Judaism, The Observant Life Book Series and more. Guest speakers, online webinars and Shabbat morning discussions additionally provide congregants with opportunities to expand their knowledge of Judaism and living a Jewish life.

TAlmud

 In fulfilling the following commandments one enjoys the yield in this world while the principal remains for all eternity honoring father and mother, performing deeds of loving kindness, punctually attending the house of study morning and evening, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending dead, praying .with devotion, and making peace between individuals. And the merit of Torah study is equal to all of these. Talmud Shabbat in 12e

TORAH SPARKS

 

TORAH SPARKS
 BESHALACH 5781
January 30, 2020 |  17 Shevat 5781

Torah:Exodus 13:17- 17:16 Triennial 14:15-16:10
Haftorah: Judges 4:4-5:31
                     

D'var Torah: Not Fright or Flight, But Faith and Fortitude
by Ilana Kurshan


Just before the sea split, the Israelites stood on the shore in abject terror. Behind them the Egyptian chariots gave chase, driven by vengeful horsemen who whipped their galloping horses as fiercely as they were known to beat their slaves. Before them the sea sparkled in the morning light, its calm surface concealing unknown terrors of the deep. In the midrash, the fleeing slaves are analogized to a dove pursued by an eagle that enters a cranny in the rock, only to find that a snake is nesting there (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:14). The Israelites could turn neither backwards nor forwards, and yet there were those who suggested both – at least according to the Talmud’s account, which offers insight into how a religious sensibility might come to our aid in moments of fight or flight. 

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Y. Taanit 2:5), Moses was confronted by a cacophony of suggestions as to how to proceed in that decisive moment at the shore. The Israelites were divided into four factions: One suggested jumping into the sea in an act of mass suicide; one suggested returning to Egypt; one suggested going to battle against the Egyptians; and one suggested crying out to God. These four responses may be read as four ways of responding to adversity – surrender, submission, struggle, and spirituality. Moses, as we shall see, rejects them all. 

Standing with his people on the shore, Moses said to them: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of God which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent" (Exodus 14:13). The Talmud breaks down Moses’s response into a rejection of each of the four factions: To the desperate Israelites who wanted to jump into the sea, Moses assured them that salvation was imminent: “Fear not, stand by and see the deliverance of the Lord.” To those who advocated returning to Egypt, Moses insisted that Egypt was a thing of the past: “For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever.” To those who wanted to put up a fight, Moses assured them that this was not a time to take up arms: “God will fight for you.” To those who advocated prayer, Moses put his finger to his lips: “You shall be silent.” What, then, was the appropriate response?

Perhaps the answer can be found in God’s words to Moses just before the waters split: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go forwards” (Ex. 14:14). God did not want His people to look back toward Egypt, or up to the heavens, or down into the depths of despair – God wanted them to march forwards. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) celebrates the valiance of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to do just that. According to the Talmud’s account, upon hearing God’s command, each tribe refused to be the first to step forwards. At that point, the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, took matters into his own hands. He did not jump into the sea in surrender, but simply put one foot in front of the other. He pushed aside his fears like walls of water as if defying the sea to engulf him. At the same time, he entreated God to save him – the Talmud attributes to Nachshon the following verses from Psalms: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16). Nachshon prayed while simultaneously taking action. As such, his response was neither suicidal surrender nor spiritual stasis. It was not fight or flight, but faith and fortitude. 

One small step for Nachshon turned out to be one great leap for the Israelites, who followed suit and were redeemed by God. The rest of the tribe of Judah, and then the rest of the Israelites, also walked into the water. Like Nachshon, they did not yet know of the miracle that awaited them. Unlike the ten plagues, which God had foretold, the Israelites had no way of knowing that the waters would split for them and then close in upon Pharaoh and his horsemen. They simply walked forwards, come what may. They, like Nachshon, may have also been calling out to God as they plunged into the waters. According to some commentators, the “Song of the Sea” recited by the Israelites—chapter 15 of the book of Exodus—was not a victory song but an expression of faith that God would deliver them. As Sforno puts it (on 15:19), "The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh's horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out, they began to sing."

According to Sforno, the Israelites did not know that they would survive when they began singing. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful. Perhaps it was in fact their very singing that brought about their deliverance, in the same way that God’s utterances created the world. The people sang that “He cast Pharaoh's chariots and his army into the sea,” and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh's chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang, “You made the wind blow; the sea covered them,” and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out His mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land. 

Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song that creates the reality around her: 

But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world 
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. 

The woman in the poem is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as the Israelites’ singing may have brought about (rather than merely recounted) the circumstances of their salvation. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in the shape of a brick wall, as per the words of the song: “And the water was for them a wall, to their right and to their left” (Exodus 14:22). According to this reading, the Israelites at the sea have already begun learning what it means to be liberated. They do not have to sink into despair, or return to servitude, or surrender all their agency and await God’s deliverance. To be free is to realize that we are the authors of our own story – we are the artificers of the world in which we sing. We hope against hope as a sign not of foolishness, but of faith and fortitude. It takes courage to walk forwards singing of a world of which we can only dream – but as we learn from Nachshon, it is a crucial first step.

D'Var Haftorah: Dangerous First Dates
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

Exodus tells the “meet cute” story of God and the Israelite people. After a bumpy start at the burning bush, when Moses displays hesitance to take up his calling, God proves his power to the people, eventually wooing them out of slavery and into covenant with him at Sinai. It is the role of every subsequent generation to remember and to tell this story, reaffirming our dedication to the God who took us out of Egypt to be our God. It is the defining moment of Jewish history and peoplehood. 

And then there’s the Midianite-Kenite hypothesis, first articulated in the nineteenth century by Karl Budde, that tells a very different story of how God and the Israelite people met and fell into covenant with each other. It holds that the Kenites were the original worshippers of God as the tetragrammaton and that they introduced God to the Israelites. This week’s haftorah tells a small part of that story, the story of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite. In the haftarah, Judges 4:4 - 5:31, Israelite tribes defeat a Canaanite army and Sisera, the Canaanite general, flees. As he escapes, he comes across the tent of Yael. She invites him into her tent and then drives a tent peg through his skull, killing him. When Barak, the Israelite general, shows up looking for Sisera, Yael lets him know what she’s done and Deborah, prophet and judge in Israel, sings a song celebrating Yael’s victory. 

There is a question of who Yael is and why she is willing to help the Israelites. We know she is married to Heber the Kenite. The Kenites appear in a number of crucial places in the Tanakh. The Kenites may originate with Cain. After he disposes of Abel, Cain goes on to father an impressive family whose genealogy is recorded in Genesis 4. The family that he fathers includes Jabal the founding father of tent dwellers, Jubal the founding father of musicians, and Tubal-Cain the founding father of metalsmiths. And indeed, the Kenite tribe will come to be nomadic smiths in Israel. 

We meet the Kenites again in the form of Jethro, father-in-law to Moses. He is referred to as both a Midianite in Exodus and a Kenite in Judges 1:16. Many think that the Kenites were a sub-tribe of the Midianites. According to the Kenite hypothesis, it is Jethro, priest of Midian, who introduces God as the tetragrammaton to Moses. As the story plays out, Jethro will intervene at several crucial moments, teaching Moses not just how to lead but also how to be in relationship with God. And the Tanakh will even acknowledge that God came from the areas in which the Kenites lived. In Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4; and Habbakuk 3:3; God is celebrated for coming from Seir, from Padan, the historical area of the Kenites. The matchmaker of the meet-cute of the Israelites and God was Jethro, the Kenite who already knew God. 

If this is true, we understand better why Yael might put herself at risk to help the Israelites. The Kenites have been looking out for the Israelites for generations. Exodus Rabbah 4:2 notes that the Kenites had a family tradition of helping Israelites: “Jethro received an avenger [Moses] in his house who was fleeing from the enemy; hence there arose from his house one [Yael] who received the enemy [Sisera] who was fleeing from the redeemer and killed him.” (Translation by David Elgavish. See Elgavish, David. “Ya’El, Wife of Heber the Kenite, in Biblical Perspective.” Jewish Law Association Studies XVI (2007): 78–100.)

Is our Exodus story invalidated if the Kenites played matchmaker between us and God? What are we to do with the scarcely told story of the tribe that always had our back? God is still the God who took us out of Egypt to be our God. The original story can still hold true and hold meaning. But we can open ourselves to finding human helpers along the way.

Connecting Heaven and Earth

Vav – a special letter
You probably know that there is a correspondence between Hebrew letters and numbers. Number 6 corresponds to the letter “vav”. “Vav” is shaped like a hook holding two things together (ו); normally, “Vav” is translated as “and”. This letter is also referred to as “vav of connection” therefore, “the Sixth Day”—Yom HaShishi (Yom Vav)—connects the spiritual and physical; heaven and earth, six days of Creation and Shabbat. 

The day of connection
We can see a wonderful confirmation in today’s Jewish life. Anyone who has experienced Shabbat in Israel knows that Friday, Yom Shishi, is a really special day of the week, since it is the beginning of Shabbat. As such, it connects and holds together the six days of the week and the most important day of the Jewish week, Shabbat (Saturday). 

Discover the nuances of the Bible
The importance of this day is clearly emphasized in Judaism: the day we celebrate as the Jewish New Year, is not actually the anniversary of Creation, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation—Yom Hashishi. According to Jewish understanding, Creation became meaningful when man was created: the Sixth Day connected heaven and earth, and God was proclaimed King! Enroll in our live online Biblical Hebrew course and Hebrew will reveal the nuances of the Scripture!  


BESHALACH 5781: Selflessness and Shelfishness
BESHALACH  (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16)
January 28, 2021 
|  by 

When is the Truth the Biggest Lie?

GOOD MORNING! For many years now I have had an ongoing disagreement with one of my sons about the nature of man. He insists that everyone acts out of complete selfishness and that it is the primary catalyst for all of humanity. In his worldview, altruism is merely something people do to gain the pleasure of feeling better about themselves.

For my part, and from a philosophical perspective, I feel it is a terrible way of looking at the world. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe it is factually incorrect.

Ironically, and as often is the case, my son would be “Exhibit A” for my argument as to the altruistic nature of humanity. He is the kindest, most giving. and altruistic person you could ever hope to meet. He is “that guy” – the one you call when you need help moving or to be picked up from the airport at 1 am. He is happy to do anything he can for his friends and relatives and always make you feel as if it was his privilege to help. His oblivion to this reality, perhaps a simple cognitive dissonance, is rather interesting to observe.

Of course, on a simplistic level, one might argue – and this is how he justifies his position – that people only do altruistic things because it gives them pleasure. For example, doing favors for friends and relatives is selfish in that it strengthens the relationship and will one-day lead to being “rewarded;” thus the acts are driven by selfishness.

But here is why that argument is wrong: Of course a person must do things that are in their own self-interest, whether it’s for their health, relationships, or the like. In fact, it is a Torah mandated obligation to take care of oneself; “Watch over yourself very carefully” (Deuteronomy 4:15). But this does not fall under the category of selfishness. Still, depending on the individual, this verse is sometimes misinterpreted. I am reminded of the following joke.

A pig walks into a bar and sees man sitting at a table with a curious looking bottle bubbling away with mist emanating from the top. Intrigued, he asks the man, “What’s this all about?” The man replies, “Well, this is a mystic potion, a concoction of my very own. Take a sip and it’ll magically release your full potential.” “Baloney!” shouts the pig.

“You see that big cat over there,” the man says, pointing at a huge lion. “He used to be a puny house cat. He took a sip of the magic potion and now he’s king of the jungle.” The man continues, “That guy over there,” pointing to a toothy crocodile, “He used to be a tiny lizard until he took a sip of the magic potion and now he's at the top of the food chain!”

“Okay,” said the pig. He grabbed the potion and took a large swig. A puff of smoke instantly enveloped him, and as it cleared he looked down at himself in utter shock. He had been transformed into a human!

“What the heck has your potion done to me?” shouts the pig. “Hmmm,” says the man, “how do you feel?”

“I feel like... I feel... I want to be more selfish... I feel like lying – like promising the world only to not deliver.” “Yep, just as I expected,” says the man, “it's turned you into a politician!”

In reality, selfishness has nothing to do with doing things for oneself. Everyone must and should do things that are in their best interest. Doing acts of kindness that result in a positive feeling is not selfish any more than the enjoyment you get from drinking a cup of iced tea when you are thirsty. Those are merely positive outcomes of fulfilling a personal need. We are required by the Torah to properly attend to our needs. The body, just like life itself, is a gift from the Almighty. We have a serious obligation to protect that with which we have been entrusted.

We also have an obligation to fulfill all that God has asked of us. The responsibility lies solely with each individual. This obligation is perhaps best expressed by the famous Jewish sage of the first century, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Ethics of our Fathers 1:14). Hillel was obviously not advocating a life of self-absorption, but rather fulfilling our responsibility to do for ourselves what needs to be done.

Selfishness, on the other hand, is a completely different concept.

Being selfish means doing something for yourself at the expense of someone else. For example: If you are standing in line at the drugstore and see someone purposefully cutting into the line simply because he doesn’t feel like waiting – that’s a selfish act. Yes, he needs the medication to take care of himself, but the choice to delay others who were already waiting to do the same was selfish. On the other hand, giving your place in line to someone who is pregnant and is having a difficult time standing in line is not a selfish act; even if a byproduct of doing so makes you feel good about yourself.

The lofty soul, gifted to mankind by the Almighty, innately desires performing acts of altruism. This should not be surprising, after all the soul was blown into the body of mankind by the Almighty as the final part of His own act of altruism and kindness – the creation of the world and everything therein. God has no need for this creation; the entirety of creation was for the purpose of gifting good to humanity.

A soul is infinitely precious; it is who we are and what makes each individual unique. We must behave in a way that opens the pathways within the soul to fully develop its (and by extension our) potential. Of course, not everyone is really in sync with what their soul truly desires. Sometimes it is obscured by their physical wants or, unfortunately, by warped principles that guide their lives.

Naturally, the more developed one’s soul, the more altruistic the person will be. Generally, the need to put one’s self first at the expense of others comes from deep rooted unhappiness. When a person feels a lack of self-worth he becomes insecure and triggers a knee-jerk reaction of compensation – acting as though he is more important than others. This leads to a very egocentric view of the world and selfish behavior.

In Judaism, we are consistently enjoined to consider our relationship with the Almighty as well as our relationships with other people. But for most of us, one of the least considered and oft-overlooked relationship is the relationship we have with ourselves.

This is quite unfortunate as it is our longest lasting, and arguably most important, relationship. Consequently, it is also the one we most often abuse. We lie to ourselves, break promises to ourselves, and do many things to sabotage this relationship. The fracture of this relationship can lead to a variety of issues ranging from a deep-seated unhappiness to endless anxiety.

Coming to terms and fully understanding one’s relationship with oneself is a very important concept to internalize and I will, God willing, devote another column to fully explaining both the intricacies and complications of this relationship.

Needless to say, a person’s innate happiness is usually dependent on this last and most critical type of relationship. Those who act selfishly or consistently fail to recognize altruistic behavior (e.g. they are always looking for the “hidden” reason someone does a kindness) are usually suffering from a poor relationship with themselves. They either do not like themselves very much, or are not in touch with their own self and do not understand their own motivations in life.

The quintessential example of true altruism can be found in a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (Shviis Chapter 3). There the Talmud wonders why the grandfather of King Saul is sometime referred to as Aviel and sometimes referred to as Ner. Rebbe Shimon son of Lakish answered, “In truth, his name was Aviel, but he was called Ner because he used to illuminate the dark alleys” (ner also means light or candle).

According to this passage in the Talmud, it was primarily in the merit of his grandfather Ner that Saul was appointed king. What does one concept have to do with the other?

Imagine the street outside your home or your backyard. Even if there is only moonlight you can traverse it fairly easily because you know the locations of any obstacles or potholes. Ner was lighting the alleys not because he needed the light – this was where he lived and he could easily navigate it even at night – but solely for the sake of people who would be unfamiliar with the area or were otherwise compromised.

The legacy that Ner passed on to his family was the necessity of focusing on the needs of others. This is the ultimate attitude that a king must have – and in contradistinction to the attitude of many, if not most politicians – leadership isn’t about your needs or self-aggrandizement; it’s about serving others. That’s why Ner’s grandson merited to be the first king of the Jewish people.

 

Torah Portion of the Week

Beshalach  (Exodus 13:17- 17:16)

The Jewish people leave Egypt. Pharaoh regrets letting them go, pursues them leading his chosen chariot corps and a huge army. The Jews rebel and cry out to Moses, “Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out here to die in the desert?” The Yam Soof, the Sea of Reeds (usually mistranslated as the Red Sea) splits, the Jews cross over, the Egyptians pursue and the sea returns and drowns the Egyptians. Moses with the men and Miriam with the women -- each separately -- sing praises of thanks to the Almighty.

They arrive at Marah and rebel over the bitter water. Moses throws a certain tree in the water to make it drinkable. The Almighty then tells the Israelites, “If you obey God your Lord and do what is upright in His eyes, carefully heeding all His commandments and keeping all His decrees, then I will not strike you with any of the sicknesses that I brought on Egypt. I am God who heals you.” (This is why the Hagaddah strives to prove there were more than 10 plagues in Egypt -- the greater the number of afflictions, the greater number from which we are protected.)

Later the Israelites rebel over lack of food; God provides quail and manna (a double portion was given on the sixth day to last through Shabbat; we have two challahs for each meal on Shabbat to commemorate the double portion of manna). Moses then instructs them concerning the laws of Shabbat. At Rephidim, they rebel again over water. God tells Moses to strike a stone (later in the Torah God tells Moses to speak to the stone, not here!), which then gave forth water. Finally, the portion concludes with the war against Amalek and the command to “obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.”

 

Quote of the Week

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
-- Oscar Wilde

 

On-Line Learning


Rabbi Gaber lead several Adult Education programs using ZOOM Web conferencing technology.  "You don’t have to leave the warmth and comfort of your home to have a discussion on confronting Antisemitism and Hate or the Human Genome or to discuss how to bring Judaism into the 21st century. I will be leading an online class.  You will not  only be able to hear me and see me, you will also see your friends in the same virtual classroom. There was an interesting line up of  webinars this past winter. Our final CBOI Online learning program this season has a dedicated link: https://zoom.us/j/7686776767.     All you need do is enter this link into your favorite browser and follow the instructions.  If you get stuck, please let me know and I will help you get on line."  

*Don't worry, if you can't make the discussion at the appointed time, you'll still be able to learn about each topic:
See the CBOI On-line Learning page in Learn Navigation bar to see all the previous  On Line Zoom Learning sessions.

TALMUD CLASS IS HELD MOST WEDNESDAYS FROM 11:00 AM - NOON

FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE  TALMUD STUDY WILL BE ON ZOOM - see IMPORTANT INFORMATION on the website home page

Tue, January 26 2021 13 Shevat 5781