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From the Rabbi's Study

 

Generations 

 

In an innocuous opening to this week's Torah portion, Toldot, we are told, "This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac."   It is hard to believe that such a simple opening could pose a question.

Yet, in reading this opening, I am struck by a most obvious question: why does our Torah need to repeat that Abraham was the father of Isaac? Isn't it enough to say that Isaac was the son of Abraham? Why state it again by saying that "Abraham begot Isaac"? In his commentary, Rashi, the 11th century commentator, brings a midrash that explains the reason for the emphasis was to refute any claim that Abraham was not Isaac's biological father. Just a few chapters earlier, we read how Sarah was incredulous when an angel told her that she would become pregnant with her 99-year-old husband Abraham. Evidently, the midrash felt a need to reemphasize Isaac's lineage before proceeding with his story.

There is something almost too modern in this ancient explanation. It seems as if the midrash was pushing back against a tabloid type accusation against Abraham's paternity. While there may have been sceptics even back then, and it may be even a bit comforting to think that human cynicism isn't a recent development, it seems a bit unseemly to explain this redundancy as a defense against cynics.

I cannot help but see a different reason for this apparent redundancy. The word "Toldot" has many translations. Most common is translating it as story or legends. Etymologically, "toldot" comes from the Hebrew root "yld", which means birth or to have a child. Such a translation of the opening verse would yield, "These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac." What makes this translation more meaningful is all that follows. Immediately, the Torah launches into the story of the progeny of Isaac, the birth of Isaac's sons, Esau and Jacob, and the complicated story of their rivalry. While the Torah is looking forward to the next generation, it simultaneously brings us back to the previous generation, tying the story of Jacob and Esau not only to Isaac, but also to Abraham. Generation to generation to generation.

This week America will celebrate Thanksgiving. Like everything else this year, it will be different. Thanksgiving is more than a meal; it is a celebration of family and gratitude for all our blessings. In the current environment, with the pandemic raging, many will not be able to be physically together with family. We may be "zooming" or phoning between houses and meals, but even if we are unable, we cannot forget the bonds that bind our future with our past. This week's Torah reading reminds us that our generations are linked together and make up our families' stories. It is a lesson that is worth remembering this Thanksgiving, when so many will be together apart, until hopefully soon, we can be together again.

With wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Thanksgiving,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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Darkness Before Dawn

This week's Torah portion begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah.  So much about her passing is left untold by the Torah, but we are given many details following.  After Abraham mourned and cried over his wife, he procured a burial place for her and bought a cave in Hebron, Ma'arat Hamachpela, as a final resting place for Sarah. The juxtaposition of the practical need of planning a funeral seemed to overshadow the emotional reaction to Sarah's death, but finally Abraham is able to bury Sarah with love and honor. 

All finally seems in order until we realize that throughout this ordeal, we haven't seen or heard from Sarah's son, Isaac.  His silence is deafening.  All the more so, as a chapter later we read of his marriage to Rebecca and the Torah tells us, "... he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death." Isaac had been mourning all this time and he only found comfort once he found love in the person of his wife, Rebecca. 

After the death of his mother Sarah, the midrash graphically portrays what Isaac was going through.  In Breisheet Rabbah, our rabbis teach about wonders that were a part of Sarah's tent, and that disappeared upon Sarah's death. One of those wonders was a constant light that shined in their home throughout Sarah's life, and when Sarah died the light ended.  When Rebecca came into Isaac's life, the light miraculously returned. While the rabbis of the midrash believed there was an actual light, whether there was an actual light seems secondary.  At the heart of their interpretation is that there was a pall over Isaac with the passing of his mother that was only lifted when Rebecca entered his life.  She was a new source of hope, meaning, and love for him.  She was the new light in his life.

Looking at this week's portion as an entire unit, we see loss, sorrow, and mourning followed by comfort, love, and hope.   In Rebecca, Isaac is able to love and see a future and after the darkest period, light is restored to his life.

It is often said that "it is always darkest before the dawn." While this may or may not be actually true, it defines the resilience in the human soul.  Even in our darkest moments, we can find the light of hope.  Sometimes we may need assistance from others, like Isaac needed from Rebecca, but we can find hope that allows us to see the brightness of a new dawn.  As sure as the sun will rise, we have the opportunity to find hope and meaning in all that we are going through and see the brightness of tomorrow. 

This week, we are being warned of a very dark period we are going through with the rate of infection soaring throughout our country. At the same time, we heard hopeful news about the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.  In this dark time, we must draw strength to see the light ahead and be vigilant until we reach it. 

For this reason, MJC has made the difficult decision to once again suspend Shabbat morning services.  In March, services were suspended amid uncertainty as we confronted a virus that no one understood.  Now, while we are more hopeful about the possibilities of a vaccine and treatment, we are suspending Shabbat morning services to protect our community as the cases of COVID are rising.  We hope this will be a brief suspension. We will keep track of the trend in our community, but in any case, we are hopeful that we will be together again soon.

Epidemiologists say we are going through a dark time and indeed it is. We know, however, that the dawn is coming, and light will shine.  It is our responsibility to do all we can to protect each other so that we can all celebrate together in the near future.

We are together...apart, until we can be together...again.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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Counting

In an unfathomable scene from this week's Torah portion, we see Abraham arguing with God.  What makes it more incomprehensible is that God seemingly invites this challenge.  The story is well known and retold often.  God had decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in what seems as an afterthought, God decided to tell Abraham of the Divine plan.  The Torah tells us what God is thinking when it tells us that God said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?"  By confiding in Abraham, God is offering Abraham the opportunity to challenge the Divine plan.  Abraham, doing something that Noah generations before never did, steps into the breach and challenges God's intended action.  He asks God, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" And so begins the most famous failed negotiation in our People's tradition.

Abraham asks God would you destroy an entire city if there were fifty righteous people within?  Would God really destroy the fifty righteous and not forgive the city for the sake of their fifty?  Abraham and God go back and forth from fifty to forty-five to forty to thirty to twenty to ten.  Each time God accedes to Abraham's plea, but as they count down, they cannot find the righteous number of people in the city. 

We read this story each year, but this year it seems different.  The fate of the cities is sealed because they are wholly wicked.  As they countdown, God and Abraham are valuing every righteous person, but cannot even find ten.  We know how the story ends.  The only righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah are Lot and his family.  God saves them, but it is not enough to save the cities.  

There are many lessons to be learned from this story, and this year I cannot help but see the emphasis our Torah places on the countdown.  Looking for the righteous is not the same as looking for votes, but it reminds us that each of us count.  Although the back and forth between God and Abraham ended at ten, in the end, God was concerned with every righteous soul. 

As God counts the righteous souls, each of us should count on Election Day and every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

 

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