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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayera 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

From Derision to Redemption: The Journey of Laughter

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Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24) 

From Derision to Redemption: The Journey of Laughter

Laughter: it can represent many things. It can be a response of pure joy, or amazement. It can be derisive and cynical, a response to a certain comment or an act. Laughter can be a response of surprise, of fear, of being scared, or something that is just unbelievable. Laughter can be a sign of optimism and of joy.

In this week’s parsha, we see laughter, “tzhok” being used in so many different ways – unprecedented in Tanach.

First, at the end of Lech Lecha, when Avraham is told that he will have a son through Sarah, he says the following: ויפול אברהם על פניו he falls on his face, ויצחק. (Genesis 17:17)

He bows down to God to acknowledge this amazing news. It creates a context for his laughter. It’s a response of joy and amazement.

In our parsha, when Sarah is informed by the angels, dressed as visiting strangers, that she will have a child, we’re told that “ותצחק שרה בקרבה” she has an inner laugh and she says, “How can I have a child? I’m old. My husband is old.” (Genesis 18:12)

There are no context clues. And therefore, some of the commentators define this laugh as incredulous, as cynical.

 

And therefore, Sarah is challenged about this response and she tries to explain: “No!” She laughed for a different reason. It was a laugh of joyful amazement.

When Lot tells his sons-in-law to escape with him from Sodom, because Sodom is going to be destroyed. “Leave this place because God will destroy it.”

They laugh at their father-in-law. This laughter is definitely one of derision, of cynicism, showing disdain of Lot and his comments. (Genesis 19:14)

And when Avraham and Sarah’s son, Yitzhak, is born, Sarah says “ותאמר שרה, צחוק עשה לי אלוקים”; God has made laughter for me “כל השומע”, all who will hear “יצחק לי” will laugh. (Genesis 21:6)

It’s unclear if Sarah is stating people are joyful, are amazed and all hear about my birth are happy for me, or she means people are mocking me.

They’re stating that I was most probably impregnated in Egypt, for how is it possible that Avraham, who is not given any more children to Hagar, now helps me have a child?

And that’s why the Torah goes out of its way to mention Avraham so many times when the birth of Yitzhak is announced in the Torah.

Then there is the situation with Yishmael, when we’re told in the Torah “ותרא שרה”, and Sarah sees that Yishmael “אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק”, who was born to Avraham, is laughing with Yitzhak. (Genesis 21:9)

Sarah sees that Yishmael is here fooling with Yitzhak, laughing at him, making sport of Yitzhak, causing Yitzhak problems.

With all of these meanings for the word “yitzhak”, why is it that Avraham and Sarah call their child by this name?

What message does Avraham and Sarah want to communicate to us, their children, about the name Yitzhak?

I believe that they’re trying to share with us something about the enterprise of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

After all, Sarah and Avraham introduced monotheism into the world, and now we’re transitioning from a couple, to a family, to a people, to a movement.

The Jewish people are here to share this ideal with society – our chosenness is our responsibility, and this child, Yitzhak, represents the first generation of the saga of introducing this ideal to society – a nation of monotheism, is now born.

He is called Yitzhak, laughter, to communicate to us the fact that sometimes Judaism will be Yitzhak, it will be met with cynicism.

It will be met with derision, incredulity, especially when we don’t live up to our responsibility. And sometimes “yitzhak”, the laughter, will be a dark laughter, a laughter of darkness.

And by calling him Yitzhak, Avraham and Sarah are also telling us: you know, this enterprise of Judaism really might work. It might really happen. It can happen.

This can be a laughter of surprising optimism. This can be an ideal that can become a reality.

“אז ימלא שחוק פינו”, people will have laughter, “ולשוננו רינה”, as the Jewish people return to their land with a mandate to matter, as the Jewish people move from the periphery of history to the center of history. (Psalms 126:2)

My father in law, Yitzhak, of blessed memory, was a single man in the DP camps, who had survived the Holocaust. He traded with someone to purchase the (Shabbat) candelabra, because he knew eventually he would get married and wanted his wife and his family to have the light of Shabbat. This was important to him.
 

Yitzhak Tambor, when he bartered for the candelabra, was met with “צחוק”, was met with laughter of cynicism, of derision.

“Seriously? Yitzhak, survivor of the Holocaust, single, this is what you need?”

But that candelabra was used by my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, created light in their home, and it now creates light in our home, in Jerusalem, 40 minutes from the Kotel.
The “צחוק” of derision became a laughter of hope and optimism, and that’s what defines the Jewish people.

When we are able to transform the laughter into a world of hope, of optimism and joy. That’s our responsibility.

That’s what it means to be a “yitzhak”, to be able to create laughter of redemption, the responsibility of what it means to be the children of Avraham and Sarah.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

“Parsha and Purpose” – Lech Lecha 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Avraham and Sarah: The First Power Couple and Their Continued Impact Upon Us”

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Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) 

“Avraham and Sarah: The First Power Couple and Their Continued Impact Upon Us”

The past two weeks, we have focused on the creation story from the perspective of humanity’s role to continue the process: the mandate of God to Adam and Chava in Parshat Bereshiet, to be God’s junior partner in the creation saga. (Genesis 1:28)

The mandate that is found in Parshat Noach’s Haftarah, that if we are going to ensure that there’s never the destruction of the world, of society, it is our responsibility to be involved in Tikkun Olam, the perfection of the world. (Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5)

And in Parshat Lech Lecha, we are introduced to the most important couple to organized religion, to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And that is Avraham and Sarah. They are perhaps the most famous couple in human history.

What do we know about these two people before they ascend the world stage as leaders? The Torah tells us nothing about them, nothing.

Yes, Midrashic texts, rabbinical texts, and even pseudepigrapha try to fill in the gaps. So much has been proposed about their upbringing and their past, but the Torah tells us nothing.

We’re told that Avraham finds God through the cosmos, but the Torah tells us nothing. (Breishit Rabbah 39:1)

We’re told that Nimrod throws Avraham into a fiery furnace to perish because of Avraham’s rebellion against idol worship, but again, the Torah tells us nothing. (Breishit Rabbah 38:13)

The bottom line is that in the text of the Bible, in the text of the Torah, we learn nothing about Avraham and Sarah until they are 70, 75 years old, and become citizens of national importance.

Maybe the absence of a background is to communicate to all of us that what makes Avram, “Avraham”, and Sarai, “Sarah”, is not their pedigree, it’s not their wealth or their stature, but their willingness to “Lech Lecha”, to go and to make a difference in the world. (Genesis 12:1)

Despite their challenges of infertility, despite the issue of famine or kidnapping of family members, they are able to engage others: “And the souls they had acquired in Haran”. (Genesis 12:5)

Avraham faces his arch nemesis, Nimrod, in the battle of the four to five kings. It’s over the soul of society, and he is triumphant. He rescues his family. (Genesis 14:1-15)

He deals with kings with respect, yet with a commitment to ethics and allegiance to God: “The Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth”. (Genesis 14:22-24)

His relationship to God is so meaningful that he can even question God: “What will You give me, since I am childless.” (Genesis 15:2)

You want to know why we don’t know anything about their past? Because what defines them, indeed, what defines us, is not our past, but our capacity to “Lech Lecha” to get up and make a difference.

And in the process of “Lech”, of going. we learn “Lecha”, so much about ourselves. The message of Sefer Bereshit continues: it moves from a universal paradigm to a more particular one.

But it reminds us that what makes Avraham and Sarah, our patriarch and our matriarch, is not their past, but what they’re willing to do to change the world, and in the process, change themselves.

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Noach 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“After the Flood, Who is Responsible for What?”

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Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9- 11:32) 

“After the Flood, Who is Responsible for What?”

Every parsha has with it a reading from the prophets, a Haftarah. It was instituted at a time in which it was forbidden to read from the Five Books of Moses; and therefore it mirrors the messages of the parsha.

In fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik used to teach us, if you want to understand the central message of the parsha, look at what is stated in the selection from the prophets in the Haftarah.

In this week’s parsha of Noach, there is an argument between the Sephardic community and the Ashkenazic community about how much from the Book of Isaiah should be recited as our Haftarah, as our portion from the prophets.

The Sephardim suggest it should just be the first ten verses from chapter 54 of Isaiah (Isaiah 54:1-10), and the Ashkenazim suggest that one should recite those ten verses, finish chapter 54 and continue through part of Chapter 55 (Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5).

This difference between the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic community is not just semantics, but speaks to the critical message of Parshat Noach and of all of Sefer Bereshiet.

You see, the first ten verses of the haftarah speak about God’s responsibility to humanity after the destruction of the flood, where God promises, through the prophet Isaiah to the Jewish people, that God will never leave humanity again.

God tells through the prophet Isaiah, ‘You should expand your tents because your families will grow; they will never be desolate, like after the flood.’ (Isaiah 54:2)

‘You won’t be embarrassed again that you will be totally destroyed.’ (Isaiah 54:4)

‘I forgot you for a moment, but I will bring you back together for long periods of time.’ (Isaiah 54:7)

The focus for the Sephardim, for the Sephardic community, of the Haftarah is God’s responsibility to humanity.

But the Ashkenazim suggested that you need to recite a larger Haftarah: one that focuses on the covenantal relationship – not just God to the community, not just God to the Jewish people and humanity, but humanity’s responsibility to God and its responsibility as agents of creation in continuing the saga of Bereshiet.

And therefore the Ashkenazim demand that these verses are mentioned: that our ability to live in this world has to be predicated by being righteous, and not being deceptive one from another, that we should engage in learning about having a relationship with God, that we have to learn about what it means to be citizens of humanity and what it means to be part of the Chosen People.

And so the difference between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition of this Haftarah is not random. It’s a response to the flood story: Is it just God’s responsibility to assure there’s no more floods? Or is it our responsibility to celebrate the message of all of Sefer Bereshiet?

And that is to continue creation through our engagement with society.

I believe, as an Ashkenazic Jew, that this is critically important, because a relationship with God cannot just be what He does for us, but what we do for Him and what we do for the world.

The responsibility to continue to engage and to guarantee that Sefer Bereshiet continues to live through our positive contributions in the continued creation of society and of the world.

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Bereishit 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“To Err is Divine: Re-Building and Growth”

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Parshat Bereishit (Genesis 1:1- 6:8) 

“To Err is Divine: Rebuilding and Growth”

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת כׇּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃

And God saw all that he had created and it was not just good; it was very good. And it was the end of the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)

“Everything was very good” – and the commentaries explain that this world was very good, but many worlds that God created earlier were not good, and so he destroyed them, made some mistakes and then recreated them.

This idea is found in the Kabbalah and it is found in the ancient Midrashim. (Genesis Rabba, 9:2  and elsewhere) 

And the question is: what does that mean that ‘God created many worlds’? God, who is infinite, who has all knowledge, He created worlds that weren’t good, and only after destroying many worlds and making some mistakes, he finally created our world, and it was “tov me’od”, it was very good.

What message is there in this for each and every one of us?

When I read these comments that are found in our ancient texts of the rabbinical world, I am inspired, because I think it reminds us that each and every one of us have a piece of God inside ourselves, and to be reminded that sometimes we begin an initiative and it doesn’t work out exactly the way we want, and sometimes we can get depressed.

We can sometimes get paralyzed or upset, but the answer is we can start over again.

We can do it again. We can try again.And there’s nothing wrong with trying again. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, as long as you have the courage to try again.

And how do we know that?

Because God himself says to us that He made mistakes and only this world was “tov me’od”, only this world was excellent, only this world was great.

And since there is a piece of God in each and every one of us, it’s a reminder to us: sometimes we mess up. It’s not the end of the world, because even the Creator of the Universe, the Master of the Universe, God, the Infinite Being, He also destroyed worlds and recreated them.

It’s a reminder to each and every one of us of the opportunities that we have, that even when we fail, even when we make mistakes, it only empowers us to do it the next time better.

In fact, when God makes the statement that he created the world, “Vehineh tov me’od,” he has one more commandment, to the being that he created on the sixth day – to humankind.

And the commandment is that God says, you know, I created this world, I created this world of “tov me’od”, of very good. But you, humankind, have to complete it because you, humankind, are my partners. (Genesis 1:28)

What an unbelievable opportunity for each and every one of us.

As the holidays have left us and as we have been inspired by these days, and as we get into the normal routine, let us remember that even God made mistakes and God recreated worlds. And we have that opportunity.

And even the world that God created, God reminds each and every one of us that it’s up to us to finish the process because we are truly then partners with God.

Let us begin this year with the inspiration that even when we make mistakes, it just inspires us to be able to build better the next time around.

Shabbat Shalom.