Weekly D’var – Bereshit

by | Oct 21, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. Our Jewish liturgical year has just begun again and it brings us right back to Bereshit.  

I first read Bereshit when I was about 9 years old and could not stop fidgeting in shul. My Mum handed me the Chumash (Tanakh/Torah) and turned it to the first page of Genesis,  “In the beginning…”  Five minutes in and I couldn’t put this action drama down. The universe is created in six days, there are sneaky serpents, brothers who destroy each other, epic floods and people who lived Way. Too. Long. 

The story opens with the first debate between good and bad ever. I’m talking about the etz hadaat tov v’ra – the tree of knowledge of good and bad. As you know, it was Eve – a woman – who first ate its fruit. Yes, the Torah says a snake egged her on but really, it seems to me, and probably did to Eve at the time, quite irresistible. You get a sampling of divine knowledge, plus a tasty snack as a bonus. Once her eyes and her mind were opened, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, who ate it without question. Just made some munching sounds. It’s no surprise to me that it was Eve who was tempted to bite the fruit – I think of her as the first multi-tasker – really, it could only be a woman who could handle dealing with the knowledge of good and bad at the same time. 

Another Biblical Heroine, Miriam was also always forging (no joke intended) her own path. Miriam is as wise as she is young when Pharaoh decrees that all the newborn Jewish boys shall be drowned in the Nile. She follows Moses in his basket and makes sure that he is retrieved. While she put her trust and faith in Hashem (G-d), she also needed to see it through. This combination of faith and drive is what keeps our connection to God. Eve and Miriam both live their lives with the values of Emuna (trust) and Hishtadlus (drive) brings them closer to God and a better world. 

I don’t think Eve was ever going to NOT eat the fruit. It was an obvious part of this story. God telling a woman not to do something that will give her more knowledge and wisdom about life? Please, it was bound to happen. I don’t even view this act as a sinful one, although Eve has been vilified for this act for centuries. It was Eve who took that risk. Like Eve, who took on the responsibility to enlighten herself and bring Adam, and by extension the rest of humanity along with her, each of us has a responsibility to keep searching for the things that bring us more knowledge, greater meaning, and a strong moral core. May 5783 be a year that we do the right things in order to better ourselves and our communities.  

Looking back to my nine year old self reading Bereshit, I could not imagine how endless and infinite the knowledge from the Torah is. One Pasuk (verse) can carry many meanings and morals. I think the moral from the few Psukim (verses) about hetz hadaat tov v’ra (tree of knowledge of good and bad) is that it is not sinful to both have faith in something and deepen your knowledge about it. In fact, that’s how we got to where we are, and that’s how we will keep moving forward.

Mollie Milchberg
Program Coordinator, Hillel Queens

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

This week’s parsha is one that is filled near to overflowing with iconic stories.  Covering Jacob’s travels to, life in, and departure from Haran, the home of his uncle (and eventually father-in-law) Laban, Vayetzei recounts the stories of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, his marriages, first to Leah, then to Rachel, the births of twelve of his children, and so much more.  

With all of this, I am struck by a couple of stories that are not explicitly in our text at all, but come to us in the form of Madrash, the traditional interpretations or explanations of our text that have come down from the sages.

The stories that have captured my interest are surrounding two verses that come at the very beginning of our text (Genesis 28:11 and 28:18) and are seeking to explain a seeming inconsistency between these verses. Just as Jacob is lying down to have his famous dream, we are told that “He took from the stones of the place and set it/them at his head and lay down in that place”, the Hebrew text being unclear on the number of stones Jacob had taken.  Verse 18, which picks up immediately after the dream, is by contrast, very clear, saying, “he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar”. 

The first explanation comes from Rashi (11th/12th c. French commentator), who explains that Jacob had taken a number of stones and arranged them around his head for protection, prompting an argument among the stones, with each asking that they have the honour of holding the righteous man’s head.  Rashi goes on to say that at this point, the holy one fused the rocks into one. 

There are a number of others that appear in the great collection of Midrash, Breishit Rabbah, each offering a different number of stones.  One of the stories counts twelve stones to teach Jacob that he would be the father of twelve tribes; another, three stones, teaching that God’s oneness would be made known through Jacob; yet another, two stones, to teach that Jacob’s progeny would be worthy to form the people Israel.

Our tradition offers us all of these understandings of a single moment in the life of Jacob, each of them teaching him a different lesson.  We can find multiple interpretations of most stories from the Torah; that is part of the beauty of Midrash.  But I am struck by the form that these midrashim take, each of them recounting a lesson learned, each examining a single moment.  In this, I am reminded of the beauty of reflection, of a life examined, reminded that, within the hustle and bustle of our lives, and despite it, each moment has so much potential to teach us.

Rabbi Danny A Lutz
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

The second line of this week’s parsha tells us that Sarah, our matriarch, died in Kiryat Arba in the land of Canaan. The first verse, and the one from which we get the name of the parsha, Chayei Sarah, describes her life; “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” Abraham has just proved his dedication to God; he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice before God, was commanded to spare him, and received a blessing. Abraham was promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand, but his wife Sarah, his partner and his children’s mother, has now died. Abraham mourns Sarah and weeps by her. His experience of deep sadness is another low point in his turbulent story. Despite being offered by the Hittites and Ephron a burial place, he insists on paying them the full amount of silver it is worth and when Abraham dies at a hundred and seventy-five, he joins Sarah in the cave on Ephron’s land.

This parsha always makes me think of the ritual of shiva, the week of mourning following the death of a loved one. Mourners are joined by their community to provide comfort and meet the needs of the family and are present as those closest to the deceased say kaddish. The mourner’s kaddish is a fascinating and beautiful exaltation, a prayer for peace and for God to hear us and keep us, something that can feel jarring and distinct from grief and loss. The value of the Jewish ritual following death is that we gather to remember and reminisce the span of a person’s existence in our lives and their affect on the world around them for good, not simply to lament their passing. We’re told in the parsha that after they are wed, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” 

Jacob Brickman
Hillels Waterloo & Laurier