Weekly D’var: Lech-Lecha

by | Nov 4, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

In parashat Lech Lecha, Sarai’s servant Hagar conceives a child with Avram. Sarai, upset that Hagar no longer respects her, abuses Hagar, who flees the couple into the wilderness. Hashem’s messenger appears before Hagar, telling her to return to Sarai and suffer the abuse. If you return to him, says the messenger, Hashem will multiply your children. This is troubling: Why would Hashem tell Hagar to return? The idea that a victim of abuse should return to her abusive household runs counter to our ethical convictions. Passages like this trouble the notion of “Jewish ethics.” If the Divine’s prescriptions are far out of step with common sense, why should Torah provide a basis for ethical action or a good life?

Our first impulse might be to construct a rationalization for Hashem’s request. Most plausibly, the wilderness is dangerous for a single, pregnant woman. But Hagar must have known this: It is difficult to believe that Hagar threw caution to the wind and ran into the wilderness with no concern for the harm that might come to her. Contemporary experience tells us that even with the existence of women’s shelters, women in abusive relationships are often reticent to escape. More likely, Hagar was willing to risk her own life to escape Sarai’s abuse. Viewing Hagar as someone making a choice rather than one who is acted upon evaporates any easy rationalization. Our uncomfortable question remains: What do we make of Hashem’s message to Hagar? Why did Hashem tell her to go back?

“God works in mysterious ways.” This answer is offered to absolve Hashem of wrongdoing or to explain obscure actions by the Divine. The Christian polymath Leibniz went to far as to argue that ours is the best of all possible worlds. God, according to Leibniz, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. Thus, he argues, we can infer that this is the best possible world. If God is all-good and all-powerful, then God would have created the best possible world.1 Even God cannot create a square circle. A thing is either a circle or a square, the notion of a square circle makes no sense.2 Better worlds, for Leibniz, are like square circles.

Leibniz’s argument is notoriously unsatisfying. The notion that our world—full of suffering—is the best possible world seems facially ridiculous. This view is so unsatisfying that Dr Pangloss, Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz, is better known than Leibniz himself. More than being unsatisfying, this argument does not work for Jews. Whereas Christian doctrine holds that God is all-good, Jews have no such doctrine. Unlike Leibniz’s Christian God, Hashem is not all good: After the flood, Hashem makes a vow: Never again. Why make such a vow unless the Divine had erred? We cannot appeal to a notion of an all-knowing, all-good God acting in a way that is incomprehensible (but ultimately good) if our religion has no such doctrine.

On an even more basic level, why study Torah only to conclude we cannot understand it? That seems the religious equivalent of bashing one’s head against a wall. The very fact of the Torah’s existence invites us to study it: Why else write down the word of the Divine? Indeed, the Torah’s invitation to study has generated the richest tradition of textual interpretation in history.3 Belief that we can gain insight into the Torah lies at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. Again, we must return to the thorny question: Why does Hashem tell Hagar to return, presumably against her own judgment?

Another potential avenue of answer is to condemn Hashem as simply wrong. Just as Hashem erred in flooding the world, or in prescribing rules for keeping slaves, this was Divine error. In “Euthyphro,” Socrates argues that one of two things must be true: Either something is good (or pious)

because the gods like it, or the gods like it because it is good.4 The picture of good being determined arbitrarily by the whim of Hashem is uncomfortable, especially considering the Torah sets out rules for the keeping of slaves. Slavery, one would think, is evil independent of what Hashem decides.

The other possibility, rather than feeling unsatisfying, seems arrogant. Even if good is logically independent of Hashem, who are we to think we know better? On some issues this seems clear cut: We know slavery is evil, period. Hashem could tell Moshe whatsoever, our conviction would not waver. On issues where ethical principles mingle with practical action, the picture is considerably murkier. Laws necessarily under-determine their applications.5 The nature of laws means there are always edge cases where categories, principles, and decisions are murky. This is why the legal system has judges. In practical matters, this under-determination is the source of our doubts: Perhaps Hashem, the superior knower, has access to some insight into applications of ethics we do not; an insight which is reflected in the text either tangentially or not at all.

The careful reader recognizes this immediately as a more sophisticated restatement of “God works in mysterious ways.” Our same objection replies: Is it not the case that studying the Torah presumes we can find Hashem’s reason? This tension seems intractable: In cases where we cannot rationalize the Torah, are we doomed to claim we know better than the Eternal?

In cases where one reaches two opposing, uncomfortable conclusions, it is best to reexamine the place one started. Perhaps our objection that studying the Torah presumes the ability to understand it deserves more scrutiny.

The end goal of this objection is a science of Torah, in the same way, we have made a science of physics. The contributions of Rashi could be viewed like the contributions of Newton: Important, but ultimately something to be improved upon in pursuit of a complete theory of Torah.

Why is such a rational reconstruction of the Torah desirable? To reduce the Tanakh to just another collection of atoms, for which we will develop an exhaustive theory? We have a complete theory of quantum electrodynamics. Do we want a complete theory of the Torah? Such a thing would diminish the appeal, beauty, and mystique of the Torah. Torah is enduring precisely because it defies our ability to fully grasp it.6 Doubt is why we return again to the text. The doubt we feel when articulating an explanation for Hagar’s return is an essential component of explanation, not something to be eliminated in our pursuit of Truth. The real ethics at play here is not in condemning or praising Hashem: It is in the interpretation itself. We are taught that Judaism has three pillars: Avodah, Gemilut Chasadim, and Torah. Work, acts of loving kindness, and Torah. Two of those words are actions: One works, one is kind… One reads Torah. Perhaps Jewish ethics comes in the act of studying the Torah, rather than from the stories therein.


Zed Hoffman-Weldon
Student, University of Toronto

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