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: Vayakhel-Pekudei

Weekly D’var: Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week’s double portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei, which concludes the book of Exodus. In these final chapters, the Israelites complete the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that they will use to worship God during their travels in the wilderness. The Israelites bring offerings of gold, silver, and other materials, and skilled craftsmen work diligently to create the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and all the other sacred objects that will be used in their worship. One of the striking things about this section of the Torah is the emphasis on the importance of every individual’s contribution. The text describes how all the Israelites, regardless of their social status or wealth, were invited to contribute to the construction of the Tabernacle. Each person gave what they could, and their gifts were combined to create something truly magnificent. This emphasis on the importance of individual contributions is a reminder of the power of community. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of the world and to believe that we as individuals cannot make a difference. But when we come together and combine our efforts, we can create something truly incredible. Whether it is a physical structure like the Tabernacle or a social movement or a charity organization, the power of collective action can accomplish amazing things. On a similar note, Hillel plays a vital role in the lives of many Jewish students, providing a community where they can connect with one another, celebrate their traditions, and explore their Jewish identities. Here in Guelph, we recently learned that we will need to find a new Hillel House. We are very optimistic that we will have a new home in the coming school year and, as such, are working hard to raise funds to help transform whatever space we find into a home that will better serve the needs of our community. March 20th begins our “Home is where Hillel is” fundraising campaign. As we reflect on the power of collective action in this week’s parsha, we are emboldened to dream big in reaching out to the wider community to reach our goals. We must also acknowledge our deep gratitude to all who have helped to make our current Hillel House the warm, welcoming, communal space that it has been for us. Let us remember the example of the Israelites in Vayakhel-Pekudei, who came together to build something truly magnificent. May we follow in their footsteps by working together to support and strengthen our communities.

Weekly D’var: Terumah

Weekly D’var: Terumah

This week’s parsha finds the Israelites in the desert being instructed to build the mishkan, along with all of the required gathering of gold, silver, acacia wood… the list goes on. Most of the parsha consists of directions for where things are to go, what they should be made of, and what they will be used for once the work is complete. The plans are meticulous, and the materials to be used spare no expense.

At this point in our story, we’re not so far removed from slavery in Egypt, so it may be an uncomfortable idea that we’re already being given instructions to build things at the behest of a new authority, but the positioning of this parsha is important here. The Isrealites have just finished building the golden calf, and been punished for doing so, but here God clearly sees that they were building something physical because they felt that something was missing. Even after witnessing a miracle, it’s hard to believe in something we can’t see. To build, is a way to “inscribe our faith” on the physical world. The building directions in this week’s parsha, give the people an outlet for their productive energy and a tangible way to express their faith that will ultimately benefit the community. In this way, despite the exacting demands in place for the mishkan, the work brings the community together as a people.

The materials required for the building of the mishkan are unlikely to be found in their desert surroundings, so the community must pool together what they have materially as well as their labour in order to complete this colossal endeavour. Having left Egypt in a hurry and camped out at Sinai waiting for the commandments, the people are no doubt scattered, tired, and feeling the strain of their sudden flight. They’re refugees from a people systematically removed from a shared identity, and they have yet to rediscover the cultural and material wealth that they have as a community. By asking them to pool what few belongings of value they may have as individuals, the building of the mishkan gives not only a tangible representation of their faith, but also of the wealth that they share as a people. It takes an entire people to raise a mishkan.

The golden calf was an empty symbol, it was a literal ‘scapegoat’ for them to relinquish their responsibility and control. It had no purpose aside from to be worshipped and so acted as an idol, the building of which demeaned the people who did so. It has that in common with the building forced on the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, when they weren’t allowed to be a cohesive people, and their work was intended to strip them of any identity they held.

The Mishkan is the opposite; once built it will act as a community hub in and around which people will practise worship as a routine, a habit, and a way of life. The parashah sums up this distinction clearly in Exodus 25:8, when God tells his people “וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם” a line often translated as “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you” but the word “בְּתוֹכָֽם” can equally be translated as within rather than among. I like to read this line as describing how the work of building the mishkan, as a community, will unite the Jewish people and make God a part of each individual as well as a part of the community. The work of the mishkan is distinct from the work done in slavery because it is holy work, elevating work, and the kind of work that brings God among the people.

This distinction between demeaning work and elevating work is one I think about often outside of Torah study, especially with midterms season upon us. I spend a lot of hours studying for exams, and there are certainly days where it feels more like forced labour than work towards a meaningful goal, but it helps me to remember the “why”. For me, that’s the hope of being able to make meaningful change in the world, and understanding the beauty that exists in the structure of the universe on a larger scale, that’s what draws me to physics. It’s not about an exam grade, it’s about my awe at the wonder of what’s out there, and my belief in the communities I work in to find meaning and answers together. At some level, that’s not so different from religious faith, which may explain why there are so many Jewish physicists.

Ultimately, the nature of work and its virtues and detriments comes down to whether it’s in service to meaningful values or dead ends. Parashat Terumah asks us to direct our work so that we can be sure that we’re building a mishkan instead of a golden calf.

Ezri Wyman
Student, Queen’s Hillel