Weekly D’var: Noach

by | Oct 28, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

In this week’s Parsha, we learn about Noah and about God’s destruction of humanity, outside of Noah and his family. In what can seem like a pretty bleak and sad parsha, it can feel hard to locate points of hope. Especially coming off of a series of holidays which ask us to reflect in order to improve ourselves for the upcoming year, a story of people so stuck in their ways of hurting one another that God decides it can’t be fixed, can feel demoralizing. It can feel like we’re stuck in our boxes, and there is little to be done about it. Not exactly the post Rosh HaShana message we’re looking for. 

But when you look at this week’s Torah portion through the lens of some of the Torah commentaries, you begin to see a somewhat hidden message of hope for change. When God asks Noah to take along two of every kind of animal, Ibn Ezra, a Medieval Spanish Torah Scholar, adds:

“…ask, what did birds of prey eat? What did carnivorous animals such as lions who live on meat eat? Their questions are invalid. One who cannot find meat will eat grass or fruit when hungry.”

To me, I don’t see what Ibn Ezra is saying as simple logistics, but a strong message in the light of the text upon which it is commenting. If lions, without the intellect and free will of humans and for whom it is in their nature to eat meat, can adapt, all the more so are we, as humans, not confined to what we feel is our nature.

Within the text itself, there are also hints at the hope and confidence that God has for us to be able to change. While it seems implausible, or even impossible, that this story could demonstrate God’s confidence in humanity to change their ways Rashi, a Medieval French Torah Scholar, points to something anomalous in the text of Bereishit Chapter 7, Verse 12. He notes the superfluous mention of the rain lasting 40 days and 40 nights:

“But later on (v. 17) it says. ‘And the Flood was upon the earth’! But the explanation is this: when He poured down the water at first He made it fall in mercy (gently), in order that if the people would repent, it might prove a rain of blessing; but when they did not repent it became a destructive flood.”

Despite the fact that humans had been acting selfishly for a long period of time before the flood, God still had faith that within the timeframe of the rain starting and when He would begin the true flood, humans would be able to break their long established patterns, what they perceived as their nature, and to make amends.

Although ultimately a tale of sadness, the story of Noach’s generation does not reinforce the idea of stagnancy and inalterability. In our lives too, it can seem that the ways our lives are constructed and structured can leave very little room for change. For us as university students, the onslaught of exams, job hunts, and grad school applications can make it seem like there is no time and/or room for growth for change. The story of Noach can remind us that even though it can seem impossible at times, we are more capable of change than we think.

Orly Aziza,
Psychology Student at York University
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