Trick of the Light

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” These words were spoken by the artist Vincent van Gogh. If you know his most famous work, Starry Night, this sentiment makes sense. In this painting, he captures the enchantment, the wonder, and the mystery that he senses in the night sky.

In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom describes his fascination with the night: “Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation. Darkness wakes and stirs imagination. Silently, the senses abandon their defenses, helpless to resist the notes I write.”

There’s something captivating and compelling about the nighttime, the hours when our rational and reasonable selves are quieted for the day, and our imaginations are active and alert.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, the patriarch Jacob has a magical experience in the middle of the night. When the parasha opens, we find Jacob on the run, trying to escape the wrath of his brother, Esau, whom he has just betrayed. On this first night, Jacob finds a “certain place” (later identified by the Rabbis as Jerusalem), puts a stone under his head to serve as a pillow, and nods off. While he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder whose bottom rungs are firmly planted on the ground, but whose top reaches up to the sky. Ascending and descending the ladder are angels of God.

Amidst this otherworldly vision, God appears to him and says: “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac….Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).

Jacob awakes suddenly, startled and excited, and proclaims: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17). He is overwhelmed and thrilled by his close encounter with the divine. But the music of the night can’t last forever. The magic of Jacob’s nighttime revelation quickly dissolves into the skepticism that daylight reliably brings. In the morning, Jacob becomes suspicious of his mystical experience from the previous night. Instead of trusting that God’s revelation will come true, he begins to bargain with God: “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—then Adonai shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).

It’s hard to blame Jacob for his incredulity. What if he had only imagined God’s appearance, and God’s promises? After all, we know that dreams don’t always come true, no matter how real and believable they may seem in the protective cocoon of the night.

Although this year’s celebration likely felt more tempered than usual, yesterday’s Thanksgiving holiday was an opportunity to focus on the gifts and blessings of our lives. Perhaps you Zoomed with your relatives, or ate a leisurely meal, or enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that almost all Americans paused for a day to reflect on and share our gratitude. The sheer scale of Thanksgiving, with so many people from different backgrounds, faiths, and experiences partaking in the same common rituals, can sometimes feel like a dream.

But today is the day after Thanksgiving, a day when we transition back to reality. The mindset of abundance—both for the tangible and intangible bounty in our lives—that we embrace on Thanksgiving can easily give way to feelings of lack and insufficiency. It doesn’t help that today is the biggest shopping day of the year, on which many of us understandably feel the need to acquire, purchase, and amass more stuff before we can feel at peace. The transition from satisfaction to scarcity is instantaneous, as though we have suddenly woken up from a dream that we dare not trust.

What if Jacob had held on to the magic of his nighttime vision, where he felt sure of the completeness and totality of God’s protective presence? What if, as the sun rose, he could have quelled his desire to allow doubt, disbelief, and apprehension to overtake him, even if only for a few moments? How much more rich that day might have been.

What if we, too, could trust our gratitude instead of questioning it? What if we could hold on to the feeling of shlemut, of wholeness and abundance, that Thanksgiving offers us, even for a few extra moments? How different might our lives be if we lingered in the dreamland of gratitude, instead of waking up immediately to the reality of consumerism and constant acquisition?

This Shabbat, may we all have the opportunity to sleep a little longer, so we may live in and trust the beauty of our dreams.

Hoping for the Best

Rivalry and strife are baked into the human project aren’t they? It seems an inherent part of the dynamic of what it means to be alive. In the telling of our Jewish tradition in the Torah narrative, it is there from the beginning. The tensions are present from the start: sky above and the earth below; a Divine spirit hovering over the face of the deep; good and evil; man and woman. All around us is difference and the capacity to name and organize those differences according to the power we have as thinking, reasoning, sentient beings.

According to the Torah, God makes the male and female human in the “Divine Image” and places them in the Garden of Eden and warns them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yeah, right. Who would listen to that? Half of the fun of living is the adventure of walking that thin line, too often blurred by those who lack distinction. The choices we make are only expressions of free will if we have the choice ourselves to decide. So obviously God wanted the first humans to eat from that tree in order to embed within them the power to choose.

Human history, tragically, is littered with the bodies and the destruction wrought by poor choices, by evil doings. According to the midrash to Genesis, God built many worlds before the one we currently live in and finally gave up on the idea of perfection. Instead, the rabbis say, God created repentance and the ability to change one’s path, to do good, and to choose life. This is, to a significant degree, what we mean when we say that Judaism is a religious tradition that privileges both realism and hope. To be realistic and hopeful is to hold potentially two conflicting views of the world together at once. Or, in the words of Mel Brooks, “Hope for the best, expect the worst. Life is a play, unrehearsed.”

If God realized early on that perfection is the enemy of the good, there is a lesson there for us all. And read through a certain lens, we might say that the Torah’s first book, Genesis, makes this abundantly clear when it comes to the human project. It is filled with the kinds of twists and turns, aspiring, soaring deeds of goodness mucked up by incomprehensible acts of cruelty and evil. It’s a messy story, and in no particular family dynamic is that messiness made more apparent than in the variety of depictions of sibling rivalries.

Cain and Abel fight over whose offering is most beloved by God and Cain rises up to kill his brother. Ishmael makes sport of his younger brother Isaac which enrages Isaac’s mother Sarah, who demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar are expelled into the wilderness. And in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Rebecca feels great pain in her womb during pregnancy and inquires of God, asking “Why do I even exist?!” She then receives a prophecy that says, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate people shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When the two boys emerged at birth, Esau came first, with his brother Jacob gripping his angle on the way out. The curtain rose on the unrehearsed play of these brothers’ lives, an ancient literary narrative that is among the most colorful, profound, emotional and confounding of any in Jewish literature.

Rashi teaches us an interesting set of legends. In one he says that the struggle already in the womb was about the two infants representing radically different world views. Whenever Rebecca walked past a House of Study, the baby Jacob would struggle to get out to go learn Torah; and whenever Rebecca walked past a pagan altar, Esau would struggle to go make a sacrifice to false Gods. We might say Rashi is arguing that inherent to the human project is the unavoidable tension between an unseeable God who demands observance of the law and deeds of loving-kindness, and an idolatrous, atavistic being which represents false worship. Picture Abraham smashing his father’s idols; Moses demanding that no human should rule over and oppress another human. It is the stark either/or of early Jewish theology.

In another midrash which Rashi brings to bear, he says that actually the brothers were arguing in the womb, about who would inherit this world and who would inherit the world to come. Here we might say that the rabbinic tradition is shedding light on the ways in which different faiths seek dominion over the other. Judaism begins and goes from Abraham to Moses; Christianity supplants Judaism with Jesus; Islam privileges Mohammed as the next iteration of God’s revealed truth to the world. Only one of us can be right. That type of thing.

And that’s just in the womb!

But what is the womb other than a beginning; of darkness over deep waters and the hovering spirit of the Divine animating the souls of those within as they emerge in to the messiness of life, with all its imperfections, challenges, mistakes, and disappointments, triumphs and pure joy?

And what is life other than a series of tests, questions and experiments in living, an “unrehearsed play” in which only we, with enough luck and good fortune, can determine the end?

Throughout this week’s Torah portion and in the coming weeks we will see the rivalry between Jacob and Esau endure many twists and turns; and in Joseph’s narrative that follows, we will see that rivalry explode into the kind of technicolor rendering that makes it, to paraphrase Robert Alter, practically a separate novella within the Hebrew Bible.

Did Isaac and Ishmael ever reconcile? Did Jacob and Esau? Did Joseph and his brothers? Do we in our own families, communities, nations?

The sages taught long ago that the real cause of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt was not the evil devisings of Pharaoh or the harsh cruelties of the Egyptian taskmasters. Rather, they say that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt because of sibling rivalry. Had the brothers not been jealous of Joseph, they would not have stolen him away and faked his death; he never would have been sold into service in Egypt; and his brothers never would have found their way down there when a famine arose in Canaan and they went to their neighbor, seeking food. They never would have been on the wrong side of history when the lines were written, “And a new king arose over Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.”

We know how it unfolded from there. But what we don’t know, in the great unrehearsed play of our lives, is how our story ends. Only we can know that when we choose life, choose blessing, choose peace, and hope for the best.

Isaac and Ishmael: Two Nations Post-Election

When the Associated Press officially called the presidential election last Saturday, New York City erupted in celebration. People flooded the streets, cheering, banging pots and pans, honking horns, and calling loved ones to bring in the moment. At the same time, there were pockets in our city, state, and country where over 70 million Americans hung their heads in defeat. Even within the Democratic party, a rift appeared between the moderates and progressives when Republicans flipped seats in the House of Representatives. However we slice it, we can agree that this was an especially contentious election that leaves deep divisions in our country.

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, provides us with an example of how to come together across major differences. Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael bury their father after what at very best could be considered a distant relationship with each other (Genesis 25:9). In a less favorable view, Isaac and Ishmael had a relationship shaped by jealousy and favoritism. Isaac was Sarah’s precious child of old age, and the inheritor of Abraham’s possessions and covenant while Ishmael was born to Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant.

In fact, the last time Isaac and Ishmael were in the same place before their father’s burial was at a huge family party for Isaac four chapters earlier. There, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are banished from the family over Abraham’s inheritance (Genesis 21:7-13). In this period of separation, both Isaac and Ishmael endure traumatic events, Isaac nearly sacrificed by his father in the Akeidah narrative (Genesis 22) and Ishmael crying out in the wilderness (Genesis 21:17), without each other to bear witness or lend support.

Isaac and Ishmael, although brothers, belonged to two separate nations — a metaphor I heard about Democratic and Republican voters last week as I flipped through election coverage. This wasn’t enough, however, to keep Isaac and Ishmael apart when it was time to bury their father. Dignifying the deceased is one of the greatest deeds we can perform in Judaism because the deceased can’t pay us back. This holy act superseded all the baggage between the brothers as they put their father Abraham to his eternal rest. In the context of a divided nation, I wonder what those holy acts are that can lift us above our differences. As we transition from one presidency to another, still in the midst of a pandemic, I pray that we can overcome our divisions to work for the dignity and safety of all people as Isaac and Ishmael did Abraham.

A few verses after Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham, Ishmael passes away (Genesis 25:17). The Torah describes it that he “breathed his last and died,” a specific phrase that is also used to describe the deaths of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses’s brother Aaron. For Ishmael, the son of a maidservant, banished from his home, always second to his brother Isaac, and turned into a separate nation, the Torah puts him in elite company. The Talmud goes on to say that the phrase “breathed his last and died” is only used for righteous people (Bava Batra 16b). The fact that Ishmael is included in this company can teach us that even those from whom we are divided have the capacity to be righteous people. Whether we identify more with Isaac or Ishmael, Democrats, Progressive Democrats, or Republicans, may we come together in this time of division as Isaac and Ishmael did, work for the dignity of all people as they did for their father Abraham, and bring out our collective righteousness in the process.

The Will of the People

Throughout our long history, the Jewish people have lived under almost every system of government imaginable. When we left Egypt, we were a band of twelve tribes, governed by a charismatic leader, Moses, who took his orders directly from God. When we entered the land of Israel, we were ruled by prophetic judges who led us through conflicts with neighboring tribes. We then transitioned to a monarchy, whose most famous kings were David and Solomon. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and forced out its Jewish inhabitants, we made our homes in every land across the globe. In exile, we lived under kings and dictators; in theocracies, democracies, and republics; under socialism and communism. And since 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, we have formed a new type of self-governance and created a Jewish Democracy in the Holy Land.

But even among radically different systems of government, Jewish tradition has always taught that the will of the people is paramount. Listening to and accounting for the desires of the populace has always been an important value when it comes to Jewish understanding of politics.

In the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, there are countless examples of the importance of the will of the people. Even as a rag-tag group of wanderers in the desert, the Israelites make a number of demands of Moses, Aaron, and God: “In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community complained bitterly to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.’ And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion’” (Exodus 16:2-4). The people bring their grievances to their leaders, who in turn heed and fulfill their desires.

When the Israelites are settled in the Land of Israel, they are ruled by a series of prophetic judges. But eventually, they demand to be governed by a monarch who will lead them “just like all other nations.” Though both the prophet Samuel, as well as God, are disappointed by the people’s choice, God says: “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you” (I Samuel, 8:5, 9). Even though God is upset by the outcome, God recognizes the importance of the political will of the community.

In exile, bereft of their homeland and their own sovereign government, the Jewish people are instructed to be politically aware and involved. The prophet Jeremiah teaches: “seek the welfare of the city to which [you have been exiled] and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Wherever the Jews may live, they are commanded to make their voices heard to preserve the wellbeing of their adopted homeland.

Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, the Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “One may only appoint a leader over a community if that person consults with the community and they agree to the appointment.” They use the example of Betzalel, the chief artisan appointed by God to design the Mishkan, or “Tabernacle,” which would serve as God’s portable dwelling place in the desert. The Rabbis outline the following interaction between God and Moses: “The Eternal said to Moses: ‘Moses, is Betzalel a suitable leader in your eyes?’ Moses said to God: ‘Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes.’” But that wasn’t good enough for God. “The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to Moses: ‘Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion.’ Moses went and said to Israel: Is Bezalel suitable in your eyes?” (Berakhot 55a). Even though God appointed this leader, the Rabbis teach that God still valued the opinion of the Israelites.

The day before the election, a JCP Middle Schooler put it best: “If we don’t get the results tomorrow night, it’s going to be a major cliffhanger.” It feels that the whole nation is experiencing that cliffhanger, all of us holding our collective breath. No matter an individual’s political leanings, this waiting period is hard on us all. But Jewish tradition teaches, and our democracy demands, that the voice of the people be heard, and that all the votes be counted.

In the midst of this tumultuous week, I hope you will join me tonight at 6 pm on the Zoom link here (Meeting ID: 893 4555 7892; Password: JCP) for Shabbat services. Cantor Galeet Dardashti, our Musician in Residence, will join us, leading us in song and reflection. There’s nothing like gathering as a community, even virtually, during a moment like this, and I hope to see you there.

Go Build a New Nation

I heard a fascinating and tragic story recently about a young man with a Basque last name and mixed religious background of Catholic and Jewish. When I asked about the mixture of Basque and Jews, he explained that his father’s father was actually Irish, and was a heroic pilot in the Second World War who died during the Pacific campaign after having flown 39 successful missions. When he died in action, his son was a four month old child. This young man I spoke to has a fascination with the war and in a small box keeps the letters written home from his grandfather to his grandmother. In one such letter, he talks about how he can’t wait to get home to finally meet and get to know his son.

There are countless stories like this from war, poignant tragedies bound up with the heroic sacrifices made by individuals in battle and all the more moving when the war being fought was to stop Hitler and end the march of Nazism and Fascism across the globe.

I have my own obsession with Robert Capa’s life. The noted war photographer was colorful, playful, brilliant, and mischievous. Born in Budapest and forced to flee Horthy’s oppressive government at age 18, he went to Berlin and with the rise of Hitler, fled from there to Paris and the United States. He could never settle down, even breaking off a love affair with the actress Ingrid Bergman, who fell fast for the dashing Capa and wanted him to settle down in California. But his commitment to peace, his visceral hatred of war, kept sending him away. He heard a voice that kept saying, “Go forth,” because with his camera, he too had a mission: to document war’s brutality, particularly toward children and the innocent, believing that perhaps his own willingness to bear witness might lessen the chance of future wars.

Like the young man’s grandfather who died on a mission, Capa too was following French troops in Vietnam in 1954 when he stepped on a landmine and died. He’s buried in a Quaker cemetery in Amawalk, New York, next to his brother Cornell, who founded the International Center of Photography, and their mother Julia.

And then there is Hannah Senesh, another Jew from Budapest, who at 18 and against her parents’ wishes, heard a call to be a Zionist. She left for Palestine as soon as she finished high school; learned farming at a collective school in Nahalal, and was among the young idealists who founded Kibbutz Sdot Yam, up the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv. Already a poet and an excellent student, one would have thought that the move to build a Jewish state would have been enough to focus on for a young person in such a short life. But when the British Army recruited her to join a paratroopers unit and rescue Allied soldiers behind German lines, she leapt at the chance, hoping to rescue her mother, who was hiding in Budapest.

At 23, Senesh was dropped from a plane over Yugoslavia, captured by the Germans, briefly imprisoned and shot before a firing squad. Even in captivity she continued to write letters and poetry. Her words keep the flame of her memory alive.

Blessed is the match consumed
In kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns
In the secret fastness of the heart
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop
Its beating for honor’s sake
Blessed is the match consumed
In kindling flame.

This week, while studying the Torah portion Lech Lecha with my daily Zoom class (you should join, anytime!), we did a deep dive into this idea of what it means for the Jew to get up and go because we “hear a voice” that says it’s time. “The Eternal said to Abram, ‘Go forth, from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation; and I will bless you; and I will make your name great; and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

With no map in hand, let alone a GPS, Abraham saddled forth, with Sarah, his wife, and an entourage of servants and followers. It was a journey of trust into a vast wilderness of uncertainty and according to the Torah, Abraham was 75; he and Sarah had yet to have children and so great was his faith and trust, the tradition teaches, that he simply knew there would be good that came of this venture since he was given the promise from God that God would make him a “great nation.”

Rashi writes that travel can take a toll on us. “It is the cause of three things: It breaks up family life; it reduces one’s wealth; and it lessens one’s renown. For this reason, God promised Abraham all three things.”

It’s a neat trick Rashi plays on us, wrapping up neatly, even symmetrically, what I think for most of us is the incomprehensible aspect of visionaries who listen to an inner voice, who feel the call to sacrifice, and who put not only themselves but others at risk in their own quest for service to ideas greater than themselves.

But so sure were Abraham and Sarah to the righteous nature of their calling. Commentators tell us that when the Torah says, “they left with the souls they acquired in Haran,” it means to tell us that they actually converted their neighbors to the new Jewish idea of building a nation and being a blessing which God had commanded. The power of an idea is realized in its ability to move others. The challenge and often the tragedy of history is that sometimes powerful ideas can do enormous good; and sometimes powerful ideas can cause unlimited harm. And the battlefields of history are soaked in the blood of sacrifice to this clash of blessings and curses.

Abraham, as we know, is the first Jew. History will unfold far beyond what he ever imagined. It would be generations before Moses, another leader chosen by God and reached through the agency of fire and a bush not consumed, is so far from a sense of who he is as a Jew that when God speaks to Moses, Moses asks, “What is your name? And what shall I tell my people your name is, since they are suffering in slavery and you are sending me to save them.”

God says to Moses, “Tell them that the God of your father Abraham, your father Isaac, and your father Jacob has sent you.”

It’s a thrilling and profound answer. It teaches us that we have the parents whose homes we are born into and we have parents who teach, inspire and guide us even after we leave home. It teaches us that we have family extending back generations, even though we may have never met them. And it teaches us, by correlation, that should we also choose to “be a blessing,” future generations will call us by our names as well.

It has been said many times in the past few months that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes and that may be true. Frankly, at 57, it feels that way for me but anyone among us with a memory of the Second World War may beg to differ.

No matter: Every election in a democracy such as ours here in America is an election of enormous consequence. We Jews are particularly aware of the uncertainties of the future; of the potential for life as we know it to suddenly turn; and of the necessity to be acutely aware of how and when to act — to act for good, to act for love, to act for justice, and to act for peace.

So let us be aware of the enormous sacrifices made by prior generations to make this nation the great nation it is meant to be; let’s face the uncertain future with the certainty of our deep roots as patriotic Americans and as Jews who believe the words of the prophet Zechariah, “‘Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit,’ says the Eternal.”

As a 23 year old, Hannah Senesh said, “Blessed is the flame that burns
in the secret fastness of the heart.”

Let’s kindle the Shabbat candles tonight and let the sacred commitment to kindness, justice, and peace animate our homes, our city, our nation and our world.

Why Do We Speak Different Languages?

I love teaching Hebrew school because kids ask the best questions. Last year at JCP, I was tutoring 6th grader Jake Shufro in Hebrew to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. As we started to compare Hebrew words to their English meanings, and even some of their Spanish meanings since that is the foreign language that Jake learns in school, he asked, “Why do we even have different languages!? It would be so much easier if we could all just understand each other!”

In our spiritual tradition, there once was a time when we all spoke the same language. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, after the story of Noah’s ark, we read “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). In the following eight verses, we read about the Tower of Babel: the generations following Noah all spoke the same language, settled in a land called Shinar (later known as Babylonia and currently as Iraq), and built a tower to the sky to make a name for themselves. God sees the tower, notes that this is what the people did with their ability to fully understand each other, and scatters them across the earth into different places with different languages.

When Jake and I took a look at these verses in response to his initial question, we were both puzzled. The Torah accounts for why humans have different languages, but we were left wondering why building a tower was such a crime and why dispersing the people was God’s answer.

To put it plainly, the people of Babel were hungry for power. “Let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11:4). According to one rabbinic interpretation, the people wanted to challenge God’s authority by “placing an image on top (of the tower), and putting a sword on its hand, so it will seem that it is waging war against God” (Bereishit Rabbah 38:6). We learn here that the people of Shinar wanted to become as powerful, or if not moreso, over the heavens and the earth than God. The pursuit of power is in the very foundation of the Tower of Babel; the people wanted to make a name for themselves by usurping God’s power. They aspired to rule over all nearby cities who would see the intimidating tower loom large over them (HaEmek Davar on Genesis 11:4).

While linguistic anthropologists teach us that the Tower of Babel is myth and not social science, this episode still reflects insights about human nature as all great myths do.

Novelist Veronica Roth writes that “Power itself isn’t evil… (We have) the power to do evil and the power to do good.” And Peter Parker’s wise Uncle Ben, in a famous story from up in Queens, says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The issue with the people of Babel was not necessarily their desire for power, it was what they proposed to do with that power. In another rabbinic interpretation, we read that if a builder carrying bricks high up in the tower fell off, no one batted an eye. But if a brick fell, they stopped work and said “Woe unto us! When will another be brought up?” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 24:6). The power these people were after wasn’t to do good or to look out for each other; they mourned their fallen bricks and not their fallen people. They worshipped the tower itself and the power they thought it would bring. Despite their unique ability to understand each other with one language, they cared more for their materials and their pursuit of power than their fellow human.

This simultaneous pursuit of power and callousness toward each other didn’t come out of nowhere. Noah’s great-grandson named Nimrod, the leader of the people in Shinar, is described as a “mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9), admired by the people for his strength. One biblical commentator noted that he took advantage of his strength and the people’s admiration to convince them to rebel against God (Rashi on Genesis 10:9). The people of Shinar had chosen Nimrod to be their leader, a mighty hunter, strong, and persuasive, who ultimately leveraged his political power for an attempt to overthrow God and rule the world. One source says it was Nimrod himself who ordered the building of the Tower of Babel (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 24:5).

One people with one language and one leader built the Tower of Babel. They may have built an impressive structure, but they clearly missed the mark on building a society. They lost sight of each other in their pursuit of power and invested in a leader who ultimately used them for his own agenda to try and replace God. When God “comes down” to see what’s going on, God says “if this is how one people with one language act, by making a desecration, then nothing will keep them from plotting further” (Genesis 11:5-6). It is at this moment that God confounds their speech and scatters them all over the earth.

While the diversification of language is a punishment and preventive measure in the Book of Genesis, Jewish history shows that having various languages also brings us great blessing. As Judaism developed from Babel, we can also see the value, beauty, and diversity of expression that comes from having multiple languages. Many of our defining Jewish texts are written in Aramaic—such as the Mourner’s Prayer—from time in Babylonia in the first millennium CE. Critical Jewish philosophers in the medieval era wrote in Judeo-Arabic in order to reach the people living in the Middle East and North Africa. Ladino is a Hebrew-Spanish language that traces Sephardic Jewish roots back to 15th century Spain. And Yiddish, a Hebrew-German language, was the language of life where my great-grandmother and many others grew up on the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from JCP. Each of these languages, as do others, represent cultures within Judaism and weave together the tapestry of our shared history. In the most authoritative Jewish legal code that we have, it is even permitted to pray in any language that we desire—an acknowledgement of our diverse linguistic expressions as a people (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 101).

Now that we’ve journeyed through the Tower of Babel and much of Jewish linguistic history, let’s return to Jake’s original question. On one level, the Tower of Babel teaches us that we have different languages to serve as a timeless warning against devaluing human life and abusing power as Nimrod and his people did. And on another level, Jewish history teaches us that a diversity of languages can broaden our understanding of humanity as we appreciate contributions from many different languages and cultures. With both of these lessons in mind, I pray that our different languages encourage us to build a society that values human life, responsible use of power, and the blessings of diversity.

Faith and Fact

The tension between science and religion is as old as the Torah itself. Last week, we celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday on which we mark another year of completing the Torah reading cycle. Now we begin again at the very first chapter, Parashat Bereshit.

The Torah opens by teaching: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

The Torah describes the subsequent steps of creation: God creates day and night; sky and water; grasses and trees; sun, moon, and stars; birds and fish; land animals; and finally, humans, all in the course of six days.

Already, in these first few verses of the Torah, we see narratives that conflict with our modern, scientific understanding of the origins of our universe. The widely accepted scientific theories of our day contradict the process of creation outlined in our most sacred texts.

Scientists teach that the universe was created through the Big Bang, a physical and chemical process during which high temperatures and densities collided and then cooled to create atoms; the Torah tells us that an Intelligent Designer was behind it all. Scientists teach that all species have undergone a process of evolution; the Torah teaches that God simply created them in their current forms. According to scientists, our universe is trillions of years old; according to the Torah, the universe turned 5781 this past Rosh Hashanah.

What do we do with this conflicting information, especially as modern Jews, committed both to our religious heritage and to scientific knowledge? This is a question that is becoming increasingly urgent as many in our nation discount and distrust the scientific process.

Many scientific scholars and religious thinkers have worked to reconcile scientific fact with religious and spiritual sensibilities. Two of the most notable books on the subject are God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality by Daniel Matt, who wrote the most authoritative translation of the Zohar (the main collection of medieval Jewish mysticism), and The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

But these are not the first Jewish scholars to reconcile science and religion. Unlike the well-documented persecution of scientists in Medieval Europe, our Jewish forebears were both deeply committed to Torah and to the most cutting-edge science of the day. The Talmud spends much time discussing achievements in medicine, astrology, mathematics, and meteorology as they relate to Jewish life. Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century, was not only one of the greatest Torah commentators and Jewish legal theorists of all time, but was also a physician. Jewish thinkers have always been deeply committed to the exercise of our rationality and our capacity to think critically; Jews have rarely emphasized blind, unquestioning faith as a religious priority. Nothing is more Jewish than asking questions and interrogating assumptions, which are the core values of the scientific world.

Our tradition is one that has always been friendly toward science. After all, if we want to know more about who we are and how we should live — the ultimate purpose of Judaism — we should use all of the tools at our disposal, including scientific knowledge. And while the specifics of science might sometimes cause us to question the literal meaning of our sacred texts, this doesn’t have to destabilize our religious commitments. After all, a world without sacred stories, poetry and art would be just as empty as a world without science. Our lives are enriched when we have both.

If you want to learn more about the making of a modern Jew, consider attending Wisdom of the Sages this weekend. Professor Michael Berkowitz from University College in London will join Rabbi Andy Bachman’s study group on Sunday morning at 9 am. Michael is a noted scholar of Jewish cultural identity and an expert of material culture and images. Zoom Link Here (Meeting ID: 824 5721 4121; Password: AKIVA).

I look forward to bringing in Shabbat with you on Instagram Live tonight at 6 pm.