Rebekah was the second of five Hebrew women in early biblical times who were declared barren, but later in life they were all able to conceive and give birth. They all gave birth to boys were destined by God to become leaders of the Hebrews. The women were: Sarah – Abraham’s wife, who gave birth to Isaac; Rebekah – Isaac’s wife, who gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob, Rachel – Jacob’s wife, who gave birth to Joseph; Monah’s wife – who gave birth to Samson; Hannah – Elkanah’s wife, who gave birth to Samuel the prophet. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, though, belonged to a single family – Abraham’s family.
When an ancient tribe or a nation memorialized its history, it usually refrained from committing its shortcomings to ink. Instead, they turned every molehill into a mammoth mountain to exaggerate its accomplishments. Why did the Hebrew leaders act differently? Weren’t they concerned that they might be labeled “imperfect” or “defective”, not only by their own followers, but also by their enemies? Their enemies would gladly find this as yet another reason, in addition to the Hebrews being monotheists, to annihilate them.
Since the Bible, as a whole, was intended to teach the Hebrews, and subsequently the Jews, life lessons, perhaps “barrenness” was used as a metaphor or a representation for something remarkable, usually something positive, that was supposed to follow for an individual when things didn’t seem to working out. The expression: “the calm before the storm” or the calm coming after the storm could apply here.
Barrenness, though, was regarded then only as “negative”, and was a reason for great concern to the women in Abraham’s extended family and to his descendants. Women were under constant and enormous pressures to produce male heirs to become their future leaders. The women, however were all fully aware that since grandma, and great-grandma Sarah’s time, all the wives who had been labeled as barren, through the mercy of G-d – were able to conceive and give birth to boys who became leaders.
There are two important messages in the story. The first message reassures me that the condition of “barrenness” can happen to women and men, rich and poor, influential people and common people, but it is a reversible condition. The second message is a cautionary one. If the desired wishes come in abundance such as having more than one child at a time, getting rich too fast, and other similar situations, the happiness could turn into tragedy. Let us remember Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.
Therefore, the lesson I learned from the Bible on the subject of “barrenness” is that it represents just about anything “barren” that we experience (internally or externally) and we cannot “cultivate” it for the purpose of seeing “the fruits of our whether in having a relationship with another person, finding a desired job, getting education, having children, etc.
Since G-d was the catalyst who brought about the changes in the wives’ condition, I take it that with situations that mirror it, where we only limited control, for whatever reason, a certain percentage of “blind trust” must enter our equation, while our effort must persist relentlessly. The “blind trust” is the belief that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1.) In due time, through our own sincere efforts, and because of our deep trust in the teaching of the Bible, we will advance, mature, and therefore progress further towards their desired noble goals. That said, it does not mean that every aspect of every desired goal will be fully achieved in one’s life time.
Our sages commented on such a possibility by saying “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)“ There must be reciprocity. Yet, one thing is certain; that individuals who follow the teachings of the Bible will be able to declare proudly that they have given their best efforts to “cultivate their goals, and move happily ahead to cultivate new ones”. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Human signs, marks and symbols set the groundwork for human communication and interaction during the dawn of wo/man. They were expressed and conveyed by simple, yet powerful, human and artificial sounds, acts, and
drawings. Natural phenomena such as lightning, thunder, floods, and other cosmic events were perceived and interpreted as truthful signs given by unseen universal powers (Gods) to humans. Examples: “The Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Genesis 4:15). “I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.”. (Genesis 9:13).
At the same time forms of human behavior, were viewed as either, positive or negative, correctly or incorrectly through given “labels.” Example: “And she (Hanna) was of bitterness of soul and prayed to the Lord, and prayed bitterly… only her lips moved and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli (the priest) thought that she was drunk.” (Samuel I, 1:10/13.)
In this Torah portion Hayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18), we are told that Abraham’s trusted servant Eliezer, loaded ten camels with an expensive dowry, and embarked on a long journey to Haran, to find a wife for Isaac among the daughters of Abraham’s extended family who had not migrated to Canaan. It was an unusual task for him, because, at that time, young men set out to find their own wives. Therefore, when he reached a well on the outskirts of the city, Eliezer requested the following sign from Abraham’s God: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform loving kindness with my master, Abraham And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac.” (Genesis 24:12/14.) Lo-and-behold, it happened just as he requested. It turned out to be a perfect match between Isaac and Rebecca.
When we look more closely at his request, we can clearly see that Eliezer wished for Isaac a wife who had similar characteristics as Sara, who had taken care of her son until her death. Indeed, one of the first acts of motherly love that Rebecca performed for Isaac was: “and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. ” (By Rebecca) (Genesis 24:67.)
What are the Signs of Our Times, then, which friends look for, when they make a "shidduch” – (an introduction or a match) between two individuals? What sign does an individual who surfs the Internet in search of a “soul” mate looks for? Do they bother to look for any sign at all? Or, are they just taking a chance that it would work between them and hope for the best? (I crossed out the word “hope” because I don’t like to use it. What ”I hope” is telling me, is
that one relinquishes his/her responsibility for doing nothing about the given situation, and puts it in someone else’s hands – most likely in God’s hands.)
When I surfed the Internet in search of one repeated “label” that Rabbis advise individuals to look for in “perfect match” for which they yearn, it was: (I paraphrase) “You need to find someone with a good heart!” Really!? Wasn’t it Samuel the priest who warned the Israelites who had been searching for their first king, saying to them: “…for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (Samuel I, 16:7.) Can a human being observe” another human being’s heart, just as God can?
Samuel didn’t think so, and neither, regrettably, do I. However, human beings can observe the signs, marks and symbols that a truthful and a loving heart give off like glowing arrows. They are not in the big words and the lavish gifts, but in the simple gentle touch, in the admiring glance, in the single word, and in the tear of joy.
Rabbinic Fellow Dov Gottesfeld
This week’s Torah portion “Vayeira” consists of challenging topics for composing meaningful and educational Midrashim (Sermons). I chose to focus on the story of Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, because I truly believe that she has been given a raw deal and is wrongly and badly treated by rabbis and commentators of past and present. They explained her bizarre death as a consequence of disobeying the angels’ “warning” - not to look back at Sodom and its inhabitants, while they were being incinerated by the wrath of God. Yet, as intelligent and learned men and women, it was obvious to those commentators that her punishment was over the top, and therefore they launched a campaign of character assassination which would deem her insignificant “crime” - of turning back her head - as merely a “third strike.”
It was obvious to them from the reading that Lot’s wife didn’t even have a speaking role in the Torah. She was not even mentioned until the end of the story when the angels hastened Lot to escape: "15. And as the dawn rose, the angels pressed Lot, saying, "Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you perish because of the iniquity of the city." The second and final time is the last line of the story: “26. And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” It is totally out of sync chronologically. By then, Lot and his family had already been in “Tzoar”, the city to which Lot had escaped, with the help of the angel, and the angel had some concerns: “22. Hasten, flee there, for I will not be able to do anything until you arrive there.” It was not even possible to see any details in Sodom from Tzoar.
I would say, because of what the Torah tells us occurred between Lot and his daughters afterwards, the Torah scribes were presented with a moral and ethical dilemma had Lot’s wife remained alive then. As the story goes, Lot and his daughters left Tzoar and moved to a cave up the mountain. Not having husbands any longer, the two daughters conspired to have children with their father. They achieved their goal by making their father drunk. Had their mother been there, it would have been impossible and too complicated for the scribes to make the scene work. The simple solution was to get rid of the mother. And they did.
If Lot’s wife, indeed, turned her head back, while escaping, as the going belief is, then she must be crowned as a heroine, first, for being in the rear. Fleeing from a dangerous situation always puts the last person in harm way. By doing so, she was protecting her daughters and her husband with her body. Turning her head was an act of being brave, not selfish. She was willing to sacrifice her life for them. Perhaps she wanted to see if her sons-in-law were rushing to catch up with them? Perhaps she wanted to see how far the falling brimstones and fire were from where they are?
And finally, salt in biblical times was considered a valuable commodity, because of its uses in foods and its preservation, and also as medicine. It was used in Jewish ceremonies as an offering element. “Metaphorically it signified performance, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.”(Wikipedia)
By turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, the scribes, in essence, turned her into a symbol bigger than life. She became an icon for Jews and Christians who keep looking around themselves and over their shoulders, until today, in search of that “Pillar of Salt” in the vast salty desert.
From Rabbinic Fellow Dov Gottesfeld
And G-d spoke to Abram: "Go you from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you. I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make great your name and all families of the earth will be blessed by you..." (Leh Leha Genesis 12:1-2).
There is no doubt in my mind that every Jew (and even non-Jews) would jump on (change to “at”) that offer; especially because there are no strings attached – God doesn’t demand anything in return from Abram. Strangely enough, Abram doesn’t inquire by asking God: “Why me?” Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as RaMBaM (12th Century) and one of history's foremost rabbis, explains it in his book Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idol Worship 1:3” that “At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator” ... He began to debate with the people of Ur Casdim and take them to task, saying: "This is not the way of truth that you are following." He smashed the idols and began to teach the people that it is only fitting to serve the One G-d ... When he began to defeat them with his arguments, the king wished to kill him; he was miraculously saved. He departed to Haran and continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is One G-d.”
On a closer read, however, there seems to be one “string” attached. This encounter with G-d begins with a command: “ לֶךְ לְךָ , lit. go to you” or “get out of here […] to the land that I will show you.” Abram, at least could have asked: “G-d, why not here?” Rashi (The 11th century Jewish scholar, who is quoted the most) picks up on it and writes: Go forth: Heb. לֶךְ לְךָ , lit. go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation, but here, you will not merit to have children. Moreover, I will make your character known in the world. — [from Rosh Hashanah 16b, Tan.]
Well, I’m glad he did, because we Jews live the outcome of Abram’s journey.
3825 years later, I posed a similar promise, which G-d made to Abram, to my second year high school students. The difference, however, is that I made it under comparable circumstances with respect to their current culture and environment. I instructed them to do the following: “Think of a grand goal that you would like to accomplish for yourselves in the future -- for your benefit and for the benefit of humanity. It should be a goal that would also require a real miracle for you to achieve it.”
Once the goals were set in their minds, I proceeded: “Now imagine that you hear the voice of G-d telling you that He would make sure that you will accomplish your ‘grand goal’ if you leave your home immediately, and go to a non-disclosed place which he will show you, where your ‘grand goal’ would materialize. (G-d, of course, will provide you with all the necessities of survival till then, and it might take some years).” Then I asked the students to raise their hands so we could see how many would subscribe to that offer. A total of a little over ninety percent of the students, male and female, raised their hands. After analyzing the “promise” as a ‘contract’, the students agreed that it was a totally unbalanced agreement, because they had no ‘responsibilities’ and/or ‘commitments’, except for leaving their homes. There was a loud and argumentative debate. I, therefore, added to that ‘promise’ a clause: “It would happen to you only “if you keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d and walk in His ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9).
Again, there were arguments across the aisles. The next show of hands dropped down considerably, to less than thirty percent, with about half of the students swinging their hands – back and forth in the air to indicate: ”But, maybe not all of the commandments”. Only then, we read and discussed the story of Abram, his total trust in G-d, his sacrifices, pain and the turmoil that he had to endure in his life in order to be qualified to be called AbraHam and rise to the occasion, as G-d had promised him.
When the school bell rang the students filed out of class, most of them with their heads down – obviously thinking and wondering about the lesson they have just learned about themselves. When the last student exited and the door slammed shut with a thud, I remained standing, assessing the outcome of the lesson. The following phrase from Kings I 19:11-13 popped into my mind, and summed it up: “[…] And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire ; but the Lord was not in the fire. And After the fire – a still and small voice. When Elijah heard it, he
wrapped his mantle about his face […].
I, then, began to wonder who would lead us and speak for us (Jews) in the
The Torah portion of this week is “Noah”. It begins with:”These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” It is a prelude to the famous story of the “flood.” That opening line also sounds like an opening of a eulogy or a tribute to a righteous dead person.
It made me ask myself, how many people wonder, how many are concerned, and how many people don’t care what will be said about them after their passing from the planet earth. There is a famous saying that's attributed to king of France, Louis (1710 –1774), who was also known as “Louis the Well Beloved.” When he faced unrest in France due to the economic hardship that he had imposed on his countrymen, which eventually led to the French revolution, his response was: “Après moi le deluge.” (After me – the flood.) He could care less what people would say or think about him once he was gone. Was Noah concerned what those who were doomed by the flood would say about him as the water of the flood was rising and drowning them while they observed his ark floating safely away? I don’t think so, or it would have been mentioned in the scriptures – much like Abraham’s negotiation with G-d regarding the numbers of righteous men who were perhaps living in Sodom and Gomorrah.
On the other hand, Israel’s National Poet H.N.Bialik was concerned. In his famous poem: “After My Death”, he wrote the following (first stanza): “After my death say this when you mourn for me: He died before his time. The music of his life suddenly stopped. A pity! There was another song in him. Now it is lost
forever.” The popularity and the request for his writings no doubt made him
think that by death, he would be disappointing his readers whom he had empowered with his poems to endure while they struggled to sustain their hard lives during the rebuilding their homeland in Palestine.
I wonder how many human beings take great pains to live their lives as “Examples” to others, knowing that a day will come when they will be judged not necessarily by God, who had witnessed Noah’s righteous deeds: “for it is you that I have seen as a righteous man before Me in this generation.”, but primarily by their fellow human beings who had witnessed their deeds?
Judaism does not subscribe to the concept of heaven and hell, as some religions do. However, if it did, heaven and hell would most likely be right here on earth, not in some obscure places like deep in the boiling center of the earth or in some magical place somewhere in the heavens. Those people who will be praised, commended, and remembered as “Examples” would surely be in that Jewish Heaven on Earth. However, those individuals who were evil, immoral and inhuman would surely be in the Jewish Hell on Earth.
The essential question for me -- in the wake of the views above – Should
one care if there would still be earthlings on the planet earth to witness the
beautiful colors of the rainbow in the clouds after the flood?
The month of Heshvan is also more commonly called Mar Heshvan,
as if to say the month feels bitter (Mar) because it has no festivities or holidays within it. Hassidim calls the month Ram Heshvan because Ram means elevated or high. In the mystical traditions, this month was left barren of holidays because it is being reserved for the opening ceremony of the third temple. Therefore, the soul does not feel like it is permanently seeing the world through dark sunglasses.
In many ways the whole month is a month of No'ah, of sitting in a relaxed form. A month to dwell on all that has happened during the very full holidays month of Tishrei. Mar also means water (sea), we associate it with the month’s special connection with the rains since we start praying V’tein Tal U’matar, deliver dew and rain in the month of Heshvan; for this reason the soul can cope with the drudge of every day life.
Have a blessed month of Heshvan. May God provide us with just enough rain, not too much so it creates floods, and not too little so it creates drought; just enough so that we may enjoy its blessings. Amen.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.