The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).
In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why after creating the world and all living things, God destroys "all that lives under the heavens" (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the "violence" or "lawlessness" (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Apparently, God possesses less of them than one might wish. Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God's actions? Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism?
Almost 25 years after God calls Abram to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to the land of Canaan, God formally establishes a covenant with him (Genesis 17:4ff.). Like that established with Noah, his descendants, and all living beings (9:8ff.), it is unconditional, everlasting, includes blessings and promises, and carries with it a sign decided upon by God. However, unlike the rainbow, placed in the clouds and passively received by humanity, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham — male circumcision — is something with which Abram and his descendants, not God, are entrusted. They are to circumcise their sons and other male children in their household on the eighth day after birth as a physical sign of the covenant. The punishment for failing to do so is severe. "An uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin," says God, " … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (17:14).
Vayeira is an especially challenging and memorable Torah portion for it provides us with two very different models of what it means to live in covenantal relationship with God.
In Parashat Eikev, we read: “A human being does not live on bread alone…” (Deut. 8:3). Found on inspirational posters, T-shirts, and in the titles of a great many cookbooks, this short statement constitutes one of the most well-known phrases from Eikev and from the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The phrase has come to mean that mere physical sustenance is not sufficient for a life of fulfillment; rather, people need and desire spiritual and cultural nourishment as well. Many Jewish commentaries have noted that, in context, this phrase actually insinuates close to the opposite of our conventional understanding; rather, that human beings can survive on things other than bread.
As we approach Parashat Shof’tim, we find ourselves in the middle. Of the 10 Shabbat Torah portions in Deuteronomy, Shof’tim is number five. According to the quinate structure of Deuteronomy outlined in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition (p. 1,411), Parashat Shof’tim is included in the third section — the middle section.
A litany of laws. A multitude of mitzvot. According to Maimonides, Ki Teitzei contains 72 of the 613 commandments in the Torah — the most commandments in any one Torah portion. As the time for the Israelites’ transition into the Land draws ever nearer, God and Moses continue to prepare the people for sovereignty and self-government. In addition to laws that cover rules and regulations within the Israelite community, this portion also includes two passages that dictate the relationship between the people of Israel and neighboring entities.
W.C. Fields said, "Never work with animals or children, [they steal the spotlight]." Though no one ever accused him of being a Torah scholar, his insight was certainly applicable to this week's Torah portion. Parashat Noach, the second portion in the Book of Genesis (and my bar mitzvah portion) is perhaps the most universally known and, at least by children, most adored portion in the entire Torah. This is in part, no doubt, because it has not one animal, but all animals — and they come in pairs! Later, God teaches us to value one another in the incident of the Tower of Babel.