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One of the themes of this week’s Torah reading is: the act of seeing: seeing on a physical level and seeing (or perceiving) on an intellectual, spiritual and/or feeling level. It is said by many psychologists, that one of the worst things you can do to a person is to ignore them.

Being in communication and seeing or “being seen” by the other, gives us a feeling of wellbeing, can help in problem solving, and help us know ourselves on a deeper level.

It is even said in the midrash, that God created the world so as to be in relationship with the creation, so as to “be seen”. Our Torah reading begins with Avraham and Sarah seeing three divine messengers, angels, from whom they receive a message that they will have a child, and Abraham receives healing after his circumcision. By seeing the angels they see God in a filtered manner.

It brings a question regarding whether they actually see God or see an angel or simply get in touch with a deep level of inspiration?

Sages such as Rashi state that communing with an angel connection is a metaphor for getting a good idea, being inspired. “I see!” is a typical comment made when having a revelation.

The theme of seeing is continued in our Torah reading, when Hagar is tragically wandering the desert with her son, Ishmael. God perceives their distress and hears the cry of Ishmael “from where he was”, in the state he was. Immediately an angel appears to Hagar and “opens her eyes”. She immediately sees the water-filled well that will save her and her son’s life and she receives a message that leads her on, to a hope-filled future. What does it mean to be heard from exactly where we are? Does it mean to be understood in the deepest of our pain? Does it mean to be seen even when we are not at our best? Is that when solutions can be seen? “

What does it mean to have our eyes opened?” asks Ramban, the 13th Century Sephardic commentator. When the angel opens Hagar’s eyes, she sees the water that will save her life and sees the panorama of her destiny.

In the arid basin of Mecca, surrounded on all sides by the bare mountains of the Arabian desert, stands a small, stone hut that Isalm refers to as the Kaaba: “the Cube”. Around The Cube, is the holiest Moslem site, Al-Masjid Al-Harām “the Sacred Mosque”. Its location determines the direction a Moslem stands when they pray (just as it is traditional for Jews to face Jerusalem). Near this sanctuary is an ancient well, called Zamzam. Fed by a bountiful underground spring, tradition claims this to have been the well that saved Hagar and Ishmael.

This week, may we receive the blessing of having eyes to see the Well of Hope that sustains us in life. May we be seen in compassion by others and may we see the depths of our loved ones with love.

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This week’s parasha takes us from the mythical creation stories of Adam and Noah to the foundational story of our people. We learn of the journey of our first patriarch Avraham, who will later be claimed by Christianity and Islam as well. Avram, as he is known at the beginning of the parasha, is told to go forth, not just on a physical journey “to the land which God will show him”, but also a spiritual journey, there “to be a blessing”. The story does not relate God’s reason for choosing Avram for this mission to go to a new land and begin a new people. Through the tradition of midrash we try to understand Avram’s merit for this mission. The most well known tells that Avram destroyed his father’s idols, exposing the shortfalls of idolatry.

In addition, there is another, less well-known rabbinic story of covenantal beginnings worth reading closely. This midrash reads:

God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land” (Gen. 12:1) . . . R. Isaac said: To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. “Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?” Avram wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the building.” (Genesis Rabbah 29:1)

The tradition generally interprets this story as claiming that the world belongs to God and God has absolute power over it, and that Avram was the first to know this truth. But there are other interpretations as well. In his book Radical Then, Radical Now, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the Owner of the palace (God) claims ownership of the palace while choosing to allow it to go up in smoke.

Sacks interprets the parable as the mission statement of Judaism, with the Owner calling out for help. God made the palace, humans set it ablaze, and only they can put it out. Avram asks, “where are you?” and God replies, “I am here, where are you?” Humans ask God, “Why did you abandon the world” and God responds, “Why did you abandon Me?” Rabbi Sacks says that humanity’s task is to extinguish the flames of immorality and bloodshed and restore the world to the harmonious and sacred place it was intended to be.” (See https://parashapoems.wordpress. com/2013/10/11/lech-lecha-the-burning-palace/)

However, there is a textual problem with Sacks’ interpretation, for the midrash is more complicated. In the parable, Avram’s question is understood as asking not just about ownership, but guidance, for it continues on with this passage: “Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?” God looks out the window and says, “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe.” And thus God says to Avram, “Get you out of your homeland, your native city, your parent’s home.” This is how the midrash ends. Avram is not told to put out the fire; he is commanded to keep on walking.

Avram is told to leave his homeland, his birth town and his parents’ home all behind to start a new society in a new land. This story was told thousands of years ago, when our planet was still open to exploration and the building of “new frontiers” and “new societies”. We no longer have that luxury.

I heard from Tom Sanderson, an international security consultant and adjunct professor with expertise in global trends, political risk, intelligence, terrorism and organized crime and former director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Sanderson commented on the rampant corruption of governments around the world, the demise of democratic institutions in many countries, and the perils of a changing climate on basic human resources of water and food. This is a planetary crises, no longer a crisis for one man in one town in one part of the world. There is nowhere to go.

So if the journey can no longer be physical, if the problems we face are global, then the solutions to those problems require primarily a spiritual response, one based in values. As Jews we base those values in Torah, but as Jews we understand these values must be shared human values to have universal impact. Whenever one travels the world, one sees most people – regardless of their ethnicity, sexuality, religiousity or any other way in which we may be “categorized” – do share core values. Most people want to live in a peaceful society, which is fair in its application of law and its distribution of wealth. Most people want to live with clean air, clean water, green spaces, decent shelter and sufficient food. Alas, this is not the world in which we live. Avram was told to keep on walking when his land was beyond repair. We no longer have this luxury.

This is why Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – is our spiritual journey and moral imperative. So where should we go? We have nowhere to go but home, that home first symbolized in the Garden of Eden, in which we live with awareness of our environment, our duty for its care, from each and every animal with whom we share this garden, to the deep realization of what it means to be our “brother’s keeper”. Only then will we have fulfilled the spiritual imperative our founding ancestor’s spiritual journey “to be a blessing.”

In this week’s parasha, our Torah journey focuses on Jacob; a young man fleeing for his life, leaving his home, his family, everything he has ever known and embarking on a journey to an unknown future. I imagine as he lay down his head to sleep that first night, he was filled with a mix of emotions: fear and trepidation at the uncertainty of what lay ahead, terror at being alone in the dark night of the desert.

Imagine Jacob, a solitary figure in the vast emptiness of the shifting sands, the cold of the inky night pushing out the oppressive heat and warmth of the day. He huddles up beneath a blanket trying to stay warm, trying to keep the darkness from invading his bones. In the ring of blackness which surrounded him he imagined the wild animals waiting to devour him as well as small deadly creatures who with one sting could mark the end of his life. And the guilt, the shame, the heaviness of knowing that he had done wrong. He had deceived his father, stolen his brother’s inheritance and now his life was in danger at the hand of his own twin. I imagine that Jacob was feeling remorse and perhaps playing over the events of the previous day, trying to make sense of his behaviour, his brother’s reaction, wondering why? Why had he done it? Was it the right thing?

For now he was banished to the desert and he was alone, scared, ashamed, and filled with doubt and fear. And it is in this state of being that he lays down for the night to sleep. And he has his famous dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Then, in the morning, when Jacob awakes he declares “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” And from that moment on Jacob goes forth into life with a renewed sense of purpose, confidence and security. He does not feel alone any more, he feels loved, nurtured and protected. So what is it that has changed for Jacob, what did he see? What did he learn?

Jacob went to sleep feeling a deep sense of loneliness, he was questioning his existence, his actions, his journey. He was filled with doubt, perhaps some self loathing, but more than all the emotions, he was awash with his solitude. And during the night he discovered that he was not alone, rather God was in that place, God was there with him, in his darkness, in his longing, in his shame and in his need. In a place where he did not imagine God could be, there was God, a source of strength, love and blessing, a place from which he could draw to find the courage and security to move forward on his journey with confidence, knowing that no matter what he faced, he was not alone.

Sometimes I think we are all like Jacob, we feel that we are alone in our pain, our struggles and our suffering. We cry out, looking for God, asking why? Why is this happening? We search for meaning in our challenges, we want answers.

But sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes all we have are the questions which are often unanswerable. But maybe we are asking the wrong questions, maybe instead of searching for the why, we can find something different, maybe we can awaken, like Jacob and exclaim God was in this place and I did not know it.

God can be the source of our strength, the force which feeds us with the energy and the will to go on, the knowledge that no matter what struggles we face, we are not alone. God is present saying to us; in your suffering I am with you, I cry, I hurt, I am beside you in your pain, take strength from Me, draw courage from My presence, let Me be with you. Allow ourselves to be bathed God’s love which is uncompromising, unflinching, a presence and a constant which will wrap us in loving arms and even when it can’t protect us from pain, perhaps it can help us to see through the darkness to find a way to dream, to love and to hope once more. And then maybe, like Jacob we can awaken to say: “God is in this place.”

This Shabbat, we read Toldot, the portion of the Torah which continues the story of Isaac. When we think of the patriarchs, Isaac is the one who is often cast into the shadows. His father Abraham was the man of faith, the pioneer who made covenants with God. And then his son, Jacob, the dreamer, the man who forged a new life in a foreign land, who deceived and was in turn deceived, who grows, changes, matures and is the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. In the middle is Isaac; he did not fight wars, he did not acquire new land. He lives a quiet life, he exists, surrounded by his family: only one wife, no concubines, no handmaidens having children, just him and Rebecca and their two sons and for Isaac, that was enough. And when he was challenged by foreign rulers over his wells what did he do? He walked away, he found a new place to dig his wells and he finds a place to live in peace.

And all we want is what Isaac found: to live in peace, to be surrounded by love, to be content and happy. We greet one another: “Shalom Aleichem.” We are taught that the whole world exists only to establish peace. “The Torah’s ways are pleasantness and all its paths are peace”; teaching us that we should always interpret the Torah to achieve peace, its reading must further that goal. And it is not a passive act, “seek peace and pursue it” cries the Torah, “don’t wait for peace to descend from the heavens, go out and make it happen.”

But despite our longing, despite our striving, we still live in a world without peace. This Shabbat we commemorate Remembrance Day, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the war which was to usher in a peaceful world. We honor all those who fought for our freedom, who faced battles in order that our world could be blanketed with the beauty of peace. We remember those who gave their lives, those who suffered and struggled with the scars and wounds of battle, and all those brave souls who stepped forward to defend the values and principles we hold dear. And when the war ended, there was great hope for this world, an age of peace.

But that was not to be. Conflicts raged and then, a mere 20 years after the Great War, Kristallnacht, the night of Broken Glass which would herald the beginning of the horrors of the Holocaust. This Shabbat we commemorate that night, November 9, the fear and suffering, and we remember all those who were murdered during the Shoah. We also acknowledge all who stood up against the tyranny of that age, the brave souls who fought, hid, sheltered, spoke out and those who tried to create a world of peace. And this war too came to an end. We cried, we mourned and grieved and we prayed that a lasting peace would now descend upon us and our world.

But it was not to be. Since that day, there have been conflicts and battles throughout the world, and the courageous members of our communities volunteer and join our armed forces on land, sea and air, they stand up and help to make the vision and dream of a world of peace a reality. We acknowledge them and their struggle and we remember the words of the Torah, “seek peace and pursue it.” We all must join together, we, our service men and women, every one of us, and work for a world of peace, stand together and make the future we long to see for ourselves and our children, when all can be like Isaac, living lives surrounded by love and peace.

This week’s portion begins, sadly with the death of Sarah. The Torah does not give us much detail as to the reasons for Sarah’s death but we know that her death occurs a chapter or so after the akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac. The Midrash [Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah narrative] makes a connection between these two events. It interprets Sarah’s death to have been the result of the trauma and pain she felt upon the news of the akedah. Sarah, according to the midrash, thinking her son had actually been sacrificed, died of a broken heart.

How can this be? Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people who together with Abraham were the first to believe in God. Sarah, who miraculously gave birth to Isaac died of a broken heart as a result of a trick that God played on them both to test their loyalty. Is this her reward for a lifetime of fidelity to God?

Ethical Monotheism, a core principle of our tradition is grounded in the belief that God is one and that God is good. We serve God by observing the mitzvoth [commandments]and are rewarded for our service, but is that how the world really works?

Last week’s egregious act of antisemitic hatred and murder in Pittsburgh powerfully highlights the problem of theodicy in our world. If God is good and just, how is it that innocent people suffer? Many Rabbis throughout history have attempted to deal with this. Perhaps all attempts are doomed to failure but Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in a powerful teaching from his Liqqutei Moharan, invokes Lurianic Kabbalisitc teaching to try and grapple with the problem of evil in a world where God is good.

According to this teaching the Ein Sof [the aspect of God in Kabbalah that is totally unknowable and beyond human comprehension] wished to be known as Rahum ve Chanun, graceful and merciful. It was not sufficient for the Ein Sof to remain in a state of primordial oneness and perfection, the Ein Sof needed to be in relationship with conscious beings who would be able to embody and project its divine light. In order to allow for this possibility, it was necessary for the Ein Sof to withdraw from a certain space to allow creation to emerge, but in so doing a vacant space, (hallal panuee) emerged where the illuminating light of the Ein Sof was diminished. Since all life unfolded from this vacant space where the divine light does not shine in all its splendor, we experience existence in binaries – good evil, light-dark, body-mind. While not an illusion, this is but a fragment of reality. That is why all that exists within the vacant space (hallal panuee) is seemingly subject to the laws of duality. Rabbi Nachman warns us not to lose ourselves in this partial reality. Additionally, he does not want us to dwell on the question of why evil exists in a world where God is good or why bad things happen to good people. That suffering exists in the world is inevitable, it is a condition of life in the hallal panuee where God’s radiance is necessarily diminished to allow for creation.

No attempt to understand the “mind of God’’ will ever be sufficient to address the terror of suffering or the random murder of innocents like those who sadly perished last week in Pittsburgh.

Rabbi Nachman advises us to be true ivri’m [Hebrews] and ‘pass over,’ transcend the brokenness of our world with acts of loving-kindness and ma’asim tovim [good deeds]. This is the true answer. By increasing the good in the world we bring the good God into our world and allow that God to dwell here among us.

A powerful response to evil, like the Pittsburgh shooting, lies with the work of organizations like WIZO. WIZO [ Women’s International Zionist Organization] is one of the largest welfare organizations in Israel. Its volunteers work towards providing for the welfare of infants, women, men and the elderly who are in need of assistance both financial and emotional. As we recall last week’s horrific tragedy we must continue to work towards establishing a world where justice and compassion triumph over hatred, intolerance and racism.

In this week’s parashah, following the flood, and learning that the waters had been progressively diminishing and the tops of the mountains became visible, we read; “Then he (Noah) sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him” (Gen 8:8-9).

The hope was that the dove would not return to the ark, that it had found a place to settle on the dry land, signalling that it was safe for all of the inhabitants of the ark to start preparing to disembark onto dry land.

Rashi explains that Noah wasn’t merely sending the dove on an errand, but rather he was sending it away or letting it go, to be free to go where it wanted to. If the dove found a place it could be free, it would not have returned.

But as we know, the dove did come back to the ark. What we also learn is that Noah wasn’t angry with the dove, nor did he express to the dove his dissatisfaction at not being able to return to dry land. He did not take the approach that we often do when we find ourselves in similar situations, he did not shoot the messenger. He did not, in any way, take out his frustrations on the dove. Instead, when Noah saw the dove on its way back to the ark, he simply put forth his hand and took it, and brought it to him to the ark.

Throughout history there has been a vast amount of blameless and innocent messengers that have delivered news that was either tragic or sad, and on many occasions it has been contrary to what the recipient was expecting to hear. Most often, the recipient of the news has reacted with words and/ or actions that are less than exemplary, especially since these reactions have come from leaders and high profile members of society. The messenger is not responsible for the news, they are merely delivering it to the recipient.

Noah, however, showed impeccable behavior and leadership. He did not rebuke or blame the dove, nor did he cast doubt over the dove’s ability to do its job. Moreover, he put out his hand and welcomed the dove back to the ark.

The result was that when Noah sent the dove out again just seven days later, the dove didn’t feel as though it had to be frightened to return the ark if it couldn’t bring back good news. It took on the same task just one week later and then again one week after that with the same amount of enthusiasm it did the last time it went on the mission. The result – “The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.” (Gen 8:11-12).

We all have examples of when someone delivered bad news to us. The likelihood is that some time in the future it will happen again. If we think about how we reacted to such news in the past, and then review our actions and reactions, perhaps we could be more restrained in our response to the messenger. We might even try to appreciate that while it’s bad news they’re delivering, they are simply the messenger. Not only could it make them not feel as bad for having to deliver the news, but it also puts the recipient in a more welcoming light, to be considered as a person who is more receiving and caring, thereby turning a potentially nasty and trepidatious experience into one where we work with each other to obtain the best outcome for the present and the future.

At this point in the calendar, it almost seems like a let down, to come to services and nothing special will be occurring. To aid in the post holiday blues, we are treated this week to the beginning of our story, Bereshit, the first portion of the first book of the Torah.

Probably the most famous part of this week portion is the actual story of creation. Many of us recall the words at the end of each day creation, v’yar Elohim ki Tov, that the work that God had accomplished was good. In fact, for every act, that phrase is repeated. However, there are two notable exceptions. The first, is at the conclusion of creation, God says, it was very good. The second example occurs when God observes that Man is alone, and God reacts saying, “lo tov heiot adam levado” it is not good for man to be alone.

The response then if for God to create an “ezer k’negdo” typically translated as a fitting helper. Looking closely at the actual words, the translation seems to indicate two opposing ideas: ezer meaning helper, k’negdo has a connotation of being against, opposite or counter to something. How is it then that these two ideas together connote the ideal partner?

Relationships wherein one party acts only on one side of balance are not healthy relationships. Think of a relationship in which one person always acts in a helpful manner, is always complicit, and dutifully fulfills the other partner’s requests. Is this a healthy relationship? It is almost as if the relationship lacks free will on the part of the helpful participant. It runs the risk of ploughing ahead on paths that will not lead to good places. One person becomes more in control of the other; the partners are not equal. This is not a healthy relationship.

Likewise, think of a relationship in which one person always challenges the other partner, is always playing devil’s advocate and disagreeing, who always has a better idea. Is this a healthy relationship? This type of relationship is destined to fights and hurt feelings. It is destined to stagnation, since agreement is impossible. This too, is not a healthy relationship.

In a healthy relationship, one partner is able to recognize when to be helpful and when to challenge. Is able to be the cheerleader and assistant at times and is able to push the other onto a better path at other times. The one side creates a sense of support while the other side pushes the partner to be better. This balance over time allows for honesty and integrity in the relationship without dooming one partner to submission or the relationship to argument. In this relationship, when one partner takes the side of acting counter, both parties know that it is from a place of love and care, and not from anger or a need for control. In this relationship, when the helpful side is chosen, both parties know too that this is from a place of love and care and not submissiveness.

Let us strive, in this new year, to be that healthy, balanced partner, and in that way, create the healthy relationships that will sustain us.