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Rosh HaShanah: Torah and Haftarah Introductions

Introduction by Rabbi Melanie Aron

September 14, 2015

Chutzpah, sometimes translated as audacity or nerve, as in “he’s got a lot of nerve”, is a particularly Jewish characteristic. It is not just that Jews sometimes display Chutzpah, it’s that we applaud it.

In the Torah portion we will read this morning it is Abraham who is demonstrating chutzpah in confronting the Master of the Universe, and the Talmud itself uses the word chutzpah in talking about Abraham’s behavior.

Our Torah reading is not one of the traditional readings for Rosh Hashanah morning but was added by the editorial committee of our new prayer book. Rabbi Edwin Goldberg explains that Genesis Chapter 1, a Reform choice from the last century, is beautiful, but it is without a real human story. Genesis 21 and 22, the sections that are read in Traditional Synagogues trouble us, as Abraham banishes the son of his wife Hagar in one , and then agrees without question, in the other, to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Genesis 18, this new Rosh Hashanah reading, shows a different picture of Abraham, and perhaps, an interesting one of God’s development as well.

Key to this story is the question of whether something is moral because God does it, or whether there is an external measure of right and wrong. In other words, can God’s justice be judged by human beings- or is whatever God does just by definition. Think of what lawyers say about Supreme Court justices: Their judgements are binding not because they are right: they are right only because their judgements are binding.

The portion begins with God’s commitment to go down and investigate what is happening in Sodom and Gemorah. God then decides to include Abraham as a consultant to his plan of action. The text reminds us at this point that Abraham’s role is to do Tzedek and Mishpat, the right and the just, implying that Abraham’s relationship with God, hinges on this moral performance. It is almost as if God is inviting Abraham to comment and perhaps to question his justice. By accepting Abraham’s argument, God is accepting the argument that God too should act justly.

Karen Armstrong , a well known Christian Biblical scholar, sees a progression from Noah to Abraham, with God no longer wanting unthinking obedience, but rather demanding a certain parity in friendship, thus a covenant, a contract with stipulations for both sides. Abraham’s language in challenging God is strong- chalilah lechah- it would be profane of you, to kill the righteous with the wicked.

Alan Dershowitz understands this passage in a very interesting way. In every system of justice, he notes, there will be some innocent who get swept away with the guilty, who are falsely convicted.  What the Bible is saying in this passage is that it is better to have a system of justice where some guilty go free rather than see the innocent punished en mass. This explains the stopping at 10. As long as it’s one or two innocents caught up in the system, its about individual failures, but when it becomes more than 10, then the entire system needs revamping.

That’s what happened with the death penalty in Illinois. As the number of people on death row who were freed because of evidence of their innocence reached the double digits, change came. That is what is happening now throughout America’s criminal justice system, as the evidence of disproportion in the arrest and conviction of people of color,  of systemic issues, is being acknowledged and addressed.

IN the end God takes Abraham’s words to heart- though there are not even 10 righteous in the city, God rescues the semi-righteous Lot and his family. Abraham has challenged God, and like Jacob, Abraham has survived.

The Book of Nehemiah is one of the least read books of the Bible yet it tells the story of a key transition in Jewish life, from seeking God in the words of prophets, to finding God in the written text. In the section we will be reading this morning, the written text becomes the authoritative vehicle for divine communication and the source of insight and guidance.  It is also in this period of history that the word Yehudim, Jews, begins to be used rather than Ivrim, Hebrews, or Bnai Yisrael, children of Israel.

I mentioned this passage briefly last night- as it includes Nehemiah’s instructions for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah as a day of joy. It describes a reading from the Torah in Jerusalem after the Exiles have returned from Babylonia. Ezra reads but it is much more like our Shavuot reading than the regular cycle of Shabbat readings. It is a re-enactment of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with the people standing and accepting the Torah, reentering the covenant. Ezra is almost a second Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land and providing guidance.

Another interesting aspect of the description is that the reading from the Torah includes a translation, presumably into Aramaic the spoken language of the time.

This illustrates the Jewish belief that the Torah is not secret lore, but is the inheritance of every member of the community who must learn it and understand it for themselves.

 

troduction by Rabbi Melanie Aron

September 14, 20

Chutzpah, sometimes translated as audacity or nerve, as in “he’s got a lot of nerve”, is a particularly Jewish characteristic. It is not just that Jews sometimes display Chutzpah, it’s that we applaud it.

In the Torah portion we will read this morning it is Abraham who is demonstrating chutzpah in confronting the Master of the Universe, and the Talmud itself uses the word chutzpah in talking about Abraham’s behavior.

Our Torah reading is not one of the traditional readings for Rosh Hashanah morning but was added by the editorial committee of our new prayer book. Rabbi Edwin Goldberg explains that Genesis Chapter 1, a Reform choice from the last century, is beautiful, but it is without a real human story. Genesis 21 and 22, the sections that are read in Traditional Synagogues trouble us, as Abraham banishes the son of his wife Hagar in one , and then agrees without question, in the other, to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Genesis 18, this new Rosh Hashanah reading, shows a different picture of Abraham, and perhaps, an interesting one of God’s development as well.

Key to this story is the question of whether something is moral because God does it, or whether there is an external measure of right and wrong. In other words, can God’s justice be judged by human beings- or is whatever God does just by definition. Think of what lawyers say about Supreme Court justices: Their judgements are binding not because they are right: they are right only because their judgements are binding.

The portion begins with God’s commitment to go down and investigate what is happening in Sodom and Gemorah. God then decides to include Abraham as a consultant to his plan of action. The text reminds us at this point that Abraham’s role is to do Tzedek and Mishpat, the right and the just, implying that Abraham’s relationship with God, hinges on this moral performance. It is almost as if God is inviting Abraham to comment and perhaps to question his justice. By accepting Abraham’s argument, God is accepting the argument that God too should act justly.

Karen Armstrong , a well known Christian Biblical scholar, sees a progression from Noah to Abraham, with God no longer wanting unthinking obedience, but rather demanding a certain parity in friendship, thus a covenant, a contract with stipulations for both sides. Abraham’s language in challenging God is strong- chalilah lechah- it would be profane of you, to kill the righteous with the wicked.

Alan Dershowitz understands this passage in a very interesting way. In every system of justice, he notes, there will be some innocent who get swept away with the guilty, who are falsely convicted.  What the Bible is saying in this passage is that it is better to have a system of justice where some guilty go free rather than see the innocent punished en mass. This explains the stopping at 10. As long as it’s one or two innocents caught up in the system, its about individual failures, but when it becomes more than 10, then the entire system needs revamping.

That’s what happened with the death penalty in Illinois. As the number of people on death row who were freed because of evidence of their innocence reached the double digits, change came. That is what is happening now throughout America’s criminal justice system, as the evidence of disproportion in the arrest and conviction of people of color,  of systemic issues, is being acknowledged and addressed.

IN the end God takes Abraham’s words to heart- though there are not even 10 righteous in the city, God rescues the semi-righteous Lot and his family. Abraham has challenged God, and like Jacob, Abraham has survived.

The Book of Nehemiah is one of the least read books of the Bible yet it tells the story of a key transition in Jewish life, from seeking God in the words of prophets, to finding God in the written text. In the section we will be reading this morning, the written text becomes the authoritative vehicle for divine communication and the source of insight and guidance.  It is also in this period of history that the word Yehudim, Jews, begins to be used rather than Ivrim, Hebrews, or Bnai Yisrael, children of Israel.

I mentioned this passage briefly last night- as it includes Nehemiah’s instructions for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah as a day of joy. It describes a reading from the Torah in Jerusalem after the Exiles have returned from Babylonia. Ezra reads but it is much more like our Shavuot reading than the regular cycle of Shabbat readings. It is a re-enactment of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with the people standing and accepting the Torah, reentering the covenant. Ezra is almost a second Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land and providing guidance.

Another interesting aspect of the description is that the reading from the Torah includes a translation, presumably into Aramaic the spoken language of the time.

This illustrates the Jewish belief that the Torah is not secret lore, but is the inheritance of every member of the community who must learn it and understand it for themselves.

 

 

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