Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Growing Light in Dark Times
The New Moon of Kislev begins Saturday night, Nov. 20. It is the time of year most closely connected with dreams, miracles and thanksgiving.
The days are growing shorter. The darkness is increasing but there is light amid the darkness. The light and warmth of families gathering together to give thanks and gratitude; the light of the Chanukah menorah later this same month. It is in fact the darkness that allows us to see the light more clearly.
Hidden in the sound of this month’s name Kislev are the Hebrew words- Kis: pocket and Lev: heart. A heart in the pocket, like the song “I got sunshine in my pocket.” At Kislev, the beginning of winter, we find an opportune time to turn inward, to look into that hiding place and reconnect with our hearts, with our dreams, with our inner light and our inner sight.
Our most ancient book of Jewish mysticism, the Sefer Yetsirah connects this month of Kislev to sleep and to dreams. As this month progresses we are invited to pay more attention to our dreams. Talmud says that an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter. The dream possesses the seeds for new beginnings as winter holds and protects the seeds of new life in the ground.
The written name Kislev has more inner meaning hidden within. The first syllable khis means to cover or hide. The second syllable spelled with the letters lamed vav add up to 36. The name alludes to the hidden 36, known affectionately in Jewish lore as the lamed-vavniks; the 36 righteous people by whose merit the world continues to exist. They are hidden from us and even from themselves for they are too humble to know of their own powerful importance. Yet it is their light that sustains the world.
As we move through this month, let us consider how we might magnify the light within ourselves. How might you release the power of your heart and your dreams from inside of that pocket. In a time of darkness, not only do we need everyone’s light, but every light is magnified by the depth of the darkness. That is to say, a little light goes a long way!
Perhaps as we gather together with loved ones for Thanksgiving this year, consider asking everyone at the table these three questions:
1- For what are you grateful for at this moment in your life?
2-Looking ahead, what dream of yours is pressing for expression?
3- How might you bring more light into the world?
May this coming month be one of renewed faith in the great heart of the world. May we each discover the dreams needing to emerge from our own hearts. May we listen closely to these stirrings and become builders of light in our families and communities. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!
My comments are inspired from the teaching of Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld,
Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
In last week’s portion, with the divine call to Avram of Lekh Lekha, Go forth- from your native land, your culture and all that is familiar, we learned that movement is essential to our growth on the spiritual path. The S'fat Emet teaches “The human being is called a walker, always having to go from one rung to another…That is why Scripture says, ‘Get you out of your land’—a person should always keep walking...Whoever stands still is not renewed.” The Jewish path has always been one of change, development, adaptation and evolution. This is perhaps the great secret to our survival as a people and a culture for over 2000 years. Our forms of worship has evolved from the sacrifice of animals to prayer of the heart and our prayer lives have evolved from a few daily prayers to siddurim/prayer books overflowing with sacred text, poetry and liturgy. Old melodies and new fill our mouths. We are ever seeking to renew our connection with God and with one another.
And yet, there are times when we need to stand still and connect with the roots that sustain us. To be a wanderer without roots is to be lost. But to be a seeker with a deep connection to a chain of tradition is to be rooted in strength, yet flexible and supple enough to allow for new growth. This is the challenge that confronts our generation- to find the delicate balance between tradition and evolution- to honor our past without freezing it into a static and lifeless form and yet to be “walkers” and explore the new frontier without falling off the path and getting lost.
Avraham will wander over all of the promised land. He will leave the land, get lost in Egypt and he will return home. But as this week’s Torah portion opens we will see the way that Avraham camps. His tent is open on all four sides. Why is this always mentioned as such an unusual thing? Because he is living in a desert climate and with all four sides open, he has no real shade from the hot sun at any time of day. And why is his tent so open? Because he wants to make sure not to miss any person, stranger or friend who may be passing by. He is ever-ready to welcome in anyone who may be in need of rest or refreshment as they journey through.
Avraham is a wanderer. He knows what it is to be homeless and therefore he becomes a welcomer. Avraham’s tent becomes the model for our wedding canopy- the chuppah that a couple stands beneath on their wedding day. As their very first bayit- their first home together, they are rooted in the tradition of Avraham and Sarah and blessed to establish a welcoming home. And we are thrilled here at RJC to set up our chuppah once again for Melissa Solomon and Tom Cohen who will celebrate their marriage on Nov. 22nd. Siman Tov and Mazel Tov- we rejoice with them for in the open tent of Avraham, your joys are our joys.
As descendants of Abraham and Sarah, may we be both wanderers and welcomers. May we continue to seek an ever living experience of the sacred in our lives while remaining rooted in our life-giving traditions . May our individual and communal homes be open to strangers and to the strangeness of new ideas and possibilities.
In this week’s Torah portion we meet Avram- a single man who receives a call from God- Lekh L’kha- Go forth and leave your land , your birthplace, your father’s home and go to a place I will show you. Many of the Hasidic Masters translate this first phrase not as go forth, but rather, according to literal meaning of the words "Lekh–Go" "L’kha–to yourself". Go to yourself, to your deep inner truth. Leave the influences of your country, your home town, your culture, your family of origin and take a journey into the deep truth of your own heart. Walk with Me to an unknown place, free from external influences, where tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness will be your guides and only then will you become a blessing to the world.
Indeed, Abraham does eventually reveal these qualities of tzedek and mishpat which we will read in next week’s Torah portion when he welcomes strangers into his home and defends the people of Sodom to God. But first, he will go through several trials in which “going to himself” will mean separating from his family members in several rather disturbing passages.
In her book entitled Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Judy Klistner writes:
In his continuing efforts to distill God’s ways; Abraham distances himself from potentially negative influences. Along with this, in a more extreme and somewhat disturbing manifestation of his singularity, Abraham’s life is marked by a series of departures from his loved ones. With God’s approval and sometimes with His active prodding, Abraham splits from his nephew Lot (Gen. 13:19), from his first-born son Ishmael and from Ishmael’s mother Hagar (Gen. 21:14). Twice he sets in motion chains of events that lead to his separation from Sarah his wife… when Abraham claims that Sarah is not his wife , but his sister, he contributes to her abduction by foreign kings (Gen. 12:13-14, 20:2). Toward the end of Abraham’s narrative, God orders the ultimate departure. He must sacrifice Isaac, the son who represents Abraham’s future…(22:2) God frames Abraham’s life with the words Lekh L’kha, which appear at the beginning of the journey when he must take leave of his past, and at its end when he receives the order to forfeit his future.
Klistner describes the events in this week’s parashah as Avram’s downward spiral whereby his singular focus puts all of his family members at risk and in harm’s way. Avram’s concern for himself alone leads him to lie about Sarai, claiming her as his sister and thereby causing her abduction by Pharaoh. He specifically asks her to agree to this ruse so that “ all will go for me” (Gen. ) And so it does go well for Avram. After Sarai is abducted by Pharaoh, Avram is rewarded with great wealth.
Avram’s great wealth will lead to the quarreling between his camp and that of his nephew Lot, causing them to separate. Avram had taken in Lot, the son of his deceased brother as part of his household. Now, Avram places his nephew Lot in harm’s way, near the city of S’dom- a city named by the Torah known for its wickedness. There, he is taken captive in a regional war. This causes Avram to go to battle in order to free his nephew Lot.
Avram is successful and victorious. Suddenly, in the midst of the conflict a mysterious visitor appears, namely, Malkitzedek. He is described as the King of the city Shaleim and the Priest of God on High, Creator of heaven and earth- El elyon, konei shamayim va’aretz. Malkitzedek interrupts the political maneuvers about to unfold and enters the scene with the word Barukh-Blessed! He gives Avram a blessing, saying Barukh Avram l’El Elyon, Konei shamayim va’aretz-Blessed be Avram of the God on High, maker of heaven and earth. He reminds Avram of his connection with God. He brings bread and wine to this weary warrior. Malkitzedek is an agent of hesed-kindness and of blessing. He is also the first to describe God as: the God on High, maker of heaven and earth.
The name Malkitzedek is beautiful and unique. It means King of Righteousness. He is described also as King of the city of Shaleim. Shaleim means whole and is the root of the word ‘peace’. Malkitzedek- the King of justice, ruler of the city of the Peace and Wholeness appears and disappears in a flash. Through words and actions he brings Avram a message of spiritual fortification. Remember who you are. Remember the values of hesed-kindness, tzedek-righteousness and mishpat-justice. Like a travelling chiropractor, he seems to give Abraham a spiritual adjustment.
As soon as Malkitzedek leaves, the King of Sodom asks Avram to split the booty from the wars. Avram responds by saying: I swear to Adonai, EL Elyon- God on High, Konei shamaym va-aretz, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours… (Gen. 14:22).
Unlike when Avram left Egypt with booty acquired through the trials of his wife Sarai, he now acts with righteousness and swears his allegiance to God. He unmistakenly uses the language of Malkitzedek. No longer focused on his own needs and desires, Avram has realigned with his mission. We will encounter a different man next week when Avram will welcome three guests with abundant hospitality and later will argue with God to act with justice and compassion for the people of Sodom.
In several ways this story encapsulates one of the great challenges of living a spiritual life. Even more so, it captures the challenge of the Jewish people whose destiny it has been to be Ivrim- to be from the other side, separate from the dominant culture in which we dwell. We too have been charged Lekh L’kha- Go to your Self- to your own heart of truth. Do not be seduced by the values of the dominant culture that run counter to justice for all. And yet, the challenge of Avram remains with us. Let us not become so separate, so single-minded and focused only on our own survival and success that we lose our sense of connection and responsibility for the greater collective. The Torah, through the voice of Malkitzedek, reminds us to be agents of kindness and justice across borders and throughout in the world.
Torah makes a powerful statement by bringing Malkitzedek, a foreign priest into the narrative at this moment. He is a necessary player who puts Avram back on track. I would suggest that today, we too would benefit by connecting with messengers from other spiritual paths who share the common vision of a world made whole. Kindness and Justice are not only Jewish ideals. They are shared among our human brethren of all religions and all walks of life. When we come together from different paths while sharing common ideals, we all experience spiritual fortification, uplift and rededication during challenging times.
In this spirit I extend to you an invitation to join me for a Thanksgiving Interfaith service on
Sun. Nov. 19 at 7PM at Immaculate Heart Church in Rutland. We all understand that our world is wounded and suffering. By joining voices in thanksgiving for all of our shared blessings we strengthen one another in building a peaceful world.
We are blessed to have many spiritual messengers among us. Keep your eyes and ears open for them. They may appear and disappear in a moment. Tune your ears to messages of hope and transformation and you will see and hear them. May we all be blessed to play some part in the great healing of our world.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
More about Rabba Kaya