A Message Regarding the Fires in Israel

Many of us are reading with sadness and anger about the fires raging through Israel. A brush fire began on Tuesday in Zichron Yaakov and continued to spread throughout the Carmel region, reaching into Haifa. Fires also began in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Ariel. It is currently being investigated as to which fires were natural disasters and which were politically motivated by arsonists. Many of us have planted trees with JNF for years and the fires are destroying the trees.

What we are going to do is start a Jericho Jewish Center plant a tree campaign. Each tree costs $18, and I would like us to raise enough for 500 trees. Please write a check to the Jericho Jewish Center and put in the memo line JNF trees. These checks will be combined into one large check which will be given to JNF from the Jericho Jewish Center.

Please send your check in to the Jericho Jewish Center by Monday December 5 so that we can get the check to JNF by Friday December 9. Please do not forget to put in the memo line JNF trees so that your check goes to JNF.

Thank You



What Does Hevron Mean to Us?

This week we read not only of Sarah’s death but of her burial.  Avraham purchases a burial place from Ephron ben Tzohar in a place called Kiryat Arba, the “city of four.”  This city is also referred to as Hevron, and the burial place is called Maarat HaMachpelah, the “double cave.”  The fact that Avraham purchased the cave is significant, as Jews often use it to demonstrate that the land belongs to us.  Many Jews see going to the cave as following in the footsteps of Avraham, walking on the very land on which he walked.

Hevron has always been a central city for Jews.  It has had a consistent Jewish presence since biblical times.  In addition to being the burial site of our ancestors, it served as the Israelite capital for seven years under King David.  Hevron became a major economic center during the First and Second Temple periods and was a military stronghold during those periods.  There was a Jewish presence in Hevron from the 12th-15th centuries, as evidenced by reports from Benjamin of Tudela, and Rabbenu Meshullam.  In the 1820s, Chabad set up a community in Hevron and by the 1830s, there were 240 Jews in Hevron.

The Jews in Hevron have experienced two major attacks by Arabs.   The first was in 1834 by Ibrihim Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt.  Ibrahim was trying to crush a revolt by the Arabs in Palestine over being conscripted in the Egyptian Army, and in the process he attacked the Jews as well.

The second attack by Arabs was the Hevron Massacre of 1929, known by is Hebrew year תרבט (Tarbat), where 67 were killed and over 100 were wounded.  This attack began after Arabs heard rumors that Jews were seizing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  In the attack, the Arabs destroyed the Jewish Quarter of Hevron, and many synagogues and holy sites were ransacked.  Over 400 Jews survived solely because they were hid by their Arab neighbors.  Two years later Jews began to move back to Hevron, but they were evacuated by the British in 1936, and Hevron became exclusively Arab for 31 years.

After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of followers rented rooms in the main hotel of Hevron and refused to leave.  They were granted permission to build a town at an abandoned military post, which they named Kiryat Arba.  Today 7,200 Jews live in Kiryat Arba.

In 1979, Moshe’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 Jews to take over the Hadassah Hospital in downtown Hevron.  This group also reestablished the Avraham Avinu synagogue and purchased homes in other Hevron neighborhoods.  Tension mounted between the Arabs and Jews, and there were a number of shootings.  In 1997, a Hevron Agreement was signed by Bibi Netanyahu which divided Hevron into 2 sections: H1 and H2.  H1 is the Arab section, and it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  It has over 120,000 Palestinian residents and includes 80% of the total land of Hevron.  H2 is the Jewish section, controlled by the Israeli Army.  It has over 700 Jews and 30,000 Palestinians and is 20% of the land.  H2 includes the Cave of Machpelah and all other holy sites. Israeli police may not enter H1 without Palestinian escorts and Palestinians cannot approach H2 without permits from the IDF.

The Hevron Agreement also put Hevron under military law.  According to military law, there are separate Jewish and Arab streets, and neither is allowed to travel on the other’s streets.  The Arab market and central street have been closed, as they are in Jewish territory.  If an Arab lives or has a store on a Jewish street, he/she has to enter through the back.  If he/she brings groceries home or merchandise in, it also has to enter through the back.  As one can imagine, this makes everyday living extremely difficult, and has led to most of the Arab families in H2 leaving their homes and abandoning their shops.

When I was studying during my year in Israel (2008-09), I visited Hevron twice.  My first trip was with a religious group going to see the grave sites of our biblical ancestors and great rabbis.  Our first site was the Cave of Machpelah, and my first image was of a Braslaver Hasid with a big Israeli flag blasting Carlebach music outside of the cave.  The cave was lavish, a two story building with lots of space between each grave.  Each cave had a special curtain (like the one covering our ark) and had prayer books beside it.  It was holy for me to walk on the ground on which Avraham and Sarah walked so many years ago, as well as to be able to pray at their graves.

My second trip to the cave was with an organization called Shovrei Shtikah, Breaking the Silence, where Israeli soldiers who have served in Hevron recount their military experiences.[1]  One story I heard during this visit stood out to me.  Omar, an Arab resident of Hevron, told my group about when his wife’s water broke, and they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.  To get to Omar’s house in Hevron, the ambulance had to cross five check points.  An hour went by, and the ambulance driver called and said he made it through the first check point.  Another hour went by, and the driver called again saying that he made it through the second check point.  By this point Omar’s wife had strong labor pains, so he finally carried her to a relative’s car and took her to the hospital.  She made it just in time to give birth, and Omar had a sigh of relief when he returned home from the hospital.  Then he got a call from the ambulance, which he had forgotten to cancel, stating that it had made it through the fourth checkpoint and was almost there.

Imagine what it would be like if it took hours for an ambulance to arrive to your house?   How about having to travel through a checkpoint to get to work or to a hospital?   What if you had to always enter your home through your back door?   These are daily realties for Arabs who live in H2, the area of Hevron controlled by Israel.  When I think about situations like Omar’s I am torn.  On one hand, I believe that checkpoints are necessary to protect Israelis from terrorists and from radical Muslims who want to destroy Israel.  I think about incidents like the murder of Shalhevet Pas in 2001, a Jewish baby who was shot by a Palestinian sniper.  I could not imagine what it would be like to lose a newborn child, and I realize the importance of security to prevent incidents such as this.  On the other hand, I am saddened when I hear stories like Omar’s about the difficulties that checkpoints have caused.

Where does this leave us?  As we read this week’s Torah portion, I hope we examine our relationship both with Israel and with Hevron.  There are thousands of Israelis who are in Hevron for this Shabbat, celebrating the fact that we have Hevron and the Cave of Machpelah.  There is definitely much to celebrate, especially that we have a land of our own and control of places like Hevron that have been part of Jewish history for thousands of years.  At the same time, I read about much injustice that goes on in Hevron in terms of how Palestinian Arabs are treated, and this greatly disturbs me.  I believe we need to examine how we can improve our relationships with the other, in this case with the Palestinian Arab community.  Not seeing eye to eye with Arabs is nothing new: after all, Isaac and Ishmael went their separate ways.  However, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, they came together to bury their father, Avraham.  Whatever differences they had between them were able to be put aside to create a sacred moment.  May we strive to do the same: to create meaningful relationships with Arabs and work to create peace between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.

[1] Since my trip in 2008, Breaking the Silence has come under condemnation by Bibi Netanyahu as well as others in the Israeli government.

Ambiguity in the Bible

Imagine the following newspaper headline: “Mother banishes servant and her son, leaving them to wander in the desert without food and drink.”  Not front-page news but still something that catches the reader’s eye.  What justification would a mother have to kick two members of her “family” out?  Is this an incident of a privileged woman exerting authority over her servant, or is there something else going on?

This story behind this newspaper headline can be found in Parshat VaYera, where Sarah sees Ishmael, the servant Hagar’s son, performing an action that leads to her kicking him and his mother out of the family.  The verb that Ishmael is described as doing is מצחק, the same root that forms Isaac’s name!  In the case of Isaac’s name, the verb translates as “laugh,” but is that what it means in this case?  Would Sarah kick out Ishmael and his mother because he laughed?

The biblical commentator Rashi does not believe that לצחק means laugh in this case.  Rashi offers three possible interpretations of what לצחק connotes: idolatry, illicit relations and murder.[1]  He brings in a prooftext from the Torah to justify each of these three possibilities.  It is interesting both that Rashi feels the need to bring in three interpretations of this word and that none of them are related to the commonly found translation of “to laugh.”

It is one thing for Rashi to believe that לצחק does not mean laugh-it is quite another for him to bring in three conflicting interpretations as to what it means. Why would Rashi do this?  Perhaps Rashi is grasping at straws to come up with a justification for Sarah kicking out Hagar and Ishmael.  At times Rashi uses an apologetic approach, where he goes out of his way to try to prove the validity for how our Biblical ancestors acted.  By bringing in three translations of לצחק, all of which perceive the term in a negative light, Rashi is demonstrating that Ishmael was bad and Sarah was right to kick him out.  This approach can also be categorized as the “weakness approach”[2] in that none of these translations is particularly convincing on its own, but they work together to vilify Ishmael.

Another possibility for Rashi’s three interpretations is so he can serve as a facilitator, providing for his readers multiple possibilities for how to read לצחק.  In so doing, Rashi can be seen as encouraging his readership to make their own decision as to which of his three definitions is most compelling for Ishmael’s behavior.  This approach places trust in the reader’s ability to distinguish between the various definitions Rashi employs and to find the one that speaks to him or her.

Why should we care about why Ishmael was banished and why Rashi brings in three interpretations of Ishmael’s action?  Because this teaches us that we need to be careful about ambiguous language.  The fact that Ishmael’s activity is described by a word which has multiple meanings is problematic because we don’t know whether Ishmael was kicked out for laughing, for attempted murder or for something in between.  We should take this as a lesson in being careful about the words we use and how we use them, for depending on the context, what we say can be viewed in a variety of ways.


Related to the importance of using direct language is avoiding communication which produces ambiguous language.  Daniel Goleman wrote a New York Times article about the dangers of ambiguity called “E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).”[3]  In his article, Goleman recalled an e-mail conversation with his book publisher who said “It’s difficult to have this conversation by e-mail. I sound strident and you sound exasperated.”  Goleman was surprised by this statement, not only because he was not exasperated but also because he had thought his conversations with his publicist were going well.  This is one of many examples of how easy it is to miscommunicate over e-mail, since there are no nonverbal or emotional cues.  Rather than relying on this emotionless form of communication which can create ambiguity and misreading, Goleman recommends talking over the phone, or when possible in person.  This is an especially prudent lesson, as people spend hours replying to e-mail and talking online, often at the expense of taking the face time that is needed for creating and sustaining relationships.

While we see some of the disadvantages of ambiguous language, there are times when ambiguity is preferable.  For instance, I do not want to let someone I just met know every detail about my life, so I might be intentionally vague or ambiguous when answering a personal question.  If I were to completely open myself up to everyone I met, it would show a lack of control and possibly instability.  Also, when I read a fiction book, I do not want to know how every character will react to a situation or how the conflict will resolve itself because it is more interesting and mysterious if these details are left out.  It forces me to think about possibilities in the story, which is more rewarding than being given all the details.  Similarly, it can be positive to view the Torah is ambiguous because it forces us to fill in the details and to grapple with what we are missing.  While this uncertainty as to what is going on can be frustrating, it can also be rewarding in verifying our need to keep looking for the answers to which we are uncertain.

The positive nature of ambiguity in the Torah is argued by Steve Forman, the editor of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.  In his introduction to the book, Forman asserts that the Pentateuch is full of “intentional nuance, intentional ambiguity” and that translations that attempt to create a clearly flowing narrative “obscure the ambiguity and nuance of the ancient Hebrew.”[4]  Forman believes that the Torah was carefully and intentionally redacted and that the authors viewed cryptic writing as an asset to the text.  The lesson I take from this is that just because we live in a world that prefers direct communication, ambiguity also has a place and serves a purpose.

We have seen both positive and negative reasons for why language in the Torah is often ambiguous.  We can understand from the usage of לצחק that words can be interpreted in any number of ways, depending on how one sees their surrounding context.  While it might seem obvious to some of us as to what לצחק means, we need to be able to acknowledge that our view is one of many.  It is also important to acknowledge that the ambiguity of the text allows for our interpretation of the meaning of לצחק to change over time.

Whether ambiguity is an asset or a detraction depends on what you wish to exemplify.  If you are in a situation where a direct response is needed (an important conversation with a friend or job supervisor), than a method less prone to ambiguity, (a phone call or face to face communication) is preferred.  If, however, you are reading a book where you want to be left with a cliffhanger or deep in thought, intentionally ambiguous wording can be preferred.  I am not sure which category לצחק falls in, but at the very least, the fact that its meaning is ambiguous should make us contemplate on the words we use and the interpretations that can be derived from how we use them.  This lesson will serve us well in our day-to-day communication and hopefully will remain with us when we leave Shabbat and return to interacting with the world around us.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 21:9 ד”ה לצחק

[2] For more see Sarah Kamin, Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization: In Respect to the Distinction Between Peshat and Derash


[3] Appeared in New York Times, October 6, 2007.

[4] Robert Forman in Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2003).

My Sister or My Wife?

Avram was supposed to have been the paradigm of purity, fully devoted to serving G-d. After all, at the end of our portion, G-d commands him התהלך לפני והיה תמים, “walk before me and have integrity.”[1] One can question Avram’s integrity, however, when examining an early section of our parsha: There was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt to live there, for the famine was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife “for now I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you and say ‘it is his wife,” they will kill me and allow you to live. Say you are my sister so that it will be good for me and my life will be saved because of you.”[2]

This passage raises a number of questions: why did Avram just now notice his wife’s beauty? How was he so sure he’d be killed by the Egyptians? Why did he command her to lie, in effect enabling her to be taken by Pharaoh? Isn’t this a breach of the very integrity that G-d commanded him to have, or why G-d chose him from amongst all the people in the world to be the first Jew?

The commentators have a field day answering these questions. Rashi provides three interpretations, beginning by referencing Midrash Tanhuma. The Midrash asserts that until this point Avram didn’t recognize the beauty of his wife because of the modesty that they had.[3] I don’t buy it-a husband not seeing his wife as beautiful doesn’t make sense. He then quotes from Genesis Rabbah, stating that during an arduous journey people can often become unattractive, but Sarai kept her beauty.[4] A better explanation yet also one that I find problematic. I am sure we all know people who go backpacking, to camp or on long trips and come back with dirt in their hair or with ripped jeans yet does Sarai really have something special that enables her beauty to survive the desert hardships? Then we have Rashi’s final explanation which he says is the pshat-of course Avram knew of Sarai’s beauty, yet they are coming to the land of swarthy, unattractive people, the brothers of the Kushim, who had not known of a beautiful woman. Ibn Ezra goes one step further, stating that there were other beautiful women, just not in Egypt and the land of the Negev because one’s physical form changes depending on the air.[5] Also an explanation I do not accept-the dry desert air would help preserve the skin and enhance beauty; and I also believe that beauty is independent from race or from a particular geographic location.

It is Ramban, or Nahmanides, who I believe gives the best interpretation. He begins by questioning Rashi’s third interpretation, for if the reason is that the Egyptians have never before seen a beautiful woman, why did Avraham do the same thing when they encountered the Avimelech and the Philistines? The Philistines lived on the coast and had a different complexion-yet Avraham’s actions were the same there. The answer he gives is that this was an attempt at pikuah nefesh-saving Avram’s life from bad people. Pharaoh had a tradition of bedding new women-after all he was the king and could do whatever he wanted. In order to save Avram from the wrath of Pharaoh he had to engage in this deception.[6]

But was it a lie? We know for the story of Avimelech that Avram just didn’t tell the entire truth; after all Sarai was his half-sister.[7] Sarai and he had the same father. Even if this was not the case, Jewish tradition would argue that a “white lie” can be said to preserve a person’s dignity,[8] all the more so to save a person’s life! Nevertheless, was Avram correct that Pharaoh would have killed him? Could he have been forthcoming, told the entire truth and saved Pharaoh from experiencing great plagues afflicting his entire household, without losing his life?

This election season was full of numerous truths, half-truths, lies and evasions of information. It has led to many of us not knowing what or who to believe. Candidates were called criminals, sex offenders and liars. We had fact checkers at every turn and then fact checkers of the fact checkers. There was a surprise at every corner-from the tape, to the leaks to the FBI. It’s not always clear who was right and who was wrong. Just as with the election coverage, we can question Avram’s action in claiming that Sarai was his sister. Was this a selfless act to save his life or a selfish act in not revealing the entire truth to Pharaoh?

Now that the election is over, there is a larger concern-bringing together a divided country with love and with healing. The hateful rhetoric that has been spewed by people on all sides is unacceptable. We have a President Designate, Donald J. Trump, elected through our electoral process, who we now need to unite behind as Americans. It’s not easy after many of the things he’s said or how he has contributed to the divisiveness and incitement that many of us feel. We can and should question his temperament, his mockery of individuals, and his belittling of generals, among other things. What we must avoid at all costs, however, is to perpetuate the hatred, the vitriol and the negativity spewed during the 2016 campaign, from Clinton as well as from Trump. When I see people on Facebook telling their friends in pain to “get over it and move on” or I see people saying they will never accept the President Designate, I feel great anger. When I see people defriending their friends and family members, I feel immense sadness. Some have forgotten how to show basic human decency and respect to one another-and our beloved America needs us to come together and talk face-to-face, rather than engaging in Facebook posts and Twitter Wars. We need to talk to those with whom we disagree and genuinely hear and try to understand their point of view.

Let us finally consider that our actions have a profound impact on our children, something I realize every day with my 8 month old. Avram’s actions, though perhaps morally justifiable, pay a price in the eyes of our sages. They function as an example of מעשה לאבות סימן לבנים, that the actions of the fathers will be a sign for their children to emulate.[9] We never know what our children will learn from us and how it might manifest itself, directly or indirectly, in their lives. Isaac will also deceive Avimelech, stating that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister, which from the text is not their biological relationship.[10] Like his father, he deceives Avimelech. With Rebecca’s help, he is in turn deceived by his son Jacob, who will be deceived by eleven of his sons regarding Joseph.

When we speak and act, let us ponder if this is what we would like our children and grandchildren, our nieces, nephews and cousins, to learn from us. In so doing, may we strive to follow the mandate G-d gave to Avram, התהלך לפני והיה תמים, walk with me and have integrity.

[1] Genesis 17:1

[2] Genesis 12:10-12

[3] Midrash Tanhuma 5

[4] Genesis Rabbah 40:4

[5] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[6] Ramban on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[7] Genesis 20:12

[8] See Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 16b-17a regarding Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s responses to a bride on her wedding night.

[9] See Ramban on Genesis 12:6

[10] Rebecca is his first cousin once removed. Examine Genesis 22:23 to see how Rebecca’s lineage fits in.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Some Thoughts on Presidential Election 2016

In March I wrote an blog urging those at the AIPAC Policy Conference not to walk out on Trump, not because I agreed with his policies or rhetoric but because he might be the next President of the United States, and anyone who might be the next POTUS needs to be treated with respect. Now we see that translated into reality. Americans have voted and elected their President, and he will likely be invited back to AIPAC this year.

When I worked in Tucson, I served on the board of Humane Borders, an organization that puts water stations in the Sonoran Desert to save the lives of those crossing the border. I met numerous people living in the shadows who crossed the border illegally to have a better future for themselves and their children. I can’t imagine what they are feeling now. I also can’t imagine what a Muslim American who would like their family to come to this country must be feeling now. As the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants, I am in favor of giving everyone an equal opportunity to come to this country through the proper channels: the only problem is the channels have become increasingly restricted, the years of waiting have become longer, and that is likely to continue to increase. The Syrian Refugees will continue to become someone else’s problem as we build walls and focus on only our own self-interest.

I think of the women who might no longer be able to choose regarding their bodies. While I became increasingly pro-life after seeing ultrasounds, I don’t believe it’s my right to determine what goes on in the bodies of others.

A number of years ago there was a campaign to abolish the electoral college, though it never really got traction. I happen to like the electoral college, even though this is the second time in 16 years that a candidate could win the popular vote and lose the election.

For those who are Trump fans, whether from the outset or recently, I congratulate you on your candidate being selected. I can only hope that the promises of a return to industry to the United States, with high paid wages and benefits will pay out or that we will be a country that others respect because of our focus on national security. At the same time, I will say Be Careful What You Wish For. A person who insults a disabled reporter, a veteran who was captured, women for not being physically attractive enough or a Gold Star family is not likely to refrain from doing so as the leader of the country. Similarly, a person who stiffs contractors for not being satisfied with their work is not likely to suddenly pay national contractors as President-especially when trying to cut our payments.

For those who voted on Trump for his stance on Israel, I hope that Trump will continue to give aid to Israel, honoring President Obama’s 10 year aid package, rather than insisting, as he did in one of his speeches, that each country pays its own fair share.

I continue to believe in the goodness of the United States of America.  Trump’s Presidency is not our end. If Miley Cyrus wants to go to Canada let her do so-I’m not leaving my home and our great country.  At the same time, I believe that our divided country must be healed, and we need a leadership that can bring everyone together. There has been so much hateful rhetoric and lies every where we turn and a lot of Americans feel dejected this morning and need something to rally behind, the optimism that change can bring. I hope and pray that our Republican President and Congress can and will do so rather than acting by fiat simply because they are the majority. We saw how poorly that worked when the Democrats tried that in 2008. We need a leadership that will unite us rather than dividing us along party lines.