Parshat Vayishlach: Small Vessels

By Rabbi Yonatan Neril

 

The Parsha of Vayishlach is dedicated by Yadeedya Baruch Mellman: to my grandfathers for whom I am named, Baruch Horowitz and Samuel Mellman, z”l.

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

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Before Ya’akov’s (Jacob’s) epic encounter with Esau, reuniting with his brother after decades of estrangement, Ya’akov brings his family and possessions across a stream. He then returns at night to the other side of the stream, and the Torah narrates that: “Ya’akov remained alone.” The rabbis see the word “alone” (levado) as superfluous, and understand it as related to the similar sounding lecado, “for his vessel,” yielding, “Ya’akov remained for his vessel.” That is, say the rabbis, he re-crossed the stream at night to recover a few small vessels he forgot to bring across.[1]  Why does Ya’akov, facing an imminent confrontation with Esau and his 400-man militia, leave his family alone and vulnerable at night to recover a few forgotten flasks? Why were they so important to him?

 

The seeming absurdity of Ya’akov’s action becomes understandable when one examines his worldview: he believes that everything in his possession comes from G-d, has a specific purpose and must be used to its full potential. As one rabbinic commentary explains, each material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward spiritual repair in the world.[2] Ya’akov went back for the vessels to ensure they were used in the optimal way. Had he not, their full potential would not have been realized. The truly righteous recognize the value of their G-d-given possessions, and are very careful with them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. While not overly attached to material things, they do not dispose of objects prematurely or use them inappropriately. Indeed, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, on his deathbed, told his students to remove the vessels from his room lest they become contaminated by his corpse, and thereby unusable.[3]

 

The Sefer HaChinuch[4] offers insight into the spiritual root of Ya’akov’s action. He writes regarding the commandment not to wastefully destroy anything (ba’al tashchit):

 

The root reason for the precept is known: for it is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to it; and as a result, good fortune will cling to us, and we will move well away from every evil thing and from every matter of destructiveness…They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.

 

The Sefer HaChinuch helps explain what motivated Ya’akov’s exceptional effort to save a few vessels: to love and cling to what is good in the world, and to avoid waste of any degree.

 

In this vein, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the command “do not destroy,” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position that G-d has given them as masters of the world and its matter to capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.”[5] He elaborates on this in his book Horeb by means of a hypothetical statement of God’s:

 

Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My [G-d’s] teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human…However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human…and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against my world, you commit murder and robbery against my property, you sin against Me![6]

 

Ya’akov’s re-crossing of the stream exposes a striking contrast between two worldviews on material possessions. One sees the things we own as essential and indispensable; the other views them as expendable and disposable.

 

For us, living in a world of abundance where it is so easy to throw things away, Ya’akov’s example presents a particular challenge. In 1955, the retailing analyst Victor Lebow highlighted a trend in consumer society away from greater mindfulness regarding possessions and toward a more short-term view.

 

He wrote: Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.[7]

 

The trend he describes has only become more pronounced in the half-century since Lebow wrote these words. We throw away useable items because they are a few years old and maybe outdated by new products; we discard clothing and appliances and buy new ones instead of repairing them; and we commonly buy goods wrapped in disposable packaging.

 

Our relationship with the resources we consume has significant consequences for the planet. Most of the big things that happen in the world are really just the consequences of a lot of small things put together. A global consensus of scientists has stated that human actions are changing the climate balance on earth, with likely negative impacts for human civilization. They foresee more intense storms and floods, shifting disease vectors, and sea level rise threatening hundreds of millions of people in low-lying areas.[8]

 

Yet how is it possible that human beings could cause such widespread imbalance? It really comes down to the small vessels – mining aluminum for one can, trucking one glass bottle to a faraway dump, as well as countless other small acts – multiplied by 250 years of industrial society and billions of people.

 

Today’s global environmental crises can be pinned on no group of people or nation, and solving them will require the participation of billions of individuals. It is on this crucial level of the individual that Ya’akov’s actions can speak so profoundly.

 

Ya’akov’s going back for two or three vessels teaches us that little things matter. In our consumer age the message has only become more relevant. We all have the potential to be truly righteous. May we learn from Ya’akov’s example and come to live in a more Divine-aware and sustainable way.

 

Suggested Action Items:[9]

  1. Buy in Bulk
  2. Use rechargeable batteries instead of disposable ones
  3. Bring your own cloth bags when you go food shopping
  4. Avoid buying food packaged in individual wrappers
  5. Bring a reusable mug to the cafe when you purchase coffee
  6. Pack your lunch in reusable containers
  7. Wrap presents in reusable cloth bags or reused wrapping paper
  8. Use both sides of sheets of paper
  9. Rent items you use infrequently
  10. Go back for a bottle and reuse or recycle it
 
Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He holds an MA and BA from Stanford University and engaged in Jewish learning for seven years at multiple institutions of Jewish studies in Israel. He lives with his wife and son in Jerusalem.  

Notes:

[1] Genesis 32:25. Babylonian Talmud, Chulin, 91a. Midrash Agada – Buber on 32:25. Raashi on 32:25. The Gur Aryeh (Maharal of Prague) on 32:24 says these were two or three very small vessels. Baalei Tosafot on 32:25 understood levado as hinting at lecado, ‘for his vessels’.
[2] Orchot Tzaddikim on Genesis 32:24. Medieval. Anonymous rabbinic Torah Commentator
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b
[4] Sefer HaChinuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education, evidently by Rabbi Pinhas haLevi of Barcelona, 16th century, translated by Charles Wengrov. Feldheim: Jerusalem, vol. 5 p. 145, on Mitzva 529—Ba’al Tashchit.
[5] Comment to Deuteronomy 19:20, in The Pentateuch, Translated and Explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 5 Deuteronomy, rendered into English by Isaac Levy. Judaica Press: Gateshead, England, 1982. p. 395
[6] Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, by Samson Raphael Hirsch, translated by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, Soncino Press: London, 1962, vol. 2, p. 279
[7] “The Journal of Retailing,” Spring 1955, p. 7
[9] Taken and adapted from Environment Canada.

 

Parshat Vayeitzei: Ya’akov and Going Out

By Avi Neuman

The Parsha of Vayeitzei is dedicated by Menachem Ely, in honor of his family.

The Sefer of Bereishit is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

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In Parshat Vayeitzei, Ya’akov goes out into the world in a way that neither Yitzchak nor Avraham ever could. His departure is one of situating himself within broken spaces: the places in which G-d seems most hidden, yet paradoxically, within which true meanings of wholeness are revealed. His story is our story.Ya’akov knows that social reality is often one of exploitation and fracture; he will experience both in his life with Lavan and beyond. His spiritual labor in this parsha, and our labor too, is that of becoming a force for positive change in the midst of the frustrations and machinations of a material world. Ya’akov is the first person we see actually work for a living in the Torah, and it is in the struggle to balance material endeavor with G-d consciousness, truth, and awareness that Ya’akov comes fully into his power.Our parsha opens with Ya’akov leaving Be’ersheva. He is fulfilling his father’s last wishes and seeking a wife for himself in Haran. On the way he lies down in a particular place that he will come to name Beit-El. Ya’akov dreams there of a ladder set upon the earth with its top reaching towards the heavens. Angels are ascending and descending before him, as G-d appears to Ya’akov and promises that the land upon which he is lying will be for him and for his offspring; that He will be with him and guard him wherever he goes.[1] In coming to this vision we are told that Ya’akov “encountered the place.”[2] Rashi relates that the physical space that would one day hold the Holy Temple actually moved towards Ya’akov at Beit-El.[3] Furthermore, Rashi[4] brings from the Midrash that the sun set early that day so that Ya’akov would be drawn to lie down on that spot. These signs seem to signify a mutable and temporary physical world; one that is but a garment for deeper spiritual truth and oneness.Yet the point is not that the material world and its concerns are for nothing. Directly following his exhilarating vision, Ya’akov makes a vow binding his relationship to G-d to the provision of simple, even mundane needs: “If G-d will be with me and guard me on this path that I travel, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, then G-d will be a G-d to me.”[5]  This seems a strange vow made at a perplexing time.Especially since Ramban[6] tells us that Ya’akov’s dream is one of ultimate security. It reveals that nothing happens on earth in the absence of a decree from above, and even within that truth Ya’akov will not come under the auspices of the angels – forces of perpetual determination, bereft of free will or choice. Hashem promises:  “I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go.”[7] Ya’akov will be “G-d’s portion.”[8] He is connected and communicates directly.Yet he is afraid.The Midrash tells us that G-d asks Ya’akov: “Why don’t you go up the ladder?”  Ya’akov becomes faint and answers: “Because all of these who ascended are descending; so will I go down.” G-d assures him: “If you go up, you will not go down.” But Ya’akov could not believe it and did not go up.[9] What is Ya’akov scared of?I believe that in the instant of his engagement with “place” and vision at Beit-El, Ya’akov saw the narrow bridge stretching out before him as he moved towards an abyss that would do its utmost to draw him in.  To help us understand his experience, the Beit Ya’akov[10] brings the Midrash Rabbahasking why we sometimes refer to G-d as Makom, the same word used here to denote “place.” The answer: It is because G-d is the place of the world; it is not that the world is His place.

As Rebbe Nachman reminds us: “The world and all that fills it is potential…only G-d alone is necessity.”[11] Bringing that understanding into day to day living is a spiritual labor of situating the spectrum of material possibility within the reality of a wholeness that precedes and contains it. It requires living every moment in intimate relationship with G-d.

Ya’akov fully encounters Makom in its aspect of “place,” at exactly this moment, as he stands on the edge of radical transformation. That is where we engage G-d in the deepest sense of growing and knowing. The Beit Ya’akov likens this to morning light. Until it comes in, the world is a liminal mix of light, dark and shadow; a place in which meaning is difficult to ascertain.

Then comes that moment when light begins to illuminate the day. Within that transition we experience a powerful sense, an echo of the creative will that underlies it all. We understand that the vessel contains infinitely more than its simple structure suggests. It is this appreciation that dawned on Ya’akov at Beit-El. The responsibility inherent in that knowing awed him.

Ya’akov connects to an inner point of G-d awareness through which he must face the world to bring the material issues he encounters to a conscious place. His vow is now not so strange. He asks for the strength, protection and sustenance to bring this labor of spirit and body to fruition.[12] He realizes that even the simplest things are not really his to acquire.

Such understanding is a crucial foundation for any environmental work striving for real change. It was necessary for Ya’akov to leave the comforts of home and society in order to gestate, transform and become. It is now necessary for him to reenter society and bring that which is holy into all that is profane. That is a labor that can only be accomplished through bringing awareness to action. Ya’akov is perhaps the first spiritual social activist.

Ya’akov teaches us that environmental — or any other social action — is at root the recognition that our lives can manifest the world as it should be, rather than accepting what it is or appears to be. A truly “Jewish” ecology must recognize spiritual orientation, or reorientation, as the starting point for meaningful practical action.

Following his encounter, Ya’akov doesn’t withdraw into meditative prayer and ecstatic communion with the Divine.  Alive with new purpose he “lifted his feet,”[13] and stepped forward to struggle with the realities of sustenance, family, social living and justice. Sforno[14]  tells us that when a person travels to a place with purpose, that drives him to lift his feet.

Ya’akov arrives on the outskirts of Haran, engages the shepherds, lifts the stone from the well, recognizes and embraces Rachel, bursts into tears. He is a whirlwind of action and interaction; inflamed by the overwhelming passion to forge a life based in wholeness and truth. He is on fire with the beauty of potential, even as he understands all too well, that the world is only potential. With that realization, the work of integrating what is necessary begins.

 

Suggested Action Items:

Reorienting ourselves towards meaningful action in the world is hard, and removing ourselves from the patterns and habits of daily living to redefine relationships to material things is a struggle. Leaving it all behind for a while as Ya’akov did may not always feel like a practical reality, but fresh perspective is a necessary piece of the process.

Here are some simple ways I try to create that space in my life:

  1. Take up to one hour every day away from all the things competing for your time and energy. Reflect inwards and make decisions concerning who you are, how you want to grow, and the impact you have on the social, spiritual, and physical environments you inhabit. Ask G-d to open you to the possibilities.
  2. Make conscious decisions about your patterns of consumption and begin taking specific actions to shift the balance. For example, every time you buy something actually stop for a second and ask yourself: “Is this something I want, or something that I need?” Try to get to the root of what the difference between those two impulses is for you. For one week buy only those things that you “need.” See what that feels like.
  3. Teach your children healthy patterns of giving and try to infuse them with a relationship to material things based in sharing. For example, every morning give your child the “honor” of distributing coins to their siblings and other members of the household to give as tzedakah (charity). At birthday parties, have your child serve his or her guests their cake before being served a piece her or himself — not as a chore, but as an honor.

 

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Avi Neuman lives and learns at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva Kollel with his wife Debby and daughters Kirvayah Maayan and Anayah Ohr. Summers the family teaches in the U.S.Avi holds M.A.s in Anthropology and Folklore, is an avid gardener, writer and hand-drummer.

 

Notes:

[1] Bereishit 28:10-15

[2] Bereishit 28:11

[3] Rashi, Bereishit 28:11, s.v. “vayifga bamakom.”

[4] Rashi, Bereishit 28:11, s.v. “ki va hashemesh.”

[5] Bereishit 28:20-21

[6] Ramban, Bereishit 28:12, s.v. “vihinei sulam.”

[7] Bereishit 28:15

[8] Devarim 32:9

[9] Midrash Tanchumah,Vayeitze 2, s.v. vayachalom vihinei sulam

[10] Sefer Beit Ya’akov on the Torah Bereishit, Vayeitzei, 15

[11] Likutey Moharan, Part I:52a

[12] See Nechama Liebowitz, Studies in Bereishit, pp. 306-307

[13] Bereishit 29:1

[14] Sforno, Bereishit 29:1

The Conflict of Yaakov and Esav

by Rabbi Shaul Judelman

 

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The narrative of Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau) is an epic that contains within it a conflict that is very alive; and which all of us can probably feel, once we translate it from Torah language into our own words and concepts.

Kabalistic interpretations teach that Esav’s soul came from the world of Tohu (chaotic, energetic, and wild).[1]  This phrase refers back to the story of creation (Genesis 1:2) and the status of the world before light and the beginning of order. Tohu is a spiritual state that has very recognizable manifestations in this world. In environmental language it would be deemed as unsustainable, though it is far more than this. Tohu is often dominated by urge over thought, the moment over the future. Esav represents this world in many of his actions.

As the verses in Toldot describe the growth of the two children, “Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field- while Jacob was a simple (up front) man who sat in tents.”[2]  We can interpret this as saying Esav lives his life in the field, a place of open uncertainty, while Jacob is of the tent and the home, a place of stability and conviction.  Esav and Jacob are destined for conflict, as prophetically related to Rebecca when she went to inquire of the unrest she felt in her womb. She was told that she played host to two destinies, and rather vaguely that the greater will serve the younger. The dichotomy here is between the driving force of Esav’s unbridled desire, and Jacob’s tikkun of this urge. This is the tension that pervades their interactions.

As Esav returns from a day of hunting (and perhaps much more abrasive activities, suggests the Gemara: murder, rape and more), Jacob has been cooking soup.[3]  In these verses we are seemingly told incidentally that Esav is called Edom because of his desire for the red, red soup to be poured down his throat upon his coming home tired. What is phenomenal in the story of Esav selling his birthright to Jacob is his reasoning why the soup is more important. “Behold I will die, and for what is this birthright for me?”[4]  The Torah’s description of this story has deep repercussions for a society that so readliy swallows the values of Esav.

The culture that wants things NOW has given us fast food, fast cars, and quickly melting polar ice caps.  This culture is out of balance.  What does balance mean?  Balance means that my own physical needs are accorded to out of a nexus of relationships. These might include other people’s needs, my future needs, or the availability of resources. There is a strong critique within environmental discourse against the nature of the society that developed modern technology. However, this is not a diatribe against technology or modernity, but it is a strong statement about the manner in which we pour things down our throat.  This analysis occurs both on the personal level, our private consumption habits, as well as on the societal level, regarding our willingness to manufacture and pursue ways of living that have not yet proven their balance. Esav and the energies of Tohu have a tendency towards destruction. The kings of Esav that ruled and died at the end of parshat Va’Yetze are referred to in Kabbala as the elements of the creation process that couldn’t last or sustain themselves.[5]  They are referred to as the worlds that were destroyed. The lights broke the vessels. The desires and abilities of the lights shattered the physical world’s capacity to contain them.

The Kings of Esav are still alive (though maybe not for long!) in our day.  Consider the following popular statistic: if the whole world lived with the same consumption pattern as the average American, it would take 5.3 earths to support everyone.[6]   Esav is living today as if he’s going to die tomorrow. That is not without a kernel of truth.  He will. The question is really will we leave an earth for our children to inherit? Will there be fresh drinking water, fish in seas, and monkeys in the trees? Will our children be able to run around and inhale fresh air? In some places we are already seeing sad answers to these questions.

In his commentary on parsha Vayeshev, which directly follows the Torah’s listing of the 7 kings of Esau that ruled and fell, the Mei haShiloach (a Chassidic commentary) makes a dramatic statement. He says that the process of refinement within Israel begins in this parsha.

Many years after Jacob flees in the face of Esav’s anger, he returns. This time he returns not alone, but with his wives, children and flocks. Esav also does not greet him alone, but is accompanied by a gang of 400 men and their horses. Towards the end of their meeting, where a relative peace is made, Esav offers to Jacob that they should travel together. Jacob replies with an environmental imperative strongly akin to that of the Native Americans pledge to the Seventh Generation:[7]  “My master must pass before his servant. And I will lead to the slower pace of my work that is before me, and the pace of the children until I reach you in Seir…And Esav returned on his way to Seir. And Jacob traveled to Sukot, where he built dwellings for the animals…”[8]

And thus the paths of our two ways split. Esav/ Edom/ Western Civilization continued at its own rapid pace and with its own volatile philosophies. And as the Jacobean/Israel ideal, we have traveled our own unique path. We are destined for the same place- As the Torah says- “Yitzchak (Isaac) loved Esav.” We are not to totally disengage Esav, as tradition holds that Yitzchak saw the morsels of good that Esav beheld.[9]  The fruits of technology and Western thought are indeed many.

As environmentalists, we must learn the lesson that Yaakov tries to give to Esav: that the considerations for our children and animals must also determine the pace of our travel. We must find sustainable vessels for our tremendous abilities of creation. When we relate to the moment at hand, our attention must focus on our shared futures on this earth, and we must always try and remember to make responsible decisions that are in accordance with this reality.

 

Notes:

[1] Etz Chaim,  Heichal HaNikudim (Shaar 8, ff.)
[2] Breishit 25:27
[3] Baba Batra 16:
[4] Breishit 25, 32-4
[5] Arizal- Likutei Torah on parshat Vayetze
[6] ecofoot
[7]  The Seventh Generation Fund was founded to, among other objectives, “revise the decline in traditional, family-scale farming among the community by developing educational programs that demonstrate sustainable agriculture.
[8] Breishit 33:13-14
[9] Arizal Etz Chaim sha’ar 208, 3

Parshat Toldot: Digging the Wells: The Importance of Protecting Our Natural Resources

By Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

 

(translated from the original Hebrew by Ariel Shalem)

The Parsha of Toldot is dedicated by Baruch and Ora Sheinson, in honor of our son, Mordechai Yaakov Sheinson. 

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

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The limited resources of the world we live in affect wide spheres of influence. To the extent that a resource is more essential and uncompromising in its need, the more potential it has to lead to conflict and war.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Yitzchak (Isaac) faces conflict with the Philistines and the people of Gerar rooted in the age-old struggle surrounding the scarcity of water.[1] The shepherds of Gerar claim, “The water is ours,” (Gen. 26:20)[2] and effectively expel Yitzchak from the area of the well in contention, forcing him to find a new source of water.

Contrary to this behavior, the Philistines simply fill up the wells Yitchak used with dirt. The desires of the Philistines to hurt Yitzchak as a result of their jealousy toward him[3] brought them to the place where they preferred to destroy their own ability to draw water from the wells in order to attain a political end.

The issue of water is one of the most primary issues – perhaps even the largest issue- impacting the environment and more directly and immediately influencing mankind’s current quality of living. We are not merely dealing with a potential environmental crisis that threatens tomorrow’s generations, but with environmental questions that have very concrete and specific ramifications in today’s world.

Water is the concern that requires us to directly face the undeniable and harsh realization that the world’s natural resources are critically limited, and that all of creation is dependent on the existence of these natural treasures.

Our Torah portion can offer us insight as to how to deal with ’s contemporary water crisis. The first teaching is the necessity to remove natural resources from the realm of destruction in times of conflict and war. The fact that the Philistines deliberately filled up the wells of Yitzchak in order to expel him from their midst reflects the dangers of war and the need to protect natural resources even in times of serious conflict.

The Torah comes to place limits on our ability to respond harshly during war and forbids us from wantonly destroying fruit-bearing trees as a military tactic.[4] Even in the midst of struggle one must take the “day after” into consideration and understand the profound need for sustainability for both sides of the conflict.

The second narrative in our Torah describes the process of developing additional water sources. Yitzchak was forced to abandon the wells of his father, as well as some of his own wells, and continuously searched for new sources of water.[5] We too are bound by the unremitting task to develop supplementary sources of water and must avoid relying solely on what exists.

There are many ways to acquire new sources of water. One possible solution is to gather rainwater (as opposed to letting it flow to the Mediterranean ) in ways that balance the needs of the ecosystem with the human need for more water.

We should be investing more effort in preserving an efficient maintenance of the national aqueduct, and at the same time eliminating even more than we already have the waste and negligence which accounts for much lost water. One example: rather than have an open channel from which water is lost by evaporation, we can use closed tunnels.

Additionally, one of the greatest sources for increased water supply is through the purification of recycled water – something already done in ’s agricultural sector. An increased investment in this technology is critical.

Although the ethics for wise and appropriate water consumption practices are not found in our Torah portion, it is nonetheless included in the general prohibition of wanton destruction (ba’al tashchit). Due to the direct connection between water and life, the conservation of water becomes a halachic obligation, deriving its source from the laws concerning the mitzvah “You shall not stand idly by while your brothers blood is spilt,” (Lev. 19:16) as well as part of the prohibition of ba’al tashchit.[6]

In Israel’s private sector, what we are speaking of could translate into a small yet significant conservation of water: turning off the faucet when not in use, watering plants and gardens only at night, using only landscaping that is appropriate for Israel’s dry climate, e.g., no lawns in the desert or golf courses in Israel, water-conserving ways of car washing, and requiring efficient and minimized water tanks above toilets, and more.

On an Israeli national and industrial level, the challenge is more complex. First and foremost, there must be a government-led initiative toward proper commercial consumption and water usage, including the establishment of an appropriate price of water that would discourage the growing of products that demand exorbitant amounts of water, the management of agricultural consumption and waste of water, and the prudent use of water in the industrial sector.

The water issue in the State of Israel plays out in the international arena in two ways. On one hand, what we see in our Torah portion is also what we see in our newspaper headlines. One of our national existential struggles is our attempt to establish control over the Jordan River ’s precious sources of water, which are partially found in enemy states.

Geopolitically, our regional neighbors suffer from similar water problems, and the lack of water in our arid region only adds fuel to the already existing political conflagrations, thus contributing to the fears that water sources will be deliberately destroyed or poisoned or our enemies will find an additional pretext to attack the state of Israel.

On the other hand, this could be a very fine hour for the Jewish Nation to solve this regional and global concern. Israel’s resourcefulness has already proven to contribute many solutions to water scarcity. Drip irrigation is an Israeli invention that caused a revolution in agriculture,[7] and boasts the largest desalinization plant in the world.[8]

If Israel would continue to invest its intellectual prowess towards this complex issue, it could not only solve its regional issues but also bring well-being to the entire globe. First, it could minimize the amount of deaths that occur each year from thirst and water contamination. It could also rehabilitate regions in the world that have exhausted their natural resources as a result of ignorant water management. Finally, it could increase the global output of food by unleashing the latent power that nature possesses.

Furthermore, Israel could lead the way in fostering a new culture: One that promotes a sustainable relationship to water consumption and our environment.  A culture that incorporates future realities in the decisions of today. A culture that consumes a more modest and humble share of the planet’s limited resources. A culture where humans understand that they are the crowns of creation and hence have a responsibility to actively protect and preserve the planet. A culture that does not destroy our planet’s resources out of political interests, but cultivates them in order to future world peace.

This idyllic culture and the peace that it merits is described in our prophecies concerning the end of days:

Then the lame man will skip like a gazelle and the tongue of the mute will sing glad song. For water will have broken out in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The scorched place will become a pond and the parched place- springs of water. The abode where the jackals rested will become grassland with reeds and bulrushes.  (Isaiah 35:6-7)

Although this passage is allegorical, we are not allowed to ignore the literal meaning of the text. The “blossoming desert,” turning into a powerhouse of developing new water sources for herself and for the whole world, is not only a metaphor for the redemption of humankind – it is the redemption itself.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. To save water, make a commitment to turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, between washing hands, and while lathering dishes.  This small action will raise your consciousness about all your water use.
  2. Learn about water challenges in the Land of Israel and in your local community.
  3. To find great actions to protect water in your home, visit this article.


Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Petach Tikva, is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a retired major in the IDF. After obtaining his Rabbinic Semicha, Rabbi  Cherlow served as the Rav of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, and as a Rav at the Hesder Yeshiva in Chispin. 
Rabbi Cherlow was amongst the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, a central Modern Orthodox foundation which works to build bridges between the religious and secular worlds. Rav Cherlow is a member of Governmental Ethical Committees, and of the Presidential Press Council.

Ariel Shalem was born and raised in Los Angeles and made aliyah to in 1995. He recieved a BA in English Literature from Bar Ilan Univeristy and is currently learning in the Rabbinical ordination program at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in .  He is also an educator and encourages his high school students to think openly and consciously about themselves and their environment.

 

 

Notes:

 

[1] According to the simplest reading of the text, the Philistines are a people living in the land of Gerar. However, the text differentiates between the actions of the shepards of Gerar and the actions of the Philistines.
[2] All scriptural translations have been taken from The Stone Edition Tanach, Mesorah Publications.
[3]   Gen. 26:14: “…and the Philistines envied him (Yitzchak).”
[4]   Deut. 20:19: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down…”
[5] See Gen. 26:18-22.
[6] The biological perspective, which essentially states that water equals life (and the inverse), also gives credence to our global reality where lack of water translates into conflict, war, starvation, illness and devastation.
[7] Read more about Israel’s efforts to innovate in water management technology: “Watering a Thirsty Planet.”
[8] Click on this article for more information about advanced Israeli water technologies.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Praying in the Fields

By Drew Kaplan

 

The Parsha of Chayei Sarah is dedicated in memory of Sophie Katz, a true woman of valour, who inspired us all to seek learning and live life fully.

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

View a Printable Version |  source sheet

 

Since Yitzhak went to the field to pray in this week’s Torah portion, the world has not been the same. The Talmud offers two sources for our requirement to pray three daily prayers; one is the prayers themselves of the three forefathers of the Jewish people. Avraham is credited with instituting shaharit, the morning prayer; Yitzhak grants us minhah, the afternoon prayer; and Ya’akov gives us ma’ariv, the evening prayer.

The Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Genesis to establish each prayer. For Yitzhak, on whom we will concentrate, it is written (Brachot 26b):

Yitzhak instituted the afternoon prayer service, as it is said, “And Yitzhak went out to su’ah in the field before evening” (Gen. 24:63); and there is no sihah except prayer, as it is said, “A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and pours forth his supplications (siho) before HaShem” (Ps. 102:1).[1]

The Sages saw these verses as being connected in the linguistic similarity of the word siah, and they saw in them that what Yitzhak was doing was praying.  However, this claim is made on the seemingly ambiguous meaning of su’ah found in the verse related to Yitzhak. From where does this connection come?

One Talmudic commentary, Tosafot, suggests that the reason why this word is used in both places is that while one might have thought that Yitzhak simply went out to speak with someone in the field, he actually went out to pray.[2]

However, the term evokes a striking similarity to a word of the same root found earlier in Genesis: “Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for HaShem G-d had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5)

The usage in our verse relating to Yitzhak may now take on an additional dimension – it seems as there may have been an agricultural element to Yitzhak’s outing in the field.  Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) suggests that what Yitzhak was actually doing in the field was planting trees as well as checking up on his agricultural efforts. (Gen. 24:63, “Ve-yetze Yitzhak la-su’ah basadeh”).[3]

What was it that the Talmudic sages saw in our verse to understand that Yitzhak was praying? Is it possible that the Torah would make sure to tell us that Yitzhak was engaged in mundane agricultural activities? The answer leads one to see that his action was one from which later generations can learn much.

The connection between these two verses in their use of this same word is deeply meaningful when one considers that on the second verse — “Now all the trees (siach) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for HaShem G-d had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5) Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki (Rashi), the eleventh century medieval scholar, comments:

For what is the reason that G-d had not yet sent rain, because there was no man to work the land and there was no one to acknowledge the goodness of the rain, and when man came and knew that they (the rain) are a need for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and grasses sprouted.” (Gen. 2:5, “ki lo himtir”).

The usage of the term in this verse may be about agriculture, but the verse is telling us that human beings are needed in order to pray!

But that is not all. The verse preceding the above one states: “These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created on the day that HaShem G-d made earth and heaven.” (Gen. 2:4) There is a direct connection between G-d’s creating of the si’ah and to the tending of the si’ahdone by man. In other words, G-d created it in order for man to tend to it. Being involved with the earth is an act whereby one connects with G-d’s handiwork.

In line with this, Rabbi Yohanan, the late third century Talmudic sage, said that one may not pray in a house without windows (Brahot 34b).  Rashi commented that Rabbi Yohanan said this because looking outside causes one to focus towards heaven and one’s heart will be humbled (Brahot 34b, s.v.halonot).  More than just simply focusing towards heaven, however, one will be able to see the natural landscape – G-d’s handiwork.  By praying in a house without windows, one would be surrounded by man’s handiwork, which does not strike one with as much awe and appreciation for G-d.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov instructed his followers to engage in hitbodedut, or to speak with G-d in the field for an hour every day. In explaining Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, Rabbi Natan Greenberg stated that real prayer involves conversation with the natural world around a person. Indeed, the strength of prayer comes from the Divine, spiritual energy flowing from nature.

A person needs all the spiritual energy of the earth to give strength to one’s prayer. Yitzhak first manifests this type of prayer through his connection to nature. He comes to it because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him. He wants to be in a simple world, G-d’s world, so he walks and prays in the field.[4]

For Yitzhak, praying to G-d in nature was a central part of his Divine service, and it can be for us as well. As Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig wrote:

“It is interesting that in this week’s parashah, when it is reported that Yitzhak davens (prays) Minhah, it says, ‘Vayetze Yitzhak lasu’ah bashadeh’ – Yitzhak went out to supplicate in the field. He left behind all of his worries, and put everything aside so that he could focus on Hashem. And we must do the same – not only every day, to daven Minchah – but throughout our busy, busy lives. We must find the time to leave our worldly cares behind, and venture out into the fields where we will encounter Hashem.”[5]

The natural world is an excellent setting for praying to G-d. While the Sages call for daily prayer within the walls of the synagogue, Rebbe Nahman calls for daily conversations with G-d in nature, while also leaving open the possibility of occasional prayers to G-d beyond the walls of the prayer hall. By both our going out and working with G-d’s creation and by praying within this creation – we seize the opportunity to grow closer to G-d.

Our ability to connect to our Creator in the world He created is an indicator of our ability to live in balance with that natural world. A primarily urban, post-industrial Jewish people that is alienated from G-d’s Oneness as manifested in the natural world will certainly misuse that which G-d has given us.

The litany of ecological problems we face — from air and water pollution to species extinction and urban sprawl — testify to the Jewish people’s disconnect from the natural environment which G-d gave them. Re-connecting to the inspired outdoor prayers of our forefathers can help us regain a sense of the grandeur of G-d’s world and of our responsibility to live in balance with it.

 

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Learn Rebbe Nahman’s teachings on hitbodedut and practice them, reconnecting with yourself and G-d’s world as you do! (For a wonderful English book that gives Rebbe Nahman’s teachings on hitbodedut in condensed form, see Where Earth and Heaven Kiss by Ozer Bergman.)
  2. Daven (pray) outside, or to go daven with a minyan outside in order to daven with G-d’s handiwork surrounding oneself.
  3. Plant a garden (or a few herbs in pots) and as you care for it, pray that your produce will grow!

 

Drew Kaplan is currently a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City.  Originally from GahannaOH, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Jewish Studies.

Notes:

[1] In another Talmudic statement, these two verses are switched around to derive an imperative for prayer (Avodah Zarah 7b):

Rabbi Eliezer says, “One should request one’s needs and, after that, one should pray, as it is said, ‘A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and ours forth his supplications (siho) before HaShem’ (Ps. 102:1) – there is no sihah except for prayer, as it is said, ‘And Yitzhak went out to siah in the field’ (Gen. 24:63).”

[2] See Avodah Zarah. 7b, Tosafot, s.v. ve-ayn sihah.

[3] By contrast, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that what Yitzhak did in this verse was merely to walk between the shrubs (Gen. 24.63, s.v. la-su’ah) – simply enjoying them.

[4] Shiur on Likutei Moharan, part 2, teaching 11. Rabbi Greenberg is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Bat Ayin Yeshiva. This shiur is available in audio form at bat-ayin.org.

[5] Rabbi of Congreg

ation B’nai Shalom in Williamsville, New York.