message to the Hebrew

Sandwiched in a Torah portion packed with narrative is “the war of the kings” with Lot’s capture and rescue (Gen. 14). It begins, really, with Abraham and his nephew Lot separating to avoid quarrel over land for cattle herding (Gen. 13). YHVH spoke to Abraham “after Lot had parted from him,” promising “descendants like dust of the earth,” and Abraham dwelt by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to YHVH.

He is still living by the oaks of Mamre when the fugitive arrives to tell him that his nephew is in trouble, and Abraham sets off to rescue Lot:

And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [ha Ivri]…”

Does Abraham’s being an “ivri” — a “crosser-over” or “one from the outside” —  have anything to do with expectations about him and his response to Lot’s trouble? Why is this the first time Abraham is called by this name? Does being a Hebrew mean retainining sympathy — and a willingness to help — those on the other side?


Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) includes the first “say you’re my sister” incident with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12:10-20), the weird episode of the Abraham and the covenant of the pieces (Gen. 15:1ff), and the first installments in the tales of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 16, 17:17-27).


“…I can be wrong”

sometimes I’m right, but I can be wrong

…we got to live together

— Sly and the Family Stone

Everyday People

Two messages from Playing for Change “Songs Around the World” seem in order. If you don’t know this organization, learn and support them — or at least give them a listen….

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

— Bill Withers

Lean on Me

Whence have you come?

An angel encounters Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 16:7). At this point, she has been introduced to us as maid to Sarah, who has been married to Abraham for ten years without producing a child (16:1). We are told that she was given by Sarah “as wife” to Abraham, that she became pregnant, and subsequently, scorned her mistress (“saw her as lightweight”). Sarah then afflicted Hagar, and Hagar ran away. Out in the wilderness, at the spring on the road, the angel speaks to Hagar.

No one in the story has addressed Hagar before this point. And only after the angel’s inquiry does Hagar speak. These obvious, but easily overlooked points are highlighted in Susan Niditch’s notes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and led me to marvel at the power of a few words.

With the fall holidays a few weeks behind us at this point, it’s not a bad idea to pause and (re-)consider* the angel’s query ourselves:

Whence have you come and
where are you going?

But we might also ask: How often have we needed someone to simply inquire and listen? How often do we stop to address someone encountered along the way?


For those observing two days of Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hagar is part of the first morning’s Torah reading.

Courageous Thoughts

Let’s return briefly to the questions which plagued author Sebastian Junger, in his suburban Boston youth, and set him a path that eventually led him to write Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
Tribe, p.xiv
(See “Covenant and Liturgy” for full citation and more)

Previous posts explored the concept of “sacrifice” and how it translates into Judaism. Here are a few notes on “courage.”

Ometz Lev

Like “sacrifice,” the word “courage” comes into English from Old French (corage) based on Latin (cor = heart). In Hebrew, the expression is “ometz lev [אַמִּיץ לֵב]” —   “to strengthen or reinforce [ometz]” one’s “heart [lev].”

One Jewish high school offers some useful remarks on how this value [middah] in Judaism might operate at different points in our lives:

Ometz Lev is the courage that allows us to accomplish goals in face of opposition. Often enough, that opposition comes from within us. The need for Ometz Lev (courage/ bravery) is not limited to outward challenges, but also to challenges from within. For example, neurological studies seem to suggest that in comparison to adult brains, adolescent brains have a tougher time maintaining long term focus. Conversely, the middle-aged brain is slower than the adolescent brain in starting a new task. It might take a bit of ometz lev to deal with pushing past natural inclinations.
— from “The Middah of Ometz Lev

Moving Traditions,” another teen-focused program, offers four texts for four types of courage people of all age could profitably consider:

Text #1 The Courage to Be Yourself

When the daughters of Yitro mistakenly called Moses an “Egyptian” Moses kept quiet. This is one of the reasons why he was not allowed into the Promised Land.

Moses cried out to the Holy One: Please, if I cannot enter the land in my life at least let my bones be buried there beside the bones of Joseph.

The Holy One said: Even when Joseph was captured, he said that he was a Hebrew.?But you pretended to be something you are not.

—Tanhuma Buber, 134


Text #2 The Courage to Control Impulses

Ben Zoma taught: Who is mighty? Those who conquer their evil impulse. As it is written: “Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty, and those who rule over their spirit better than those who conquer a city.”

—Pirkey Avot 4:1


Text #3 The Courage to Question Authority

The finest quality of a student is the ability to ask questions that challenge the teacher.

—Solomon Ibn Gabirol


Text #4 The Courage to Rescue Others

Why do you boast yourself of evil, mighty fellow? (Psalms 52:3). David asked Doeg: “Is this really might, for one who sees another at the edge of a pit to push the other into it? Or, seeing someone on top of a roof, to push the person off? Is this might? When can someone truly be called a ‘mighty person’? When there’s an individual who is about to fall into a pit, and that someone seizes the individual’s hand so that he/she does not fall in. Or, when that someone sees another fallen into a pit and lifts the other out of it.”

—Midrash Tehillim 52:6

More Sacrifice

In the list of general obligations that closed the previous post, the concept of “sacrifice” per se does not appear. This raised the question for me: Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

A few notes from a brief further exploration:

The substantial entry on “sacrifice” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, as a central example, focuses on the ancient system of ritual and interpretations, through the ages, of that system. Only three paragraphs in the 15,000-word article speak of non-ritual understandings of “sacrifice.” These are based on ancient ideas that study, prayer, and good deeds replace the Temple sacrifices.

Sacrifices are alive and well” in My Jewish Learning begins with the origin of the term :

The term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)in terms of “making something holy,” saying that the “most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)

In this piece, originally published by the Union for Reform Judaism, Deborah Gettes concludes:

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

“Prayer is the heart…of significant living,” Gettes notes, quoting Rabbi Morris Adler.

This brings me back to the “heart map” and prayer as an avenue to making Judaism’s “counter-cultural” message and covenant a part of our being. In particular, it puts me in mind of one comment incorporated into the map:

“Why fixed prayer? To learn what we should value…” (a teaching from Rabbi Chaim Stern included in the 1975 Gates of Prayer and in newer Reform prayerbooks.)

Sacrificial Notes

“Sacrifice” has been an important concept in baseball since the 1880s and a Christian concept for far longer. The term came into English from Latin, via Old French, and is generally defined as giving up one thing to obtain another.

“Sacrifice” in Hebrew

The word “sacrifice” is sometimes used by English translators of the Hebrew bible, as when Noah performs a ritual action right after leaving the ark:

וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ.
And Noah built an altar [מִזְבֵּחַ] to the LORD and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered [sometimes: “sacrificed”] burnt offerings [וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת] on the altar.
–Genesis 8:20

The Hebrew word for “altar” “mizbeach מִזְבֵּחַ” is linked with “zevach זְבֵּחַ,” one word for biblical sacrifice. But the Torah also uses other words, depending on the purpose and disposition of the offering:

minchah מִנְחָה” — “gift”
olah עֱלָה” — burnt offering, from “going up,”
sh’lamim שלמים” — “complete (or peace)” offering,
chatat חטאת” — “sin” offering, and
asham אשם” — “guilt” offering.

There are also offerings known by their content: “first fruits (bikkurim)” or “wave/sheaf (omer),” for example. Probably the most general term is “korban קָרְבָּן,” from the root for “becoming near.”

“Sacrifice” in Judaism?

A Jew’s obligations to oneself, to other individuals, and to the community are myriad. Here are a few of the most general:

  • We are warned to be for ourselves as well as for others (Avot 1:14)
  • We are told that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other [Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh]” (Shavuot 39a), and
  • We are reminded that caring for the poor and practicing lovingkindness are among the obligations without limit (Peah 1:1).

Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

Stay tuned and/or share your thoughts.

Covenant and Liturgy

A pair of questions disturbed journalist Sebastian Junger as a young suburban Boston resident, living “in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever happened,” he tells us in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
— Tribe, p.xiv

I found these oft-quoted lines baffling, and I was not alone in this reaction:

I am tempted to remind Junger that sacrifice and courage are necessary in many fields of life, from parenting to volunteering in refugee camps. He could also join a solidarity movement. That is what he claims he is seeking, after all.
Joanna Bourke in The Guardian

His analysis of life in Boston and its suburbs, for example, totally overlooks the sacrifices made by teachers, nurses, or those fighting for social justice, workers’ rights, against racism or other social ills in his own or other communities as well as the dangers experienced by African Americans or the poor in nearby Somerville or Boston itself.
Suzanne Gordon in Washington Monthly

But Rabbi Danny Zemel, in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Micah (DC), explained that he finds these questions “paramount,” understanding them somewhat differently in Jewish terms:

How do we become counter cultural? How do we become breakers of idols?”

Zemel points out that “[the Jewish] covenant commands us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and argues that the synagogue should be a “place where we can learn and absorb” a “counter-cultural” message in a world that can seem to applaud self-interest over group interest. He asks:

How do we learn this call – actually more than just learn it, but feel it in our being? How does it become “us?”

How does it become “us”?

For me, one clear answer is the liturgy, which I tried to express in the “heart map” below. Another is ensuring that we recognize, and regularly celebrate, the many opportunities to prove one’s worth to the community highlighted by Bourke and Gordon above. I remain confused by Junger’s youthful state of mind and join critics of Tribe who find that his “danger” focus led him to glorify war and miss abundant examples of courage.

As it happens, this year’s National Blog Posting Month theme is “Type your heart out.” Look for more daily posts on courage, heart, Judaism, and covenant as November unfolds.


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging NY. Sebastian Junger. Hatchette Book Group, 2016

Heart map inspired by Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry.