Tuesday, December 22, 2015


In the Hebrew Bible, Gen. 12: 1 begins with God’s command to Abraham to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The text is problematic, because in the Hebrew original, the verb “go” is repeated for purposes of intensifying the command (Gesenius, #119s): lekh lekha. This unnecessary duplication gave rise to a variety of interpretations by ancient sages as well as modern commentators.

Some argue that Abraham did indeed hear the command of God to leave his native country and move to a new land (later understood as the land of Canaan). I prefer to say that Abraham, assuming he was an historical character, was impelled by an inner voice that told him to move forward.

For the early Jewish/Greek Philosophers, like Philo of Alexandria (1st cent. CE), “Go forth” meant, to escape from the body, which “the foul prison-house” that pollutes the soul (“On the Migration of Abraham,” 9). This is hardly our thinking today.

In more recent times, in his classic commentary on the Pentateuch (Soncino, 1971), Dr. J. H. Hertz generalized the instruction, and applied it to the historical fate of the Jewish people that for many centuries had to live as a minority among other nations: “A similar call comes to Abraham’s descendants themselves in every age and clime, to separate themselves from all associations and influences that are inimical to their Faith and Destiny.” In other words, Jews have to learn how to become authentic Jews, even when they live with others.

Other interpreters, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888), stressed the existential condition of humanity by interpreting the expression as: “Go by yourself.” That is, the journey must be taken alone, and, with some luck, with good friends and family to support us along the way. I like this interpretation.

The command to “go forth” has also been understood in a psychological sense. In his well-known book, The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Riesman, had suggested that the goal in life is to move from being an “other-directed” person, whose existence depends on reliance on others, to becoming “an inner-directed” individual who is propelled by inner motivation and strength. 

Following Riesman’s line of thought, I would argue that it is necessary to be able to move from “dependence” to “independence” by learning how to take chances in life with freedom. In line with many Hasidic teachings, the biblical expression lekh lekha can therefore be understood as “Go to yourself.” This is my favorite interpretation. It says, go to your own roots, your inner being. Find your potential. Discover your own strength. Be your own person. 

Fortunate are those who can accomplish this goal.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015


In Genesis 15, God appears to Abram in a vision and promises to increase his reward. Abram, however, is very skeptic. He says to God: You are promising to give me wonderful things, yet, I do not have a child of my own who will carry on my name and work. God, reassures him that His promise still stands. The text ends with these words: “And because he [Abram] believed in the Lord, He [God] reckoned it to his merit” (v.6). 

This is a difficult text and has received various interpretations. For example, according to N. Sarna, “The idea is that Abram’s act of faith made him worthy of God’s reward, which is secured through a covenant” (JPS, Genesis, 113). But the basic questions remains: What does it mean “to believe?”

Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786, Germany), one of Jewish luminaries who lived during the period of Enlightenment, pointed out that there is no commandment in the Hebrew Bible “to believe,” but only to carry out good deeds. Thus, he added, “to believe” should be best rendered as “to trust” or “to affirm convincingly.” 

I think Mendelsohn is on the right track. When I trust someone, I do this on the basis of previous knowledge that the other person is harmless, and, even well-intentioned, cooperative and supportive. Certainty of conviction should be based on critical insight. Thus, for example, I trust nature because I have seen it function in a reliable way. I am certain that morning will follow night, because I have observed it before. 

I don’t like to use the word “faith,” because it often implies “blind faith” which is dangerous. A person who has a blind faith in another loses his/her critical acumen, and totally depends on someone else’s word or action. Whereas trust based on previous knowledge is comforting and indeed necessary. We need to be able to live with trust in others. Societal life is not possible without a friend trusting another, or a spouse relying on the partner’s word and deed. 

There are many theories as to why people shake hands. One of the most intriguing explanation is that by shaking hands the two sides convince each other that they are not hiding a weapon in their hand, and that they intend to cooperate rather than destroy one another. 

We live in a world of mistrust. We often tend to look at each other with cautious eyes, because we have seen how some people have total and uncritical faith in their leaders, in their system and in their way of life. We don’t need blind faith. Our goal should be to strengthen the human potential for verifiable trust, and to establish a society where people can relate to one another without fear. 

We are still very far from this ideal.
What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Dec. 2015

Saturday, December 5, 2015


In 175 BCE, when Antiochus Epiphanes IV became king in Damascus, the capital of Greek-Syria, he displayed great ambitions for his empire by attempting to conquer Egypt and other surrounding countries. He even gave himself the surname “Epiphanes” (meaning “the visible god”) and started to interfere in the politics of Judah. This did not sit well with many Jewish leaders, many of whom facetiously called the king “Epimanes” (meaning “the madman”). The king appointed Jason (for Joshua) (175–171 BCE) as High Priest instead of his brother Onias III. However, under the influence of the wealthy Tobias family, Antiochus replaced Jason with Menelaus (for Onias) (171–167 BCE), in exchange for a large sum of money (II Mac. 4: 24), even though Menelaus was not a member of the High Priestly family.

In 169–168 BCE, Antiochus IV set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, the deposed High Priest, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between Jason and Menelaus, and Jason successfully entered the city of Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. 

On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev, in 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greeks erected “a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering” (I Mac. 1: 54). Though the meaning of this expression is not altogether clear, it probably meant a pagan altar or statue. That was too much for many pious Jews. A priest by the name of Mattathias of the Hasmonean family from the town of Modein, not far from Jerusalem, along with his five sons decided to rebel. Some of their followers refused to fight on the Sabbath, and as a result many were massacred on this holy day. Mattathias and his sons thought otherwise. They said that the Sabbath was given to Israel to live and not to die. So, they urged their compatriots to carry weapons even on the Sabbath. Eventually, many of the Jews joined the Hasmoneans in their fight for freedom. 

The Hasmonean revolt continued after the death of Mattathias, with considerable success. Under the leadership of his son, Judah (called the Maccabee), the Jewish armies defeated the Syrians in 166 BCE. As a result of these military victories, parts of Judea were liberated and the Temple cleaned. After two years of defilement, the Temple was purified and rededicated to the worship of the one invisible God. This dedication (literally hanukah in Hebrew) took place on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, 165 BCE. The festival of Hanukah celebrates this major achievement.

Hanukah is now celebrated during a period of eight days. It is customary to light a candle each night on a candelabrum ("Hanukah Menorah") with eight branches, plus a helper called shammash. In the past, this was a minor holyday, but, because of its proximity in time to Christmas, it has become a major one, with gift giving, special foods, and family gathering.
This year, the first candle is lit on Sunday night, Dec. 6. 

Happy Hanukah! 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2015