At Jewish Newport
November 4, 2023
Drink from the Fountain of Hope
Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine
Thanks to Rabbi Stephen Belsky
Also on facebook
Last week I got a call from Rabbi Loel Weiss, “Can you come to services at Touro on Shabbat morning?” Since COVID, I have strayed... I quickly agreed. I got up early and drove 1.5 hours from Andover, MA, arriving just as services were starting at 8:45 AM. Only nine men were present at Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI at 9:35. We took out the Torah and waited for a regular or a visitor to make a minyan so we could read from the Torah. And waited and waited.There was something about the way the sunlight played in the synagogue that gave a special glow.
To help the minutes pass faster, Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s Interim Rabbi Stephen Belsky repeated his discussion from Friday evening. He has been reviewing the Friday evening service by discussing one paragraph each week. This week's paragraph was the first paragraph of the Shema. We read וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ which Sefaria.org translates as, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Rabbi Belsky recapitulated: The "heart" represents the mind, as the paragraph continues by saying that all of God's words should be on our heart. The "soul" represents life and its continuation from generation to generation, as the next verse instructs us to teach God's words throughout our own lives and also to our children. The "might” (or “resources,” as it is sometimes translated) is then elaborated on at the end of the passage, where the commandments of tefillin and mezuzah represent taking the words of Torah and turning them into action.
At 10:00 AM, a couple visiting from Cambridge, MA arrived. After talking with the guard about their backpacks, they entered. The young man had a distinctive accent. He hailed from Auckland, New Zealand. We proceeded to the Torah reading. There were honors and parts of the service for all. Rabbi Belsky davened the first part of the service, I led the return of the Torah and Henry Spencer davened the Haftorah and Musaf with his lilting voice.
Rabbi Belsky’s Dvar began with a riddle. In describing the Torah portions of these recent weeks, he said, “We follow one man's story from cradle to grave. A birth is predicted, divine promises are sworn, families and individuals pass through struggle and trauma and come out stronger; and when this man leaves the world, the legacy of a great nation will begin to sprout like grass over his grave.”
He said he was not referring to Avraham and Isaac, and added that, “And when he dies after a long and successful life, the very last paragraph of the parasha next week will tell us that [he] was the ancestor of twelve tribes who settled and spread across the Middle East.”
To my surprise Rabbi Belsky explained that he was referring to ישמעאל Ishmael. He mentioned that Ishmael is frequently seen as one of three main villains in the stories of the first book of the Torah. The others are Cain (who killed his brother) and Esau (who wanted to kill his brother). But Ishmael, on the other hand, does not seem to have done anything wrong.
After Isaac was born, Sarah saw Ishmael playing or laughing and asked Abraham to expel Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Abraham consulted God and then expelled them. They were saved by an angel at a well, just as God had comforted Hagar at the well of B’eir Laḥai Ro’i when she was pregnant, the place where Isaac eventually settled down.
To our sages every word counts, and the commentator Rashi said midrash told us that Ishmael’s laughing referred to murder, idolatry, or sexual misconduct.
But, Rabbi Belsky explained, in the midrashim that Rashi quotes, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai actually disproves that interpretation. The only reason given in the story of Ishmael's banishment is that he isn't supposed to be Avraham's heir. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that Ishmael probably literally laughed because he was the first born son, and yet everyone was celebrating Isaac's birth as if the little brother would be the heir.
In any case, Ishmael and Isaac both fathered great nations, they buried Avraham together, and appear to have both gotten along with each other and treated their father with respect.
Just as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai thought about Ishmael 2000 years after he lived, it is now 2000 years since the time of Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Belsky told us, “When we look…at the troubles in our lives and at our world of struggle and strife – and sometimes even horror – we have a choice before us:
“We can resign ourselves to bitterness, to the pain and disappointment of Hagar and our matriarch Sarah – or we can drink from the waters of B’eir Laḥai Ro’i like Isaac and Ishmael, [which is] not the legendary fountain of Youth, but something much more important – the fountain of Hope.”