As we sink into Shabbat, we reflect on the Torah. You can also find the insights below in our Shabbat Bulletin found weekly in the Beit Knesset.
We default to showing the current week, so please click either Next to see past weeks or click the Show Entries to see many weeks at once. You can also search for specific terms or authors going back to August 2015.
|02.16.18||Terumah||Ilene Serlin||In this parasha, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the tablets and remains for 40 days and nights. G-d appeared under a cloud cover and tells Moses to collect gifts (Terumah) from the people, and build him a Tabernacle so that he can “dwell amongst them.” He provides the exact details of how to construct it, and what objects are to be placed within it. Seven aliyot or speeches define the creation of sacred space, including precious materials and the building the Ark; the table for the showbread with G-d speaking from between the cherubim; the gold menorah, the making of the mishkan, screens and entrances to the tent, the altar and the courtyard.
Why all the attention to detail here? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks reminds us that the building of the mishkan is reminiscent of the Creation: 7 days and 7 aliyot; 7 candles and 7 substances. Both stories end with a blessing and G-d pronouncing it as “Holy.” Can we understand this as a call to making ourselves a sanctuary, a holy place for G-d to dwell? With what attention to detail of self-care, precious qualities and beauty can we uplift ourselves and those around us? And how can we “do, throughout the generations into the future” create sanctuaries that resonate across generations?
|02.09.18||Mishpatim||Karen Sterm||“Mishpatim” can be translated as commandments, ordinances, laws, requirements, statutes, decrees, testimonials or Mitzvot! (Did you know we’re commanded to engage in Torah? Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kiddeshanu be’mitzvotav, la’asok be’divrei Torah.)
This parasha comes when thousands gather at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the wilderness. They are on the precipice of coalescing as a community. Guide rails in the form of mishpatim are presented – a collection of civil and criminal law code - on how to treat one another. The playing field from slavery to the yoke of freedom is ready to shift. Some will gain fortune and some will need help from those more fortunate.
Even the Wise Son in the Haggadah asks “what are the eidot (testimonials), chukkim (statutes) and mishpatim (laws) that Hashem commanded you? Maimonides writes: “although all the chukkim are decrees … it is fitting to contemplate them, and whatever can be explained should be explained.” Although on the rational plane, the intention of creating a livable and fair framework are truly non-oppressive options which have at its core self-care – still, rules by themselves seem like prison.
We Americans romanticize the wild west; where the cowboy sets the rules and justice is decided locally. Pit this against the 55 MPH speed limit at 3AM when weather is clear and there’s barely another vehicle on the highway and a hidden cop presents a moving violation. It’s the law. How to know what is negotiable and when is it appropriate to negotiate?
|02.02.18||Yitro||Ellen Tobe||This parshah opens with Yitro helping his son-in-law, Moshe, by advising him how to be a good leader, and how to prevent burnout. He points out the he shouldn't be working alone and suggests that he gather justice-minded people to help him lead - specifically to judge in cases of disputes, and teach the laws and teachings of God. Moshe does this - he appoints leaders in a hierarchical organization, so that only major matters will be brought to him. Yitro tells Moshe that this will allow him to survive and to lead the nation in peace.
Some great texts are in this parshah, including the Ten Commandments, more accurately the ten ‘utterances’ (“dibrot”). We also have the beautiful poetic phrase "I bore you on eagles' wings and I brought you to me" (19:4). And, of great significance to our congregation, the phrase "Kol Shofar" - the sound of the shofar - is in this parshah a number of times - as God prepares to speak to the people of Israel. For example, in verse 20:15: "And all the people saw the voices and the torches and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain and the people saw and were moved and they stood from afar." What does it mean to see the voices? Or to see the sound of the shofar? We then read that the people ask Moshe to speak to them, but to protect them from God. Moshe tells them not to be afraid of God. Clearly, the 'sound and light' show at Sinai has had a profound effect on them.
|01.26.18||Beshalah||Fred Cherniss||This parasha is a must read. It could have been titled "how quickly we forget." After the ten plagues, the Hebrews are finally sent out of Egypt under Moses' leadership. But then, the Torah relates Pharaoh saying, "What have we done...?"(Exodus 14.5) and sending his chariots to bring the slaves back. Just before the Sea of Reeds, Moses stretches our his staff and the sea parts, and the Israelites cross in safety. The chariots pursue and are drowned. The excitement, wonder, and thanksgiving culminate in the Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, where Miriam leads the woman in dance and praise.
But wait, there's more: More grumbling, more challenges to Moses and Aaron, demands for food and water. In Exodus 16, manna comes down each day, except on Shabbat, and from this we learn about the double portion of challah on our Shabbat tables. In Exodus 17, you can find the scene where Moses strikes the rock to provide water for the thirsty people. Moses has one more task in this parsha - to appoint Joshua to defend against Amalek. To sum up -- Moses takes our people out of Mitzraim, a narrow, constricting place. We don't have Moses, but we still need to do a heshbon ha nefesh, an examination of our life situation, and make adjustments where we can.
|1.19.18||Bo||Maury Ostroff||A familiar theme we often hear is the need to “work across the aisle” in dealing with political opposition. This is appropriate in a pluralistic society.
This week’s Parsha brings us to the penultimate moment of the Exodus from Egypt. The Parsha begins with God telling Moses that he has already hardened Pharaoh’s heart, meaning that God already knows Pharaoh’s true self. Moses tells Pharaoh that more plagues are coming, and asks that the Israelites be permitted to go and worship the Lord, but Pharaoh negotiates falsely by asking “who is to go?” and saying that he will only let the men go; the young must stay behind. More plagues are unleashed on Egypt. Now Pharaoh says that the men and the young can go, but the flocks and herds must stay behind. Moses says they all must go. Pharaoh will not agree, gets mad and tells Moses that if he ever sees Moses again he shall surely die.
We all know what happens next; the final plague, the slaying of the first-born in which Pharaoh’s own son dies. What was the point of all that haggling about who was allowed to go worship the Lord? There are times when dealing with forces that have gone beyond reason and have crossed the line to self-destruction that is beyond redemption that there can be no accommodation. May we have the courage to stand up to those forces, and the wisdom to recognize it when we see it.
|1.12.18||Va-era||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||To kick off the ten plagues, God tells Moses to confront Pharaoh in the morning while he is out at the Nile river (Exodus 7:15). Why was it important that Moses meet Pharaoh at the Nile, and why in the morning?
Rashi (11th century, France) explains that because Pharaoh wanted others to consider him a god, he did not go to the bathroom during the day. Early in the morning Pharaoh would immerse himself in the river, and secretly take care of his bodily needs. Moses was to confront Pharaoh at precisely this moment to emphasize Pharaoh's humanness.
Hizkuni (13th century, France) , a student of Rashi’s school, mentions Rashi’s explanation, but offers others as well. He adds that perhaps Moses was to meet Pharaoh in the morning at the Nile because Pharaoh would immerse himself in the cold water to wake himself up, or that perhaps each morning Pharaoh sailed with his advisors on the river to have a safe space to talk about current events.
As a student of Rashi’s school, why would Hizkuni not accept Rashi’s explanation as final? I believe it is because in our tradition there is an unambiguously strong prohibition against embarrassing another person in public. In the Talmud, our Rabbis liken embarrassing another person to killing him. Even Pharaoh, who could greatly benefit from a dose of humility, is granted this basic human right, and spared public humiliation.
|1.5.18||Sh'mot||Gary Appell||The heroes of this parashah demonstrate compassion, humility, and resistance to immorality, and they are rewarded by God.
Shifrah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, defy Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Hebrew babies. They listen to their higher calling, to their belief in God, and to a higher level of moral behavior. They save these babies. What was God’s response to the midwives action? “Va’Yeytev Elohim Lam’yaldot” “And God dealt well with the midwives.” Their acts of non-violent civil disobedience set an example for Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
Moses, as a grown man, “went out to his brothers and saw their suffering.” According to Midrash Rabbah, “Moses saw great burdens put upon small people, and light burdens upon big people.” Here we see his compassion and insight. Despite his speech impediment, Moses is chosen by God to speak to Pharaoh, “and free My people, the Israelites.” Why Moses? Let us look at how he views himself.
Moses responds to God’s call with, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites?” Here we clearly see the humility of Moses. The Midrash says that it is because of his humility that he was chosen by God. Perhaps, in a humble person who is not “full of himself,” there are fewer impediments to being a channel for the divine. So Moses, the most humble of men, becomes our greatest leader and prophet. What a message for our time and for all time.
|12.29.17||Vayehi||Esme Gordon||Jacob has been living down in Egypt with all his sons. He knows them well and speaks to the weaknesses and strengths of each before he dies. He asks Joseph to “take me up” from Egypt, to be buried with his fathers.
When Joseph knows he too is dying, he asks (of his brothers) to “bring me up” to the land God promised. The brothers also all die down in Egypt, and we wonder why Joseph was the only one of them who was brought up out of Egypt for burial.
The answer may lie in the other question we have, what was said between Joseph and his father when they met again. What did Jacob know, what did Joseph, once the greatest of tattletales, tell him at that poignant reunion? Perhaps he didn’t even go there. After years of bitterness and rethinking early injustices in our lives (and Joseph had plenty of time to do this), we can reach a point where the sting and emotional intensity begin to fade, we no longer rage or burn with hatred and resentment, and can even see where our own behavior played a part.
Did Joseph’s ability to do this allow him to rise above the family lying and dissembling, and to channel his strengths into ensuring the survival of not only his brothers but all the population? He brought himself up, out of the pit of his poisonous inclinations, to a point where even his bones were also raised up - and brought home.
|12.22.17||Vayigash||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||I’m not good at describing my relationship with God, and I was pleased to find that this problem is quite ancient. In Genesis 46:4 God speaks to Jacob in a dream saying, “I will go down with you to Egypt.” In Onkelos’ aramaic translation, an ancient translation of the Torah composed about 2000 years ago, the word he chose to translate “go down” in that verse, איחית, literally means “go down.”
However, when Onkelos translates the Hebrew verb “to go down” elsewhere in the Torah, he uses an Aramaic word איתגלי, meaning “to be revealed.” For instance, when God “goes down” to meet Moses on Mount Sinai, Onkelos translates it as God “being revealed” on Mount Sinai, not physically going down.
Ramban explains the discrepancy: when a story is about God acting in the real world, Onkelos uses the word “revealed” to imply that God does not move from here to there, but is statically beyond our plane of space and time. In our parsha, God speaks to Jacob in a dream. Because this is Jacob’s dream, Onkelos feels free to describe God using active, anthropomorphic language. God is not just revealed to Jacob as a transcendent spirit. In Jacob’s dream, God really goes down with him to Egypt.
In our dreams, our inner personal lives, we sometimes feel God’s presence. I did when my son was born, for instance. These moments are hard to describe because our personal experience of God is not always logical, or even reasonable. Onkelos gives us permission to have that personal relationship with God, and not worry if it doesn’t always make sense with our intellectual conception of God.
|12.15.17||Miketz||Ron Brown||What’s in a name? We are rarely called the children of Jacob, the most recent common ancestor of the Jewish people, and never the children of Reuven, Jacob’s eldest son who should have inherited his mantle. Instead, we are Jews, named after Jacob’s fourth son, Judah. What was it about Judah that we bear his name?
We read this week that during a severe famine, Jacob’s sons travel to Egypt for food. All go except for Benjamin, the youngest and most beloved son, to whom his father holds tight. At a critical moment in the story, the brothers tell Jacob that they will not be able to obtain food to sustain the family if Benjamin does not accompany them. When Jacob refuses, Reuven steps forward and said that if they were not to bring Benjamin back from Egypt, Jacob could kill his two sons. The conversation stops, for what sort of an offer is that? A grandfather should kill his grandchildren?
Sometime later, as the famine became worse, the sons of Jacob once again realize that they need to go to Egypt for food, and Jacob once again refuses to let Benjamin go. This time, though, Judah says, if he does not return, I shall stand guilty before you forever. With that, Jacob relents. The ultimate test of a leader is the ability to accept personal responsibility. Judah demonstrated himself to be a true leader and thus we bear his name. May we prove ourselves worthy of his heritage.
|12.08.17||Vayeshev||Karen Stern||This starts the story of Joseph. Finally after all the previous movement in Genesis – the lineage settles down. Previously there was lots of going, leaving, sending - starting with Lech Lecha (Get Going), Vayeitzei (And he left) and in Vayishlach (sending) messengers,– the going, the fleeing, the sending finally stops moving with Vayeishev – “And he settled”. Yaakov and his family stop and settle down.
What happens in the quiet of settling down? We get to pause and peek inside relationships.
The word “Vayeishev” repeats three times: Once when Jacob settles (37:1) and twice again with Reuben (37:29-30) when he can’t find his brother Joseph. We pause, reading of loss and note a mourning ritual - tearing of clothing.
Loss is planted in the “settling” illustrated by ritual clothing tearing. Discord among brothers is planted in the “settling” illustrated by a coat of many colors. An unfulfilled promise is planted in the “settling” illustrated by a crimson thread when Tamar finds a remedy for broken promise. Familial growth is detailed. Dreams flourish in the “settling”.
Another quality of settling is favoritism and competition. It surfaces among the brothers. This quality hearkens back to the competition among wives and handmaidens of Yaakov in their race to produce heirs and find favor in Yaakov’s eyes. Does competition create both enmity and good? How do we deal with the detritus of competition and expression of favoritism? Poor self-esteem, judgment, revenge, Egypt.
Joseph gets sold off as a slave, ends up in Egypt, and manages to get in and out of all sorts of trouble. His dream interpreting ability and help from the Eternal keep him safe, for now.
|12.01.17||Vayishlakh||Ellen Tobe||First, a note about “Vav ha’hipuch” – the inverting letter Vav. Vav, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet means “and,” but in the Torah when Vav occurs at the beginning of a future-tense verb, it becomes a past-tense verb, and vice-versa. Last week’s parsha, “vayetzeh” - “he went out” instead of “he will go out” - and this week’s, “vayishlach” - “he sent” instead of “he will send”. We see this in “Ve’ahavta” – “you shall love” rather than “you loved.” We can think about what this might mean spiritually, moving between past and future tenses this way. We have the ability to grow and change from past experiences and shape our future.
In Va’Yishlach, the night before he is to greet his brother Esau, Ya’akov struggles with an angel, who injures his leg. He limps off the next morning as he comes face to face with Esau, whom he clearly fears, after stealing his birthright so many years earlier and not seeing him for so long. In fact, he has been warned that Esau has with him 400 men. The meeting is quite emotional, (33:4). When Esav sees Ya’akov, he hugs and kisses him. After this emotional meeting with Esau, and after family introductions, Ya’akov sets off again. In verse 33:18, we read “Va’yavo Ya’akov shalem …” – Jacob went whole…” The word “shalem” (“whole”) is surprising here. What does this mean? We have learned that he limps. So why “whole”? We can theorize: possibly because in coming face to face with Esau, with his fears, he’s whole again. He is “shalem.” He has faced his shadow side. He has faced his past and is ready to move forward into the future as a whole person.
|11.24.17||Vayetzei||Susan Schneider||The portion begins with Jacob’s journey of leaving home and the beginning of his formal relationship with God. After his well-known “Jacob’s ladder dream,” he realizes upon awakening that “God was in this Place and I did not know.” Jacob learned that when you feel most alone, God is with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream.
Why are we are called the Children of Israel? Jacob’s name changed to Israel after another dream,that of wrestling with an angel, thought to be his wrestling with God. Some commentators say the angel represented his brother, Esau.
Jacob shows the greatest arc of spiritual and moral maturation over the course of his life. Like most of us, he has ethical and emotional lapses and failures, but over time he wrestles with God and finds the blessing in his long journey.
Oftentimes we see parallel stories in the Torah. In last week’s portion, Toldot, we see the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob and the deception used by Jacob in order to receive the blessing from his father. In this portion, Jacob is deceived by his father-in-law, and we see similar sibling rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Ultimately there will be reconciliation between the brothers. Sometimes we need to leave our home and our situation, to run away from the consequences of our choices, to find solitude, to find new family, to find that wherever we are, God is in this Place even if we did not know it.
|11.17.17||Toldot||Maury Ostroff||This parsha is the story of Jacob and Esau. As with most foundational mythic stories that attempt to
explain how things got to be the way they are, it can be interpreted on many levels.
One level is psychological, dealing with two opposing character traits: Esau represents the earthy, animalistic urge that wants immediate gratification and lives in the moment, and Jacob represents the more thoughtful but cunning individual who plans ahead and thinks of the consequences of his actions.
Another level is about family and sibling rivalry and the dynamics that occur when a parent favors one child over another and the consequences thereof. This is a recurrent theme in Genesis, and one to which many of us can relate.
Then there is the broad sweep of history at the national level. When Rebekah complains about the struggle in her womb, God answers with a pronouncement that two nations are in her womb, and that the older shall serve the younger. If we think about the historical process of how the stories in the Tanach were compiled, is it possible that this was a description of a reality in the land of Israel many years ago? Is this story about the inescapable consequences when two peoples inhabit the same land, and both perceive that the other is a threat and either out to cheat them or out to kill them respectively?
Has this pattern not been repeated throughout Jewish history in different forms? It is sobering to reflect upon the profound skills of the story tellers of our Torah.
|11.10.17||Hayei Sarah||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||For every story, there is the content: the facts and timeline. There is also the meaning of the story: the implied underlying messages. Today’s Torah portion reminds us that an author may alter the content of a story in order to convey a particular message, to influence the listener to react in a way that the author deems favorable.
Damascus Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was charged with the task of finding a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s kin. Damascus Eliezer went to Abraham’s hometown and waited by a well to get a sense of the locals. He spotted Rebecca, was impressed with her conduct, and immediately gave her gold and jewelery. Then, he asked about her parentage. She happened to be Abraham’s great niece, making her eligible to marry Isaac.
Damascus then went to Rebecca’s home to ask her brother, Laban, if he could take Rebecca as a wife for Isaac. When recounting the story of how he met Rebecca, Damascus told the story almost exactly as it happened, but changed one thing. Instead of saying he gave Rebecca the jewelery and then asked about her parentage, he told Laban that he asked about her parentage, and then gave her the jewelry.
This was an important shift. Because Laban was an egomaniac, had Damascus suggested that Rebecca was independently deserving of this honor, Laban would have felt diminished and insulted. Better that Laban think that his reputation made Rebecca such a good candidate, than for Damascus to lose the opportunity to make the match between Rebecca and Isaac.
|11.03.17||Vayera||Gary Appell||Abraham’s values and faith in God are shown to us-- sometimes dramatically-- in this parasha. In the opening scene, Abraham leaves the presence of God to greet and show hospitality to three strangers, thereby teaching us how important it is to take in those in need. Later in the parasha, Abraham is put to the ultimate test—his willingness to follow God’s command by sacrificing Isaac (until an angel stops Abraham at the last minute).
But in Vayera, not only does God test Abraham, Abraham tests God. God does not want to hide his plan to destroy Sodom, so God informs Abraham about it. God wants Abraham to learn what is “just and right”---a teaching that can be passed on to his posterity. Does Abraham just accept God’s plan? No. Abraham questions God repeatedly. “What if I can find 50 righteous men…..40 righteous men, etc. The ultimate question, and testing is when Abraham says, “Chaleelah L’chah”. Literally…” God forbid, that you God, would bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty!”
Abraham is speaking truth to power. Is God surprised, amazed, or angry? The text does not suggest any of these. If God was testing Abraham’s love of justice and compassion for others, Abraham gets an “A”. God does not find fault with Abraham’s pleas. He accepts each of them. Perhaps God is kvelling, “Oh, this is my creation Abraham. See how much he loves justice!” A kvelling God – proud of His creation-- would not be angry.
|10.27.17||Lech Lecha||Rabbi Chai Levy||God speaks to Avram and says Lech Lecha, Go forth. From your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you, and you shall be a blessing. He forges a path and becomes the father of the Jewish people.
Avram’s heeding the call is the prototypical spiritual journey. The words Lech Lecha literally mean: go to yourself, meaning: Become your authentic, true self.
The great Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, refers to the famous midrash about Avram smashing his father’s idols:
We are all children of Abraham
but we are also the grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father.
And now, perhaps, the time has come for the grandchildren to do
to their father what he did to his father
when he broke his statues and idols, his religion and faith.
But this, too, will be the beginning of a new religion
Amichai’s poem suggests that the spiritual journey of becoming one’s true self is taken by each person in every generation of Judaism. It speaks to every child who grows up, leaves their parents’ home and their parents’ ways, and becomes their own person. Idolatry represents religious forms that have no life, that are empty for us. Or that are fixed, stuck, not animated, not engaging. When Amichai says, “this will be the beginning of a new religion,” I read it to mean find your authentic place in Judaism, make Judaism alive for you, make it speak to your soul. Don’t let Judaism be a fixed, stagnant idol that never moves or changes.
|10.20.17||Noah||Ron Brown||“God saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth…and God said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men who I created.” We all know what happened next. Noah, a righteous man, was told to build an ark for himself, his family, and two of each of the animals of the earth. When the ark was complete and all the animals loaded onto the ark, 40 days and 40 nights of rain came to destroy all the surface of the earth.
It is hard to pick up a newspaper these days without wondering whether we live in an age similar to that one. Terrorism and persecution seem to fill the news, while the earth is threatened with hurricanes, earthquakes, and now terrible fires. Climate change appears to be ready to flood the earth, and the response of many is to deny that it is happening.
In a midrash, the rabbis read the story of Noah and suggested that it took Noah 100 years to build the ark so that during that time people would ask him what he was doing and would then have the chance to repent and reverse the terrible decree. But they chose to ignore the warning.
Do we live in an age like the age of Noah? Are the warning signs all around us and we choose to ignore them? Will our children and grandchildren have to bear the burden of our inaction? And a final question—what are you doing about it?
|10.13.17||Bereshit||Karen Stern||We are once again “at the beginning”: the first Torah book – Genesis (Creation), the moment G-d created the world, our creation story – Bereshit – in the beginning, at the beginning, the moments of firsts. One could consider this story as 3 stories – 3 artistic renderings: one of worldly infrastructure, one of humankind, and one of the psyche. This story is our creation story
It starts with chaos (Gen 1:2) and follows an orderly sequence of creating, naming, delineating, recognizing good and resting.
There is a shift in this template of orderly sequence in a second sketch where the description starts over with redoing shrubs, plant, soil, wild animals, birds, humankind, and introducing The Garden. It’s as if God hands it over to humankind. Name the wild animals and birds. Choose within the Garden. God gives humankind choices and no moral code for guidance except belief in utter loyalty to direction. Disappointment follows.
Here begins the third sketch – a sojourn into our own psyche as stated (Gen 6:5) “Yetzer lev ha adam rah”. There is an evil inclination or the impulse to do bad within humankind’s heart. (Note “yetzer” comes from the root “to create”)
Which of these sketches did God leave intact or erase. What trauma got passed on that we deal with everyday? How do the boundaries of human behavior play out? What impact on our knowledge that our creations are not perfect and yet we have the choice to choose the path between good and evil?
|10.06.17||Sukkot||Ellen Tobe||The Torah text that we read on this Chol Ha'moed Shabbat of Sukkot includes Exodus 33:12 - 34:26. Interestingly, we read this same text during Pesach. This text doesn't mention Sukkot, or even Passover, so one wonders why we read this on these festivals. Here are some thoughts:
This text includes Moses ascending Mount Sinai, alone, and when up on top, God descends in a cloud to be with Moses ('va'yered adonai be'anan va'yityatsev imo". The word "yityatsev" is interesting - God 'stabilizes' or settles with Moses. God passes in front of Moses, and here we have the words which we sing on festival days, "Adonai, adonai, el rachum ve'chanun, erech, apa'im, ve'rav chessed ve'emet, notser chessed la'alafim, noseh avon vapheshah, ve'chatta'ah venakeh."
This can be translated as "Adonai, adonai, God of compassion and tenderness, slow to anger, with abundant lovingkindness and truth, creating lovingkindness for thousands, waiving iniquity and rebellion and sin, and cleansing." But then, part which we don't sing is about not forgive or cleanse completely the iniquity of parents on their children for up to four generations. After that list of powerful attributes, Moses bows to the ground quickly and goes on to ask forgiveness for the 'stiff-necked' nation. We see that the theme of forgiveness, just a few days following Yom Kippur, is still relevant. Why is the word "Adonai" repeated? The first “Adonai” can be read as the subject that goes with the verb “calls,” so that “God calls ‘Adonai el rachum vechanun…..’" rather than Moses listing these attributes. In other words, God is describing Godliness.
|09.22.17||Ha'azinu||Susan Schneider||This is the second-to-last Torah portion and is always read on Shabbat Shuvah: the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The portion is not specifically about repentance, but the overall message delivered in the poetic prophecy from Moses is: Throughout our history, we have had periods of abandoning God and we have therefore suffered “punishments.” But the punishment has always come to an end, and atonement is made.
Moses shares a vision of “tough love” and of the betrayal, hurt, anger, and pain that would be our future. At this point in our history, the young Israelite people (the next generation following those who were slaves in Egypt) are about to enter the land of Canaan, a center of cults and pagan rites and non-monotheistic beliefs. Moses begins this last poem speaking about God’s nature and relationship with the people of Israel and quickly moves on to a powerful and not too rosy picture of how the Israelites will continue in their relationship with God.
And yet, in many of our generations, the warning was not heeded and we suffered difficult times. Moses, in giving a truthful picture of our future, allows us to prepare and gain strength to carry us through the dark days by giving a vision of a more peaceful and faithful time to come.
|09.15.17||Nitzavim||Maury Ostroff||Right now you are glancing at this bulletin, and deciding how much attention you will devote to reading this. Or you could choose to go back to davening. You’ve already decided to come to shul today. You will decide later whether to stick around for kiddish.
Here’s another choice: I invite you to open the Etz Chayim Humash and turn to page 1172, and read verse 19 yourself. In these last few books of the Torah, Moses is giving his last words to the people, and he summarizes in dramatic fashion by calling heaven and earth to witness that God has put before you the choice between life and death, and therefore you should choose life. This is one of the high points of the Torah.
Are we to just blindly obey all these commandments, or do we have a choice? On the previous page, in Chapter 30, verse 12 we have the famous line that “It is not in the heavens…” The Rabbis of the Talmudic period used this line to support the position that God gave us the laws and it is now up to us to interpret them and adapt and expound. So we have the choice to do right or wrong. Sometimes we don’t make a conscious choice, we follow the path of least resistance and go with the flow. Perhaps this is what is meant by being lured into the worship and service of other gods, as written in verse 17.
Making choices is largely about understanding the consequences of our actions. It takes some work, and thought and self-discipline, but all our choices matter. Do not squander them.
|09.08.17||Ki Tavo||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||In Ki Tavo we are taught the mitzvah of Bikkurim, bringing the first gleanings of one’s produce to the Temple as a gratitude offering. As part of the ritual, one stood before the priest with a basket of produce and read Deuteronomy 26:5-10, a passage that recounts a footnote history of the Jewish people up to the moment of this offering.
If you could afford an education and learned how to read, this would be a very spiritual experience. Bringing your produce to the Temple and reciting this passage affirmed that God’s promise to bring God’s people into the land was fulfilled through you.
What if you could not afford an education, and never learned how to read? The obligation to bring Bikkurim to the Temple and read this passage was not spiritual, but embarrassing. If you couldn’t read the text, the priest would read it for you, which would effectively “out” you in front of the whole community as illiterate.
In the Mishna, our earliest transcription of the oral law from the second century CE, the Rabbis sought to fix this situation. Mishna Bikkurim 3:7: At first, anyone who could read would read, and everyone else would have it read for him. Then, people became reticent to bring the offering. They therefore declared that it would be read for both those who knew how to read, and those who did not know. The fix was: wealthy and poor alike would have the text read for him so nobody knew who was literate and who wasn’t.
Like these earliest Rabbis, we should make sure that our religious practice never comes at the expense of the honor of another person.
|09.01.17||Ki Tetzei||Gary Appell||How shall the Israelites live with and treat one another, striving toward being a holy community? In this parashah, Moses instructs them in 74 mitzvot, trying to set them on the correct path. What barriers must they surmount?
The parashah’s beginning sets the template. “When you go out to a battle against your enemy,” God’s intervention will be the reason for victory. The next line is a directive about how the Israelite men should act when capturing beautiful women during the battle. The verse says “AND you see among the captives a beautiful woman…” Why “and” and not “if”? Because the Torah is pointing out that the Israelites are facing two battles—the battle against their external foe, and the battle against their internal foe --themselves. Victorious soldiers must battle their desire to sexually attack these women. The victors ARE going to have these feelings, but --says the Torah--they can control themselves, and show these women some dignity, such as giving them time and space to mourn the loss of their parents. Then the victors can marry them.
Similarly, we will feel the desire to take advantage of others physically and in business. We can be cruel, covet, and be thoughtless toward others (and animals). The mitzvot described by Moses direct us toward a higher moral path—toward being a holy people. If people are to help one another, help dignify each other, and not prey upon one another, leaders must guide us morally, as Moses did, to do to hold a community together.
|08.25.17||Shoftim||Rabbi Susan Leider||You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that the judges announce to you, either to the right or to the left.
- Deuteronomy 17:11
How do we accept a verdict and not deviate from it, even in the case when we disagree with it? How do we accept the authority of our leaders and judges even when our heads and hearts urge us to the right or to the left? To understand this verse, the 17th century Polish commentator Kli Yekar, cites a verse from the book of Zechariah:
Truth, justice, and peace render in your gates.
Kli Yekar notes that this verse states three different concepts. He also points out that the Hebrew word for “gates” is etymologically connected the Hebrew word for “measure.” He tells us that any judsge or leader must continually balance these three values in a measured way with a community. This balancing can vary according to the time, the place or the matter at hand. Then Kli Yekar says something I find quite radical. “At times it is necessary to change the truth out of consideration for peace...”
What would the world look like if we adapted the value of truth to the value of peace? How would our relationships look if we took Kli Yekar’s observation to heart? You can be right or you can be in relationship. Relationship requires a certain degree of shalom; sometimes justice and truth must be subjugated to it. Effective judges and leaders demonstrate this in how they interact with others in community.
Can we aspire to Zechariah’s wisdom in our own lives? And be in relationship rather than always being right?
|08.18.17||Re'eh||Ron Brown||In this parashah, the Torah tells us that there shall be “no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). This is a statement that might seem inaccurate, because even here in one of the most wealthy communities in the country, we only have to walk down the street to see homeless people, and the homeless are only the most public face of the poverty around us. In fact, only a few short verses later, the Torah tells us that there will never cease to be needy people in our land.
How do we reconcile these two contradictory teachings? What can we learn from them?
One explanation comes from Rashi, who suggests that we look to the teaching immediately after the promise that there shall be no needy. This next teaching reads “if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to follow the instruction that I give to you this day.” We need to think, then that these verses are intended to remind us that we are in covenant with God, a partnership whose result is that we bear the responsibility for improving our world. If we can create a more just society in which all of our citizens truly have an equal chance at prosperity, if we create educational opportunities for all of our people, and if we give generously to those who are in need so that they will have the strength to improve their lot, then one day there may truly be no needy among us. God gave us this world, it is our responsibility to make it a better place.
|08.11.17||Eikev||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Eikev offers a kind of heart-exam - not the kind you’d have in the cardiologist’s office, but rather, a spiritual heart exam. The heart is mentioned several times in this Torah portion, always with regard to a question about the state of our heart and our heart’s relationship to the Divine:
In Deuteronomy 8:2, in Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites, he tells the people that the long journey in the wilderness was a test of hardships to learn “what was in our hearts” and whether we would remain loyal to God through the mitzvot. Then in 8:14, we are warned to be careful that in our future prosperity our “hearts [not] grow haughty and we forget God.” In chapters 10:12 and 11:13, we asked to love and serve God with “all of our heart.” Finally, in 10:16, we are instructed to “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts,” which Rashi explains means we must remove the barriers that block and seal our hearts.
This parasha makes clear that central to our covenant with God is attending to our hearts and cultivating a heart that is loyal, humble, grateful, loving, and open. As we approach the month of Elul and the season of reflection and Heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul, this parasha invites us to our annual heart exam.
|08.04.17||Va'etchanan||Ellen Tobe||In this second parshah of D’varim (Deuteronomy), also known as Mishneh Torah, the second telling of the Torah, we see a lot of texts familiar to us through our liturgy, including the shma, ve'ahavta, the blessing at the start of the Torah service (4:4 ve'atem ha'dvekim b'YHVH eloheichem chaim kulchem hayom" - you who cleave to God all live today). We also have the Ten Commandments. In this very poetic retelling, we learn what to focus on what's important.
The word "Va'etchanan" means to beg, implore, appeal, ask for mercy. Parshat Va'etchanan opens with Moshe begging to see the "good land" but YHVH is apparently angry and tells Moshe no, and not to speak of this anymore. The drama is felt of Moshe asking to cross into the land, but being turned down. We feel his pain. In 3:27, YHVH goes on to tell Moshe to go up to the top of the hill and raise his eyes "yama, vetzafonah, ve'teimanah, ve'mizrachah" (toward the sea - westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward). It's all very moving and poetic but also harsh; Moshe is commanded to see what he will not be able to cross over to. He needs to reflect and let go.
Joshua will lead the people to the land that they will inherit. God tells the people (“Hear now, Israel”) to guard the laws, reminding them what a great nation they can be by following the laws, but that they mustn't forget to keep these things near to their hearts. This is good reminder to be mindful, to be present.
|07.28.17||Devarim||Esme Gordon||Sitting on our veranda in Jerusalem years ago I’d gaze over the hazy Arava towards the Mountains of Moab and ask in wonder how this girl from rural England found herself here.
Our parasha finds us in that same spot - Moses gazes out “from the other side of the Jordan (b’ever hayarden).” Abraham, the original Hebrew, came from “m’ever hayarden.” We are all journeyers, we cross over, pass through, travel on.
Moses recalls where we have come from - slavery, Sinai, the wilderness, the reasons we spent so long wandering. He speaks of God and the times our lack of trust led us astray. He reminds us that when we have been able to understand the God we cannot see we have been safe. We have progressed and flourished.
Our own internal and external journeys in some way parallel our Torah portion.
We have come a long way on our path through life – we’ve spent years on it. Sometimes we are at a turning point, maybe midlife, a crisis of confidence, before we can cross over and move ahead. We recall our youthful dream. We look back at where we started. How far have we come? We remember how we got here. Is this where we wanted to be? How much further to go? Are we there yet?
Moses gives us all we need on the eve of crossing into this unknown promised land: remember your origins, the battles you’ve won, the pitfalls to watch for, and how to behave.
|07.21.17||Matot-Masei||Susan Schneider||The final two portions of the book of Numbers, Matot and Masei are often read together. There are several themes throughout these portions: the importance and strength of vows and the power of our words; wars and conquering; the journeys and encampments during the forty years in the desert; describing the boundaries of the Land of Israel; where the different tribes will settle in and outside of the land; and the cities of refuge.
A primary theme in the entire Torah is creating order out of chaos; establishing boundaries helps create order. The boundaries in Masei apply to physical boundaries of the land, behavior boundaries, and gender boundaries. There are limits of acceptable behavior, but sometimes boundaries need to be challenged. In the previous portion, Pinhas, the daughters of Zelophechad stepped outside the boundary by arguing that the laws of inheritance were unfair. They questioned God’s law, and Moses took their appeal to God, who agreed that the Torah had been unfair and changed the law accordingly.
There is a time for creating new paradigms and a time for working within existing systems. Moses delivers the words and commandments from God, and the Israelites, from that day to the present, question and challenge words and boundaries. We can live our lives following words of Torah, and at the same time, we still need to possess a good moral compass and question boundaries that may lead us in the wrong direction.
|07.14.17||Pinhas||Maury Ostroff||In this week’s Parsha, we have the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who pleaded their case for inheritance before Moses and the entire assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. This story comes immediately after a lengthy genealogical list of all the descendants and names of clans by tribe who came out of the land of Egypt. The context of this census was to apportion the land of Israel upon the conquest of Canaan as promised.
The case hinged on the fact that Zelophehad had no sons, and the custom at the time was that only males were eligible for inheritance, especially land. Moses brought their case before the Lord, who told Moses that their plea was just, and that the daughters should have the hereditary holding.
Recently, the government of Israel has backtracked on an earlier agreement to allow for more open and egalitarian access to the Kotel in Jerusalem. It has become a highly charged political issue, involving many complex issues: women’s rights; Ultra-Orthodox hegemony of the Rabbinate in Israel; the role of the Jewish community outside of Israel (i.e. the “Diaspora”) and many other fundamental questions around the central issues of who defines what is Judaism and who is a Jew?
In the Torah, these questions were answered by Moses who asked God directly. In these modern times, it’s not so easy. But based on God’s answer in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, taken in context of all the other mitzvot to act justly towards others, I think we have a good idea of what the answer should be.
|07.07.17||Balak||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||I was recently on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. As I looked out the window and watched the USA pass by beneath me, I felt a disconnect between the chaos I heard about on the news before boarding my flight, and how peaceful the country seemed from the air.
There is a moment like this in this week's parsha. Numbers 22:41 reads, "It was in the morning: Balak took Bilam and brought him up to the heights of Baal, and there he saw the edge of the people." In his effort to get Bilam to curse Israel, Balak took him to the top of a mountain where Bilam could get a good view of the whole nation.
This is remarkable. Just a few chapters ago, there was an attempted coup against Moses. Israel survived two wars, another drought, and a plague of poisonous snakes. Yet, for a moment the Torah transports us out of the camp and we are placed on a mountain with Bilam and Balak. From above, everything seems peaceful. Standing on the mountain, Bilam does not see infighting or drought or snakes or wars. He sees a vast encampment. Despite being implored to curse Israel, Bilam only offers a blessing: mah tovu ohalekha yaakov! How beautiful are you tents, O Jacob!
Our country also looks beautiful, and peaceful from above. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu. May the one who makes peace up above make peace for us. Someday the peace that is true at 30,000 feet will be felt on the ground as well.
|06.30.17||Hukkat||Gary Appell||Though Moses spoke directly with God, and the Torah says he was the most humble of men, Moses was not perfect. God instructed Moses to strike a rock to obtain water for the thirsty, angry Israelites, but Moses did it incorrectly, and God punished him by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land. Was Moses’ sin implying that obtaining the water was his (Moses’) miracle, not God’s, or was it, (suggests Maimonides) that a prophet is not supposed to get angry as Moses did? We are reminded that humans, even Tzaddikim, are not perfect.
In this parashah is the story of the red heifer. Specific instructions are given about the qualities that this rare beast must have, and how one should sacrifice it to obtain its ashes for purifying people who have become unclean by touching a corpse. The Talmud says that the ashes of this cow actually atone for sin.
The law about sacrificing the red heifer does not seem rational. One rabbinic response is, “These laws are decrees from God and we have no right to question them.“ Other rabbis, however want to compare this heifer with the Golden Calf. Perhaps the heifer is an antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf, since the ashes of the heifer can change someone from being impure to pure.
If a cow can be used for holy or profane ends, so can other creations of God or man. Think of the possibilities.
|06.24.17||Korah||Rabbi Susan Leider||This week’s Torah portion is named for the rebel par excellence: Korah. From him, we learn much about leadership: what to do and what not to do. Certainly the way in which he challenges Moses’ role, teaches us how not to lead. Moses grapples with managing the community and doing God’s will at the same time. In many ways, he was a reluctant leader. He tells God, “Look, I am not that great at public speaking. Are you sure my brother Aaron isn’t more suited to this role than I?” But as Moses struggles with leadership, he knows that he is not going to be liked by everyone all of the time.
A Talmudic conversation between two rabbinic leaders (Ketubot 105b) illustrates this tension around leadership:
Abaye said: If a scholar is loved by the townspeople, their love is not due to his superiority, but to the fact that he does not rebuke them for neglecting spiritual matters.
Raba remarked: At first, I thought that all of the people in my town loved me. When I was appointed judge, I thought that some would hate me, and others would love me. But I saw: one day, a man loses and on another day, he wins. And I came to see that if I am loved, they all love me and if I am hated, they all hate me.
Parashat Korah reminds us that being a leader means not being liked by everyone. And, even on some days, it seems that truly everyone doesn’t like you. But like Moses, we have the ability to remain humble and to persevere; perhaps the best remedy for getting through those tough leadership moments when we face Korah in our midst.
|06.17.17||Sh'lah L'kha||Ron Brown||This week, we read the story of the spies. Moses sends twelve men to spy on the Promised Land. These are not just twelve men. The Torah tells us that they are Princes of the People, each one a leader. They travel the land, its length and its breadth. When they return, ten of them report that this is a land of giants and that Israel has no chance to defeat them. The people bemoan their fate, and God decides that this unworthy generation must wander in the desert for 40 years until the last of them is dead. Only Joshua and Caleb, who brought back an encouraging account of the mission ahead, will live to enter the new land.
The episode of the spies provides an example of a lack of faith, and an example of a lack of leadership. One of the most fundamental roles of a leader is to provide followers with a feeling of confidence. These Princes of the People should have understood their role, which was not to instill panic but to stimulate confidence in their mission. We see this play out in our own lives every day. A child comes to a parent and says, “I can’t do this homework assignment, it is too hard” and it becomes our job as parents to convince them that they can. In truth, someone who says “I can’t” is probably right. Let us learn from the lesson of the spies, both to have faith and to have confidence in our abilities.
|06.10.17||B'har-'a lot-kha||Rabbi Chai Levy||In this week’s Torah portion, Behaaltocha, the Israelites are crying and complaining, and Moses is very distressed, and he goes to God and says, “Why have you done this to me? Why have you put this impossible burden on me?” He uses a very interesting maternal image, saying to God, “Did I conceive these people? Did I give birth to them? That You should say to me: Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a baby?” (Numbers 11:12)
God responds by reminding Moses of the very thing that his father in law, Yitro, told him back in Exodus. It’s too much for one person to run a whole community. It has to be a group effort! God tells Moses to share the work of managing the community with seventy elders. This is the Torah’s message about a healthy, functioning community. There is no one person who can do all the work, no matter how skilled. It’s best for the community when the work is shared,
when many people carry the burden together. No one can do it alone: Yitro says it, God says it, and Moses realizes it. It takes a village. It takes a whole community of dedicated people contributing their time and energy.
Look around here at our Kol Shofar community: we are blessed with many staff, board members, committee members, organizers, leaders, volunteers, all giving of themselves to make this community possible and to make all the holy work we do here happen.
|06.03.17||Naso||Susan Schneider||In parshat Naso we read about the census, the story of the Sota, and the Nazir, and the introduction of the Priestly Blessing. I am especially drawn to chapter 7, which begins with finishing, anointing and sanctifying the Tabernacle. The leaders of the tribes brought offerings. For 12 days the prince of each tribe brought the same exact offerings- each day from a different Israelite tribe leader- but the same list of offerings.
I have chanted these daily lists of offerings many times as this section is also read on each day of Chanukah. There is a rhythm and cadence to chanting Torah, which Naso emphasizes. Parshat Naso is read on the first Shabbat after Shavuot- this shows a link between the Giving of Torah and the Inauguration of the Sanctuary.
Why is there repetition in the offerings? The rabbis concluded that even though they all made the same offerings- each had a different intention or different theme when giving.
Rashi said that for the different leaders- the offerings possessed common, central, as well as individual themes to each tribe. The ancient rabbis commented that the princes of each tribe bringing gifts were the same ones that the Egyptians beat and tormented. Although they had been beaten and morally tormented- they nonetheless had gifts to offer. Even with experiencing pain, injustice and darkness- they still had gifts to offer- gifts, which are equal of that which others offer. These gifts help bring the Presence of God into the world.
|05.27.17||B'mbidar||Ellen Tobe||This first parashah of the book of Bamidbar – Numbers – opens with a census-taking for military purposes, tribe by tribe, males aged twenty and older. Later, the Levites will be counted, males aged one month and older, to be the caretakers for the Tabernacle and a specific group that will transporting the sacred objects, aged 30-50. The words used for census-taking, in verse 1:2, "se'u et rosh" could be taken literally to mean "lift, or raise the heads." Can this also mean "raise the consciousness"? The counting is very specifically for the army, and a certain maturity is needed.
What's in a Name?
Verses 1:5-15 list the names of the men who shall assist in the census-taking. As is often the case in the Bible, it's interesting to look at the meanings of the names. Many of the names listed are whole sentences: Elizur - God is a rock, Shelumiel – God is my peace the, Aminadav – the nation is generous, Netanel – Given by God, Eliav – God is my father, Elishama – My God hears, Gamliel – God pours abundance on me, Avidan – my father as judge, Ahiezer – My brother is helper, Amishadai – God is my nation, Pagiel – God who has affected me, Eliasaph – God as gatherer, Re'uel – God as shepherd, Ahira – my brother as bad (this seems surprising in light of the other names).
Later we see the names of the Levites, 3:17-20, which includes Uziel – God is my strength. The Levites are given the responsibilities of taking care of the sacred objects. Each Levite family is given very specific tasks. This is a kind of biblical project management; everything gets taken care of.
(reference used: The JPS Torah Commentary)
|05.20.17||B'har - B'hukkotai||Maury Ostroff||The book of Vayikra is primarily known to us “moderns” as a collection of obscure rituals and practices around animal sacrifices, dealing with blemishes, and numerous other “chukim” which do not seem to have a rational basis. But here in our parshah, we have the first pragmatic attempt to address the problem of wealth re-distribution in recorded history. The parsha starts with practical rules of agriculture by commanding that every seven years the land shall not be planted and allowed to enjoy a rest; a “Shabbat” for the land. And after seven periods of seven years, you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom for all slaves and return to each man to his property and to his family. This is known as the Jubilee Year.
This is a very profound and historic chapter. It goes far beyond general platitudes of “love they neighbor” and goes so far as to prescribe specific means for addressing the problem of the accumulation of wealth by the few and the powerful and for achieving a workable method of income distribution so as to maintain a more equitable society.
The parsha even foreshadows modern financial practice of discounting bond prices based on the maturity date by specifically mentioning how to handle sales of land based on the number of years from the Jubilee, (Chapter 25, verses 15 and 16.). This is amazing! Thousands of years before Marx, Keynes, Adam Smith and other famous economists, our Torah was directly addressing a very real issue of human society. To what degree the Jubilee year was actually practiced in ancient times is not known, but my opinion is that to some degree it was, and we are the inheritors of that practical wisdom.
|05.13.17||Emor||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||Who is great? In Leviticus 21:10 the Torah states the requirement for the high priest. The verse calls him “The priest, the one who is greater than his brothers.” We learn from Sifra, the Midrash on Leviticus, that this means that he must be greater than his brothers in five ways: he has to be stronger, more honored, more beautiful, richer, and wiser.
This, however, is not where the midrash stops. It continues, “and if he is lacking, his brothers must aggrandize him.” The Midrash derives this from an ambiguity in the Hebrew. The verse could read, “the one who is greater than his brothers” or “the one who is greater from his brothers,” that is, that his greatness is received from others.
From this, it is clear that the Torah does not really care who this person is. He could be wise, or not. He could be rich, or not. What the Torah demands is that the person designated to be the high priest be honest about what he lacks, and turn to his brothers for help. Nobody is perfect.
In Kohelet (7:20), the sage writes “There is no person on earth who is completely righteous, who has not missed the mark.” Greatness is not defined by wisdom, nor is defined by anything else except the willingness to admit that we are not perfect. It is defined by our willingness to grow, and to turn to others for assistance when we need it.
|05.06.17||Ahrei-Mot - K'doshim||Gary Appell||“Creating” is God’s first action—and the first verb—in the Torah. Here begins one of the Torah’s (and the Tanakh’s) great themes—transformation. Human beings and inanimate things can be transformed. The Original Transformer—HaShem—has bestowed on us free will. Through our actions we can transform ourselves, help to change others, and the physical world.
Parashah K’doshim starts with the profound reminder from God to B’nai Yisrael. “You shall be holy for I am holy.” How should we understand this? We can say that we are created in the image of God, that there is a latent holiness within each of us, which we have free will to develop. We will not be imbued with holiness only by praying, meditating, thinking, or even hearing a divine message. If I do not mistreat animals if I love my neighbor as myself, if I have just weights and measures, I can begin to approach what is holy.
By following the mitzvot described in this parashah, we can draw nearer to holiness and the divine, as we transform what is ordinary and secular, to be something special. God’s message seems to be: “You can be, and should be the one who transforms the everyday into the holy. To be made in My image, means to have the ability to transform—to sanctify—other humans and nature –to help in the work of creation.” This parashah gives us specific examples—on the job training—to guide us on our way.
|04.29.17||Tazria - M'tzora||Rabbi Susan Leider||A scholar once said, “Even the act of translating is a commentary unto itself.” Hebrew is a rich language with its nuanced shorashim, (three-letter roots) and translated Hebrew is no exception to this scholarly rule.
Leviticus, also known by the rabbis as Torat Cohanim, (the Instruction of the Priests), abounds with translation dilemmas. The Hebrew word par excellence that stumps many of us is “tamei.” Although surely reluctant to translate this adjective, the editors of the widely–used scholarly texts, often translate “tamei” to “unclean.”
So what constitutes a “makom tamei,” an unclean place? According to the Torah, a house suspected of a plague must be scraped from the inside out and resulting leftover dust is “dumped outside the city in ‘an unclean place.’ ” (Lev. 14:41)
We live in a world where the Biblical rules of “tum’ah,” (being ritual unclean) do not apply to everyday reality. But the concept of tum’ah reminds that we all need to rid our living space of ‘unclean’ discarded items. Whether it be toxic materials, e-waste or simply unrecyclable household trash, we have a dilemma in dealing with ‘unclean places.’ We need dumps, but no one wants one in his or her backyard.
But we need to handle our own 21st century “tum’ah.” Though it is “dumped outside the city,” our waste carries an environmental price that we ignore at our own peril. We all benefit from considering our own ‘makom tamei,’ and translate this into concrete responsible action when we choose what discard and where to do it.
|04.22.17||Sh'mini||Ron Brown||This week’s reading brings us one of the most inexplicable moments in the entire Torah. The work is done and the temple is consecrated with great ceremony. All rejoice and two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, decide to bring a spontaneous offering to the altar. They grow close and instantly a fire of God leaps from the altar and kills them. In one heartbeat the mood changes from exhilaration to devastation.
Our sages have written countless explanations for these events. Nadab and Abihu were drunk, they came too close, or they did not follow the ritual that they had been commanded accurately. We are faced, in any event, with two tragic deaths.
We live in a world where unexplainable tragedy occurs only too often. Children die of cancer, floods or earthquakes devastate communities causing hundreds of deaths, and fires erupt in apartment buildings. What is our reaction? We sit with the mourners, we try to find meaning, and we tell anecdotes from their lives to lighten the mood.
What is Aaron’s reaction, though, to these deaths? The Torah tells us “Aaron was silent.” We can learn much from this silence. After a death we visit the mourner. We want to talk because silence is uncomfortable. Sometimes, a mourner wishes to talk and it is our responsibility to listen. Sometimes, though, a mourner just wants silence. Aaron teaches us that sometimes silence is the only reaction to the ineffable. We need to remember his lesson.
|04.15.17||Chol Hamoed||Rabbi Chai Levy||In today’s Haftarah, always read during Pesach, Ezekiel has a vision of God breathing life into dead bones, bringing them to life again. “I will put my breath into you, and you shall live again.” This vision of the resurrection of the dead was meant to give hope to our people during our exile in Babylonia.
On the Shabbat of Pesach, it is also customary to read Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, the bible’s sensual love poetry, with its images of blossoming love between two young lovers in the fruiting fertile spring: “Come my beloved, let’s go to the garden to see if the vine has budded, if the pomegranate trees have flowered.”
These two very different texts share a common theme that make them fitting for Passover: the cycle of life and death and rebirth. After winter comes spring, after darkness comes light, after exile comes return, and after death, there is new life again. Through all of the rituals of the seder, our faith is renewed in the possibilities of rebirth and new beginnings after a time of darkness and exile. For example, from the tears of the salt water, we enjoy the rebirth of spring in the karpas; from the bitter maror of our oppression, we enjoy the sweet haroset; from the bread of affliction, we recline and enjoy the wine of free people.
And when we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, it is not just remembering an event that happened long ago. Rather, it is renewing our faith in the cycle of rebirth - that no matter how dark the times, we may hope in the future.
|04.08.17||Tzav||Ellen Tobe||"Tsav" means "command" as in "Mitzvah." Parshat Tsav opens with God telling Moses "Tsav et Aharon ve'et banav…." – "Command Aaron and his sons…." The text goes onto to discuss laws for various offerings. Instructions include tending fires, disposing of ashes, clothing requirements, dealing with various animal parts, etc.
Regarding the burnt offering, in Leviticus 6:6 we read that the fire shall burn continuously. "Esh tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbech." In Sfat Emet, the Gerer Rebbe, says that this commandment to keep the fire burning, to not allow it to be extinguished, relates to the goal of yearning for the divine, that we should not stop in our yearning. In this context we see that the cohanim, the priests (Aaron and his sons) are there to help the nation keep this eternal yearning for the divine kindled.
This parshah is full of double-words, and poetic words. We see the phrase "kodesh kedoshim", holy of holies. What does this mean, "holy of holies?" God is instructing the priests on how to make offerings to God in order to achieve holiness. In a seeming contradiction, and in light of our modern-day striving for connection, for non-duality, it's interesting to note that kodesh kedoshim, holy of holies, or separate/distinct implies the opposite, though it also implies cleaving to God and yearning for God, as this parshah is about how to both yearn for God, and how to achieve the separation implied by holiness.
Another oft-used beautiful phrase is the alliterative "reiach nichoach" - "pleasing odor", used to describe the scent of the sacrifices/offerings.
|04.01.17||Va-yikra||Esme Gordon||Parashat VaYikra (God called) appears like a slick of glistening red running right through the middle of the Torah. It shocks us. The slaughter of sacrificed animals jumps from the text. It’s easy to skip it or recoil in disgust at the blood and the dipping of fingers and splashing on the altar, at the flesh cut up and the skin and fat and entrails and meat laid out in different piles, and the smoke and singeing of skin and bone.
Moses is given very explicit procedural details for each different sacrifice. The repetition of details, and our revulsion at the process, serves to dampen our urge to slaughter. It gives us a heightened awareness of what it means to take a life.
Killing animals may be important for our survival. Reading here of animal sacrifice informs us about how to proceed: it should only be done for a purpose, in a proscribed way, and with great care. Today, a shochet performs the task, blessings are said, the right kind of knife must be used.
Ritual sacrifice helps to tame and slake our instincts to annihilate and kill – yes, you may have to take animal life. Maybe in the doing and repetition of it, killing will become abhorrent.
It seems like a paradoxical device for ameliorating our behavior. It’s painfully relevant today, as civility and tolerance break down, to consider what we are capable of doing. It gives us pause for thought
We shouldn’t become inured to the slick of glistening red.
|03.25.17||Vayakhel-P'kudei||Susan Schneider||The Torah portion Vayakhel/Pekudei concludes the building of the Mishkan. God gave the Israelites specific directions to build the Mishkan, including measurements, the design, structure, location, time and fashion for the priests. All of the directions enabled the construction of a place in the world to hold peace, holiness and the Shekhinah, the presence of God.
In chapter 35 verses 25-35, we read repeatedly about the women contributing: “every wise hearted woman,” “all the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom” and we read that “God has imbued Bezazel with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge and with talent”. And in 36:1 “every wise hearted man into whose heart the Lord has given wisdom and insight to know how to do, shall do all the work of the service of the Holy.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the beauty of a kehillah (community) is that when it is driven by a constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals so each can say “I helped to make this.” Moses too, emphasizes that each person has something different to give.
The Torah highlights that women are participating collectively in the most sacred endeavor – the building of the Mishkan. The women’s contributions show they had wills of their own and could offer their own possessions to God. Unfortunately, after the completion of the mishkan, the Torah no longer discusses women in relation to the work in the Mishkan. They no longer have active roles. Let us remember with wise, spirited hearts: Everyone matters!
|03.18.17||Ki Tissa||Maury Ostroff||After the “incident” with the Golden Calf, Moshe engages in a dialogue with God to spare all the people from God’s wrath, cleverly arguing the point that how would it look to the Egyptians and the other nations if God rescued his people only to destroy them? And even after Moshe is reassured by God, he continues to ask questions, which leads to Moshe’s ultimate request, which is to see God face to face. God replies that he will “let all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion.” These are all very human attributes.
But then God says “You will not be able to see My face, for no man shall see Me and live”, so he places Moshe into the cleft of a rock, and covers Moshe with His hand while he passes, but removes His hand so that Moshe can only see his back.
There is a famous Midrash that what Moshe saw after God passed was the kesher (knot) on the back of God’s tefillin, representing the connection, the tie between God and his people.
I have another interpretation, that the physical imagery of the back of God’s neck is a lesson of the limitations of anthropomorphism, that we as mere humans cannot ever understand the true nature of God. Wasn’t that Moshe’s real question? But I think Moshe was asking more than that, he was trying to peer into the depths of reality. We must accept that as humans, we can only attain the slightest glimpse. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking.
|03.11.17||T'tzaveh||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||I think it is easier to begin a relationship than to sustain one. When two people meet and become lovers, initially there is fiery passion that attracts these two people together. The real challenge is: how to sustain a relationship once that flame peters out.
This is also true for Israel and God. Like two lovers becoming intimate for the first time, when Israel meets God at Mount Sinai, there is fire, lightning and thunder. All of Israel is shaking with anticipation and it feels like the very ground they are standing on is shaking with them.
After Sinai, they have to learn how to live together. In our parsha, God teaches Israel what it means to be in relationship: “This is the thing that you shall do on the alter: twice a day, forever, you shall offer a young lamb. The first one you shall do in the morning, and the second one you shall do in the afternoon” (Exodus 29:38-39).
This commandment teaches what were once the daily temple offerings, the way ancient Israel was to interact with God on a daily basis. Since the destruction of the temple we uphold this verse by praying the morning and afternoon service. After Sinai, God essentially tells Israel, ‘Once this passion dies down, here is what I need to be in day-to-day relationship with you.’ We learn from this verse that if two are to live together for a long time, if two are to be in a deep, honest, and lasting relationship, expressing one’s needs to his or her partner is nothing less than divine.
|03.04.17||T'rumah||Gary Appell||After receiving the Ten Commandments, Sinai continues to be both a physical wilderness and a spiritual cornucopia for the Israelites.
God asks Moses to tell the people to contribute gifts (terumah) toward building the Tabernacle (the Mishkan). In reality, God is responsible for them having these valuables. The Egyptians had this wealth, and only gave it to the Israelites because of God’s power, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt.
Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This parashah seems to demonstrate how God is reaching out and trying to connect with both of these parts of our being.God instructs us how to elevate physical elements: gold, silver, and gems, and to transform them into a beautiful tabernacle. Humans are attracted to beauty—it is part of our attachment to the physical. But it is God’s intention, that the Mishkan not be merely a beautiful structure but also be an ever present reminder of God’s presence. “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.” (Exodus 25:8) Is God’s promise to dwell with the Israelites, the greatest gift we are left with, from this parashah, or, is it what the people themselves receive when they give? The word Terumah has both a physical and spiritual dimension. The root means “to elevate” as when someone lifts up what they are offering, but in so offering a gift to God (says Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev), the donors are themselves lifted up to a higher spiritual level.
|02.25.17||Mishpatim||Rabbi Susan Leider||So much of our societal landscape is governed by law. Without law, we have no real order in our society. So says our Torah portion this week – Parashat Mishpatim, meaning laws.
The Etz Hayim commentary reminds us that our parashah contains an important section with “a special emphasis on humanitarian considerations.”
Among the mitzvot in this lengthy section, we find the shmittah year, allowing our fields to lie fallow the seventh year, and two declarative exhortations against repressing the stranger. “Do not subvert the rights of the needy.”
Who are the needy? Etz Hayim tells us that means, “those who depend on you for justice.”
Who depends on you for justice? Some of the first answers that come to mind might be our family, our employers, our employees. But our fellow citizens also depend on us for justice. We must depend on each other for justice. It is not someone else’s job - it is all of our jobs.
As the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:4) tells us, “Two things are in God’s hands: the soul and justice. God said: If you respect justice, I will guard your souls.” It is a tall order for us to carry this out, but we must. There is so much at stake.
Ken yehi ratzon – may it possible for us to rise to this holy task together as a community.
|02.18.17||Yitro||Ron Brown||In synagogue this week we read a Torah portion that could be considered as the climax of the Exodus from Egypt. Having crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites have arrived at the base of Mount Sinai where Moses, amidst thunder and lightning, is given the 10 commandments.
There are many other commandments in the Torah, but most people today would say that these are the ones to follow above all others. We would not think of committing murder, or stealing, or committing idolatry but one commandment, the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” has become voluntary in much of our modern society.
The Torah is very clear about the Sabbath as a day of rest. There is no room to wiggle out of it. Yet we often make the decision that something else is more important than a day of rest.
How did this happen? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested, in his book “The Sabbath,” that modern civilization is about conquering space and to conquer space we spend time. Judaism though is a religion of time, whose aim is the sanctification of time.
The Torah teaches that six days are for work, but it insists that one day should be made holy. On that day we should set aside our endeavor to conquer the space around us and simply celebrate time. I doubt myself that I will ever become perfect at that effort, but I can try, as we all can, to become a little bit better each year.
|02.11.17||B'shallah||Rabbi Chai Levy||I recently heard an interview on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air with Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of La La Land. When asked why he wanted to make a musical, Chazelle answered by describing the beauty and power of “if you feel something enough, you break into song.” Songs, he explained, are "an expression of inner feelings that can't be articulated any other way."
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because this week’s Torah portion contains Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. You could say it’s the Torah’s musical – we felt the jubilation of our redemption from slavery in Egypt so strongly in that moment, the entire cast broke out into song.
The singing at the crossing of the Sea is a vocalized expression of the transformation taking place, with speech being the key symbol of that transformation. As slaves, at first, we had no voice. But when we do cry out, it sparks the beginning of the process of redemption (Exodus 2:23).
Our leader, Moshe, had a speech impediment; he had been afraid to speak up, saying, “who am I to go to Pharaoh…I am not a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” But he finds his voice and the courage to demand, “Let my people go.”
That is why we celebrate our redemption through speech: the central part of the Passover Haggadah (which means “telling”) is Maggid, the telling of the story. Freedom is the ability to speak, and song is the most exalted expression of that speech.
|02.04.17||Bo||Ellen Tobe||In this parshah, we learn that God hardens Pharoah's heart a number of times. We're told that this is so that the people see how great and awesome God is. It’s controlled and manipulated, leaving use wondering, “Was this really necessary? Are these characters real? Is YHVH, who tells Moshe what to do and say, real? Is Moshe real?
The name for God used here, YHVH (yod-heh-vav-heh) is most often referred to as "Hashem", "the name," in Hebrew heh-shin-mem. It's interesting to notice that "Hashem" is "Moshe" backwards (mem-shin-heh / heh-shin-mem). Might Moshe be a reflection of God and vice-versa?
And now we turn to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt or "Mitzrayim," meaning the narrow places. The Israelites are trying to get out of Mitzrayim. Pharaoh releases them, and then changes his mind multiple times. God hardens his heart, creates plagues, then Pharaoh has changes of heart: this happens over and over. This story of moving between expansiveness (freedom) and narrowness (mitzrayim) - can be read as moving between a sense of freedom and feeling stuck. This happens over and over, until freedom comes. Moving between freedom and narrowness is like moving between a good and a bad state of being.
And finally, in this parshah, all of the senses are referenced: touch, ears, eyes, heart, and the nose. The plagues are obviously sensory but there are many other references to the senses. (It's worth looking for them!)
|01.28.17||Va-era||Susan Schneider||In Va’era, God intervenes for the Israelites with an “outstretched arm”; God appears with a “mighty hand” and saved the Israelites. We read about God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm throughout the Torah.
Commentators say that the mighty hand is a show of God’s strength and the outstretched arm is God reaching toward them. The mighty hand is a forceful intervention that neutralizes the natural forces of the universe; the outstretched arm implies an unrealized potential, a work in progress; redeeming the Jewish people. The hand is the initial push and the arm helps advance toward goals.
One of the images I have of God is that God is like a big hand - that guides us, gives to us, pulls us toward God, nudges us in the right direction and sometimes even pushes us away. But it is mostly a comforting hand that is strong and can help us.
The Tefillin that we wear on our arm can be thought of as a representation of the outstretched arm and mighty hand. The “hand” tefillin is placed on the bicep and wraps its way down the arm and onto the hand. The muscles on the arm represent the kinetic world of action and force and the “mighty hand of God” becomes the hand of the person wearing it; thus acting.
God did not intervene in the plight of the Israelites until their cry rose up to God. People, and God, create change: God’s hands, people’s hands.
|01.21.17||Sh'mot||Maury Ostroff||Parshat Sh’mot begins with the foundational story of our Exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery, a story that is often interpreted on many levels. The ostensible one is the origin of Israel as a nation from what started as a family clan. It also signifies a personal redemption, that each one us undergoes a transformation as we mature and come to greater understanding and self-knowledge.
Among the many wondrous stories told here, one of the most striking images is Moshe’s encounter with God through the Burning Bush that is not consumed. What does this mean?
Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda, (11th century Spain) wrote that the image of the burning bush is a paradigm for all physical reality. Since the physical world is a product of Godly, spiritual creation, it seems that the physical universe should be consumed by the overwhelmingly powerful spiritual flow emanating from the Almighty. The continued existing of the entire physical universe is just like the continued existence of the Burning Bush. Through the symbolism of the Bush, the Almighty gave his reassurance to sustain the world.
Well, a heavy taste of medieval Jewish Spiritualism. The burning bush represents an inner calling, sometimes referred to as a “burning desire”. Moshe was not destined to live out his life as a shepherd tending Yitro’s flocks in the wilderness. Despite his fears, he knew what he had to do. Each of us has heard a “calling” on many occasions in our lives. Our task is to not run away, nor to be mesmerized by the conflict between the security of the familiar and the challenge of the unknown, but to heed the message in our hearts. It is not coming from the outside. It is we who are burning but not consumed.
|01.14.17||Vayehi||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||After Jacob’s death and burial, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph and say, “We are your slaves.” They are scared that Joseph, now in a position of power, will harm them because of all of the pain they inflicted on him. Joseph replies (Gen. 50:19), “Am I in the place of God?” What does he mean by this? This response is not the logical way one would expect Joseph to calm his brothers.
Rashi suggests that, by saying this, Joseph implies that even if he wanted to harm his brothers, he could not do so. God intends goodness for the children of Israel and, like Joseph’s brothers trying to harm him, it will ultimately bode well.
Rashi’s explanation was very challenging for me. When examined closely, it essentially strips humans of free will. It means that whatever our intentions, our plans, our goals, they are all futile and the will of God ultimately prevails. Is it too much to ask that our choices matter; that they have a real impact in this world and that there be a higher power who bends the arc of the universe toward justice?
I found some solace in Shadal’s commentary of this verse. He writes, “Humans are able to perceive actions but lack the capacity to see the ultimate outcome of those actions. That is left to Heaven.” I cannot say that this explanation resolves my struggle, but it is humbling. We really are limited as human beings in that we cannot know how our actions will affect this world in the generations to come.
|01.07.17||Vayigash||Gary Appell||In Vayigash we see how good can result from something terrible. People can become wiser and more compassionate.
Joseph is sold into slavery at the suggestion of his cruel brother Judah. This is a result of the brothers’ hatred for Joseph. As a youth, Joseph understood dreams, but seemed oblivious to why his brothers hated him. For starters, Joseph interpreted a dream to suggest that his brothers would one day bow down to him.
When older, however, Joseph becomes aware of the feelings of others, for example recognizing and responding to the downcast look of the royal servants in prison because of their dreams. This leads to Joseph’s freedom from prison, and elevation to Viceroy to Pharaoh.
Judah, who had shown cruelty toward Joseph, grows, and shows compassion for his father, Jacob. When asked by Joseph (still hiding his identity) to leave Benjamin in Egypt as a slave, Judah knows this would kill Jacob, who is deeply attached to Benjamin. Judah offers to remain as a slave so that Benjamin can go home.
Joseph plays his “power” role as Viceroy, and scares his brothers, but then breaks down- weeping-telling them, “I am Joseph, “ and removes blame for selling him, saying, “this was God’s plan… to send me to Egypt, so that all of you would live.” (not die from the famine).
The Children of Israel survive and flourish. From selling one’s brother into slavery, comes much good. And we see that people can change for the better.
|12.31.16||Miketz||Esme Gordon||Miketz is about about discontinuity and survival, about the “disappeared” and the found; about multigenerational dysfunction in families.
Joseph was thrown out by his brothers, sold to strangers, taken to a foreign land and sold again.
He was released from prison for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and installed as vizier to deal with the coming famine.
He married and had children. He became the most important man in the land. He hasn’t just survived, he’s thrived. And yet...
And yet a part of him was brutally extinguished when he was thrown in the pit. He isn’t completely whole. He has lost part of himself. When his brothers come down to Egypt to buy grain, they don’t recognize Joseph, triggering an excruciatingly painful reaction in him as the “disappeared” self is almost on the verge of being “found.”
Did his brothers regret what they did?
When he finally reveals himself to them, will they show any sense of sorrow or remorse?
In all these years has Joseph thought of his part in what happened?
This time of year can raise anxieties about family bonds, old feuds, and even our sense of self. Like Joseph here, we may still be working them out.
We know that things eventually worked out for Joseph - his father and brothers and families joined him in Egypt. The possibility of achieving wholeness does exist.
Joseph’s family finds their way, giving us hope that through our potential for change we too will find a positive outcome.
|12.24.16||Vayeshev||Susan Schneider||This week’s parsha begins with Joseph sharing his “prophetic” dreams with his brothers and ends with Joseph interpreting the dreams of the baker and cupbearer. Joseph has a gift for dream interpretation.
An ancient belief of dreams says that dreams open the sleeper to a world different from the one they manage during the day.
Freud says dreams are scientific disclosure of the denied part of the self. Dreams have multi-layered meanings. Dreams, like Jewish text, require imaginative interpretation.
The Talmud states that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophesy and also states that “no dreams are without nonsense” and interpretation depends on the mercy of who is doing it.
Jewish belief of a dream versus prophesy – a prophet is granted a vision or message about the future; a prophetic dream is not just viewing the future but experiencing it and about the potential of what may be.
Joseph’s brothers are angry and jealous of him when he shares his dreams of ruling over them- so much that they sell him into slavery and tell their father he was killed. This begins our Exodus story.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former chief Rabbi of England) says that Joseph has three gifts for leadership. He dreams dreams; he understands and articulates the dreams of others; and finds ways of turning a dream into a reality.
I have heard someone comment that Torah is a collective dream of the Jewish people and we all interpret it differently. Our dreams have potential to start our story.
|12.17.16||Vayishlah||Maury Ostroff||Parshat Vayishlah is when Jacob faces his brother; there are no more tricks or running away, as he ran away to Haran after deceiving Isaac to get the blessing, and he has just snuck away in the early hours of the morning to get away from Laban. Now he heads home with his new family.
Jacob fears Esau, especially since he has learned that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob does what he does best; he utilizes various strategies to deal with the situation such as splitting up his people so that one group could escape if the other was attacked, and he sends Esau a succession of gifts in an attempt to appease him.
Night comes, and Jacob makes a decision to cross the river Yabbok with his family. In the dead of night, a mysterious figure wrestles with him all night long. Who is this figure? Is it an angel of God? Is it a demonic spirit of Esau? Or is it Jacob’s conscience?
At the break of day, Jacob’s foe sees that he cannot prevail and touches Jacob on the thigh and dislocates his hip, but Jacob will not let go unless he receives a blessing. The blessing is a new name, Israel, because Jacob has struggled with both divine beings and with men, and has prevailed. Jacob wrestled with his conscience, and this time he does not run away. He is changed, and with a new resolve he is now ready to face his brother Esau.
According to the Talmud, the dust that “whirled up” from around these two wrestlers was a dust that rose up to the “Throne of God” (BT Hullin 91a). This struggle between Jacob and the angel is associated with the eternal struggle between the Yetzer Ha-tov, our inclination to do good in the world and our Yetzer Ha-rah, the inclination to bad in the world. And it is a struggle that still whirls up dust in the heavens. It is a struggle that is the essence of being human.
|12.10.16||Vayetzei||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||In this parsha we move from two quarreling brothers to two quarreling sisters. To recap, Jacob ran away from Beer Sheva where he just stole Esau’s blessing by tricking Isaac. Before running away, Isaac tells Jacob to find a wife in Haran, someone of Abraham’s kin.
Jacob meets Rachel by a well and discovers that she is a descendant of Abraham. Rachel runs to tell Lavan, her brother and the head of the house, about the good news. Lavan stipulates that Jacob should work seven years to marry Rachel, but on the wedding day tricks Jacob into consummating the marriage with Leah. Jacob has to work another seven years for Rachel.
At this point, God comes back on the scene. Verse 29:31 reads, “God saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb.”
Why does God do this? One reason offered by the Ramban is that this is so Jacob doesn’t divorce her. Leah thinks this too. For her first child she says, “now my husband will love me.” For her third child she says, “now my husband will be attached to me.” But, it’s clear that Jacob still loves Rachel more even after Leah’s children.
So why does God keep giving Leah children? It’s only clear with her fourth child, Judah. She says upon his birth, “this time I will give thanks to God.” God’s goal seems to be to cure Leah of her despair, and what is the means of doing so? Gratitude.
Leah realizes that she is not going to get what she wants, but finds peace when giving thanks for the blessings she has.
|12.03.16||Toldot||Rabbi Susan Leider||This Torah portion features Jacob and Esav. Esav, his body spent after a day of hunting, sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for simple food.
As we think about how Esav felt, we are reminded of how hunger and fatigue exercise power and control over us. When physical exhaustion and ravenous hunger grip our bodies, we may make decisions at the mercy of powerful bodily sensations.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik says that perhaps Esav was desperately tired and hungry not only because he had been out hunting, but because he lacked sustaining faith. How does this translate for us? Do we mistake our spiritual hunger or fatigue for the physical needs? When we feel hungry, is it really food we are seeking? When we want to rest, is it sleep or renewal that we truly need?
In Veshamru, a Torah text that has been woven into our prayers for Shabbat, we read, “Shabbat v’yinafash – literally meaning, “We stop and we are refreshed.”
How many of us are tired and need to stop? How many of us are hungry for the meaning and purpose that we realize once we do stop long enough to refresh ourselves?
Dive into Shabbat and refresh yourself. Release yourself from fatigue and hunger by entering into community with others and re-focusing on what is truly important in life through the gift of time.
And in the week ahead, weave into your daily life, a few moments reminiscent of that Shabbat feeling.
|11.26.16||Haye Sarah||Rabbi Susan Leider||Sarah is the only patriarch or matriarch of the Jewish people who has a parashah containing her name. This parashah sparks a connection in us because we are related to a Sarah or know a Sarah.
Whenever I hear the name Sarah, I think of my second daughter. I had always hoped to give my own daughter this name someday. Although Sarah’s first name was not given in memory of anyone specifically, we did want to give her a middle name of familial significance. According to Ashkenazi tradition, we don’t name children after those who are alive, thinking that we could shorten the life of the living by doing this. But Jeff and I asked: Could we name our daughter Sarah Rose (Sarah Rahel) in honor of his Nana Rose?
Sephardic tradition says yes! In the first century B.C.E., the great sage Hillel, counted many fathers and sons named Gamliel. In some Sephardic communities today, families name their first son after the father who is alive.
So we named her Sarah Rose - Sarah Rahel - after Nana Rose. Sarah was born in April 1994 and Nana Rose passed away that summer, but she had the joy of knowing that her great-granddaughter was named after her.
Parashat Haye Sarah reminds us of the power of a name, the power of a life well-lived and the gift of naming after a loved one. Yes, we can wait to do this until someone has passed away, but it is nice that we don’t have to.
|11.19.16||Vayera||Ron Brown||The portion of the Torah that we read this week begins with angels, coming to visit Abraham. I would not be surprised if many Jews would say that a belief in angels was not a Jewish belief, but here they are.
Why did these angels visit Abraham? They were performing the act of Bikkur Hollim, of visiting the sick, after this 99-year old man circumcised himself.
So we find angels in the Torah, even if we have never seen a heavenly angel here on earth, but are there any angels now? In order to recognize modern angels you have to know what the word ‘angel’ means. The Hebrew word for angel is ‘malakh’ which means ‘messenger’ and is very close to another Hebrew word, the word melakha—which means work. An angel, then, is someone who works at carrying a message from God.
So do we have angels today? At Kol Shofar we have a lot of them. Among them are the members of Gemilut Hesed who organize help for the sick, the ushers who welcome congregants to services and the members of our Hevra Kadisha who help with arrangements after a death. With the investment of a little time, you could join these Kol Shofar angels. Just talk to Rabbi Chai and she can connect you with these opportunities.
God may or may not provide us with angels from heaven any more, but we can all work to be angels as we strengthen our partnership with God.
|11.12.16||Lech-Lecha||Rabbi Chai Levy||God speaks to Avram and says, Lech Lecha, Go forth. In this prototypical journey, Avram is instructed to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home to go to unknown place that God will show him. God promises that Avram will be blessed and will be a blessing. Our commentators teach that God’s command is speaking to all of us and literally says, “Go to you,” meaning, “go to your true self, to the Divine root of your soul, go to who you were truly meant to be.”
This spiritual journey of becoming a blessing involves leaving what’s known and stepping into the unknown. The Ishbitzer rebbe glosses the word mimoladetecha (from your birthplace) as “from your habits, what you’re accustomed to,” meaning, the spiritual journey is a destabilizing experience of leaving the familiar. The famous midrash about the young Avram smashing his father’s idols symbolizes the notion of breaking out of what’s familiar and limited and opening ourselves to the unknown, to a world of possibility and change. Rashi and other commentators explain that Avram wandered and didn’t know where he was going. Indeed, Avram’s journey, like all spiritual journeys, is filled with tests, challenges, and difficulties.
The message of this powerful story is that spiritual growth and transformation involve leaving the fixedness of the familiar and stepping into the unknown, but trusting that in doing so, we will be blessed and we will be a blessing.
|11.05.16||Noah||Rabbi Susan Leider||Reb Mimi Feigelson and Rabbi David Zeller
(of blessed memory) read the first two portions of Genesis as a meditation.
B'reshit - Begin
Last week’s portion says: define your beginnings. The holidays are over - you stand at the threshold of a new beginning. Mark the beginning point: define for yourself the purpose of the journey.
Noah - Rest
After coining the name and nature of our set course, we are asked to rest. Noah is connected to the Hebrew root meaning rest and ease. Setting goals might mean that we rush to realize the dream.
Instead, we are asked to sit and hold the vision inside our hearts, to embrace the excitement and trepidation of the commitment before the turmoil of our actions blurry our vision of the destination. Sitting and holding enables our decisions to mature and for us to grow into them.
This Shabbat is also the first Shabbat in the month known as Mar Heshvan, a bitter (mar) month because it has no has no holidays in it.
In many ways the whole month of Heshvan is a month of No'ah, of sitting. We dwell on all that has happened during the holidays. We sit and reflect on what the spiritual process has been for us in the past holiday season.
May Parashat Noah teach us that beginning means continued reflection; that we not get carried away in our beginnings and lose sight of ourselves. Begin, but rest too.
|10.29.16||Bereshit||Esme Gordon||Bereshit - the beginning of our love affair with God.
A breeze flutters and ripples the surface of the water. Something stirs around us, and we hear a voice. It speaks to us. We answer. We hear the voice again, and again, and then again. It’s not the voice of one of “us” – we can’t see who it’s coming from, we turn around and search but still can’t see the speaker. We answer anyway. A sense of reciprocity pulls us in - we yearn for more connection.
We made idols, but they didn’t respond. Gradually we began to follow the voice that moved us - Noah built the Ark, Abraham left Haran. The voice made covenants with us, which we saw were good for us. We understood our God was one we couldn’t see, but our desire for this relationship still burned.
How - where - do we find God? A few weeks ago, in Nitzavim, Moses tells us it’s not way off in the heavens, nor far across the seas – but very close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, in our Torah.
Aviva Zornberg writes in The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, “what is given at the beginning challenges man to the self-transformations that will allow him, in spite of everything, to stand in the presence of God.”
BeReshit offers us the opportunity to ponder what we need to do, where we need to go, what space we need to create, in order to encounter that presence.
|10.22.16||Chol Hamoed||Susan Schneider||We read today In Leviticus 23:42 “you shall dwell in sukkot for 7 days”. In our nightly liturgy we say “ufros aleynu sukkat shlomecha- spread over us the Sukkah of peace”.
A Sukkah by definition is a flimsy, temporary structure. The skahah (the covering) should provide more shade than sun and shelter us from light rain but we should still be able to see the stars.
Is this a peaceful place, a place of security? We are exposed to the elements yet we are protected. The protection does not necessarily come from the flimsy Sukkah, but from our connection to God and others.
Our security depends not upon the concrete and wood from our permanent home- where we dwell most of the year, rather it depends upon God who gave us the means to build these solid structures.
We must be a part of the relationship. The structure of the Sukkah and the skahah allow for penetration- for sun and shade and stars and rain to come through- just as Torah and God and community must be able to penetrate our most holy dwelling place- ourselves.
We create barriers for security and peace, but we must not keep ourselves apart from the potentials of life and others. The Sukkah is a wonderful place to dwell and it opens us to the outside, to ushpizin (guests), to faith and joy and community and awareness of God and the protection we yearn for and are thankful for.\
|10.15.16||Haazinu||Maury Ostroff||Parshat Haazinu consists almost entirely of a poetic song that Moshe speaks to the entire congregation of Israel. At first reading, it seems a bit anachronistic with its vivid images, and references to blood, vengeance, and retribution. It sounds like something that a later prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah would say. What happened to the humble Moses of over forty years earlier, during his first encounter with God at the burning bush, when he kept refusing his mission to go to Pharaoh to free the people, finally telling God that he is slow of speech and slow of tongue? And now forty years later, Moshe is reciting poetry with references to eagles’ nests and suckling honey from a stone and drinking the blood of grapes like delicious wine? The power of the original Hebrew rhythm and style is a bit lost in the English translation, but the imagery is still there for you to read.
So what is going on here? Moshe starts out praising God, referring to him as the Rock, a God of faith without iniquity. Corruption is not his, the blemish is His Children’s.
Most commentators think of this parshat as foretelling the quintessential history of the Jewish people; we strayed from God, and through our wickedness and our sins, we were punished and at times God seemed to have forsaken us, but time and again God renews his covenant with the people of Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an interesting interpretation. Don’t blame God when things go wrong. The first generation of Israelites experienced freedom from slavery, which is the first step. But all that means is that there is no one to order you around. But real freedom takes responsibility. When everyone is free to do as they like, the result is anarchy, not freedom. Moshe is telling the next generation about to enter the land of Israel that they should not see themselves as victims, but that they have the freedom to choose and determine their fate.
|10.08.16||Vayeilech||Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg||Sixteen Torah portions ago we met Joshua and now, upon Moses’s imminent death, we see him assume the leadership of the people. Fourteen Torah portions ago Moses hit the rock to draw out water, ignoring God’s request to do so using words alone. God in turn condemned Moses to die in Moab rather than cross into Canaan. In this Torah portion Moses realizes that his death will happen today. What would you say to Moses and Joshua at this moment?
What God says to our protagonists is disturbing: Moses will die today and this community of Israelites will ignore the covenant, and I will hide my face from them. In other words, Moses is going to die and the Israelites will mess up. But then God says to Joshua, “Be Strong, Be courageous” (Deut 31:23). How could anyone be strong or courageous after hearing that the leader of the community is going to die and everyone else will go astray?
This is the essential message of the high holy days, the time when we meditate on our mortality and imperfect human nature. This message from God to our leaders is meant for us: You are mortal. You will not be perfect in the coming year. Be courageous enough to strive for greatness, and strong enough to get back up when you fall. You can do great things, and I, God, expect you to live up to your greatest self despite being only human.
|10.01.16||Nitzavim||Rabbi Susan Leider||In the first six verses of Parshat Nitzavim, the word “ha yom” or “today” appears six times. What is the significance of the repetition of this word?
RASHI reminds us that these words of this parashah were uttered on the day that Moses died. Time was of the essence: Moses had to introduce the Israelites to the covenant, to the importance of the obligation they needed to take on before entering the land.
This text reminded me of the ancient rabbinic words of Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Ancestors, “Turn back, repent one day before your death.” In our parashah, it seems that Moses knew when he was going to die and the importance of speaking to the Israelites for the sake of their future. But the words of Pirkei Avot seem to be speaking to us, saying, “You do not know when you are going to die or when your last day will be.”
We learn from Moses and from Pirkei Avot that we should live each day as if it is our last. We should not postpone those important conversations. Before the Yamim Nora’im, our most awesome days in the liturgical calendar, we need to remember this and realize these conversations with those we love as well as those with whom we struggle. Initiate these conversations now and through the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. May they bring you closer to others and closer to God.
|09.24.16||Ki Tavo||Bonni Schiff||Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, z”l, once said something that has stuck with me: “The Torah speaks to us in many voices, each competing for our devotion.” The idea seemed especially relevant as I read through Deuteronomy over the past few weeks.
Moshe tells the people that when they enter the Land, God will deliver its inhabitants to them, and they must “doom them” to destruction: “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, show no mercy, etc.”
This week our parashah outlines a different kind of instruction. When the people enter the Land, they are to put the best of their produce in a basket and present it to God, making a proclamation that tells their story (“My father was a wandering Aramean” – familiar from the Hagaddah). They express their gratitude for how God redeemed them and how God is fulfilling His promise to their ancestors. The proclamation also recounts some of the commandments they are following, like feeding the widow and the stranger and rejoicing for the good they’ve been given.
These are two very different instructions. How do we read these stories to make them relevant to our lives now? Do we confront the Other in a spirit of destruction and aggression? Or do we live in a spirit of gratitude and kindness? Can we take some of the lessons of the Torah but not all of them? The Torah speaks to us in many voices, each competing for our devotion.
|09.17.16||Ki Tetzei||Ron Brown||We are in the middle of the month of Elul when we look closely at ourselves and make teshuvah, return to God. We might expect that our Torah readings at this time of year would reflect this spiritual journey and would supply answers to the nature of our relationship to the divine.
At first blush, Parashat Ki Tetzei, provides nothing of the sort. We have instead seventy-two mitzvot, not about our relationship with God, but instead about our relationship with our fellow human being. In commerce we must use fair weights and pay workers in a timely manner. We must provide for the poor and be kind to the stranger.
What is the message of Ki Tetzei? Perhaps it is that if we are going to approach God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the first thing that we need to do is to make sure that our relationships with our fellow humanity are in order.
What does God ask of us in the words of Isaiah that we will read Yom Kippur morning? It is not that we cover our bow our heads and cover them in ashes, but that we let the oppressed go free, that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry.
Perhaps there is no better way to make teshuvah that to read Ki Tetzei and ask, “How we are doing with these mitzvot?” Then perhaps we can face the Divine with a pure heart and with a true sense of returning.
|09.10.16||Shoftim||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Shoftim contains instructions for setting up systems of justice when we enter the land of Israel. It is famous for the oft-quoted verse “Justice, Justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive in the land God is giving you.” Less frequently quoted is the section in this portion about setting up “three cities of refuge” in the land of Israel. These cities served as places of safety for someone who had accidently killed someone. A manslayer who had made such a terrible mistake would run to the city and live there in protection, safe from any attempts at vengeance.
As this portion is always read in the month of Elul before the high holydays, Jewish mystical thought equates these cities with teshuva, with finding forgiveness, comfort, and peace in God, after one has made mistakes.
Regarding these three cities, the Torah says tachin lecha haderech, “prepare for yourself the way,” and divide the land into three sections, with a city of refuge in each of them (Deuteronomy 19:3). Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in his Kedushat Levi commentary, teaches that “prepare for yourself the way and divide the land into three sections” means that we can find a three-fold way to experience the Divine. Through engaging with three of God’s midot, or qualities: of Love, Awe, and Compassion, we access “the land.” In this month of Elul, Reb Levi Yitzchak’s teaching is an invitation to “prepare for yourself the way” to find refuge in the Holy One by experiencing and manifesting Love, Awe, and Compassion.
|09.03.16||Re'eh||Rabbi Susan Leider||Three times a day we pray Psalm 145, and stretch out our hands saying, “Poteah et yadekha u’masbiah l’khol hai ratzon – you open your hand and sustain all who live.” The act of opening our hand while chanting this line of the Ashrei is a kinesthetic reminder of giving. It is not enough to utter the lines but rather our hands actually need to feel what it means to be open. We practice for the moment when we are tested with a real-life situation - when we face someone in need.
In this week’s Torah portion we read: “Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your destitute brother.” (Deut. 15:7) Rashi raises the question: Why does the Torah need to tell us not to harden your heart and also not to close your hand? Wouldn’t it suffice to simply say “do not harden your heart”?
Rashi tells us there are those who agonize over whether to give or not. So the Torah tells us, “Do not harden your heart”. Don’t agonize, don’t harden your heart, don’t hesitate. Some open their hand and then close it before giving, so the Torah must include the words, “Do not close your hand.” Once a person has opened his or her hand, he or she must follow through with the mitzvah of tzedakah.
The psychology of giving is a complex one. But Rashi tells us: Just do it. Just give and recognize the important of an open heart.
|08.27.16||Eikev||Susan Schneider||Parshat Eikev- perhaps this should be called “remember from whence you came”. Moses gives a pep talk, an inspirational speech, a boost, a reminder- a reminder of God’s presence in everything and the virtues of keeping the commandments for the next generation. Moses is speaking to the new generation of Israelites who will be going into the promised land, but have not actually experienced all that God has done for us. This speech continues to talk to all of us- all future generations.
My favorite verse is 8:17-18 – And you may say in your heart, “My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” Then you shall remember God, that it was God who gave you the strength to make wealth, in order to establish God’s covenant that God swore to your forefathers…”
As we progress in life and get more established in our own lives- it is human nature to forget about “from whence we come”. Moses continues his speech to the Israelites- “You shall observe the commandments so you will be strong….”.
This portion is filled with repetition of the above verse; it is filled with retelling of all the deeds God performed for us in the desert, and reminding us how to behave to ensure our future. When one hears this over and over-even if the details fade, the message will carry on. It has been repeated that we are a stiff-necked people, we too need to remember from Who we came.
|08.20.16||Vaetchanan||Maury Ostroff||Parashat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe continuing to address the Israelites directly, and the text is in the first person. “I pleaded with the Lord” says Moshe, “Let me cross over and see the land on the other side of the Jordan. But the Lord was angry with me and would not listen.” Moshe continues on to exhort the people to give heed to the laws and commandments that he has instructed them to observe.
The power of these words, spoken with such power and eloquence by Moshe himself, makes this parsha so memorable. He is the ultimate leader, knowing that he will soon die and will not enter the Promised Land with them, but his love for the people is evident in his pleadings with them to seek God and walk in his ways. Moshe then reiterates the Ten Commandments, telling them the story of how God inscribed them on two tablets on the mountain.
But then come the words of the first paragraph of the daily Shema: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” What does it mean to love God, who is beyond time and our limited ability to comprehend the divine? While God is without limit, we mortals live here and now within the timespan of our lives. To love with all your might is to cherish every moment, to love your family, your neighbors, and yourself. In essence, Moshe is telling us to love life.
|08.13.16||Devarim||Rabbi Susan Leider||Parashat Devarim falls on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar. The Torah portion, the Haftarah and the book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av, all contain the Hebrew word, איכה – ey-khah. How do we translate this word?
It means “how” when Moses uses it in our parashah; he says to the Israelites, “How can I bear the burden of you?”
The Haftarah echoes it when Isaiah asks, “How has the faithful city become a harlot?” In the book of Lamentations, it is the title of the book, meaning, “Alas.”But the same letters in this word appear with different vowels in the creation story. God says to Adam, “Where are you?” Imagine that God says two things to Adam, “Where are you?” and at the same time, “Alas!” God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden and grieves separating from them. By analogy, the Temple has been destroyed, God has driven the Jewish people into exile, but the rabbis still experience God’s caring concern for the Jewish people. Even as we cry “Alas!” over the destruction of the Temple, our time of grief can also awaken a yearning to have contact re-established. It is as if God is saying “Where are you?”
Reading parashat Devarim, offers us a way to think about our people’s paradigmatic national tragedy, about grief over this loss and so many others. Grief is real, but so are compassion and hope.
|08.06.16||Matot-Masei||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Matot-Masei recaps the itinerary of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Torah introduces the long list of our stops on our journey in the midbar with the verse:
Vayichtov Moshe et motza’eihem lemaseihem al pi Adonai Ve’eleh maseihem lemotza’eihem.
Moses wrote their starting points of their journeys as directed by YHWH, and these are their journeys to their starting points.
We notice that the language in the phrase “their starting points of their journeys” is then flipped to “their journeys to their starting points.” This reversal reflects a question we encounter in the journeys of our lives: Is our journey about the destination or the wandering? Are we trying to get somewhere (that imagined “if only I can get to…, then I will finally be happy”)? Or, is what happens along the way more important?
Perhaps the chiastic structure of this verse teaches us not to value one over the other.
The truth is that the journeys of our lives are filled both with times of movement, transition, and wandering and with times of settling, stability, and stagnation. Both the wandering and the settling can produce the uncomfortable feelings of: “Where am I going? Will I ever get there?” and “What am I doing here? How long until I can leave this place?” But both the wandering and the settling can also bear the experience of presence, aliveness, and equanimity. Both the times of wandering and the times of settling can reveal the hidden Presence of the Divine.
|07.30.16||Pinchas||Esme Gordon||Pinchas answered God’s call to Moses at Baal Peor to publicly impale Israelite ringleaders involved in idol worship and promiscuity among the Midianites. He brutally stabs Zimri and Cozbi, but succeeds in ending their behavior. His zeal is rewarded by God with a Brit Shalom and a Pact of Priesthood. Why? Six people in the Torah have parashiyot named after them – Noah, Sarah, Jethro, Korah, Balak and Pinhas. Why? Why these and not others who more immediately spring to mind as meriting a parashah heading? Was it because of the good they did, or the bad? Or the good that came out of the bad? What is it that distinguishes them as two were Jewish and four were not?
Noah was known for being “righteous and blameless in his time.” Sarah possessed immense forbearance following Abraham into the unknown. Jethro, a Midianite priest, guided the young Moses in the ways of leadership, and extolled Moses’s God. Korah was a rebel who challenged Moses’s leadership, causing Moses to challenge God regarding the injustice of collective punishment. Balak, King of Moab, hired a soothsayer to curse the Israelites before battle, and the soothsayer praised Israel instead.
Is it that these were not examples of extraordinary action and leadership, but rather of ordinary people who were able to rise to an occasion, instituting betterment of the Jewish people? They had a distinction of some sort. Even Balak indirectly elicited some of the most beautiful lines in our prayer.
It leads us to ponder how we are distinct in our time, and how we will we be remembered.
|07.23.16||Balak||Bonni Schiff||At the beginning of the Shabbat and weekday services, there is a beautiful line from this week's parashah:
יִשְׂרָאֵל מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב אֹהָלֶיךָ טֹּבוּ מַה, - “How lovely are your dwellings, people of Jacob, your sanctuaries, descendants of Israel.”
Balak, the Midianite king, alarmed by how numerous the Israelites have become, sends Balaam –known to have special powers to curse or bless people, to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to curse them; he can only say what God puts in his mouth. He tries three times to curse; each time blessings come out.
Balaam is looking out at the Israelites’ camp, and speaks of their ohalekha (tents) and mishk'notekha (dwelling places or sanctuaries). The Sages interpreted this praise of Israel as a reference to its tents of learning and prayer. Mishk'notekha comes from the same root as mishkan, the tabernacle where God dwelled in the desert. So the Israelites’ tents, our dwelling places, our synagogues, and the dwelling place of God are all connected.
This line from the Torah is the first verse of the prayer. Four more verses follow, all from Psalms, each relating to preparing for prayer. Although the prayer begins with a communal perspective, each of the subsequent verses begins with “v’ani” – “And I”; they are individual statements about prayer. I think it is a beautiful prayer with which to begin our davenning.
(Thank you to Rabbi Mark Greenspan for helping me to appreciate this prayer.)
|07.16.16||Hukkat||Ron Brown||This week’s Torah reading provides us with a dilemma. If a person is ritually impure, you take the ashes of a red heifer, mix them with water and sprinkle them, and the person shall be purified. To an individual in the 21st century, it sounds like magic.
This commandment is representative of an entire class of commandments, called hukkim, that do not make logical sense. While we no longer sacrifice a red heifer, the hukkim include many rituals that we practice today, including keeping Shabbat, or keeping kosher. We can understand the commandments against murder or theft but hukkim are not subject to logic.
Why do we do these things in the 21st century - these ritual commandments that seem to make no sense? Is it because we believe that God gave a set of instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai and we must follow orders? Is it because we belong to a tribe, and members of our tribe distinguish themselves by following these ritual commandments? Is it because our grandparents followed these practices, and we don’t want to break with tradition?
I do the Jewish things that I do because they serve to focus my search for the divine. Without them, I don’t think that I could carry out that search at all. I struggle to find meaning in these things that I do, but I find that the struggle to be worthwhile.
Try picking up a new mitzvah, you might just find it worthwhile.
|07.09.16||Korah||Rabbi Chai Levy||What was so terrible about Korah’s rebellion? When he challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership, didn’t he have a good point, after all, that we’re all equally holy? Don’t we “hold this truth to be self-evident that all men are created equal?” Indeed, but the Jewish tradition understands Korah’s rebellion to be not about equality, but rather, that he was power-hungry and jealous. He wasn’t so much interested in serving the people as he was interested in his own ego.
His character is revealed in the first two words of the Torah portion: Va’yikakh Korah, Korah “took.” There is no direct object following this verb; Korah took…what? Rashi understands “Korah took” to mean “Korkh took himself off to one side to separate himself from the community to create a dispute.” The rabbis in Pirkei Avot understand this separation as a makhloket lo leshem shamayim, “a dispute not for the sake of heaven.” In other words, Korah took…for himself. This “taking” contrasts with what God says to Aaron and to the Levites later in our portion, “I make your priesthood a service of giving, avodat matana.” (Numbers 18:7) Korah, a Levite, wanted to take for himself a leadership role, but the leadership of the Levites and priests is a service of giving.
This parasha offers an important message not only about leadership but also about the spirituality of service. We can be takers, like Korah, motivated by a selfish desire for power, or givers, motivated by a generous spirit of serving.
|07.02.16||Shelah L’kha||Rabbi Susan Leider||This week’s parashah contains the third paragraph of the Shma, recited in the Shahrit morning service and ma’ariv the evening service. It tells us to put the blue thread on tzizit, the tassel on each corner of our tallit.
Jewish theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow raises an important question: “What possible difference can it make to God whether the thread in that tassel is green, red or blue?” Her answer, drawn from Siddur Birkat Shalom, poses a poetic answer to this question:
“Gather up some things that remind you of Me, things that speak of the earth and the sky, solid and shimmering, light sand and blue air. . .”
This commentary connects the nature we see around us and the “chosen” color that is to be in our tziziyot. The world we inhabit should be a world that we appreciate. For many of us, we need to remind ourselves of the gift of being outdoors. So close the textbook, shut down the computer, put away the to-do list and walk out the door. Then we will be able to see the “blue” nature of this amazing world. Whether it is a short walk after a long workday or a stroll on the beach watching the sunset, the skies, the Pacific Ocean, and the rivers all hearken to us. And now, in light of this commentary, even our tziziyot can be a reminder to appreciate the worldly gifts that bless us. Shabbat Shalom.
|06.25.16||Beha'alotkha||Susan Schneider||El na refah na la (Please God heal her)
These are the words that Moshe cried out to God after Miriam became stricken by tzara’at (skin disease) after she spoke lashon hara (bad speech) about Moses. We sing this chant together during our “healing prayer” during the Torah service. This is the shortest prayer in the Torah. The prayer is intense, condensed and is layered with meaning. El is the shortest name for God- it refers to God’s chesed (kindness). The words of this prayer have been woven into the piyut- Yedid Nefesh. In this prayer, Moses’s plea became the expression of the longing of our neshama (soul) for God and the prayer for healing by cleaving to God.
Moses’s plea is 5 words long and eleven letters total. Commentators point out that the 11 letters correspond to the name of God at the Burning Bush- Eh’yeh Asher Eh’yeh (I will be what I will be) Exodus 3:14. This reassurance asserts that God will always be with us. Just as the burning bush is not consumed- so will illness not have any power to consume the neshama.
Whether we suffer personally from an illness or are plagued by all the “ills” of the world (hatred, violence, greed, etc)- we all suffer and need healing. The power of communal prayer can bring about the feeling of the presence of God, and sometimes the “prayer” of our suffering is that our actions in the response bring out the presence of God.
|06.18.16||Naso||Ron Brown||This week’s Torah reading contains the words, “on the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle…” Our sages noted the unusual character of that statement. Surely Moses could not have set up the Tabernacle by himself! But there it is, written into the Torah, sacred words which must be true. So our sages imagined that when all of the pieces had been constructed, God told Moses to finish setting up the Tabernacle. Moses responded that he was not physically capable of doing that job alone so God said, just stand there and move your hands, and I will complete the construction.
If only it were so easy. Nowadays the construction of a synagogue requires approvals from the government, architects and contractors, hundreds of workers, years to complete, and lots of money.
Planning for the Kol Shofar building project began in the year 2000, and it was not until 10 years later that we occupied our beautiful new building. One can only imagine how the Israelites in the wilderness would have grumbled at that construction schedule. In addition to the professional workers, the completion required the time and money of hundreds of congregants. Hopefully, as you pray in our sanctuary, the effort seems worthwhile. So, when you are approached to donate to the new capital campaign that will help to retire the mortgage, remember that we did not have Moses to do the work, and join in to do your part.
|06.11.16||Bamidbar||Rabbi Chai Levy||The wilderness, the Midbar, is a powerful place. It can be a frightening place of uncertainty, but it’s also an awesome place – a place of quiet and revelation. This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, “in the wilderness,” begins a new book of the Torah and a new chapter of what will be our forty years of journeying in the wilderness before entering the promised land. And this year, B’midbar falls just before Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the receiving of Torah at Sinai.
The Torah tells us explicitly that God did not lead us the most direct way out of Egypt; rather, God took us a roundabout way through the midbar, the wilderness. (Ex 13:17-18) The rabbis explain in Midrash Tanhuma why we needed to be in the wilderness to receive Torah: God says: If I take the Israelites the simple, direct way, everyone will immediately take hold of their land, and stop engaging with Torah. But if I take them by way of the wilderness, they’ll eat of the manna and drink from the miraculous well, and Torah will settle into their bodies.
The rabbis are saying that when we have stability and structure, we don’t engage with Torah, with real learning and growth, the same way we do, when we have emptiness, openness, and change. Revelation, transformative learning, and real awakening happen not in that stability, but in the wilderness. Torah can “settle into our bodies,” as the midrash puts it, when we have the spaciousness to be transformed.
|06.04.16||Behukotai||Rabbi Susan Leider||In this parashah, we find a verse that is embedded in the Prayer for Peace that we sometimes include on Shabbat: “ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם. . . - I will bring peace to the land and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you. I will rid the land of vicious beasts and it shall not be ravaged by war.”
The preceding verses describe the bounty: the rains come, the earth yields produce, trees bear fruit, the vintage is abundant. RASHI asks the question, “What good is the bounty of the earth without the guarantee of peace?” But by noting the juxtaposition of bounteous good that God will give us with the promise of peace, RASHI says we rest assured that God will deliver both.
When we say the Prayer for Peace, it is preceded by the Prayer for our County and the Prayer for the State of Israel. In both of these prayers, we express gratitude for the material bounty we enjoy as Americans and for the spiritual bounty we enjoy as 21st century Jews blessed to know the State of Israel in our lifetime. Bounty and peace are inextricably linked – both in this week’s parashah and in the prayers that form this part of the Torah service.
May our prayers for peace be heard as we thank God for the bounty that we enjoy. And may we take seriously the responsibility for peace, both in the land in which we live and in the State of Israel. Shabbat Shalom.
|05.28.16||Behar||Bonni Schiff||Today we read about the shmita year, which happens every 7 years, and the yoveil (jubilee), which happens every 50 years. Every 7 years, we let the land and crops go fallow. But after 7 cycles, in the jubilee year, we also cancel all loans, permanently free all slaves, and return all ancestral property to its original proprietors.
The jubilee year is announced dramatically: with shofar blasts on Yom Kippur. “It should be a jubilee for you; and you shall go back, each to his possession; and you shall go back each to his family.” The Hebrew here is tashuvu.
Tashuvu? The Shofar? Yom Kippur? The Jubilee year is about teshuvah or repentance? I’ve heard shmita and yoveil drashed about from an environmental perspective. But I love this reading.
The psalmist says – “the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains…” None of us own anything. We are all leaseholders. Whatever possessions or abundance we have are through the grace of God. Shmita required that once every 7 years, we surrender our dominion over the land. And after 7 shmita years, the jubilee hit a reset button that gave people a chance to start again: a utopian vision that offered a second chance.
In biblical times, Yom Kippur was about purifying the Temple to be a fit place for God. Post-Temple, we connect Yom Kippur with purifying – renewing - ourselves, teshuvah. Yoveil is no longer observed, but the opportunity for a second chance for everyone is very much embedded in our calendar cycle.
|05.21.16||Emor||Ron Brown||This week’s Torah reading is the last section of what is generally referred to as the Holiness Code. In previous weeks, the Torah has suggested how we might create holiness through our behavior--one human being to another. These chapters of Leviticus contain such well-known advice as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.”
Leviticus now turns its attention to rituals that will create holiness. Among other provisions, the text says, “the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” How do we take this 3000 year old proclamation in order to bring holiness into our 21st century lives? Our tradition provides many ways to create a holy time within our busy weeks. We can simply bring our families together on Friday evening and light Shabbat candles. It can be a time to discuss the events of our week and what happened that week for which we are thankful. We can resolve to have dinner as a family that one night, devoting just one meal to the Sabbath. We can go to Friday night services, or perhaps to the synagogue on Saturday morning. Whatever it is, we can use the Sabbath to take a break from our everyday lives, to bring us closer to one another, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives.
|05.14.16||Kedoshim||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Kedoshim begins with God speaking to Moses saying, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: Be holy, for I Adonai your God am holy.” This whole section, known as the holiness code, is about how to be holy and create a holy community: honor your parents; keep Shabbat; care for the poor; do not steal; don’t withhold the wages of your laborer; love the stranger; love your neighbor.
It’s interesting that it doesn’t just say “Be holy in all these ways.” It says, “Be holy in these ways, I am God.” Revere your mother and father, I am God. Leave the corner of your field for the poor, I am God. Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, I am God. Respect your elders, I am God. Love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. Love the stranger, I am God. Why this repetitive refrain? It has to be more than God just saying “Do this because I am God and I said so.” The way I read it is: God is saying, “if you do these things and be holy and create a holy community, then “I am God” is real, then we experience, Ani Adonai, “I am God.” God is saying: My Presence in the world depends on you being holy to each other.
|05.07.16||Achrei Mot||Rabbi Susan Leider||The 8-day Passover festival has ended, but the Seder themes of freedom from slavery and the new beginning of spring echo in our hearts.
From today forward, on each Shabbat afternoon between Passover and the festival of Shavuot, we study Pirkei Avot, (The Wisdom of Our Ancestors). It contains millennia-old pithy proverbs and teachings of the rabbinic sages. We study one chapter a week, six in all, which represent the spiritual journey transpiring between these two holidays. In the process, this prepares us for receiving Torah on Shavuot. And besides, with spring comes longer days which mean that the Shabbat sunset comes later too. In the minds of the rabbis, what better activity could there be than studying on Shabbat afternoon?
But of all the books the rabbis could choose for us to study, why did they choose this one?
Some of the sayings in Pirkei Avot echo this wisdom of relatives whom we remember. Some of us recall the hearing if not heeding, the advice of our bubbes (grandmothers), whether we solicited advice or not! Yet some of us didn't have Jewish bubbes, and studying Pirkei Avot connects all of us back to the collective wisdom of our ancestors. The wisdom belongs to all of us.
Over the next five weeks, join us as we journey to Mount Sinai through our study of Pirkei Avot. We gather at 1:15 p.m. following our communal Kiddush lunch. We look forward to learning with you.
|04.30.16||Pesah||Esme Gordon||We’ve had our Seders, we have honored our covenant to remember the Exodus, and to instruct our children so they too would feel as though they themselves had come out of Egypt. We journey on through the life of freedom ahead.
How do we do this? A spiritual, ethical, moral pathway is laid out before us in our readings from Torah and Haftarah this Passover week - outlining “how,” and also who we are as a people: ways of behaving towards God (honoring Shabbat and festivals, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, remembering the splitting of the Red Sea, and the Second Passover in Sinai, counting of the Omer) and towards other people (lending to the poor, tithing, forgiveness of debt, giving tzedakah, respecting servants).
But how quickly we backslide and build golden calves. How quickly we forget to remember what God did for us, and the miracles we have witnessed along the way. We need ongoing reminding of insurmountable obstacles that we have overcome, so that we can do that again - because remembering revives our confidence that we can pull through again. It gives us hope.
I recently asked a teenager how she had survived some appalling events. Her response? “I’ve got a book to write and songs to sing.” Her hope and her imagination were pulling her through the wasteland. She was echoing Moses and the Israelites and the Song of the Sea. She sounded like Miriam on the shore.
|04.23.16||Pesah||Susan Schneider||History, our story, tradition, redemption, Seder, food, questions. How do we find ourselves reliving this amazing experience of Passover “as if we were there” year after year? We read the Torah year after year and understand our history and how it relates to today. Passover, too, epitomizes this- retelling our history and how we relate it to today- how we can see ourselves in the story.
We read from Exodus 12:21-51 on the first day of Passover this Shabbat. Moses teaches the laws of the Pesah offering and the story of the eve of our Exodus is told. Moses relays to the people the divinely given instructions for what will transpire.
Verse 26 says: “and it will come to pass your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’” It seems as if the Torah speaks directly to us- to every generation- literally and figuratively. These same words are found in the Hagaddah.
The answers can change year to year- our seder can change year to year, explanations and food and discussions can change year to year. But the passage of time never diminishes the contemporariness of the events in our Exodus/Redemption story. Ours and their (the Israelites’) national culture is nurtured by the memory of these events and by their/our continual reenactment of them. The theme stressed in the Passover Hagaddah- retelling, reliving, re-remembering, makes it real: as if we, too, were there. And in every generation, we ask- what does this mean for you?
|04.16.16||Metzora||Ron Brown||In the absence of modern methods for dealing with infectious disease, the Torah mandates that a person with Tzaarat, a term that is generally translated incorrectly as leprosy, be exiled from the camp. This week’s parsha, Metzora, describes the elaborate ritual that must be followed once the priest has determined that this person no longer harbors this disease.
Our Torah is a path to life. While the concepts surrounding the treatment of this inflicted individual are among the most obscure in the Torah, they are intimately tied to that central idea. The Torah provides not only a description of the disease and how it is to be diagnosed, and not only a remedy to protect the community through quarantine, but also a detailed pathway back to normal life through the ritual in this parashah.
We can take a lesson from this teaching. We no longer send individuals with skin disease outside the camp. However, we have homeless on our streets who are exiled from normal society. We have soldiers returning from war who are scarred by their experience. We have refugees fleeing oppression desiring only to build a new life and “illegal” immigrants who only want a chance at a better life for their children. We must not leave these people “outside the camp.” Instead we must take a lesson from the Torah and provide paths for all of these to reenter society, paths to life.
|04.09.16||Tazria||Rabbi Chai Levy||Tazria describes the ancient and arcane laws of a disease called tzaraat, a kind of leprosy that afflicted the skin, fabrics, and even buildings. This disease rendered one impure and required isolation and purification before returning to the Israelite camp. In the rabbis’ attempt to make sense of this mysterious illness, they associated it with lashon hara, evil speech, using a play on words between metzora (the one with the disease of tzaraat) and motzi shem ra (slander). This explanation offered a justification for the isolation imposed on the metzora – it was necessary to stop the spread of that highly contagious disease of gossip.
On the peshat (literal) level, however, we are compelled to consider the social isolation of those afflicted - rather than try to find a reason to blame them for their affliction - and also to look around and ask ourselves: who do we exclude from our “camp,” our society? Who do we isolate at the margins of our community? The poor? The elderly? Those with mental illness? Those with disabilities? Who else? The Torah describes the way that the cohen, or priest, must reach out to the metzora and help bring him back into the camp. The Torah describes us as a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” meaning, we are all priests; each of us has the power of the cohen to reach out to those who are isolated and excluded and to bring them in.
|04.02.16||Shmini||Rabbi Susan Leider||In this week’s parashah, Moses has his hands full trying to make sure that Aaron and his sons fulfill their priestly duties according to God’s command. As Moses goes about this holy work, we read, “Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering“.
The English translation of “inquired” does not truly capture the essence of the Hebrew דָּרֹש דָּרַֹש – darosh darash. The doubling of the Hebrew root – ד.ר.ש. – dalet, resh, shin, indicates an intensification of Moses’ inquiring. In other words, Moses really wanted to know about this particular goat. He was eager to get this information from Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Itamar, in order to ensure the sacrifices were brought according to God’s command.
These two Hebrew words, דָּרֹש דָּרַֹש – darosh darash, have the potential to unlock the entire Torah for all of us. The endeavor of studying Torah is to intensely seek its meaning for us now in our own lives. The drash, or the deeper inquiry, is the eternal pre-occupation of the Jewish people to bring Torah closer and to make it relevant to each one of us. The sages interpreted this doubling of these words to mean that when we read Torah on the page we only understand half of its full meaning. So where does the other half come from? It comes from us, from our personal understanding of Torah, beyond what it has meant to all of the others who came before us.
So go to it - דָּרֹש דָּרַֹש – darosh darash – make Torah your own by diving even deeper into the meaning it has for you.
|03.26.16||Tzav||Bonni Schiff||Parshat Tzav contains God’s instructions to Moses, to be passed on to Aaron and his sons, about the duties and responsibilities of the kohanim (High Priests) and about how the various sacrifices were to be performed. The instructions are quite specific and detailed, and they follow last week’s parsha, Vayikra, which also described the sacrifices in great detail.
Animal sacrifice was the way our ancestors expressed gratitude and awe to God. It was their way of atoning for sin, of trying to draw close to God. After the destruction of the Temple, prayer became a replacement for animal sacrifice. As our ancestors sought to atone, to express gratitude and awe, and to achieve communion with God through sacrifice, so do we seek those things through prayer.
Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about this in a slightly different way. In “Man’s Quest for God,” he writes: “Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice. What has changed is the substance of sacrifice: the self took the place of the thing. The spirit is the same.” What an amazing idea: when I pray, I am offering myself – my spirit, my honesty, the best part of me – to God. As our ancestors gave the best of their flocks and fields back to the creator of that bounty, so do I give myself back to my Creator. It is a high bar to set for prayer, but one that I feel is worth pursuing.
|03.19.16||Vayikra||Ron Brown||We begin this week to read the Book of Leviticus, focusing on the rules governing the priests in the Temple. Today’s parashah, Vayikra, is devoted to the sacrifices that an Israelite had to bring under different circumstances, whether in thanksgiving, as atonement for a sin, or any of several other specified situations.
What lesson can we possibly learn? We are, after all, over 2000 years removed from the time that we had a temple within which to sacrifice.
One year I visited the excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount where one may sit on the steps that pilgrims would have mounted in the last stage of their long journey. With only a small bit of imagination, one can picture oneself climbing those steps bearing an animal to be given to the priest for sacrifice. And, it was not just any animal, but prescribed as the best that one has. For most of the pilgrims this would likely have entailed considerable economic sacrifice, as these were not wealthy people. But nonetheless they came, some from great distance, to show their devotion and their reverence to God.
What can we learn? We can attempt to approach our own rituals with the same devotion that they did. We can try to bring that reverence, and that love for God to the synagogue each time we enter--to pray, to meditate, or to study--and by doing that we can try to become worthy inheritors of the legacy of those ancient ancestors.\
|03.12.16||Pekudei||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Pekudei completes the work of the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that we carried through our years in the desert. We read all about the elaborate details of its construction – the gold, the silver, the copper, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the ram and dolphin skins, the priestly vestments, the golden furnishings. Because this Torah portion always falls in the weeks just before Purim, as we are preparing to don our wild disguises, I always think of the mishkan as God’s Purim costume. God is garbed in garments that, like our Purim costumes, both conceal and reveal; costumes conceal who we really are, but they also reveal something about us. They also make people look more closely at us as they wonder, “who is that in there under that disguise?”
There is a hasidic story about a child who was playing hide-and-seek with friends. The child hid so well that the friends couldn’t find him and finally gave up. The child emerged from his hiding place and went crying to his grandfather, the rebbe, saying in tears, “I hid, but no one came to look for me.” The rabbi answered, “that’s what it’s like for God – God is hidden and cries when no one comes to look!”
God is hidden in the world. In fact, the Hebrew word for world, olam, has the same root as the word for “hidden” or “concealed.” When God dresses up in the elaborate costume that is the mishkan, it’s an opportunity to seek more closely and say “Who is that in there?”
|03.05.16||Vayekhel||Rabbi Susan Leider||Today’s special maftir (additional) Torah reading (Exodus 30:11-16) marks the first of several special Sabbaths prior to Purim. The Torah tells us that each person shall pay a half shekel as an offering to God. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less when giving God’s offering.
Why a half-shekel? Giving a half shekel has both straightforward and symbolic meaning. When everyone contributes the same, everyone is accounted for and everyone has an equal stake in the deed. Symbolically, each individual is represented by a half unit of currency, not a whole. The only way to become whole is by partnering and giving to the rest of the community. Indeed, we always retain our own individual half - a half that is between each of us and God; but the other half we give over to our people. The half-shekel lesson is that only by giving half of ourselves to our community do we become whole.
In an age when individualism reigns supreme, the message of community becomes almost counter-cultural. But it is by giving and even giving up, that we become more whole. Immersing ourselves in the Jewish community can pave the way for us to feel complete. As a dear friend of mine once said about her experience in her synagogue community, “You get back even more than you put in.” May it be true for all of us at Kol Shofar – that even a half shekel sustains us all because we count on each other.
Based on Rabbi Paul Steinberg's Celebrating the Jewish Year
|02.27.16||Ki Tissa||Susan Schneider||God showed Moses how to pray and what to say in order to invoke Divine mercy. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Exodus 34:6-7) contain 13 Names and descriptions of God which refer to God’s compassion. This gives us a deeper understanding of God and how to imitate the Divine. It also gives us some reassurance that even though the Israelites have sinned and went so far as to make a Golden Calf- that God’s essence is forgiving. By emphasizing the positive, the merciful aspect, God gives the reassurance needed to continue on the Israelite journey.
The Sages who formulated our prayers omitted the last section of these verses which contain punishment- they ended short and cut out a few words and changed the whole meaning to the positive. We sing these verses on Yom Kippur, and on holidays as we take out the Torah, and this passage has been incorporated into the Slihot prayers, prayers of forgiveness.
Reuven Hammer in his book, Entering Torah, points out that Rabbinic Judaism makes this explicit. It teaches that we must pattern ourselves not after God’s essence, as Judaism does not permit human beings to say they are Divine, but rather we pattern ourselves after God’s qualities. So the Midrash teaches us in the name of Abba Saul “Be like God! Just as God is gracious and merciful, so should you be gracious and merciful” (Mekhilta Shirata 3)
We are made in God’s image. May we be radiant as we emit those qualities to all.
|02.20.16||Tetzaveh||Ron Brown||Having described the moment of revelation at Sinai, the remainder of the book of Exodus contains what might appear to be uninspiring details of the building of the Sanctuary. This week’s Torah portion includes instructions for producing oil for the lamps, the priestly garments, and the building of the incense altar. As we read this, we ask: What is spiritually elevating about sewing instructions or carpentry lessons?
Sacred space adds to the elevation of our soul as we seek the divine. This is no less a truth in our own day than it was in the desert. We have often seen visitors walk into the sanctuary at Kol Shofar and stare in awe. It is easy to forget that the sanctuary did not appear fully formed. Its details are not contained in scripture, but in seventy-five pounds of blueprints. Each page took hours of time from architects who concentrated on the grand design as an inspiration but had to make every detail work. We look at the interesting pattern of wooden slats that form the walls without thinking that an architectural intern spent an entire summer plotting that design.
Greatness comes from a flash of brilliance or a revelation from God. It is, however, realized most often just by hard work—hammering, sawing, sewing, or typing on a computer. Thomas Edison said that greatness was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. That message came from the Book of Exodus as well, and is one we should always remember.
|02.13.16||Terumah||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Terumah contains detailed instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that our ancestors carried through the wilderness. At first glance, Terumah reads a little like an IKEA furniture assembly manual in the original Swedish - but upon closer examination, we find that Terumah, in fact, holds a profound teaching about our very purpose here on earth!
Terumah instructs that the Israelites were to bring various gifts, as their hearts were moved to do so, that would make the walls, cloths, and outer structure, as well as the inner furnishings, like the ark, the menorah, and the altar. All of these structures are designed to create a dwelling place for God, as it says “Build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz points out the many linguistic similarities between the instructions for the building of the mishkan and the creation of the world in Genesis. What do these literary parallels indicate? I would argue that the parallel language between the creation of the world and the building of the mishkan suggests a parallel in the structure of the universe: Just as God created the world as a place for us to dwell, so too are we to make this world a sacred place for God to dwell. This means more than just building a physical space to hold God; rather, it means that as God created a world for us to live in, it is our work to make this world a holy place where the Divine can live.
|02.06.16||Mishpatim||Rabbi Susan Leider||Civil society wouldn’t be civil without law. Without law, there is no order. So says Parashat Mishpatim, meaning laws. Mishpatim emphasizes humanitarian considerations. We are warned against repressing the stranger. The needy are those who depend on us for justice.
When people want to bring justice to the world, they often ask me, “Rabbi, will you say something from the bimah?” And, as you know, often I do. But this is an invitation to partnership. Action in the world results from a response to such an invitation.
Who depends on you for justice? Our family, our employers, our employees? But our fellow citizens also depend on us for justice. We depend on each other for justice. It is not someone else’s job - it is all of our jobs.
Midrash Rabbah reminds us: All of the Torah is dependent on law. It is not just up to our leaders and lawmakers. The mitzvah is all of ours.
|01.30.16||Yitro||Esme Gordon||My father-in-law was kind, encouraging, open and non-judgmental, so I pondered these qualities in this relationship between Jethro and Moses.
Moses had earlier learned to live a nomadic existence when he fled to Midian and was taken in and tutored by his father-in-law in wilderness survival, to hunt, build shelter, be a shepherd to his flock.
In Yitro, Jethro hears that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, and comes from Midian to meet him in the wilderness. Moses recounts how Hashem helped the Israelites flee from their bondage. Impressed, Jethro responds “Now I know the Lord is greater than all gods.” This, from a Midianite priest! Jethro is open to his son-in-law’s beliefs, and is persuaded by them.
When Jethro notices the people petitioning Moses “from morning unto evening,” he offers not criticism but constructive strategy - that Moses should be the spokesperson to HaShem for the people, and delegate the work of interpretation to capable leaders, forming a hierarchical system of judges – the beginning of our judicial system today. Now it’s Moses who is open to Jethro’s idea.
Moses thus becomes the interpreter of God’s will for the people, and prepares the Israelites to receive the Ten Commandments.
With his unconditional positive regard, by avoiding criticism and judgement, Jethro for years helped mold and guide his son-in-law in becoming the shepherd of his people. No wonder the parasha is named for him. How can we too adopt Jethro’s ethos of kindness and constructive support in our dealings with others?
|01.23.16||B’shallah||Rabbi Susan Leider||B’shallah gives us a beautiful image of the Israelites travelling through the desert with God going “in front of them by day in a column of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a column of fire to shed light for them.” The people are never alone; they are accompanied by a tangible presence of God.
And yet, at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites are terrified. The Egyptians are behind them; the sea is in front of them. They are paralyzed; they cry out to God. Moses tells them to “stand still and see God’s salvation.” Is he paralyzed too? Then God says to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move!” God instructs Moses to split the sea, and the cloud moves from in front of the people to behind them, creating darkness for the Egyptians while the fire lit the night for the Israelites. The presence of God protects the people, but Moses and the people must do their part.
A famous midrash tells about Nahshon, the first Israelite who stepped into the sea. Seeing the sea split and Nahshon walk on dry land, everyone else follows. May we all have Nahshon’s trust in God, as well as his courage to take action.
|01.16.16||Bo||Ron Brown||This week we read the climactic moment in the story of the Exodus—we are set free.
But first we have the last three plagues before our freedom and a negotiation. Locusts descend, and Pharaoh says, “Moses you and the men can go to worship your God but everyone else should stay.” Moses says, “No deal – darkness.” That was the ninth plague. Pharaoh says, “Take all the people but your flocks and herds must stay. Moses says, “No deal. All the first born die.” Finally Pharaoh says, “You can leave.”
But why didn’t Moses leave after the ninth plague? He had God behind him. God could have provided more animals. But Moses said to Pharaoh, “We won’t know what we need to worship God until we arrive there.” Moses talks to God every day, but he does not know what he will need to worship God!
I wonder—how many times have I picked up my tallis bag and driven to Shul thinking—I have everything I need. Moses didn’t know what he needed, but I do? Perhaps what God wants before I worship, is that I don’t snap at my wife for some trivial argument, or maybe what God wants is that I don’t speed by the homeless guy at the corner.
What does God want from each of us before we worship? To study more Torah? To volunteer at the synagogue? To work harder to make the world a better place? It is worth thinking about.
|01.09.16||Vaera||Rabbi Chai Levy||The story of the exodus from Egypt is punctuated by the theme of speech. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-era, Moses resists God’s instruction to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Moses doubts his own ability to speak effectively: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” Moses’ speech impediment is symbolic: Slaves have no voice, no power of speech, while freedom is expressed by the ability to speak out.
In the beginning of the Exodus narrative, the enslaved Israelites cry out to God, and God hears their cry and remembers the covenant. It is the Israelites giving voice to their oppression that sparks God’s listening and redemption. And it is SONG–Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea–that is the ultimate expression of freedom at the end of the Exodus story. So, as our story takes us from slavery to freedom, our narrative begins with silent slaves and Moses’ speech impediment and ends with raising our voices in song and Moses speaking to the people on behalf of God throughout the rest of the Torah.
Indeed, we celebrate the freedom of the Exodus by celebrating speech. The central section of the Passover seder is “Maggid,” which means “the Telling.” And a play on words understands the Hebrew “Pesach” as “Peh-Sach,” which means, “the mouth speaks.” We celebrate our freedom by speaking. That is what it means to be a free person: to have the power of speech.
|01.02.16||Shmot||Rabbi Susan Leider||Parshat Shmot features two heroic Hebrew midwives named Shifrah and Puah who defied Pharoah’s decree to do away with the Hebrew baby boys. RASHI, the medieval French commentator, notes that we learn about these women through their names; “Puah” means “a long and a loud cry.” Puah cried out along with women giving birth. She empathized with women in pain.
Puah cooed at babies once they were born, RASHI tells us. RASHI’s interpretation triggers what we know from psychologists and child development experts: newborn infants learn to communicate with others by babbling or crying and begin to master linguistic systems. Taking time to talk and play with them is essential to their sound development.
Puah’s gifts of empathy with the women who were birthing Israelite babies and with the babies themselves were incredible assets to the Israelites and the future of the Jewish people. She saved lives, she nurtured development. Because of these gifts she joins the ranks of other righteous Biblical women: Hagar, Joseph’s wife Osnat, Moses’s mother Tzipporah, Shifra, the first midwife mentioned in today’s parashah, the daughter of Pharoah who rescued Moses from the river, Rahav (Joshua 2:10), Ruth and Ya’el–all pious women who helped to build the Jewish people. May we be inspired by the Shifrah and Puah and not be afraid to defy the Pharoahs we encounter. Instead we choose to cry out in empathy with those in need, coo with the babies and bring much needed hutzpah into the world.
|12.26.15||Vayehi||Susan Schneider||It strikes me that the words of many prayers talk about the nature of God- many express reality, accountability, hopes, aspirations and love. When Jacob gives “blessings” to his children and grandchildren upon his deathbed, I was struck by the same thought: he makes statements about their nature and personality. He gives direction and suggestions for the future.
In Genesis 49, the dying Jacob gathers his sons to offer them his blessing and to request they bury him in Canaan. This is the original template for an ethical will. It is customary for Jews to pass on ethical values form one generation to the next and to future generations. When you read the “blessings” Jacob gives to his sons, they are not always positive. An ethical will forces one to face up to one’s failures and say the true words of your heart, whether you chastise or rebuke, or thank or forgive, or seek, or to instruct and to express love. It can be practical advice, life lessons, mistakes we don’t want generations to repeat as well as secrets to share.
We all know about the many dysfunctional traits of our biblical ancestors; Jacob’s sons were no different. But everyone can aspire to live to one’s full potential and pass on positive qualities and try to make the generations to come learn from past mistakes. The words of so many of our prayers in the siddur connect us from our past and can open our eyes to a better future.
|12.19.15||Vayigash||Ron Brown||This week’s parsha contains one of the most poignant moments in the Torah. Joseph, in the guise of Pharoah’s second-in-command, has tricked his brothers. He threatens to arrest Benjamin, their father Jacob’s favorite son, and send them back to Jacob without him. What will the brothers do? Will they commit the same sin as when they sold Joseph into slavery, and abandon their brother Benjamin? Or have they learned something in the years since that act?
Judah meets the challenge. He steps forward and offers himself in exchange for Benjamin’s freedom. At that moment Joseph breaks down, and reveals to his brothers who he is. Many tears are shed, and Joseph sends the brothers back to Jacob, so that the whole family can return to Egypt to be reunited and to live.
What a contrast between Judah’s behavior now and his earlier behavior. Where he once said of Joseph, “come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites,” now he says of Benjamin, “please, let me remain a slave to my lord instead of the boy.”
One of the central themes in Judaism is teshuvah, repentance. We are human, so we make mistakes. It is what we do when we are faced with the same situation that marks our character. Maimonides says that the true measure of complete repentance is to be faced with the opportunity to transgress again, and to resist that opportunity.
Judah serves as a model of complete repentance from whom we can all learn.
|12.12.15||Mi-ketz||Rabbi Chai Levy||The Torah portion of Mi-Ketz always falls during Hanukkah, and indeed it shares with the holiday the themes of assimilation and the adaptation of Jews into our cultural surroundings. Joseph fully integrates into Egyptian society–he becomes second in command to Pharaoh, takes an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife, and looks so Egyptian that his own brothers don’t recognize him when they come to Egypt seeking food during the famine. Joseph’s assimilation is necessary for the survival of his family, which leads to the rest of Jewish history.
Though the Hanukkah story celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks and the Hellenized Jews (those assimilated Jews who had adopted a Greek way of life), scholars argue that Hellenization enabled the success of the Maccabee revolt and that Greek thought had a great impact on rabbinic Judaism and, therefore, on the rest of Jewish tradition.
These stories of assimilation are complex: at the same time that assimilation had its benefits, it also led to great alienation and dislocation. Joseph hides his true self, his identity and weeps privately when he meets his true family. And in the Hanukkah story, the Greeks persecuted us, prohibited us from practicing our sacred mitzvot, and defiled our holiest place.
Hanukkah means “dedication” for the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to its holy state, and it’s the time of year that we rededicate ourselves to our Jewish identities, just as Joseph will finally reveal who he really is–Tune in next week!
|11.28.15||Vayishlakh||Bonni Schiff||The Genesis stories say a lot about families- jealousies, rivalries, dysfunction. We love these stories. We identify with them; they are familiar. We’ve experienced sibling rivalry; we’ve been estranged from a family member; that is what this parashah is about.
Jacob, after many years of estrangement from his brother Esau, sets out to reconcile with him. He pursues reconciliation in every way he knows. He enlists the aid of angels to send Esau a message humbling himself, calling Esau ‘my lord’ and himself ‘your servant.’ He fears that Esau might attack or kill him, but acts with courage. He prays to God for protection. He wrestles with an ‘ish’- a man- in the middle of the night. Some commentators understand this ‘ish’ to be not a man, but an angel, or even God. In my imagination, the struggle is- as other commentators say- with himself, about his own actions and treatment of his brother. Afterwards, Jacob says, “I saw an angel (‘Elohim’) face-to-face and my soul was saved.” Finally reconciled, the brothers embrace and weep. Jacob introduces his family to Esau, and insists Esau accept gifts (recompense for the birthright?). Finally, Jacob says “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel” (‘Elohim’).
A very important transformation happens. When Jacob looks at Esau’s face, he sees the face of God - not an enemy out to hurt him. May our attempts at reconciliation, result in our seeing the face of God in the face of the other.
|11.21.15||Vayetzei||Ron Brown||This week’s Torah portion covers a tumultuous period in the life of our forefather, Jacob. Fleeing from his elder brother Esau, who Jacob has tricked out of the blessing of the first born, he arrives at the home of his uncle Laban. He works for Laban for seven years to earn the right to marry his daughter Rachel, but instead is himself tricked and given the elder daughter Leah in the dark of the night.
Our Sages are severe in their criticism of Jacob’s conduct. The Midrash imagines Jacob criticizing Leah for answering during that first night when he cried out the name Rachel. It goes on to say that Leah’s response to that criticism is “Did your father not call out Esau, and you responded?” How much can Jacob protest when shown that he was guilty of the same deception?
Jacob might have rationalized his conduct in stealing the blessing. It was after all his mother Rebecca who told him to do it. But our Sages will not allow him that rationalization.
Like Jacob, most of us are not blatant sinners. But how often do we rationalize marginal behavior? We feel that the ends justify the means, or that we were following the mandate of a superior. The story of Jacob tells us that we cannot escape our moral responsibility in that way. We are ultimately responsible for our own actions. Jacob has trouble with this requirement. Perhaps we can learn from his example and do better.
|11.14.15||Toldot||Rabbi Chai Levy||Our parashah opens with our second patriarchal couple, Isaac and Rebecca, who are infertile like Abraham and Sarah before them. After Isaac’s pleading to God, Rebecca finally conceives–twins! But the good news doesn’t last long; the twins “struggled in her womb.” Perhaps this means that Rebecca had a difficult pregnancy and feared miscarrying, or perhaps this represents some kind of inner turmoil she felt. This inner struggle is the beginning of a long and painful rivalry between the two brothers inside her, Jacob and Esau. Rebecca is clearly in great distress; she says regarding the struggle inside of her, “if so, why do I exist?” and she went lidrosh et Adonai (Gen 25:22), to inquire of God.
The interesting word here is lidrosh, to inquire of God. The root of the word is D-R-SH, which we recognize from “drash,” “midrash,” “drasha,” which are the various ways that we Jews interpret text to draw out new meanings and ideas. Looking at the word drash in its original context, we can understand more about it what it means to interpret text and to offer a drash on the Torah.
With Rebecca, “to drash” means to inquire of God, to ask a question that comes from an inner struggle, perhaps even from an existential struggle (“why do I exist?”). To this day, that’s what makes for a good “drash,” it’s an interpretation of sacred text that comes from difficult questions, from inquiring of God, and from an inner struggle.
|11.07.15||Hayei Sarah||Rabbi Susan Leider||In this parashah, Avraham’s wife Sarah has died and he laments, “I am a foreigner and a resident among you.” Despite living in one place for many years, Avraham feels like he is a stranger and yet he feels at home.
The medieval commentator RASHI asks, “How can he feel both things at once?” RASHI’s question points to an existential issue: How can we feel at home, and at the same time, also feel like a stranger?
Loss sparks within us a feeling of being disoriented–we can’t get our bearings. Our assumptions about life, our identity are called into question when our world is turned upside down by the death of a loved one.
But it doesn’t take the loss of someone close to sense this. We often feel these two emotions at once in the midst of a seemingly normal day.
Biblical scholar Everett Fox translates “foreigner and resident” as “sojourner.” “Sojourner” captures the essence of “foreigner” and “resident” at once. Perhaps we all learn from Avraham labeling himself a sojourner. Constantly in transition, aren’t we compelled to move on to the next stop in the journey?
Feeling at home and feeling like a stranger makes us humble; for we are all on this earth for a limited time. No matter how hard we try to grasp time, it slips through our fingers. We count our blessings and embrace the contradictions. To be a foreigner and a resident with grace and humility: this is Avraham’s challenge to us.
|10.31.15||Va’yera||Esme Gordon||Va’yera describes such very human behavior and some of the things we do to each other. Abraham dissuades God from annihilating all the inhabitants of Sdom, Lot and his family escape to the desert and his wife looks backward, Hagar and Ishmael are banished, and Isaac is bound for sacrifice.
What’s disturbing is not that these behaviors are so alien to us, but that they are all so familiar. We have met, and at times been, the person who struggled to adjust to a new situation, like Lot’s wife who stayed forever stuck in limbo, unable to go back or to move ahead. We know the child who was abandoned or rejected by a parent, like Ishmael. The story of Isaac has great resonance for those who feel sacrificed by their parents’ interests.
A number of my decisions greatly affected my children and their futures. How much did I sacrifice them on the altar of my hopes and dreams?
Sometimes, we solve issues more easily when our immediate family is not involved, as when Abraham interceded for the people of Sdom. But when we are stressed and making difficult decisions involving family, it’s harder to step back and see the water-well over yonder, or the ram in the thicket above us. If we can create this space, we may see, as Abraham did, that “on the mountain of the lord, there is a vision,” and we may hear that voice guiding us to a solution.
|10.24.15||Lekh Lekha||Susan Schneider||God tells Avram, “Lekh lekha- go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house- to the land which I will show you.” Why did God not just say “from your land?”
Many commentaries describe “from your land” as meaning “from your will.” The word “eretz (land) is similar to “ratzon” (will or desire); “from your birthplace” meaning from the emotional and behavioral self (a product of your environment) and “from your father’s house” meaning from your intellect (your authority over feelings and behavioral patterns).
Lekh lekha can also literally mean, “Go to you,” or “Go for yourself-for your benefit and for your good.” In the Torah, the word “lekh” connotes moving toward one’s ultimate purpose of serving the Creator; of moving toward your soul’s essence and purpose. Lekh can also mean to go-to know yourself, to grasp the root of your soul, to perfect yourself. Rabbi Elazar said, “Go for your own sake, go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your spiritual level.”
Whether you are literally or figuratively going forth from somewhere; advancing yourself, finding yourself, or changing your life for the better at whatever level, that step forward can enhance your being and ultimately be a blessing. God says to Avram, “I will bless you and you shall be a blessing”. May we follow in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu and be a blessing and light to ourselves and to all.
|10.17.15||Noah||Ron Brown||This week, we read one of the most familiar of the stories of the Torah, that of Noah and the flood. God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and that all flesh will be destroyed. Noah must build an ark, fill it with two animals of each species, and that they along with Noah’s family will be saved in order to start anew.
The midrash asks why God chose that mechanism to save Noah. Surely God must be able to find some way to save Noah without all that work! The answer of the midrash is that Noah took 120 years to build the ark so that during that time people could ask him what he was doing, and be given the chance to repent, but that none took the opportunity.
We live in an age where a different kind of wickedness threatens to destroy our world. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we have polluted the atmosphere. It is apparent that the climate is changing as a result and we are now seeing an increase in severe weather including hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Like the generation of Noah, we have been given time to repent, and thus far, like the generation of Noah, we are squandering the opportunity. Time will tell whether the leaders of the world come to their senses. It is up to each of us to do what we can to encourage them, for our sake and the sake of our children and grandchildren.
|10.10.15||Bereshit||Rabbi Chai Levy||In Bereshit, we begin the Torah all over again from the beginning. The power of the Torah’s account of the creation of the world lies not in its scientific accuracy, of course, but in the majesty of its poetry and in the religious world-view it presents to us. First day: day and night; second day: heaven and earth; third day: plants and trees; fourth day: sun, moon, and stars; fifth day: winged creatures and sea creatures; sixth day: animals and humanity; seventh day: Shabbat rest. With each day of creation, God speaks that aspect of the world into existence and then “va’yar Elohim ki tov,” “God saw that this was good.” God speaks, God creates, God blesses, and God declares it all good. This is our world: the fullness of God’s goodness. Interestingly, the second day of creation is missing the phrase “God saw that this was good,” (but it appears twice on day three)–Perhaps this is because day two is marked by the act of separation and division, the separation of the upper and lower waters. On the sixth day upon completing creation, God saw everything and declared it “tov me’od,” very good.
So this is God’s world: good, good, good, good, good, and very good. In the Torah’s telling of the creation of the world, there is only one thing that God declares “not good.” When God creates the first human being, God realizes, “it is not good for the human to be alone.” Built into the Torah’s vision of creation is a message about the centrality of love and human connection in God’s good world.
|10.03.15||Sukkot||A Dwelling in History
The sukkah is neither agricultural space nor moralistic space. Neither is it dream space nor cosmological space. The sukkah is historic space. Dwelling in it is not a return to the wilderness, for to try to relive the desert experience would deny history, the life of the subsequent generations.
The contemporary sukkah, the sukkah of each generation, points to the historic event of the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Land of Israel. The contemporary sukkah points to the original event because of the original event's impact on the future generations.
But the contemporary sukkah also points to the future sukkah. When one leaves the sukkah one recites the following: "May it be Your will, 0 Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that as I have established and dwelt in this Sukkah, so may I have the merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah [made] of the skin of the *Leviathan." The sukkah of the generations points toward the future.
Excerpted from Exodus and Exile: The Structure of the Jewish Holidays
by Monford Harris, American Professor of Jewish Thought (1920-2003)
*LEVIATHAN: In the Bible and talmudic literature the leviathan denotes various marine animals, some real, others legendary. The Leviathan appears in the biblical books of Isaiah, Psalms and Job. In later popular works the words leviathan became synonymous for the reward of the righteous in the world to come.
|09.26.15||Ha’Azinu||Bonni Schiff||At the end of Va-Yeilekh, last week’s parashah, Moses tells the people how “defiant and stiff-necked” they are. They are defiant toward God even while Moses is alive, so how much more so will they be when he is dead. Moses recites the words of a poem to the entire congregation of Israel. That poem is Ha’azinu, this week’s parashah, recited as the people are about to enter the Land and as Moses has come to the end of his life.
“Listen,” Moses says, “This message is for everyone. Remember what God did for you; remember where you came from. Ask your parents; they were there at the beginning.” And he prophesizes, “You will grow fat and gross and forsake the God who has been so good to you. You were wicked before, and you will be wicked again.” And then, in the prose verses at the end of the parashah, Moses tells the people, “Pay attention to this teaching. It’s really important: your life depends on it.”
Ha’Azinu is always read around the Days of Awe. Yom Kippur was this past Wednesday, but according to tradition, the gates of repentance really don’t close until Hoshana Rabba, at the end of Sukkot. Ha’Azinu is like the shofar blast, reminding me of the work I need to do during this season of repentance. Remember who you are, the poem is saying to me. Remember where you came from. Appreciate the God that created you. Pay attention to these teachings: your life depends on it.
|09.19.15||Vayeilekh||Ron Brown||As we near the end of the Torah, Moses calls together all of the people one last time. He tells them that he will not lead them into the promised land, but that their new leader will be Joshua. Then he gives them his final instructions—that they are to carry his teachings in the Ark of the Covenant. They are to reread it regularly so that they will not wander.
Moses has led the people of Israel for over forty years, from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. The people relied upon his relationship with God to know which direction to go and how to behave. Now he will be gone, leaving behind his teaching and the example of his life.
How like Moses are we! We know that we will die and that we will leave behind unfinished business. We know that it will be up to the next generation to continue our work. Moses left behind the Torah, but what do we leave behind? Just like Moses, the most important thing that we leave behind is the example of our lives, the example of how we lived, our morality and our ethics.
This is the time of year when we are instructed to look inward, to see how we can be better people in the year to come. What better way to do that than to think about how we will be remembered when we are no longer here on Earth.
|09.12.15||Nitzvanim||Rabbi Chai Levy||In Parashat Nitzavim, the Israelites reaffirm the covenant made at Mount Sinai as they prepare to enter the land of Israel. Moses says to them, “God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your offspring to love YHVH your God with all your heart and soul so that you may live.” (Deut. 30:6) This is an echo of a few chapters ago when Moses tells them to “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.” (Deut. 10:16)
What is this circumcision of the heart? It’s removing an extra layer, a thickening, a protection that closes the heart. An uncircumcised heart is a cynical heart, a hardened heart, a stubborn heart, a deadened heart, an unloving heart. This verse appears on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, and it’s a reminder of the work that we need to do to prepare for the High Holydays. The month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah is designated for us to work on our internal blemishes. We sound the Shofar each weekday and try to wake up to the work we need to do to improve ourselves and to grow closer to God. From our secular culture, we are quite accustomed to being encouraged to fix our blemishes - that is, our external blemishes: We are bombarded with messages about our physical imperfections that need to be corrected. But Jewish tradition asks us to concern ourselves with internal improvements: cut away that thick covering that closes your heart…so that you can love and live.
|09.05.15||Ki Tavo||Rabbi Susan Leider||In the opening of the parashah, the Israelites come to land, inherit it, settle it and bring the offerings of the first fruits. This juxtaposition of their coming to the land and their bringing of the first fruits raises a question for the biblical commentator, RASHI. When did the obligation of bringing of the first fruits take effect? RASHI says that they were obligated for this mitzvah only after until they had conquered the land and apportioned it. Taking on ritual obligations to the land was a risky proposition when the Israelites’ physical well-being was still in jeopardy.
RASHI teaches us that obligation can be observed when the basics are secured. Physical safety, food, shelter and water are the necessities that must be in place before humanity can concern itself with other goals. The rabbis teach us in Pirkei Avot, ein kemah, ein Torah-without flour, there is no Torah. This is why it is so important that we direct tzedakah to humanitarian efforts.
On a personal level, do we take on secondary goals without being sure that the basics are in place? Taking care of our health trumps some other goals in life. Often taking care of loved ones means that other activities or obligations must fall by the wayside.
If we order our lives in such a way that honors this idea, we may have a greater sense of peace and reconciliation within ourselves. The loftier goals will someday be realized, but we need to focus on the basics first.
|08.29.15||Ki Tetzei||Bonni Schiff||According to medieval commentator Maimonides, Ki Tetzei contains seventy-two mitzvot. The Sefer Ha-Hinukh, published anonymously in the 13th century, counts seventy-four mitzvot. But no matter how you count it, this parashah contains a big chunk of the commandments–more than ten percent of the 613.
A look at the list of the mitzvot is instructive. We can see in some of them the foundations of our modern Western legal system, like the commandment to pay a laborer quickly for his work. Others encompass ethical principles very familiar to our contemporary sensibility, like providing for the most vulnerable in society or not putting a stumbling block before the blind. And some are difficult to understand, like not mixing two types of fabric in the same garment. Some are simply repugnant, like taking a disobedient son to be stoned to death by the townspeople. How do we understand this body of commandments that are our inheritance?
The mitzvot are the beginnings, but not the end, of Jewish law. Jewish practice of biblical times developed into Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, and has evolved further over the generations. The rabbis who codified the Mishnah, Talmud and subsequent legal codes were no more comfortable with stoning children than we are. Jewish law today is different from what is in the Torah, but I can appreciate the beauty and complexity of its origins when I read the Torah and the vast body of commentary that followed. This is our inheritance.
|08.22.15||Shoftim||Ron Brown||This week’s parashah, Shoftim, meaning “judges,” is much more interested in justice than in judgment. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” says our text. You cannot wait for justice, you must pursue it. You must run after it, you must do everything in your power to attain justice. As Rabbi Bradley Artson said “You cannot claim to love God and not be passionate about justice.”
In recent weeks, I have begun to despair for the soul of a land that I love deeply, the land of Israel. We are told to pursue justice, but in the name of the God that gave us that commandment we have seen a Palestinian home fire bombed, with two members of that family, a father and his baby, now dead. We have seen six people stabbed at a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, again in the name of the God who gave us this Torah, telling us to pursue justice. There are those, furthermore, in Israel, who call themselves Rabbi and defend these actions.
Yet, there are signs of hope. The government of Israel has denounced these acts of terror, and has begun a program to arrest leaders of the Jewish terrorist groups who are responsible. Prominent Orthodox rabbis have begun to stand up against these actions as well.
“Justice, justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Let us pray that our people in Israel remember these words.
|08.15.15||Re’eh||Rabbi Chai Levy||Parashat Re’eh means “see.” It begins with Moses saying “see, I put before you today a blessing and a curse,” -blessing, if you follow God’s mitzvot, and curse, if you don’t. Why does the Torah portion open with “see,” and what does seeing have to do with our choosing between blessing and curse?
A few verses later, Moses tells the people, speaking on the east side of the Jordan, that when they enter the land, the blessings will be pronounced at Mount Gerizim and the curses at Mount Ebal, twin peaks near Shechem, or modern-day Nablus. On a clear day, we would have been able to see these two mountains looming ahead of us, and the visual image would have been striking: Mount Gerizim is lush and green, with springs and vegetation, but Mount Ebal, rising out of the same land only a mile away, is barren, dry, and bleak. On one level, Re’eh means: see this visual aid of the choice that lies ahead.
But on another level, seeing allows us to choose blessing over curse. There is a blessing in the daily morning liturgy that says Barukh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Haolam Pokeah Ivrim, Blessed are You YHVH our God Ruler of the Universe Who gives sight to the blind. The prayer reminds us that every day we can open our eyes to see the blessings in our lives. When we truly Re’eh, see, sometimes we can find that even curses can be blessings.
|08.08.15||Ekev||Rabbi Susan Leider||...the Lord your God has made you travel for forty years in the wilderness so that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. Deuteronomy 8:2
When Moses speaks to B’nei Yisrael, he makes a connection between their hearts and their allegiance to God’s covenant: to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.
The 16th century Italian commentator Sforno notes that what is in our hearts should be made manifest in action. In other words, “Put your money where your mouth is” Or, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
This last aphorism, coined by a medieval French abbot, tells us that our actions should match our intent. Easier said than done!
How do we balance what we want to achieve in the world with what we can actually get done? Does the long path we travel ultimately help us to bear fruit of realizing a closer bond with God and the mitzvot?
As we walk the path toward the Yamim Nora’im, these awesome days that begin our New Year, let us try again to align our actions with our inner intent. Let us give voice to that which we can truly realize and curb our tendency to blustery promises and grandiose statements. Let inspiring action and mitzvot speak in their stead.
|08.01.15||Va’etchanan||Esme Gordon||Moses reviews our history, from slavery and exodus from Egypt, through our desert wanderings and up to just before we are to cross the Jordan into the unknown. Now, in Va’etchanan, he repeats some of the things that are vital for us to do and to remember when we go to our new home.
My parents sent me to boarding school, aged 9, with a trunk-full of items they were told to pack. They breezily waved me off with “you’ll have a marvelous time, and make lots of wonderful new friends.” I could honestly have used a bit more help than that, and more useful stuff in the trunk. This is precisely what Moses is giving us in this week’s Parasha. He prepares us for an exciting although anxiety-provoking transition to our new life.
Moses packs our trunk for us. What will we need there? He reminds us of our covenant with God and the Ten Commandments—and the importance of passing them on to our children and grandchildren. He gives us the first part of the Shema, the mitzvah of loving God, of studying God’s laws, and of binding them to our hands, our heads and our doorposts. He matter-of-factly foresees that we may fail and be expelled, and he describes how we can find our way back.
We never know where we will end up. What do you need in your trunk for your Jewish journey through life?