Kol Torah

As we sink into Shabbat, we reflect on the Torah. Did you know that our Shabbat Bulletin contains a weekly insight from our rabbis and congregants on the parshat? 

Parashat Haazinu: Maury Ostroff                                                                                                    October 13, 2016

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 parsha 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.

 

Parashat Vayelekh: Rabbinic Intern Sam Rotenberg                                                            October 7, 2016

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.

 

Parashat Nitzavim: Rabbi Leider                                                                                                     October 1, 2016

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.

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.

 

Ki Tavo: Bonni Schiff                                                                                                                                          September 23, 2016

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.

Ki Tetzei: Ron Brown                                                                                                                                     September 16, 2016

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.

Parashat Shoftim: Rabbi Chai Levy                                                                                                               September 9,2016

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.

 

Parashat Re’eh: Rabbi Leider                                                                                                                         September 2, 2016

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.

 

Parashat Eikev: Susan Schneider                                                                                                                        August 26, 2016

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.

Parashat Devarim: Rabbi Leider                                                                                                                         August 12,2016

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.

Parashat Matot-Masei: Rabbi Chai Levy                                                                                                                     August 5, 2016

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.
(Numbers 33:2)

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.
-Rabbi Chai Levy

Parashat Pinchas: Esme Gordon                                                                                                                               July 29,2016

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.

Parashat Balak: Bonnie Schiff                                                                                                                                   July 23, 2016

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.)

Parashat Korah: Rabbi Chai Levy
July 8, 2016

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.

Parashat Shelah L’kha: Rabbi Susan Leider
July 1, 2016

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.

Parashat Beha’alotkha: Susan Schneider
June 24, 2016

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.

Parashat Naso: Ron Brown
June 17, 2016

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.

Parashat Bamidbar: Rabbi Chai Levy
June 10, 2016

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.

Parashat Behukotai: Rabbi Susan Leider
June 3, 2016

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.

Parashat Behar: Bonni Schiff
May 27, 2016

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.

Parashat Emor: Ron Brown
May 20, 2016

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.

Parashat Kedoshim: Rabbi Chai Levy
May 13, 2016

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.

Parashat Achrei Mot: Rabbi Leider
May 6, 2016

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 six 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.

Pesah: Esme Gordon
April 29, 2016

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.

Erev Pesah: Susan Schneider
April 22, 2016

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?

Parashat Metzora: Ron Brown
April 15, 2016

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.

Parashat Tazria: Rabbi Chai Levy
April 8, 2016

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.

Parashat Shmini (Shabbat Parah): Rabbi Leider
April 1, 2016

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.

 
Parashat Tzav: Bonni Schiff
March 25, 2016

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.

 
Parashat Vayikra: Ron Brown
March 18, 2016

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.

 
Parashat Pekudei: Rabbi Chai Levy
March 11, 2016

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?”

Parashat Vayekhel: Rabbi Susan Leider
March 4, 2016

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 Paul Steinberg’s Celebrating the Jewish Year