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Drops of Torah (2018-2019 / 5779)

We all have the capacity to share our wisdom and reflections about the Torah texts we read each week. The Congregation Beth Israel Drops of Torah project provides an opportunity for people to share a brief reflection or short insight about the week's Torah portion. These short pieces are written by our members with support from our rabbis (as needed). Our plan is to have members reflect on 1/9 of a Torah portion each week so that in nine years we will have commented on the whole Torah! Beth Israel follows the Israeli Torah reading calendar which sometimes differs from the Conservative and Orthodox Torah reading calendar outside of Israel but will always sync up before the end of the Torah reading year. Consider signing up for a drop of Torah. For more information, contact Rabbi Nathan Martin.

For this year's Drops of Torah, click here
  1. Beresheit by Linda Cohen
  2. Noah by the Sibley Horwitz family
  3. Lekh Lekha by Lynn Cashell
  4. Vayera by Larry and Marion Hamermesh
  5. Hayyei Sarah by Sharon Kleban
  6. Toledot by Jeff Jarvis
  7. Vayetze by Michael Fishkow
  8. Vayishlach by Julie Mayer
  9. Vayeshev
  10. Miketz by Hadassah Weinmartin and her dad
  11. Vayigash by R. Helen Plotkin
  12. Vayehi by Benjamin Alouf
  13. Shemot by Sharon Boyd
  14. Va-era by Anita Weber
  15. Bo by Ronnie Good
  16. Beshallach by Joyce Romoff
  17. Yitro by Jackie Gelman
  18. Mishpatim by Dina Jacobs
  19. Terumah by Nathan Sepinwall
  20. Tetzaveh by Lois Deutsch
  21. Ki Tissa by Lisa and Matt deCamp
  22. Vayakhel by Abby Grin
  23. Pekudei by Zoe Blank
  24. Vayikra by Ian Cohen
  25. Tzav by Helena Landis
  26. Shemini by Lauri Mansky
  27. Tazria by Candy Berlin
  28. Metsora by Laura Lee Blechner
  29. Pesach by Jennifer Waterston
  30. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim by Elissa Pragman
  31. Kedoshim by Debra Wile and Karen Giglio
  32. Emor by Andy Coleman
  33. Behar by Noah, Julia and Jodi Walsh
  34. Behukotai by Diane Longenecker
  35. Bamidbar by Reisa Mukamal
  36. Naso by Chance Loomis
  37. Beha'alotekha by Alan Ross
  38. Beha'alotekha by Josh Krakow (bonus!)
  39. Shelach Lecha
  40. Korach by Max Buonincontro
  41. Hukkat by Deborah Erie
  42. Balak by Bob Stone
  43. Pinchas by Nathan Sepinwall
  44. Matot by Susan Meyer
  45. Masa'ei by Meira
  46. Devarim by Marion Hamermesh and Rich Remenick
  47. Va'et-hannan by Jennifer Waterston
  48. Ekev by Hadassah Weinmartin
  49. Re'eh by Ava Manaker
  50. Shofetim by Daniel Chattler
  51. Ki Tetse by Rich Remenick
  52. Ki Tavo by You
  53. Nitzavim by Jane Laffend, Arnie Schwartz
  54. Vayelekh by Mayim Bialik (along with other video resources)
  55. Ha'azinu by Alex Dresner
  56. Sukkot by Rabbi Nathan Martin
Beresheit (Genesis 4:19-5:11) by Linda Cohen "Early Machismo"

Before I read this portion, I had never heard of Lamech, a descendent of Cain.  Given his attitude and behavior, I’m glad that Lamech didn’t have a starring role in the history of our people:
And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice: O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me. And a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold. Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold (4:23-24).”  
You could call this machismo. Or you could call it psychopathy. Here is a man who believes that it’s acceptable to kill people for wounding or even bruising him (and a lad, at that). And then he brags that he will avenge wrongs seventy-seven fold, even more brutally than his ancestor, Cain.  He is a tyrant, with no sense of compassion or justice.  What could we possible learn from this, besides how not to be?
My take-away is twofold. Unfortunately, brutal men still exist today, some as rulers of countries.  Anyone with such an egotistical need for vengeance is a threat to justice and humanity. We must use our resources to reduce the power of such men. Secondly, we all get angry and need constructive ways to channel this emotion. We need to notice and attend to any traces of our own inner Lamech, stirrings of anger which call out for violence or revenge. If we are wronged we deserve to seek justice, and we may need to set firm boundaries, but vengeance to wound those who hurt us is not a route to inner peace or greater humanity. (Return to top.)

Noah (Genesis 10:21-11:13) by the Sibley Horwitz Family "Human Pride and Babel"

In the Tower of Babel story, the peoples of the Earth united to build a very tall Tower of brick and bitumen, but God stopped its construction--claiming it was an example of humans’ pride.  “Nothing will be out of their reach,” God harrumphed, seeing the tower as representing an arrogant wish to approach heavenly majesty.
Dante, too, agreed that the Tower of Babel was an example of human pride--and thus, sinful--and in his Purgatorio, he chose a Mountain with different stages of sinful behavior to represent Purgatory, the first Terrace of which he called Pride...

As a result of God’s reactive response to the Tower in Genesis, scattering the people to winds, they developed different languages, different cultures, and could no longer unify in the same way to make such a tower, not for many centuries.   

Perhaps this was also God’s attempt to create many different peoples so there would be one, Jewish people that God could “choose”--? (That is, until Mordecai Kaplan decided we didn’t need that particular qualifier.) Or was it the attempt by human authorities to keep subject peoples from challenging them by being too ambitious? Citing God’s potential wrath might be an effective way to keep people submissive..

We now have under construction the Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia--the first building that will be 1 kilometer (more than 3200 feet) tall. An American architect has built it--and is making efforts to ensure that those on the top stories don’t get seasick on windy days..

So we have a number of different ways to understand this passage.  An example of the harm of human pride; unnecessary destruction by an over-reactive God, amplified by authoritarian leaders; a desire for human diversity of cultures; a challenge for humans to learn to work together without rancor.  (Return to top.)

Lekh Lekha (Genesis 16:1-17:6) by Lynn Cashell "When to Listen"

In Genesis 16:1-17:6 we are confronted with Sarai’s conflict with Hagar, her maidservant. Since Abram and Sarai have no children, Hagar is offered to Abram as his concubine and becomes pregnant. While Sarai initiated this relationship, she treats Hagar harshly, becomes jealous, and Hagar runs away.

Both of these women faced difficult situations. Sarai turned to Abram who told her to deal with it herself and Hagar fled. When we face difficult situations, we often turn to the people in our lives whom we trust and respect for guidance. Sometimes we choose not to share our problems and run away. In this piece, Sarai shared her concern, yet was rebuked, so her anger escalated. Hagar fled, yet was met by an angel of God who told her to return and face her difficulty and she would be rewarded. 

When we seek answers from those in our lives, we are faced with the decision to accept or reject them. Often, we are not seeking advice or counsel, yet it comes to us. In both cases, we have the choice to listen to the voices around us and decide how to move forward.  (Return to top.)

Vayera (Genesis 21:5-27) by Larry and Marion Hammermesh

Abraham's casting out Hagar and Ishmael raises an interesting question about words and deeds.  G!d tells Abraham to support Sarah's desire to disinherit Ishmael and continue Abraham's line through Isaac, raising Isaac above his half-brother. Yet G!d acknowledges that Ishmael is Abraham's seed and promises to make a nation of him. In the end is Ishmael's fate really that different from his brother's?

At Abraham's death,  just as Sarah demanded, Isaac is Abraham's sole heir. Yet, Ishmael, along with the other sons of Abraham's concubines, had received "gifts" from his father before his death. In the end, is Ishmael's fate really that different from his brother's?

The language and social construct of offspring continuing the line is different from that of being made a nation. Yet Isaac and Ishmael, both of whom are Abraham's seed, produce nations which are both descended from Abraham. 

The language and social construct of inheritance is different from that of gifts received from someone still alive. Yet Isaac and Ishmael both receive material wealth from their father.

Abraham learned an interesting lesson from G!d about holding two truths simultaneously. Your words can satisfy the expectations of the received tradition without actually privileging one person or group over another. 

On the one hand, this parshah begins to establish the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the line of our Israelite nation. On the other hand,  G!d hears and responds to Ishmael's cries in the wilderness.  Isaac and Ishmael, once forcibly estranged, come together as brothers to bury their father. In the end, Isaac and Ishmael must both be seen as children of G!d.  (Return to top.)

Hayyei Sarah (Genesis 24:53-64) by Sharon Kleban

The parsha Chayei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and introduces Rebecca.  I see Rebecca's story as the next Lech Lecha in Genesis.  However, God does not tell her to leave her homeland as God told Abraham, nor does her employer tell her to leave her home as Abraham told Hagar.  Instead, Rebecca's mother and brother try to keep her home longer and Rebecca chooses to leave with Abraham's servant Eliezer right away in order to marry Isaac whom she does not know.  It reminds me of Abraham going into the wilderness to find a place God would show him.  Rebecca is introduced with a demonstration of her kindness, not a general statement of her goodness.  Is this an ancient hint that women have to do twice as much for half the recognition?  Rebecca is a person of independence and action and is able to make tough decisions.  Traditional rabbis considered Isaac the weakest of the patriarchs, but perhaps that is because he had the strongest and most pro-active wife.  (Return to top.)

Toldot (Genesis 27:28-39) by Jeff Jarvis

When I read this section of Torah I was remind of how we sometimes get so tied into what we want that we never really open our eyes to the reality of a situation. Within a very short time frame everyone in this story knows that a deception has occurred. How often do we find ourselves in a place where we are surprised by peoples responses when we could have easily predicted it had we simply opened our eyes and looked around.  (Return to top.)

Vayetze (Genesis 31:1-21) by Michael Fishkow

In Genesis 31: 1-24, Jacob decides to flee after laboring 20 years under difficult and ever-changing terms imposed by Laban. Recall that Jacob labored for seven years so that he could marry Rachel. Then, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, so Jacob had to labor another seven years to finally marry Rachel. Jacob then labored another six years for the flock, during which Laban changed his wages time and again.

What does it take to finally trigger the decision to extract ourselves from a difficult situation such as a toxic job or bad relationship?  For Jacob it was easy -- Then the LORD told Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you”.

Interestingly, when Jacob confers with Leah and Rachel, he doesn’t use the “God told me to go” as the rationale for his decision.  Instead he recounts how he worked hard and dealt with Laban in good faith despite Laban’s trickery. As if to underscore the uncertainty of the decision, Jacob tells his wives that he had a dream where it was revealed that God was aware of Laban’s deceptions and had intervened to make Jacob wealthy.  Rachel and Leah told Jacob they supported his decision and acknowledged they were unlikely to realize an inheritance from Laban which may have been a concern.

In order to extract ourselves from challenging situations, perhaps we need not only respond to our inner intuition (our God voice?) but we also need to hear ourselves explain our rationale to those close to us and get their assessment of associated impacts.  In that way we become more comfortable with our decision. While there will always be uncertainty, we move forward with hope that acting in good faith will be reciprocated.  (Return to top.)

Vayishlach (Genesis 35:12-36:7) by Julie Mayer

This week’s Torah section which includes a description of Isaac’s death and an accounting of Jacob’s children  and the coming holiday season bring up how important to our identities throughout our lives it is to be part of a family (as well as a community). This time of year, we may feel grateful to have our parents, siblings and children gathered around us for the holidays. We might also feel stressed by high expectations, eagerness to connect and worries about people getting along with one another. It’s also a time when we tend to keenly miss those family members who are no longer with us or those who are far away and cannot join us. Being with family can also bring up painful experiences such as old inequities and competitions long gone. May we all remember to bring mindful compassion with us as we navigate our family (and community) interactions. And may we lovingly reflect on both our losses and the ways in which we are fortunate.  (Return to top.)

Miketz (Genesis 43:11-29) by Hadassah Weinmartin & her dad

In this week’s parshah - the Joseph story - we find the brothers returning to Egypt filled with gifts to try to curry Joseph’s favor. Nowadays, we also find that people spend money to try to buy each other’s favor - whether it’s buying dessert for a friend, or a lobbyist spending money on lavish gifts for a congressman. We know that Joseph didn’t really want gifts; he wanted connection to his brothers and to heal past wounds. Since we are in the gift giving season, maybe we can try to pay special attention to the gifts of the heart that we give each other that build real connection between us.  (Return to top.)

Vayigash (Genesis ) by R. Helen Plotkin

One might say that this week’s portion is the culmination of the book of Genesis. After creating the world, God checks out. It does not go well. There is fratricide, rebellion, violence, and depravity. God figures out that there needs to be a relationship with the inhabitants of the earth. So God makes friends with one guy: Abraham. In the next generation, God picks one brother and makes friends with him: Isaac. In the next generation, God picks one of Isaac’s two sons: Jacob, aka Israel. In the next generation, it looks like it’s going to go the same way: Joseph is the favorite of his father, and of God. But then, in the first sentence of our portion, “Va-yigash Y’hudah - Judah approached” his brother Joseph. What follows is a reconciliation of brothers that results in a new concept: all the “children of Israel/Jacob” are going to be part of the covenant with God. Now the stage is set for the book of Exodus, in which the Children of Israel will grow from a family to a nation.  (Return to top.)

Vayehi (Genesis 49:27-50:8) by Benjamin Alouf

Jacob came to Egypt as a group of 70 persons, a notably “small group”. The initial reason was due to famine in Canaan and the finding that Joseph was alive and living in Egypt where thanks to his foresight, food was stored and available during this famine. Had there not been a famine, had Joseph not had the premonition and become a prominent member of Pharaoh’s court, the move may never have occurred.

It would seem as if Jacob found himself in some fortuitous circumstances. Beneath that surface, one has to see it in the context of initially living a life where to the best of his knowledge, his eldest son, Joseph, was no longer alive. He is also a refugee from his land, which has become inhospitable, arriving by caravan while being welcomed and greeted with open arms.

People moving away from their homeland frequently do it out of necessity. Economic prosperity, greater personal opportunities or opportunities for dependents, the need to feel safe and free from persecution. The assumptions are frequently made that such migrations are done without remorse, without a sense of nostalgia and with a strong sense of good riddance. But from personal experience, and from shared experience of other migrants, even from some quite oppressive conditions, there is a longing for home if one defines it as a place of origin. Indeed for immigrants who call their adopted countries home, they are frequently jeered at to go home. For them, the place of origin is home but they are also adapting to their new home. It is a complex and conflicting relationship they have. Some assimilate successfully; some remain isolated and seclude themselves with a tightknit community that leaves little exposure and adaptability to their new home. They never feel connected, they never feel at home.

Jacob requested to return and be buried with his family and loved ones in Canaan, his place of origin, and his home. For him, as is true for so many millions of people, home was defined by the circumstances he was in. In Egypt, where his people can be safe and prosper, it was home. At his death, home became his place of origin. Neither is paramount to the other or necessarily takes precedence. It is conditional and situational. Like for so many of us that migrate from country to country, city to city, school to school, job to job, thriving and succeeding are predicated on being able to appreciate the portability of what is home and adapt to where we are at the moment without ever forgetting where we came from.  (Return to top.)

Shemot (Exodus 4:18-5:5) by Sharon Boyd

In this parsha, Zipporah, her husband Moses and their family are following G-d’s command and journeying to Egypt, where Moses is instructed to demand that Pharoah release the Israelites. Even before the hardships of the conflict with Pharaoh, there was some trouble along the way for Moses and his family. During their journey, G-d sought to kill either Moses or one of his sons. (The pronouns that are used in the parsha leave G-d's intended victim up for interpretation.)  Moses’ wife Zipporah, aware that her firstborn son had not been circumcised, took matters into her own hands and hastily performed the act, using the only available instrument- a sharp rock.  This act appeased G-d.

Zipporah intuited that the motivation behind G-d's murderous intent was to show that His covenant of circumcision with the Israelites was NON-optional.  Zipporah trusted her judgment and acted upon her own counsel, which may be considered extraordinary, given the extremity of the circumstances. Zipporah and Moses set a brave example in which they had to be cruel to be kind.  G-d as a parent to Moshe and Zipporah makes them do something that is difficult, that they are not sure is the right answer, and that will make themselves and their sons temporarily very unhappy. Why? It seems that G-d likes backing people up against a wall to test their mettle. Does it over and over again. Not the easiest parent to deal with. But also because we have to trust that G-d is wiser and has our best interests at heart, despite our own misgivings. Similarly, as our own children get older, we sometimes have to act in ways that run counter to our nurturing instincts in order to best prepare them for their eventual independence, even if it means allowing them to experience harsh, even preventable, consequences.

With any luck, our life encounters will not necessitate us having to grab the nearest sharp rock in order to perform an ad hoc circumcision on a grown child! Yet, may we have the wisdom and strength to meet the challenges that arise as we face the uncertainty and discomfort of actively encouraging our own children’s emancipation from the protective shelter of our homes and influence.  (Return to top.)

Va-era (Exodus 9:1-16) by Anita Weber

If we think about the plagues as a whole the narrative has three overarching themes: increasing intensity from first to last, spreading out to include the entire land and death in every family, and the powerlessness of the Pharaoh. The sixth plague (boils) shows this same pattern: (1) it affects every human and beast (more intense than previous plagues), (2) it spreads to strike the Egyptians, (3) the powerlessness of Pharaoh.

For the first time in the story God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12) - an extraordinary statement! The ruler of the strongest country in the civilized world, a god to his subjects, is a tool in God’s hand. But even as Pharaoh is powerless to change, other Egyptians are persuaded as the plagues progress -- the magicians, some of the courtiers, and finally, after the tenth plague, all of the courtiers and all of the people.

There are at least three audiences of the contest between God and Pharaoh: First are the courtiers and people of Egypt who tell the Israelites to go, and even finance their journey! Second are the Israelites, who are still unfamiliar with El Shaddai, the mountain god from somewhere in the Sinai who, under a new name, is sending Moses and Aaron and them from slavery, and who can stand up and overcome the Egyptian deities. The third audience, outside the story, is perhaps the most important. It includes the Israelites of the southern and northern Kingdoms who told the story of the Exodus every year at Passover. It includes the Jews of the Diaspora who wrote the story down in the Torah. And finally it includes the Christians and Muslims around the world who, along with the Jews, read and reread the story as their own. The exodus story can be thus understood as the introduction of ethical monotheism to the world stage.  (Return to top.)

Bo (Exodus 12:29-42) by Ronnie Good

This week’s Torah reading describes the final plague of the ten plagues - the killing of the firstborn - and Israel’s subsequent rapid Exodus from Egypt. Many in history have puzzled around the seeming unfairness of this plague (and the plagues in general); it seems like collective punishment as a response to Pharaoh’s stubbornness. I’m not sure that I have a good answer to this issue, but I did hear a quote on a radio show the other day that said "Jews may not believe in God but reserve the right to be mad at God.” While we may not ever know the full reason why about the ten plagues, we do know that innocents today are constantly affected by violence and natural disasters that plague our world. May we use some of our anger - at God or at the world - to motivate us to act for peace, healing, and restoration and not become stuck in cynicism. (Return to top.)

Beshallah (Exodus 14:26 - 17:16) by Joyce Romoff

The story so far; the Israelite slaves and a mixed multitude of Egyptians, led by Moses, Aaron and Miriam, have just been freed by Pharaoh and are on the shore of the Sea of Reeds wondering how to cross. They turn around to see Pharaoh’s 600 chariots in full pursuit. The Sea’s in front of them; the soldiers behind. Now what?

In print, Beshallach is one of the most beautiful looking parshas in the Torah. Starting with Shemot 15:1, the Torah script forms wonderous waves, visually emphasizing Moses’ and the Israelites’ song to Adonai; “(the Lord) has triumphed gloriously (over the Egyptians); horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.” The script also looks like the wall of water that sheltered the Israelites but crashed down on the Egyptians. Through verse 20, the Torah’s waves celebrate the victory over Pharaoh’s army which resulted in all Egyptians, except possibly Pharaoh, either being cast “into the depths like a stone” or being washed up, dead, on the opposite beach, in full view of Israelite men, women and children. This was to prove, if more proof was needed, that Adonai triumphed over the enemy. Naturally, the Israelites start singing. 

Note the amount of “stiffening” Adonai did to Pharaoh’s and the Egyptians’ hearts to force them to continue to pursue the Israelites into the Sea of Reeds. Adonai also broke the wheels of the Egyptians’ chariots so they couldn’t turn back, even when they wanted to, once they realized “(Adonai was) fighting for (the Israelites) against Egypt (14:25).” Sages say that the only one who survived the great deluge was Pharaoh himself to bear the disgrace of his defeat. Why then all of this death and demonstration? So that Adonai could “gain glory through Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots and his horsemen”? Really? 

One could legitimately say that the Egyptians got what was coming to them after enslaving the Israelites and killing their first-born sons. Still, killing hundreds of Egyptians just for glory? What if there were “righteous Gentiles” among the Egyptian soldiers? Even Adonai seems conflicted; The Talmud (Megillah 10b) contains the story that during the deluge, the angels wanted to sing songs but Adonai said “The work of my hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs?” It seems as if there had to be a better way. 

This is a parsha that contains instructions for the first Shabbat and prayers that form a part of our Shabbat liturgy, Mi Chamocha, anyone? Still, it’s also a story of terror and redemption and shows that, without compromise, the result of obstinately held positions, is never good. I also wonder what happened to the jar of manna that was supposed “to be kept throughout the ages (Ex. 16:33).”May we all be open to alternative ways of resolving conflict that can alleviate harm. (Return to top.)

Yitro (Exodus 19:14-22) by Jackie Gelman

In this week’s Torah portion as the Israelites are taking their final days preparing to receive the Torah, Moses repeats God’s prescription to have people wash their clothes and to not go near Mt. Sinai, but he adds an additional warning not said by God to the men to “not go near a woman (Ex 19:14)” What I find striking about this additional phrase is that even assuming that the warning was for the sake of having both the men and women maintain ritual purity for the good of the community, by not addressing both the women and men directly Moses is taking away the womens’ agency as full participants in the revelation. While Moses may not have realized he was alienating women from the community the lesson of his action for today is still relevant. We all have a tendency to view the world from our own context and may not always take into account another person’s perspective. How can we train ourselves to have more empathy and take on another’s viewpoint? Perhaps we will create a world in which all are included as equal participants in our important communal moments. (Return to top.)

Mishpatim (Exodus 23:6-25) by Dina Jacobs

The portion for this week is Mishpatim (Ex 23:6-25), meaning “laws”.  It is a detailed summary of the laws that Jews are required to follow to be in a covenant with God. One might view this as burdensome; why so many laws? Is it important to follow all of them? In return, however, God will send an angel to look out for those who follow the rules.  

I view this portion as a source of comfort. It is a setting of boundaries. Babies and children need boundaries, so do adults.  Babies often seek out the corners of the crib because they feel comfortable sleeping against “the boundary”; it is a reassuring presence. Parents need to set boundaries for children; they need structure to develop.  While parents sometimes feel mean saying no, setting this boundary is a necessary source of comfort for children. Those boundaries that parents set mean that children are loved and well-cared for.  As adults, we too require boundaries; without them we would have chaos and anarchy. If we pay our taxes, there our services that we get in return including education for our children, police, roads and other necessary infrastructure supports. 

I feel that this applies to Beth Israel as well. There are boundaries that we must adhere to in order to be a member of the community. Paying dues, contributing as we are able to the financial health of the community. It is important to volunteer when we are able. Bringing food to a potluck ensures that all of our community members are fed at events.  In return, the fruits of our labor our boundless. We are able to enjoy the support of an incredible community. After years of being a member at Beth Israel, it occurred to me that I needed this community to get by in life. This community has been there for me in good times and in difficult times, seeing me through those tough periods and rejoicing with me in happy times.  This community is my “guardian angel” that is referred to in this torah portion.  I didn’t understand when I was a new member (and for many years after that) what is required to run this community. I have a better sense now, and I know now how important it is for me to pitch in when I am able to keep this community going. I know that I cannot get by without this community and this community cannot get by without my contributions.  I am happy to be able to help in any small way that I can, because I know that I will in turn reap rewards from this community that are boundless. I know this with certainty as I have already reaped those rewards!  Thank you to all of you at BI; you keep this community running strong so that it can support all of us.  (Return to top.)

Terumah (Exodus 26:31-27:4) by Nathan Sepinwall

In the Torah portion, we find a description of the construction and placement of the curtain before the holy of holies. I wonder if the curtain and all the detailed instructions about the sanctuary construction are really for God’s pleasure or rather to create a pleasing environment for the priests? I wonder if we really needed to spend that much time and resource creating such a complex sacred space? When we work to beautify our spaces today, maybe we can spend less time and energy on the physical environment and more time on making ourselves more “sacred” and fit for such spaces.

Tetzaveh (Exodus 29:19-37) by Lois Deutsch

The section of Parshat Tetzaveh that we are reading this week focuses on the ritual of the ordination rituals of Aaron (and later his sons) to the priesthood. I do find it challenging when specific people get pigeonholed for ritual leadership. When I was a little girl I remember being perplexed when my close friend told me that in her large Catholic family she was slated to become a nun (I’m not sure if that happened!). I wondered if she really felt like she had any say in the matter. But, the section did get me thinking about different ways that we might take on a kind of sacred service leadership today. I have spent time tutoring children in Chester as part of an after school program. While this is not always easy — what kid wants to go study more after spending the day in school? — I have noticed that it feels particularly fulfilling to be part of a larger project of helping these young people advance their skills. And, I notice that all the tutors do a nice job of supporting each other before and after each week’s session. Perhaps this is a hidden teaching from this week’s parshah: it’s not just about what happens in the ordination ritual itself; but rather, it’s about being part of a larger group that is committed to sacred service together, that is calling itself to holiness. Like our ancestors in the Temple, may we each find ways to be part of a larger team of sacred service in our lives and help sustain holiness together.  (Return to top.)

Ki Tissa (Exodus 33:12-34:9) by Lisa & Matt deCamp 

The section of this week's Torah portion deals with the dramatic moment of the Israelite's transgression over the golden calf and Moses convincing God to allow the people to have a "do over" and not be destroyed. Moses uses a version of "what will the neighbors think?" argument by telling God that if God is not leading the Israelites it will be clear that they have lost favor. If we examine this interaction through the parental lens with God as the potential punishing "parent" and Moses (and the Israelites) as "child" then what do we make of this interaction? On the one hand, the Israelites -- like our children today - had free will to choose how to act and perhaps should have paid the consequences. (In some sense they did by the death and plague that followed the golden calf). But, perhaps God's listening to Moses argument and granting a do-over also points to the importance of putting ourselves in our kids shoes sometimes, of trying to understand their perspective, and ultimately ending up with a more flexible parenting response. Sometimes the right parenting response might be a willingness to change one's mind for the sake of relationship even if you know you are 'right'.  (Return to top.)

Vayakhel (Exodus 37:10-29) by Abby Grin

This week's Torah portion contains a description of the objects that were constructed for the inner sanctuary, including the acacia wood table that was overlaid with gold molding and had rings attached to the corners for transportation. I find the notion of the gold overlay to be an interesting detail. While the gold did not have much practical use in the desert, it did have an important ritual dimension of elevating the ordinary to the special or sacred; the gold also reminds the ritual practitioner that they are engaged in important work. While we may not have gold overlay tables lying around, I do think it's worth asking what serves as our reminder that things one does in the world as a volunteer or as part of your learning or work can also be sacred? What is your gold overlay? (Return to top.)

Pekudei (Exodus 39:22-40:38) by Zoe Blank

This week's parsha Pekudei - which is also my bat mitzvah! - includes an inventory of all the items that were donated for the construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle.  In the beginning, the Israelites were donating so much that Moses finally had to tell them that it was enough! People were putting so much effort into the sanctuary that they forgot about all the people that were in need. They used a lot of the money to make this Mishkan beautiful. In my opinion, I don’t think you should use all your extra money on trying to make a sacred place beautiful. A sanctuary is a place where you are supposed to connect to God through your heart and not entirely based on your surroundings. Even now, people will spend a lot of money to build or decorate a fancy building, but a big part of the Jewish religion is tzedakah. All the precious material that is put into too expensive building materials could've helped someone who couldn't even buy their meals. Perhaps today we can all think about how to create and maintain simple spaces where we can connect to God through our heart and also use our money and time to both help others. (Return to top.)

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5:26) by Ian Cohen

This week's parshah talks about sacrifice. There is another way of thinking about sacrifice than we have in the Torah--sacrificing your time and energy through action. Jewish sages say that no person is born perfect. They say we are all born with the potential for evil in us and good in us. And it takes all our might, will, and hard work to win over the evil and to be good. When I thought about this, I did not know what good truly means. Most people (including me, until now) think it means not getting in trouble and not doing anything bad. But it's not just that. Goodness is not only the absence of bad, it’s the presence of good. But still, what is good? It could be helping at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. It could be writing a petition against something unjust, or even doing something extra around the house. But doing nothing bad and nothing good isn’t good!  So really it's all a big metaphor. Sacrifice is a metaphor that you will always need to give up something to be good. (Return to top.)

Tzav (Leviticus 8:1-13) by Helena Landis

This week's Torah portion has a section which deals with the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests by Moses, and mentions the ritual actions by Moses of first having him washing them with water and then dressing Aaron with the sacred clothing. It is interesting for me to think about the role of clothing as a way of building connection. Where I live at Riddle Village I found that the tradition of having to dress up formally as a part of dinner in the formal dining room to actually be a practice that created more anxiety and discomfort for me, as if one was playing dress up for an audience. While Aaron's wearing vestments was an important part of building an awareness of sacred connection in his work, perhaps a different metaphor can serve today: can we think about cultivating awareness as a kind of "dressing up on the inside"? Can we set an intention when we gather for meals (like putting on a scarf) that we want to eat food that is healthy and nourishing, or that we want to connect in real ways with those we are sharing the table with? (Return to top.)

Shemini (Leviticus 11:20-32) by Lauri Mansky

This weeks Torah reading contains a detailed list of Biblical dietary laws of what the Israelites were permitted to eat and not eat. While some have suggested that the restrictions were for health reasons - this was before refrigeration after all! - others have suggested that it was a way of how the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors. In my own life, I love to make food and I eat any kind of food. And, rather than focusing on food as a way to keep separate and apart, I often will cook and eat food as a way to bring people together, whether this is helping out my friend cook at her Armenian church or making Jewish food at BI. It is an interesting question to think about that if Jews ate all foods and did not have special dietary restrictions would it be easier to break bread together with our neighbors? Would this make us less unique? Or would we simply find other ways to emphasize a Jewish path in the world? (Return to top.)

Tazria (Leviticus 13:29-44) by Candy Berlin

Reading Lev. 13.29-44 is disquieting. Detailed descriptions of infection and skin disease - followed by precise judgments of whether each condition renders the afflicted “clean” or “unclean” - are both tedious and uncomfortable. For me the discomfort comes in part from the implied judgment that the unclean are also unfit or shunned, a view that would run contrary to values of acceptance and inclusion.

Yet there are other values implied in these lines of Torah that I initially didn’t appreciate but that one should not miss. The priest returns and returns again to examine the afflicted person, taking care to examine the person carefully and noting any change in their condition. The simple act of returning ensures the afflicted or ill person is not forgotten. The priest’s role then expands. He is not merely a judge but now a care-giver. Care and our responsibility to care are implied, leading us to think about how we show care for each other in times of affliction or illness.

Depending on the condition, the priest instructs the patient (using the care-giver model) to “wash his clothes” or to shave “but without shaving the scall,” sensible advice as someone is healing. Yet for those who don’t show improvement, there seems to be nothing the priest offers, which is not a heartening message. The lines about leprosy seem less harsh and unforgiving when one considers what’s implied: the priest’s responsibility to understand the symptoms so as to prevent spread of the affliction. (Return to top.)

Metzora (Leviticus15:1-11) by Laura Lee Blechner & Chris Pragman

We are in the portion of Metzora, which is often paired with Tazria, and it completes the discussion of how to assess and treat tzaraat – a white scaly affliction that the rabbis understood to be related to lashon hara (evil tongue, or speech).  Tzaraat could affect people, clothes and houses. In this portion, “sick” houses are addressed. If the priest evaluates the house and finds tzaraat, the scale must be scraped off and taken to a tamei, or ritually impure location. The house is then closed off for seven days. If the tzaraat has persisted and spread, the house must be torn down and all of the pieces removed to the tamei location.

This seems like it could be good advice for modern times as well. If we are dwelling in spaces that are filled with evil or destructive speech, maybe take a week off to regroup and make sure you aren’t absorbing the toxicity. And, if you return to the same place and find the same toxic environment? Perhaps it is time to tear that space down, or at least, remove it to a tamei location and not visit it anymore. Then, we can work to build spaces filled with positive, constructive speech.  (Return to top.)

Passover by Jennifer Waterston

This year, Earth Day occurs on Monday, April 22nd, which is the 4th day of Passover. As we reflect on how our people were spared from the ancient plagues, we also plan to reflect on the modern plagues that the the earth (and all of humanity) is subject to today. 

Environmental activist Richard Schwartz lists today's modern plagues as: 
(1) acid rain (2) depletion of the ozone layer (3) destruction of tropical rain forests (4) global warming (5) soil erosion and depletion (6) loss of biodiversity (7) water pollution (8) air pollution (9) an increase of severity of storms and floods (10) increased use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other toxic chemicals.

Some people have added the tradition of adding ten additional drops of wine to symbolize each of the plagues above. Fortunately, our people were able to take action to be spared from the plagues of ancient Egypt. This year, we reflect on what actions we can take to save us from the modern plagues of today. We can add our own questions to this year's seder such as:

  • How has society allowed corporate greed to cause (and continue to cause) irreparable damage? 
  • How can we mitigate the use of one use plastics? 
  • What are we doing to educate and mobilize the population at large to demand change? 
  • What some tangible actions that each of us can take to save the world for now and for future generations? 

Happy Passover. (Return to top.)

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27) by Elissa Pragman

Parshat Kedoshim says, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). A lot of the bad things that happen in the Torah are from people not loving others enough. Additionally, the Torah asks us to "not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” and also to reprove someone for inappropriate behavior. What if something is blocking your heart--how can you love your neighbor, in that case, or at least not hurt him? And reproving someone may cause hurtful feelings! When reproving it is important to use “I language” so that the other person doesn’t get defensive or angry. And, instead of only saying what someone did wrong, try to add in a couple things that they did right as well. Finally, even Maimonides acknowledged that not all love is equal; you may not love your neighbor as much as you love a family member. However, you can appreciate them and genuinely wish the best for them and move yourself closer to fulfilling this important mitzvah. (Return to top.)

Kedoshim (Leviticus 20:1-13) by Debra Wile and Karen Giglio

This week’s Torah portion includes proscriptions around family and sex ethics as a way to keep the Israelite camp holy. When we broaden this and think about relationships with our significant others today (partners, friends, family, chosen family), we realize that one of the core ingredients for maintaining holiness in relationships is not only avoiding particular practices but also positively cultivating trust in each other. Behaviors that enhance trust allow us to be more vulnerable with each other and to be supported in the fullness of who we are — and perhaps being able to be with and experience each other in our fullness is the equivalent for the ancient Israelites of having God stay in the camp. While it is not always easy to develop trust - it takes time and patience - we know that this is a good direction for us to head with our new communities of friends in The Villages here in Florida, as well as a good direction for others. May we all be inspired to do the holy work necessary to listen, support, build trust, and create the sacred in our lives. (Return to top.)

Emor (Leviticus 23:23-36) by Andy Coleman

The section we are exploring from this week's parshah, Emor, provides details of the holidays connected to the seventh month, including the High Holidays and the holiday of Sukkoth. It is interesting that in the calendar year we are in the early Spring, at the beginning of planting and sowing seeds, and that Sukkoth is about the culmination of our work, the final harvest in the Fall. One can also think about the question of what kinds of seeds of reflection do we want to plant now in our lives that we will harvest during the High Holidays? What does it look like to prepare the soil of our inner lives? Perhaps this could be a good moment to start with our relationships with those we are closest to and reflect on how they are going and if any mid-course correction is needed now before the Fall? May this process of spiritual sowing to harvest serve guide us well in the coming months.  (Return to top.)

Behar (Leviticus 25:35-44) by Noah, Julia, & Jodi Walsh
In this week's Torah portion, Behar, there is a section that focuses on the treatment of indentured servants. God spells out some specific rules in the process: if it is a kinsmen, do not rule over him/her ruthlessly and they are only obligated to serve you until the Jubilee year. There are plenty of assumptions in these laws including: economic equality is part of society and while people may try to do the right thing, it's important to have a legal structure to ensure this. While we live in a different moment today, some principles from this section carry forward: we need to treat all with respect, especially because we never know when someone's economic situation might worsen. All have gifts they bring to our larger "household" of the Jewish community, and fair economic treatment is an expected obligation, not an option. May we bring these lessons to light today!  (Return to top.)
 Behukotai (Leviticus 27:9-18) by Diane Longenecker

This week's section of the Torah reading deals with pledges that people make to fund the tabernacle. People can pledge themselves or the value of family members, animals, and property. In my church community I have appreciated the opportunity to be part of activities where we are called to bring and share of our gifts and by doing so help support our sanctuary. One activity, the Talent Dollar project (based on the parable of the Talents) invites us to bring a craft or food product to sell and give the proceeds to the community. Another activity invites us to create special school supplies boxes for children that are sent abroad. The common denominator for these types of activities is that we are drawn to give to community because we are embedded in a network of relationships and the act of giving can feel good and lead us to continue giving more. May we all be drawn to offer of our services and resources in our own way to enhance our spiritual communities. (Return to top.)

Bamidbar (Numbers 3:40-51) by Reisa Mukamal 
This week’s Torah portion includes the ritual still performed today known as pidyon haben, or redemption of the firstborn son. In ancient Israel, as in many ancient cultures, firstborn males were perceived as belonging to God and were returned to God through sacrifice (in the case of select animals) or monetary substitute (in the case of humans). The firstborn male is thus set apart in two ways—as a firstborn and as a male. To our contemporary sensibilities, this can strike us as both a burden to him and unfair to later siblings. But if we view Judaism as an evolving civilization, we can reinterpret and reconstruct the pidyon haben celebration for both boys and girls, while retaining its emphasis on the sanctity of life. In the spring of 1987, we redeemed our one-month old Zachary for five silver dollars at my Uncle Abraham’s house. Up until then, I had never attended a pidyon haben--traditional or otherwise. I appreciated the ties to the history of our people and to the history of my own family, as well as the opportunity to have our Baghdadi and Ashkenazi relatives witness a ceremonial expression of thanks for our precious child.  (Return to top.)

Naso (Numbers 7:18-53) by Chance Loomis

This week's Torah portion elaborates on the gifts of the twelve chieftains of the Israelite tribes in the dedication ceremony for the Tabernacle. There are lots of questions that arise: Why does God have to tell Moses to accept the gifts? Why do the chieftains give a lot here but give less when they offered gifts to the sanctuary in Exodus? Why are the gifts all the same? While I did not come to a definitive conclusion about these questions, the act of asking them, of studying the text closely, can be a powerful practice in itself ultimately leading to more knowledge. May we all be empowered to dig further with the questions even if we don't have the answers!  (Return to top.)

Beha'alotekha (Numbers 11:1-22) by Alan Ross 

I chose Numbers 11:1-22 for my “Drop of Torah,” since it addresses two of my favorite subjects: Jewish humor, and making a personal life choice concerning the consumption of meat. Upon reading this section, it struck me that this was possibly one of the earliest documented instances of “kvetching.” I subsequently located an article entitled “The Origins of Jewish Humor” by Daniel Adler, in which he makes a similar observation. In Numbers 11:5-6, the Israelites said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. And now our throats are dry.”    

Adler again references these Torah passages as early examples of kvetching: “In verse 12, Moses kvetches to G_d about the people kvetching to him: ‘Was I pregnant with this entire people (האנכי הריתי את כל העם הזה)? Did I give birth to them (אם אנכי ילדתיהו)? That You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a male nanny carries a nursing baby (שאהו בחיקך כאשר ישא האומן את היונק)?’ The visual Moses offers G_d here is of himself being pregnant with the entire people of Israel and then giving birth to them and nursing them. The Hebrew above is even funnier than the English because it uses a male version of nanny or baby nurse (אומן/אומנת – ommen/ommenet) which does not really exist in the masculine form since it implies breastfeeding a baby.”   

By the end of this Torah portion, G-d seems exasperated, saying to Moses, “And to the people you shall say, ‘consecrate yourselves for the morrow and you will eat meat, for you wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘Who will feed us meat? For it was good for us in Egypt.’ And the Lord will give you meat and you will eat. Not one day will you eat and not two days and not five days and not ten days and not twenty days, but a full month of days, till it comes out of your noses and becomes a loathsome thing to you, inasmuch as you have cast aside the Lord.’”   

In my lifetime, meat was always plentiful and partaken of in my early years; abstaining from the consumption of flesh was a decision that I made in my late teens, primarily for ethical reasons, with the side benefit of presumably enjoying a healthier lifestyle. In Rabbi David Teutsch’s excellent “A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 1,” he writes “Concern for minimizing or avoiding pain to animals (tza’ar ba’aley hayim) underlies many regulations regarding kosher slaughtering. This concern may lead some people to become vegetarians. The Book of Genesis suggests this in the Garden of Eden story, where Adam and Eve live in an ideal state as vegetarians…Some contemporary Jews consciously elect vegetarianism as their form of kashrut. This reflects a concern not only with tza’ar ba’aley hayim, but also with issues of consumption and concern for the environment (haganat hateva) since vegetarians use fewer resources. The production of meat consumes many times more resources than the production of an equally nutritious amount of vegetarian food.”

Factory farming is also the leading cause of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is estimated “that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated “it could be as much as 51 percent. But it is also the source of mass deforestation, air and water pollution, in addition to species extinction. So when we choose to consume meat — on a global scale — we have an enormous impact on the world around us.”  (Return to top.)

Beha'alotekha (Numbers 12: 1-16) by Josh Krakow
In this week's parshah we get a taste of sibling rivalry. Aaron and Miriam criticize their brother Moses for marrying a Cushite woman (although only Miriam does this aloud). There may be many reasons for this but one might be jealousy -- Aaron and Miriam don't feel that they are important to Moses. This is a reminder for me of a simple but important lesson: everyone needs to feel appreciated in their life! May we remember and act on this! [drawn from Josh's dvar Torah] (Return to top.)
Korah (Numbers 16 - 18)) by Max Buonincontro
In this week's parshah, we find the story of Korah's rebellion against Moses.One way to understand this is that Korah was simply seeking the recognition he thought was due to him and wanted the status of high priest. But to gain recognition Korah could have worked through the system, worked to change the system, or found other ways to create leadership in the community. Sometimes real leadership is not about having the loudest voice but in finding ways to constructively share one's vision for change within the system that you have to work with. May we all find constructive ways to build our own leadership in the world today! (Return to top.)
Hukkat (Numbers 21:4-20) by Deborah Erie 
In this week's parsha, the Israelites yet again begin complaining to God and Moses about how terrible their life is in the desert and God responds by sending a plague of Seraph serpents against the people. The serpents' poisonous bites are only cured after Moses mounts a Seraph figure that the Israelites can gaze upon and be healed. This story can have a broader meaning for us. Sometimes change -- whether a change in attitude or of place -- can be challenging and only happens when we are pushed to a new direction in our lives, just as the Israelites were pushed to reconsider their position. Knowing that growth and change can have a bite to it may lead us to approach life less from a black and white perspective, but allow us to recognize the gray areas that we have to negotiate each day. Also, sometimes crisis can help us take on a new and broader perspective about our lives, to help us remember what we are blessed with and what we are thankful for; in this way challenge can be both painful (like the snake bites) but also healing (like the snake statue). I personally was thinking about how the early and untimely death of my sister led me to re-examine my goals for my life and also propelled me to have a fuller relationship with my niece and nephews. The sting of her death led to a healing relationship with my niece & nephews. May the challenges we face lead us to humility, healing, and growth! (Return to top.)
Balak (Numbers 23:27-24:13) by Bob Stone 
In this week's parshah, the prophet Bil'am is hired as a secret weapon by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites. But every time he tries to utter a curse a blessing issues forth instead: "Ma Tovu Ohaleykha Ya'akov"/How good are your tents O Jacob." Perhaps one of the ways of understanding this story is that the things we initially see as curses in our lives, if we look at them differently, can actually become blessings instead. The episode reminded me that when I was a younger man, I hit a low point where I was in need of significant therapeutic support. While I initially saw this as a curse, with more hindsight I was able to tell that this early support and therapeutic intervention helped me to cultivate much more resilience and empathy in the long run. May we all merit to hold a perspective that allows us to see the blessing within the "curse" that we may experience in our own lives. (Return to top.) 
Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 - 30:1) by Nathan Sepinwall 
In this week’s parshah, there is a reference back to the dramatic story of Korah and how he and his 250 men were swallowed up by the earth (Num 26:9-10). While many in Jewish tradition choose to critique Korah and his behavior, I prefer to see him as a “Biblical civil rights activist” pleading for equality for all. He saw the accumulation of wealth that the leadership had and took the bold step of critiquing this. May we always have the courage to “speak truth to power” when it is needed. (Return to top.)
Matot (Numbers 32:1-19) by Susan Meyer

As the book of Numbers is drawing to a close, the Israelites have arrived on the east bank of the river Jordan and are preparing to enter the promised land.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad propose to settle where they are, on the east side of the Jordan. Moses and the other leaders agree to the proposal only on the condition that the Reubenites and Gadites participate fully in the fight to occupy the land on the other side of the river.  One moral we may draw for our present situation applies to those of us fortunate enough to have already arrived at a piece of the promised land—for example, if we live in safe neighborhoods, send our children to good schools, and have good health insurance.  We may have worked hard to secure these benefits for our own families, but we are not excused from the fight to secure them for all families. (Return to top.)

Masa'ei (Numbers 35:9-28) by Meira 

This week's Torah portion focuses on the idea of designated cities of refuge within the ancient Israelite community where someone who has accidentally killed someone could flee for protection. Struggling with serious life circumstances, I have found my own community of refuge within the Beth Israel community. For 20 years, BI has been a place where others have been there for me, caring, checking in, and offering support.  Perhaps most importantly for me, it's been a community that has allowed me to give back as well- teaching Sunday school, working on the Tot Shabbat Team, singing at services. My hope from this parsha is that we continue to recognize BI as our community of refuge, a place where we can hold and support others in time of need, and a place where we can allow the community to hold and support each of us. (Return to top.)

Devarim (Deuteronomy 2:31-3:8) by Marion Hamermesh and Rich Remenick

In this week’s parsha, which begins the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), Moses begins to recount the episodes of the Israelites' travels, including the battles and victories over Og the King of Bashan and his people, and Sichon, the king of the Amorites. The text reads as a complete victory, the complete conquering of towns with no one left. As we know, history is told by the victors but reality is often more complicated than first meets the eye. Did the Israelites have a complete victory or was this just wishful thinking? In this era today of truth and half-truths, and even fabrications, it is all the more important for us to keep our minds open to exploring the complexity of situations. There may not necessarily be a clear winner or person in the right. May our ability to hold complexity, and perhaps multiple truths, serve us as we work to create a world that accommodates multiple perspectives. (Return to top.)

Ve'etchanan (Deuteronomy 6:1-15) by Jennifer Waterston

Note – I am using male pronouns – not because I feel that God is gendered – just for easing of reading.

Let’s start with a line-by-line analysis of the first verse of the shema:

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.”  Now this is a little demanding – it is not enough to love G-d but he is also demanding a level of devotion that is overly possessive. I would consider a mortal making these demands as psychologically unstable.

“Impress them upon your children.”  Our love and devotion aren’t in and of themselves sufficient – we must also impart an urgency to our children to love G-d. I can’t get my kid to love his weird uncle – how will I get him to love someone he’s never met?

“Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;” (Note reference to Tefillin.) My endless love and devotion aren’t enough – I must also start and end everyday by reciting my love for G-d. Again – this is a very presumptuous demand – I have my own rituals, thank you.

"Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Reference to Mezzuot.) I must publicly declare my love of G-d. Is there no privacy to my personal religious beliefs? Why must I make a public display?

Thus, the first verse of the Shema, which is also the most well known and commonly heard as the loudest recited prayer in synagogue, is probably one of the most demanding in the Torah. And we all willingly express our undying devotion collectively – are we sheep?

We are taught that Judaism is a religion of deeds. Jeffrey Tigay, a biblical scholar explains that the verb “love” often refers to action – not feelings. Thus, it follows that a person who observes and performs mitzvot is demonstrating a love of G-d and that love of G-d is not in and of itself a separate mitzvah. Through performing mitzvot we are expressing our love of G-d through our actions. Similarly love of the neighbor or of the stranger is demonstrated by acts of kindness – love is by deed.

(Side bar – why do more progressive Jews skip the mitzvah of Tefillin while embracing the mitzvah of mezzuzot and tallitot?)

But there’s more:  “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.” G-d seems to recognize that we need motivation to follow his commands – we are human after all. Generally, our human tendency is not to behave well unless we know there’s something in it for us. I also feel that this is the typical portrayal of the Jews as G-d’s children.

"Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you." Yikes. These seem like pretty dire consequences. We are offered a binary choice here. G-d is a jealous fellow, and prone to jealous rages. That isn’t terribly attractive by today’s modern standards.

“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.”  And G-d reiterates himself. Probably because we mere mortals have a reputation for not listening the first time.

My personal interpretation is that G-d is commanding us to be Godly – to perform good deeds, to repair the world and to observe and perform mitzvot (to be G-dly or as I prefer to say, a good person). And this is why strong language is used – because we are a stubborn people and we don’t usually hear the message the first time. We need physical reminders and rituals to reinforce how we are to behave and what we should strive to be. (Return to top.)

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25)  by Hadassah Weinmartin

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses encourages the Israelites to fear God and walk in God’s ways. At this time of year we are also getting ready to enter the month of Elul, a time where we reflect on how to improve ourselves and walk a holy path. Elul is understood by the rabbis to be an acronym for “ani ledodi ve-dodi li” “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs)” Another acronym for these letters is “Ish Le-re’ehu umatanot le’evyonim.” “send gifts to one another and to the poor (Scroll of Esther).” Together these acronyms show that a way of cultivating holiness and closeness to God at this time of year is sharing our resources with those in need. (Return to top.)

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:27)) by Ava Manaker 

This week's Torah portion includes the laws of Kashrut and also the permission for the Israelites to choose to eat meat. Eating meat today can have a big impact on our environment:  If every American took one day a week--just one day--to not eat meat or fish, the reduction in carbon emissions would be equal to 30-40 million cars being taken off the road! Vegetarianism and animal slaughter has inspired controversy among our commentators. Maimonides was concerned about tzar ba'alei chayyim, causing unnecessary pain to animals being slaughtered. Rabbi Avraham Kook believed that any slaughter of animals was wrong and hoped that the regulations around kosher slaughter would encourage people to choose a plant-based diet. The laws of Kashrut help separate us from others in the world and encourage us to really think about what we are eating. The thought-provoking aspects of Kashrut in Re’eh have swayed me to a plant-based diet. Perhaps they may impact you as well? (Return to top.)

Shofetim (Deuteronomy 19:14-20:9) by Daniel Chattler

In this week's Torah reading we encounter a specific set of laws about deferments for soldiers preparing to enter battle: if they have left something incomplete at home - an undedicated but newly built house, an unharvested vineyard, an unfinished marriage - they are exempted from entering the campaign. There is a sense of concern here for the individual welfare of each participant. Having been a soldier myself in the Israeli army, I can say that while basic training was rough and not always humanizing, there were elements of my experience where I felt that I was being seen and treated as an individual. I would check in weekly with my commander on how I was doing and also was given a full day off each week to rest or go home to be with family. So, even during this difficult and challenging period, like the Torah portion, there were opportunities for me to remember and experience a more human side of the military. My hope is that we take this lesson to heart in the lives we live today and work towards noticing and responding to others with our full humanity. (Return to top.)

Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 23:25-24:13) by Rich Remenick

This week's parshah presents a series of laws which seek to protect the vulnerable and less fortunate against against abuse from the powerful. For instance: a husband seeking divorce must go through a deliberate process of attaining and presenting a bill of divorcement, and a creditor is prohibited from barging into a borrower's home to take collateral. This notion of checking power at the boundaries of one's home particularly resonates in today's world, where the demands of intense economic competition increasingly force many people to take work home and be on call 24/7. Just like the constraints placed on the lenders of old, we will have to limit the demand to be incessantly "productive," especially when we unwittingly collaborate with technologies such as social media that can intrude upon, and even violate, our integrity. (Return to top.)

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 28:1-10) by You

This week we offer a brief drop of Torah moment for you! Our section of Torah focuses on the blessings that ensue if one follows the divine path: blessings of productivity and growth, safety and holiness. Here is a link to the full text. As we prepare to move into a new year we offer these three questions of reflection:  

  • Can you identify one particular moment of blessing you experienced this past year?
  • Is there a part of your life you have felt particularly productive this past year?
  • What is a blessing you want to offer someone else in your life?

Wishing you a year of sweetness and blessing!  (Return to top.)

Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-28) by Jane Laffend, Arnie Schwartz

In this week's section we are reading from Moses recounts the story of smashing the first set of tablets and then going back up Mt. Sinai to get a second set while also pleading for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites. Is having to 're-make' the tablets (i.e. have a do-over) a good thing or a bad thing? What can this do-over story teach us for our life today?

"Re-making the tablets in our lives is a good thing because it gives us a second chance at getting it right and it lets us include something we may have left out or didn’t understand at the time of the first writing." (Jane Laffend)

"Adam was a rough draft." (Arnie Schwartz)

How would you respond? (Return to top.)

Vayelekh (Deuteronomy 31:1-30) by Mayim Bialik 

This week we share a Torah resource that some folks may want to explore more - short videos on each of the weekly parshiyot. Here is a youtube video narrated by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) that talks about how we can become a living Torah. Enjoy! (Return to top.)

Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52) by Alex Dresner 

In this week's parshah, Ha'azinu, Moses delivers a song poem to the Israelites to try to help them remember where they came from and to stay on the right path. When I thought about "guidance songs" for today a couple in particular came to mind: "Turn off this Song and Go Outside" by Lonely Forest which emphasizes the importance of personal connection and achievement over introspection (see lyrics here), and “Hammer And A Nail,” by the Indigo Girls, a motivating anthem to action. May we follow in our ancestor's footsteps and find songs that motivate us to become our best selves! (Return to top.)

Sukkot teaching by Rabbi Nathan Martin 

I share a brief teaching here from author Ross Gay, a professor of English at Indiana University, on the intersection of Joy and fragility, two of the themes of the Sukkot Holiday as he reflects on his recent work, the Book of Delights. He said in a recent interview, "sometimes I think there’s a conception of joy as meaning something like something easy. And to me, joy has nothing to do with ease. And joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die...Well, part of it is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] [there is the possibility that] something will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible" At this moment of Sukkot may we all experience the joy and tenderness in our own and others fragility. (Return to top.)

Mon, May 27 2024 19 Iyyar 5784