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Drops of Torah from our members (2021-22 / 5782)

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.

Drops of Torah from Prior Years

  1. Bereishit by the Rabbis
  2. Noah by Julian Yates
  3. Lech Lecha by Randy Tiffany
  4. Vayera by Lynn Cashell
  5. Hayyei Sarah by Larry Hamermesh
  6. Toledot by Rabbi Nathan
  7. Vayetze by Emma Lefkowitz
  8. Vayishlach by Rachel Gornstein
  9. Vayeshev: Thanksgiving "A Prayer of Gratitude from the Lakota Sioux Nation"
  10. Mikkets
  11. Vayigash by Randi Raskin Nash
  12. Vayehi by Amy Strauss
  13. Shemot by Kathy Trow
  14. Va'era by Miriam Sigler
  15. A special poem in honor of the month of Tu B'shvat
  16. Bo by Mark Rosenberg
  17. Beshallach by Candy Berlin
  18. Yitro by Michael Fishkow
  19. Mishpatim by Phyllis Perry
  20. Terumah by Joyce Romoff
  21. Tetzaveh by Deb Erie
  22.  Ki Tissa by Rabbi Nathan, along with a quote for President's Weekend
  23.  Vayakhel by Helena Landis
  24.  Pekudei by Katie Sibley
  25. Vayikra by Rich Remenick
  26. Tzav by Kohenet Nancy Handwerger
  27.  Shemini by Marion Hamermesh
  28. Tazria by Nora Weiner
  29.  Metzora by Reisa Mukamal
  30. Passover by BI Board of Directors
  31. Acharei Mot by Max Grin
  32. Kedoshim
  33. Emor
  34. Behar
  35. Behukotai video from Alpha Beta
  36. Bamidbar by Ethan Bowen
  37. Naso/Shavuot by Rabbi Nathan
  38. Beha'alotcha by Maya DeCamp
  39. Shelakh Lekha by Rabbi Nathan
  40. Korah by Rich Remenick
  41. Hukkat by Jessie Reagen Mann
  42. Balak by Amy Nabut
  43. Pinchas by Linda Cohen
  44. Matot by Me'ira
  45.  Masa'ei by Miriam Sigler
  46.  Devarim by Larry Hamermesh
  47.  Vaetchanan / Shabbat Nahamu by Laura Lee Blechner
  48.  Ekev by Rabbi Nathan
  49.  Re'eh with music video by Chanah Rosin
  50.  Shofetim by Hadassah Weinmartin
  51.  Kee TayTzay by Sarah Krakow
  52.  Ki Tavo with chant by R. Shefa Gold
  53.  Nitzavim with R. Deborah Sacks Mintz "Zochreinu Lehayyim"
  54.  Shabbat Shuva with Neshama Carlebach "Return Again"
  55.  Sukkot by Rabbi Nathan "Seven Questions for the Sukkot Holiday"
  56.  Ha'azinu / VeZot Habracha by Lynn Cashell
Bereishit (Genesis 1:1- 6:8) by the Rabbis (Return to Top)

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein in her book on the Genesis narrative called The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology  writes that "Many years ago, I realized that God was the overlooked dimension of the environmental equation. As a forever-in-the-woods tomboy who found adventure and solace in nature, I believed that all of nature had a purpose and that all creatures had experiences in wilderness often overwhelmed me with feelings of grandeur and mystery (p.2)." As we begin our Torah cycle which begins with creation and nature - when have you encountered the mystery in the natural world and how does it move you? We also offer additional Torah this week by Cat Stevens/Yusuf for your listening pleasure. (Return to Top)

Noah (Genesis 6:9 - 11:32) by Julian Yates

Noah's ark is an important metaphor for refuge and safety still relevant today, although it may be a metaphor that needs to be examined critically. Member Julian Yates, one of the co-authors of Noah's Arkives: Towards an Ecology of Refuge reflected in this moment of changing climate that "the story of the ark challenges us to imagine the most capacious forms of refuge even as we wrestle with the limits, challenges, and difficulties of hospitality." To hear more about Julian's work and thinking about the story of the ark and its implications, check out his co-authored essay, "Ravens and Doves."  (Return to Top)

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27) by Randy Tiffany

The latter part of Lech L’cha includes the narrative of the circumcision by Abraham of himself, his son Ismael, and his household. Many of us have deeply mixed feelings about the practice of circumcision, and later biblical texts use circumcision as a metaphor for removing an obstacle (Jeramiah’s “foreskin of the heart”). With that reading in mind, isn’t it interesting that the very next events in the biblical narrative are the renewal of the long-delayed promise of an offspring for Sarah and Abraham and the fulfillment of that promise with the arrival of Isaac. Could it be that a dramatic, symbolic ritual involving the male reproductive anatomy was somehow the key that unlocked new possibilities? (Return to Top)

Vayera (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24) by Lynn Cashell

In this week’s parsha, Abraham is sitting in the entrance of his tent when 3 strangers appear. They are messengers of God.  He bows low to them, offers them water to drink and in which to bathe, tells Sarah to bake bread, and even prepares a calf. 
When I visit my daughter north of the city of Philadelphia, there is often a homeless man at the interstate exit. I usually have a “care bag” in my car with bottles of water, granola bars, fruit bars, crackers, and a couple of dollars to give to this man. A few weeks ago when I saw him, I asked his name and told him mine. Now, each time I drive by him, I greet him by name, and give him a care bag. He is always grateful. 
I do not know how this man came to be in his current situation and I pray that he gets some help. While I did not share the same bounty as Abraham did with the strangers at his tent, I felt it important to show some generosity to this and any other stranger I may encounter as in some way we are all messengers of God. (Return to Top)

Hayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 - 25:18) by Larry Hamermesh

This week’s misleadingly named parshah (“the life of Sarah”) begins after Sarah’s death and examines Abraham in his old age. One line particularly caught my attention: “And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.” 
Really??? Previously, Abraham acceded to Sarah’s demand that he throw his other wife Hagar and his son Ishmael out of the house, nearly killing both of them. Fearing for his life, Abraham allowed the king (Abimelech) to take Sarah, whom he described as his sister. And, there was that little matter of G!d commanding Abraham to kill his own beloved son Isaac, which Abraham very nearly does. With blessings like these, who needs curses?
So, in what sense was Abraham “blessed … in all things?” I see this line as an invitation to put things in perspective. As I approach retirement and old age, I could look back and find hardships and disappointments that, if they were blessings, they were very heavily disguised. But with a privileged upbringing and education, a rewarding career, a satisfying marriage, healthy children, and, now, grandchildren of stupendous cuteness, it’s hard to deny that I’ve been “blessed in all things.”  May you too be find opportunities to shift perspective as well and uncover the hidden blessings in your life. (Return to Top)

Toledot (Genesis 25:19 - 28.9) by Rabbi Nathan

This week for our drop of Torah we share Rabbi Nathan's Dvar Torah for the Jewish Exponent. (Return to Top)

Vayetze (Genesis 28:10 - 32.3) by Emma Lefkowitz

When Jacob stops for the night at "a certain place", the narration of Genesis slows down and takes on an incantation-like rhythm as Jacob falls asleep and dreams. There is a play-by-play of his laying down, the repetition of words in the description of the ladder (or ramp) to the heavens, the back-and-forth of God's messengers going up and down... and then the words of God giving Jacob prophesy for his future. I think this is a beautiful way of putting us in Jacob's shoes having an experience of a vision of God: its otherworldliness, its mystery, its emotion. 

The writers of Torah seem to play with tone and pace a lot, slowing down or speeding up the narration, and this section seems to beg for a slow, dreamy pace. If God spoke to me in a dream, it would be both exciting and grounding, both elating and sobering. Jacob's actions when he wakes up - building a ritual pillar on the site - show that he was deeply moved and yet driven to act, to sanctify the dream-vision by making a mark upon the physical earth. It seems to me that this is a profound model of how to behave when God speaks to us, that we should take the time and space to mark and honor God in response to God's taking the time and space to reach
out to us. (Return to Top)

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43) by Rachel Gornstein

We are pleased to share an excerpt of Rachel Gornstein's Dvar Torah, a poem she wrote about Jacob and his encounter with his brother Esau.

Death is just something that passes our soul to the next
But not something I am ready for. 
My life is mine and I’m not ready to give it to another. 
Spare me, spare me, for I’m am not ready to give what is mine

Mine, a funny word meaning something that belongs to the speaker.
My dog is mine, my child is mine. My child. Children need a dad just as a child needs clean water. Spare me, for I have many children, who need a father. 

Mine, mine, mine
This may all mean nothing to you 
But, don’t forget that your younger brother Jacob 
Longs for the life he has not yet finished, for it belongs to him.

(Return to Top)

Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 - 40:23) Thanksgiving "A Prayer of Gratitude from the Lakota Sioux Nation"

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin….All my relations. I honor you in this circle of life with me today. I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge you in this prayer….
To the Creator, for the ultimate gift of life, I thank you.
To the mineral nation that has built and maintained my bones and all foundations of life experience, I thank you.
To the plant nation that sustains my organs and body and gives me healing herbs for sickness, I thank you.
To the animal nation that feeds me from your own flesh and offers your loyal companionship in this walk of life, I thank you.
To the human nation that shares my path as a soul upon the sacred wheel of Earthly life, I thank you.
To the Spirit nation that guides me invisibly through the ups and downs of life and for carrying the torch of light through the Ages, I thank you.
To the Four Winds of Change and Growth, I thank you.

(Return to Top)

Mikkets (Genesis 41:1 - 44:17)

(Return to Top)

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:27) by Randi Raskin Nash

This year, in parshat Vayigash, we are reading the section that deals with Joseph's management of the famine in Egypt. He's managing the 7 years of devastating famine that have followed 7 years of prosperity. Joseph had collected surpluses during the good years and stockpiled them to ration and sell to the Egyptians. People ran out of money to pay for this food, so Joseph took their livestock as payment, and then, without money or livestock, finally the people said, "Take us and our land in exchange for bread." Pharaoh and his court had enough food, only the Egyptian people were starving.  The Torah doesn't seem to judge Joseph negatively for this arrangement. Why not? It is disturbing that in order to survive, the Egyptians had to give up everything and become enslaved.  Why isn't food like air, so fundamental that it is a given that it is available to everyone? (Return to Top)

Vayehi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) by Amy Strauss

In this Torah portion, Joseph buries his father.  This is where the custom of shiva came from. It is a time when family and friends get together and reminisce about times and memories with the deceased.   According to Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b), the practice originated prior to the flood.  In Genesis 7:10 it states “And it came to pass, after seven days that the water of the flood was upon the earth” and in 50:10 it states “And he (Joseph) mourned his father for 7 days”.  The rabbis also say that Methuselah’s family was in mourning for him for 7 days.  Methuselah is the oldest man who ever lived and is the son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah.

I think it is a shame that during this pandemic it is so difficult to get everyone together for this important and meaningful practice.  I know when my mother died last year right before the world stopped, many of my relatives were not able to attend.  It would have been nice if  we would have been all able to get together. May we continue to find ways to gather and support mourners even in challenging times. (Return to Top)

Shemot (Exodus 1.1 - 6.1) by Kathy Trow

The first parsha of Exodus, Shemot, begins the story of the enslavement and subsequent liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh. In the first part of the story, Moses and Aaron are encouraging the Israelites who are enslaved and forced to produce bricks made of straw for Pharaoh, to come into the wilderness and worship God. Pharaoh did not like this at all and said, “Who is the LORD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.” So Pharaoh punished the Israelites and did not provide the straw needed to make the bricks forcing them to find their own straw, but expected the slaves to produce just as many bricks. 

Have you ever had a person of power punish you for something they didn’t understand or support? Pharaoh not only didn’t allow the slaves to follow Moses and Aaron to pray to God, but then made their lives harder by sabotaging their work. I feel like we saw examples of this in our past administration and continuing with parts of the current one too. Powerful government heads took advantage of their positions to manipulate laws to serve their needs, and that affects all Americans. 

As the Israelites were liberated from their oppressors, may we too be inspired to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced and to address the inequities and abuses of power that exist today. Together we can make a difference. (Return to Top)

Va'era (Exodus 6.2 - 9.35) by MIriam Sigler

As I write this, Kentuckians and neighbors in Illinois, Missouri & Arkansas are reeling from one of the most destructive tornadoes on record. Whether this is the result of long-ignored warnings from scientists, or whether it’s disregarding signs from the divine, the parallel to Pharoah’s short memory in 9:13-35 is chilling. 

Each of us has a bit of Pharoah in us. We don’t like to admit it, but often it takes being touched personally by a crisis (a/k/a plague) to mobilize us to change. We swear we’ll modify something so as not to repeat history, only to lose urgency as the crisis becomes more a thing of the past. After all, we survived the crisis (a/k/a plague), right? 

Is experiencing a crisis first-hand the only way to teach us that some change must start NOW? How many plagues does it take? When is it too late? Change is scary & takes energy, but if implemented at the first inkling, can be gradual, without need to live in a bubble.

Each of us can find something small we can change in our lifestyle that will make our climate more stable & protect the vulnerable. It might seem like a drop in the ocean, but drops form puddles, which form rivers that flow into oceans. And before you know it, a sea divides,  allowing the oppressed passage into a better world. (Return to Top)

A special poem in honor of the month of Tu B'shvat

Winter Trees
By William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details 
of the attiring and 
the disattiring are completed! 
A liquid moon 
moves gently among 
the long branches. 
Thus having prepared their buds 
against a sure winter 
the wise trees 
stand sleeping in the cold.

(Return to Top)

Bo (Exodus 10.1 - 13.16) by Mark Rosenberg

In this week’s parsha, we are given the instructions around the first Passover.  Now approximately 2,500 years later, we are still celebrating the seminal event in the history of the Jewish people. What does this mean today as we carry on the traditions and retell the story so that we, and our children, do not forget?  In my eyes, our children, regardless of age, must be engaged.  What good is a retelling when no one is listening? At our seder, we use a combination of Dr. Suess, A Night of Questions (Reconstructionist Press), and readings from Emma Lazarus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Kerouac, and Desmond Tutu to keep the story interesting.  The object, of course, is to remember and pass on to the next generation. May you all find your own inspiration as well to make your seders meaningful and relevant! (Return to Top)

Beshallach (Exodus 13.17 - 17.16) by Candy Berlin

“I will rain down bread for you from the sky… that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not.” (Ex. 16:4)

Well, that’s interesting. Sounds like the stated purpose of the gift of manna was to test obedience. But, wait, I always thought manna was a miraculous display of
G-d’s love and care. Maybe not so much.

These were people who knew deprivation, oppression and scarcity and who, as they wandered in the desert, continued to be vulnerable and hungry. When one is traumatized, the effects linger long after the traumatizing event has ended, depleting one’s trust in a secure future. The suggestion is that those who took an extra portion - when they were instructed not to - failed the test. That seems like an unfair test.

“How long will you all refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings?” The question highlights once again that obedience is paramount. Displays of power and demands for obedience are not inspirational for me in any way. If that’s the lesson, it leaves me cold and uncomfortable.

Yet, there’s something else here that catches my attention and makes me want to reach for a sweeter lesson from this piece of Exodus 16.

Manna was not flavorless nourishment. It “was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey.” This I find lovely, that manna had sweet flavor and was so much more than it needed to be. It provided exhausted and hungry people a modicum of delight and pleasure. How life-affirming. And maybe even expressive of love. (Return to Top)

Yitro (Exodus 18.1 - 20.26) by Michael Fishkow

n this parsha, God delivers the Ten Commandments to the Israelites amidst fire, smoke, and the sound of the shofar.
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us, lest we die.”

“Lest we die” -- What were the Israelites afraid of? Why did they want Moses to be a liaison between them and God? Wouldn’t it have been more informative to hear the commands directly from God?  

The Israelites could have been afraid of the fiery spectacle in front of them… Yikes! Let’s send Moses because I’m not getting anywhere close to that mess. Maybe they were afraid of interpreting the commandments incorrectly and wanted Moses to interpret for them …Let’s have the guy with God on speed-dial tell us what this all means. Or perhaps the Israelites understood what we know today: different people can hear the same speech or read the same book and come away with widely divergent interpretations.  
Without a Moses to proxy for us today, how do we make sense of and respond to our world’s tumultuous and scary issues, like the pandemic, or climate change?  Yitro offers us a clue: When Jethro advises Moses on selecting individuals to help with his magisterial tasks, he says:

… seek out from among all the people capable [people] who fear God, trustworthy [people] who spurn ill-gotten gain.

Let us continue to trust, learn, and lean on one another, and embody the qualities of humility and trustworthiness that Jethro advocated for, especially during these challenging times - but also when things are less difficult. (Return to Top)

Mishpatim (Exodus 21.1 - 24.18) by Phyllis Perry

In this week's Torah portion we read about God sending an angel before the Israelites to guard them on their journey (Ex. 23:20). Similarly, I believe that there are angels in the flesh and in spirit who help and inspire me when I need it most. I’ve discovered that there is so much more to life than what our 5 senses allow us to experience; and that “help” can come in the form of a chance meeting with a stranger, lyrics to a song, a phrase in a book or a podcast I just “happen” to listen to. I used to get really uncomfortable with silence, but now I realize that the best messages find their way to me when I quietly sit still and look within. I like to think it’s one of the places where I can connect with my spirit, angels and God. In younger days, I thought you could only ask God for help with very important matters, but these days I just chatter away.  (Return to Top)

Terumah (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19) by Joyce Romoff

This seems to me, a difficult parasha to absorb. Depending on your translation, it starts out with Adonai’s demand to Moshe to “(t)ell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (Shemot 25:2). What is this? Christmas? The gifts aren’t paltry, either. Adonai wants “gold, silver, and copper”, “blue, purple and crimson yarns…tanned ram skins, the skins of “tachashiim” (תְּחָשִׁ֖ים) which some translate as dolphin skins, and acacia wood. (Shemot 25:2-5). Adonai doesn’t just ask once but many, many times. 
Remember, the Israelites, former slaves, are in the middle of a desert. Where they supposed to find acacias and dolphins? Some sages posit that Jacob planted the acacias in Egypt when he and 69 others of his family went down, over 400 years before. When the Israelites left Egypt, they uprooted and took the acacias with them. Also, the tachash, according to other sages, is not a dolphin but a rare animal created by Adonai, with many hued skin, for just this purpose and that became extinct once the tabernacle was built. Seems magical. But who’s to say there was no magic? 
Things we do today, like using existing research to develop an effective vaccine against a deadly plague within 10 months of the outbreak, getting 9.98 billion shots in arms (as of this writing) to help stem the tide of serious illness and death, and sending a telescope more than one million miles into space to look at far distant star systems, sound equally “magical”, if not more. 
In return for the gold and silver and tachashiim we “gave” to Adonai, Adonai gave us back gifts a thousandfold more valuable. Open our eyes to see the wonder of everything, our hearts to work with our fellow humans and our minds to continue to explore this planet and the stars. (Return to Top)

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10) by Deb Erie

This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh (Exodus 29:29-46), deals with purification of the altar through light, the priestly garments that must be worn as dictated by G!d through Moses to Aaron and his sons, and the sacrifices that were to be made to G!d during a seven day purification ceremony.
The concept of the Ner Tamid (eternal light) brought back a vivid memory of mine as a young child.  The congregation I grew up in was a small congregation with a part-time Rabbi.  Our services were held in a Friends Meeting House.  After a number of years, the congregation grew large enough to finally have our own place of worship.   Often, we would be the first family to arrive for services and I loved seeing the Ner Tamid as the only light in our darkened sanctuary.  It felt so special, so mystical.  I felt the presence of G!d whenever I saw that light.   It was many years until I found out that it was lit by electricity and not by some mysterious being.  Even now, 60 years later, I still love to gaze at the Ner Tamid. And during these dark times of Covid 19, it is reassuring to know that the light burns bright awaiting our return. (Return to Top)

Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 - 34:35) by Rabbi Nathan

One of the interesting understandings of the Golden Calf is that it was not meant to be a substitute God, but rather a kind of divine footstool that God ​​​​could rest His/Her legs upon while seated on the divine throne. (See more background here). In this way the golden calf served the same function as the ark of the covenant. While taking charge of the construction of holy objects still may have been the wrong move for the Israelites, the intention to create a seat for the divine was an honorable one. Maybe the calf then can be an object lesson for honoring our impulse to strive for holiness in our worship but needing to remember that this needs to be done with a careful, inclusive process that keeps us rightly directed.

Quote for President's weekend
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

- Excerpt of George Washington's letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. (Return to Top)

Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 - 38:20) by Helena Landis

Our Torah portion this week focuses on the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. I share below a reflection on connecting to my computer as shrine in my home:

My Shrine for Davening

She made the prayer altar from the materials which she gathered:
A cubit wide --square--and two cubits high; it was one piece of molten metal opening into two pieces and hinged. 
She overlaid it with pure titanium with the Onyx inlaid pieces. The sides were square, and she placed it on top of the acacia wood table.
The table was placed looking out window adorned with curtains held up by golden rings on a silver rod. The sweet smells of incense filled the room. 
The sacred space prepared she adorned herself with head covering and
her four fringed garment.
She recited the magic incantations opening “beam me up Scottie” slowly the portal opened transporting her through time and space into G-d’s “virtual” sanctuary.
As the Jews were full of light, joy, gladness and fullness... so should we be today.  
La’yehudim, H-ta Ora, H-ta Ora,b’simcha, v’saison…Ken Ti’yeh Lanu
Her tears turned into laughter and she danced for joy. (Return to Top)

Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 - 40:38) by Katie Sibley

This week we are more closely exploring the décor and accoutrements of the Tabernacle, which included a washbasin for the priests made of copper placed between the Tent of Meeting and the altar—copper melted down, as Biblical scholar Rachel Adelman translates, “from the mirrors of the ministering women” (Exodus 38:8). Which ministering women were these, and how had they used their mirrors before transforming them into a washbasin—apparently the only time mirrors are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible? Earlier chapters discussing the Tabernacle’s construction neglect their presence.

The midrash offers some intriguing clues, and one I’d like to share suggests that it relates to the period of Hebrew enslavement, when men and women were regularly separated by gender, according to the Pharaoh’s wishes. The custom began for enslaved women to go to the fields where their partners were plowing and planting, bringing them picnic lunches--whitefish salad, I’d like to imagine, and wine.  Following this repast, such a nice break for the hot and tired men, these “ministering” women then produced their mirrors to entice the men further—first, by showing off their faces in the reflection and professing, “I am more beautiful than you!” to which the men replied with their own claims of physical beauty despite their sweaty visages. Such exchanges among the Hebrew enslaved led, not surprisingly, to tender intimacies. Thus, these mirrors were instrumental, we are told, in building in just four generations a mighty people, a nation of two million women, men, and children. 

Now large enough in number to resist and escape enslavement, our Jewish ancestors were able to build their Tabernacle. While the midrash also tells us that Moses was prudish about using these erotically charged mirrors as the material for holy basins, threatening to break the ministering women’s legs(!), G’d shut him up, noting how the women and their mirrors had “raised up all these hosts in Egypt”—the tools of the women’s resistance were thus clearly fit for forming a vital piece of the Tabernacle. 

In the American context, enslaved women sometimes resorted to the opposite approach to resist slavery; using peacock flower to abort pregnancies, or going to more extreme and heartbreaking measures (see Toni Morrison’s Beloved).  Nevertheless, in all cases, women’s resistance to slavery has been key in fighting it, and with significant consequences, something to remember as we begin Women’s History Month this week! (Return to Top)

Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26) by Rich Remenick

In the book of Vayikra there are painstakingly detailed instructions for sacrifices that depend on the specific nature of a transgression. This week’s parsha deals particularly with the sacrifice appropriate for a sin that we are not even sure we have committed! Isn’t this too fussy, too neurotic? Haven’t we moderns grown into a more enlightened and rational world view?
But have we? In any news feed we can find articles admonishing us to eat certain foods and avoid others, advising us exactly how to exercise, how to dress for success, how to relentlessly make every minute of our day “more productive”.  All of this is just as fussy as anything in Vayikra. Isn’t this our idea of sacrifice?
Maybe it would help if we asked ourselves what power we are sacrificing to. Are we sacrificing to the idol of “self-perfection”, of worldly glamour, of “success”? Or are we making a joyful offering to our creator, as our original Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban (something brought near), suggests? (Return to Top)

Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36) by Kohenet Nancy Handwerger

       PARSHAT TZAV  presents the ordination of Aaron and his sons as High Priests.  It is divinely inspired and invites us into a state of holiness. I chose to learn and participate as a Kohenet, which focuses on women’s roles as religious leaders in Judaism.   
                 Ritual for me now becomes part of a Jewish way of life.  It  represents a continuity of our Jewish culture.  On Friday evenings we sing the prayer lighting the candles.  It sets aside a designated time, space and program determined before hand  that elevates the ordinary.   As I repeat and embrace the ritual and its meaning, my focus connects  with what is holy in our life
                A focus on a ritual helps to clarify one aspect of what is important in  life …. what has been intrinsic in bringing you to this day, and what will be key to guiding you as you move along through your life.  A well-chosen ritual can become an important reminder of what and whom you are choosing to be and become. While we can share meaningful rituals of  beauty and shared experience,   to me the most important practice is kindness.  Perhaps that could be a new ritual, asking oneself in a situation where one or more persons are hurting, physically or emotionally, what would be a kindness to help that person…..then follow through as best you can.
              Kindness  has neither perimeters nor specifications except for thoughtful communications and help offered to another when there is a need.  There is no set time or place for acts of kindness to happen.  Communications may even be unspoken.   Yet, the help and connection can be meaningful and needed.  This ritual can not be measured, except in the love and caring expressed between the people involved. (Return to Top)

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47) by Marion Hamermesh

These lines of Leviticus are yet another set of chukim - rules whose rationale is not self-evident. We are told about which animals are too ritually impure to eat or, if dead, to touch, or if dead and their carcass touches it, causes something like a  piece of wood, or cloth, or a cistern to become ritually impure. Some are so just until the end of the day; some forever. These instructions are given to the Israelite people so that we can, as the postscript in line 47 of this chapter says,  “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.” But the reason they can and cannot be eaten is still not self-evident. 

Somehow, a need for rules about not eating moles or geckos has not come up for me lately. 

But there are some rules about eating whose purpose is clear. While they don’t appear anywhere in Torah, which speaks only about animals as food, these rules would be considered mishpatim  - rules whose rationale is obvious. Rules about how to eat so that I can minimize my carbon footprint do speak to me. Rules that help me eat food that is grown efficiently making good use of the land do matter to me. I’m willing to follow rules that teach me that how we eat and that our policies about food production can help prevent the climate change and resource insufficiency that have created the poverty, hunger, natural disasters, and wars that have caused, according to UNHCR, more than 84 million people to become migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people.

For the health of the Earth and for the health of the people who live on the Earth, I am eating a plant-based diet that, relative to the production of meat and cheese, has both a tiny carbon footprint and uses land resources very efficiently.  I am, in my own way, distinguishing between the clean and the unclean. Not only will I not eat crocodiles or chameleons, I won’t eat cows or lambs or chickens. (Return to Top)

Tazria (Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59) by Nora Weiner

If someone has a rash they would go to the priest or Kohen to get checked. If they do have Tzara’at they have to isolate for seven days. At the end of seven days, the priest would come back to check the rash. If it fades, then they’re considered ritually pure and if not, they isolate for seven more days. Someone with tzara’at would have to wear specific clothing and would have to call out to others to let them know that they have tzara’at by saying that they are unclean or tamei.
Why would you isolate someone for tzara’at? Rashi, a rabbi from France, along with some earlier rabbis, believed that tzara’at could be considered a punishment for gossip. They based this on a story where Miriam got tzara’at after speaking against Moses. Another reason to isolate someone might be because they’re infectious or because the rash could be infectious.
But it may be possible that being isolated would help them develop the discipline to not speak about other people. S-forno talked about how a quarantine makes a person have time to think about what they did and ask for God’s forgiveness. Nehama Liebowitz added to what Sforno said and said that it teaches society to take notice of the first signs of misconduct, even when it is small, just like when you have the beginnings of an illness you can try to stop it before it becomes a big problem. (Return to Top)

Metzora (Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33) by Reisa Mukamal

Shabbat this week, the week before Pesach, has the Torah portion Metzora (meaning a person with a scaly skin affliction) and it is also known as Shabbat HaGadol or the Great Sabbath. A special haftarah from Malachi, the last prophet, is traditionally read. I read from this haftarah at my Bat Mitzvah in 1971. 

Malachi lived in the 6th century B.C.E. when the Temple was being rebuilt. He brings a message of warning, and the flip side, hope. If the people correct their moral failings, God says, “I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you…” God will even send us Elijah, the prophet who never dies. “[Elijah] shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” God seems to be saying very simply that because of the reconciliation between parents and children and vice versa He will spare us.

So the key to blessings, to the very continuation of the Jewish people, is what happens at home? The text leads us to believe that. Out of our ordinary domestic lives springs the sacred. When we open the door at our seders and let Elijah in, we are welcoming him into our very real inner sanctums.  May they be peaceful, loving, and prosperous. (Return to Top)

Passover by BI Board of Directors

We asked members of BI's Board of Directors to share a short word of Torah on the topic of "What is one question about liberation you are bringing to your seder?" Some of our responses included:

  • Liberation is costly.  Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert.  They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.  There was starvation and thirst…..Their diet was monotonous….Why does liberation need to be so costly?
  • Passover can be seen as a marking of the movement from "scarcity to redemption to plenty." Where have you notice this movement in your life?
  • Is true liberation possible for humankind given the evil that some are capable of?

We invite you to also think about your own question around the process
of liberation.  Wishes to all for a Zissen Pesah! (Return to Top)

Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30) by Max Grin

This week's Torah portion discusses the Yom Kippur sacrificial rituals.The individual sacrifices fixed mistakes by cleansing their personal spiritual mistake record. But on Yom Kippur, the sacrifices of the two different goats cleanse the communal spiritual mistake record. Aside from Yom Kippur how might we cleanse our communal spiritual mistakes today? (Return to Top)

Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34) from Alpha Beta

This week's drop of Torah is presented by the animated Alpha Beta parshah commentary with Rabbi David Foreman which explores in depth the reflexive verb ve-hithalakh as a teaching on the possibility of unity with the Divine. You can see the animated video here . Enjoy. (Return to Top)

Bamidbar (Bamidbar 1:1 - 4:20) by Ethan Bowen

This week's Torah portion begins with a census of the Israelites. A question that came up for me was why did God count the men? One teaching I found was that, according to Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, having all the men be counted was an important reminder that they were all equally worthy of love as any other child of God. But I do find it challenging that God didn't count the women, children, and elders - only the fighting-age men. Do you think that is right? (Return to Top)

Naso/Shavuot (Bamidbar 4:21 - 7:89) by Rabbi Nathan

When the Divine gave the Torah, the midrash says that each commandment was immediately translated into 70 languages and sent around the world. Additionally, a different midrash suggests that each commandment flew over to each individual Israelite at Sinai making sure that they understood what they were getting into. These teachings remind us that Torah can be hidden in any corner of our world, in any language, and that the Divine desires for us to each develop our own relationship with Torah and our tradition. On this holiday of Shavuot may we all be empowered to find our own connections and own way into Torah so that our tradition continues to nourish us for the years ahead! Wishing all a meaningful Shavuot! (Return to Top)

Beha'alotcha (Bamidbar 8:1 - 12:16) by Maya DeCamp

 A common theme throughout this Torah portion is that when complaining, you should always take notice of how you complain and never forget to stay grateful for what you have. When the Israelites leave, they become a nation, a people, not simply a group. Many rabbis talk about how when the Israelites left Egypt, they were figuratively babies. When the Israelites left Egypt, the nation of Israel
was born......
In this portion, the Israelites are now teenagers. These Israelites, who like teenagers in the modern age, like to complain, yet still are not as independent as adults. Throughout, the people of Israel, including Moses, and even God, like to complain about many things, some of it justifiable and some of it was done simply because they could......In the end, complaining isn’t really a bad thing. It is just how people use it for the years ahead! Wishing all a meaningful Shavuot! (Return to Top)

Shelakh Lekha (Bamidbar 13:1 - 15:41) by Rabbi Nathan

This week's Torah portion begins with the phrase "shelakh lekha," send for yourself. The seeming extra word of "lekha" suggests to one interpreter that "Each tribe sent its own representative. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups." That is, the lack of unity among the scouts from the beginning ensured a poor result. This teaching suggests that all successful endeavors are built upon close, connected relationships. May that always be our first impulse in our work in the world. (Return to Top)

Korah (Bamidbar 16:1 - 18:32) by Rich Remenick

In chapter 18 of Parshat Korach, God stipulates that the priestly caste should be freed from the mundane tasks of daily life and should be subsidized with portions of sacrifices offered by ordinary Hebrews. This makes it sound suspiciously like the office of priest is a cushy job, perhaps even the beginning of a corrupt and privileged hierarchy, as Korach later claimed. But the subsidies enjoyed by the priesthood do not come for free. The priests were forbidden to own land for “I (God) am your portion and your share among the Israelites”.

The religious leadership earns its privileges only through its service to something higher than its own interests, and this principle binds the entire hierarchy of our community from the lowest to the highest levels…a principle that our governing elite in this country would do well to remember! How do we cultivate a priestly ethic of service today? (Return to Top)

Hukkat (Bamidbar 19:1 - 22:1) by Jessie Reagen Mann

In this week's Torah portion the Israelites sing a song to a well to encourage it to provide water. Like my ancestors I too am connected to music. Music is a gift I have cultivated since I was very young. Music was a part of my household and a source of comfort, joy and sorrow. It was always there when I needed it!

As a cellist and singer, I am continually grateful and amazed by the nourishment and energy I get by creating and playing both secular and liturgical music. It’s no wonder the Israelites sang to the well pining for water!  Music and torah are creative in their own way. Maybe by singing/chanting torah, it inspires us to experience the energy of the torah that much deeper.

In that spirit, I offer a short piece of music inspired by a well known Jewish prophet. This performance with the Om Shalom trio is an extra piece of musical Torah connecting the past and present. (Return to Top)

Balak (Bamidbar 22:2 - 25:9) by Amy Nabut

In this week's parsha, Balak, King Balak fails to extract a curse from the mouth of the Prophet Ba’alam and instead the prophet speaks God’s blessing of Israel. But later in the parsha, God is very angry! He declares a death sentence to any Israelite man who attaches himself to the Midianite god Baal Peor. He sends a plague to the Israelites in which 24,000 die as well. 

Fear can promote a healthy respect for rules and unite people against external threats, but perhaps we should be motivated by our desire to be our best selves in the world. Generations later, the prophet Micah says that God has told us what is good, "to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” 

How do we reconcile revolving our lives around Torah with our modern understanding of the world? What motivates us to good in the world? Fear? Guilt? A desire to be our best selves? (Return to Top)

Pinchas (Bamidbar 25:10 - 30:1) by Linda Cohen

This week’s section of Pinchas is read on every major Jewish holiday. It specifies a number of animal and food sacrifices required of the Israelites to repent for the shameful sins of a subgroup of the people. 

We do not have such egregious sinners in our community, nor do we believe in such a primitive God. But the flourishing of our synagogue does require a great deal of sacrifice on the part of many, and I believe that the result would be pleasing to any contemporary God(dess). 

We take care of each other, we take care of the environment, and we take care of vulnerable populations.  We help to preserve the values and rituals of Judaism while enjoying the support of a caring community. In order to keep our organization functioning, we do sacrifice. Many members give of their money, time and talents, for which I personally am very grateful and, often, in awe. (Return to Top)

Matot (Bamidbar 30:2 - 32:42) by Me'ira

Parshaht Matot tells us that men who make vows must hold fast to their vows, but not necessarily so with women. Unmarried women living with their fathers are responsible for keeping their vows if their fathers do not object.  Married women are responsible for keeping their vows if their husbands do not object.  Divorced and widowed women however, have the same obligations regarding this law as do men.  Divorced and widowed women, in this instance, are free.

Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson of American Jewish University in Los Angeles talks about the limitation of husbands and fathers in their role as vow-breaker for their daughters and wives. He states that the men who don’t immediately object to the vows upon learning of them cannot disillusion them in the future.  

“Silence is assent. A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty … political oppression … We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or–through our silence–we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

There is SO much going on in our society. So much that we can choose to ignore or rationalize away. Or we can choose to speak up and perhaps make a difference. We can only make a difference if we speak up. (Return to Top)

Masa'ei (Bamidbar 33:1 - 36:13) by Miriam Sigler

In this week's Torah portion, Masa'ei, we encounter the legislation for cities of refuge in the event that someone kills someone else unintentionally. This Torah episode invites us to think about structures to protect refugees today. Structural change, such as laws protecting refugees is necessary, but no guarantee of hospitality. When residents of a community feel secure they are hospitable. When they feel threatened, they are inhospitable.

Feeling secure takes a village. Security is a partnership between home, school and community. Educating communities about the things they have in common with other communities who may not look or sound like them builds trust and opens doors. May we all find ways to build contemporary cities of refuge that can open their doors to the stranger. (Return to Top)

Devarim (Devarim 1:1 - 3:22) by Larry Hamermesh

Imagine yourself as a stranger to the Torah, approaching it for the first time and opening the book to Devarim 2:34, part of this week’s parsha. How would you react to Moses’ recitation that God had enabled the Israelites to take the land of Heshbon by force, and exterminate its leader Sihon and every last one of his people? How would you react to Moses’ proclamation that “we conquered all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed every city, the men, women, and the young children; we left over no survivor?” 

Would you conclude that because Jews consider the Torah holy, they are a savage, bloodthirsty, merciless people, who venerate an avowed war criminal? Would you conclude that the Torah is an abomination, and not holy in any sense of the word?

In my lifetime I have seen other peoples judged this way, based on selective reading of their holy texts. That sort of judgment is unfortunate and misguided. It is not isolated texts by which a people should be judged; it is their interpretation and implementation of their holy texts that are the proper basis for judgment. 

Ask yourself: which words of Torah do you choose to guide your behavior? Devarim 2:34? Or Vayikra 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”)? (Return to Top)

Vaetchanan and Shabbat Nahamu (Devarim 3:23 - 7:11) by Laura Lee Blechner

Last week, we concluded the three saddest weeks in the Jewish holiday cycle with Tisha B’Av - a mournful fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (in addition to many other sad events in Jewish history). This Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu, we begin seven weeks of consolation - each week has a Haftarah reading from Isaiah, offering words of comfort after the grief of the preceding three weeks. Nachamu, nachamu ami – Comfort, oh comfort my people, says God.

I take three lessons from this: 1) God is being a role model for us - comforting the people who are mourning and hurting, basically paying a shiva call or sitting with someone who is having a hard time. 2) If we are the ones who are grieving or going through the tough time, we must remember to take the comfort where we can, and show ourselves compassion, so that we can heal. 3) It may take longer than we think.

Tisha B’Av also begins the 49 day countdown to Rosh Hashanah, and our work of Teshuvah/Returning/Re-aligning with the person we want to be. In this week’s portion of Ve’etchanan, we get the repetition of the Ten Commandments, guidelines for living an ethical life, and the Shema and Ve’ahavta, basically how (with love) and when (always) to put those guidelines into effect. What a powerful double message this week.

May we move through our grief, and turn towards teshuvah, with comfort and compassion, using lessons from Torah as a guide. (Return to Top)

Ekev (Devarim 7:12 - 11:25) by Rabbi Nathan

In this week's Torah portion, Ekev, God warns the Israelites how the good life they will be living could lead them to lose a sense of humility and alignment. In the parsha's words, "Take care lest you forget your God יהוה and fail to keep the divine commandments, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget your God."

I wonder how this dynamic relates to the American Jewish experience today? Many Jews experienced upward mobility from their first generation immigrant ancestors. How have we kept and maintained a sense of humility and fealty to the core values our ancestors carried with them to a new land?  How do we keep our hearts open and modest today? (Return to Top)

Re'eh (Devarim 11:26 - 16:17) music video by Chanan Rosin

We hope that you enjoy this short, entertaining video that is serving as our Drop of Torah for Parshat Re'eh. Chanan Rosin, of the Jerusalem band Majuda, sings about life and how to live it in Torah Parshat Re'eh. Blessings in your life and on the land can be yours, a father tells his infant twins...and Moses tells the Children of Israel...if only they will follow the advice of another "parent." Watch it here. 

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Shofetim (Devarim 16:18 - 21:9) by Hadassah Weinmartin

In this week's parshah there is a section describing the requirements that are involved in preparing for war. The community officials organizing enlistment note circumstances when someone would be exempted from service, including: someone who hasn't completed the building of their home, someone who hasn't harvested a newly planted vineyard, and someone who was engaged but not yet married. These are all unfinished actions in someone's life. 

Given that we are preparing for the High Holidays and getting ready to face the new year, this instruction to "finish what you started" is relevant to today. What is the unfinished business or baggage that we carry and need to complete or release before the new year? (Return to Top)

Kee Tay-Tzay (Devarim 21:10 - 25:19) by Sarah Krakow

Kee Tay-tzay, in Deuteronomy 21, tells us that even if you are not loved you should still be cared for equally. The Da’at Z’kenim Torah commentary suggests “he must not favor the son of his beloved wife over the son of the wife he hates,” by treating him as his first born. How have you noticed in your life that you favor one child or one friend over another? (Return to Top)

Ki Tavo (Devarim 26:1 - 29:8) with Hashiveinu chant by R. Shefa Gold

We invite you to listen to this chant written by Rabbi Shefa Gold. Rabbi Gold includes the following teaching to go with the chant, as we ready
ourselves for the new year.

--Hashiveynu Yah elecha v'nashuva
Now let us turn, return and be turned (3X)
To the One! (Lamentations 5:21)

With this practice, we explore three aspects of T’shuvah. How do we turn away from that which is draining us of Life-force, and turn towards that which is Life-giving? How do we return to a sense of belonging, authenticity and connection to the whole of Creation? How do we surrender to the Great Mystery that is holding us, transforming us and loving us unconditionally? (Return to Top)

Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9 - 30:20) with song by Deborah Sacks Mintz

As a musical offering of preparation for the New Year, we offer Musician Deborah Sack Mintz's Zochreinu Lehayyim - "Remember us for Life". (Return to Top)

Vayelekh / Shabbat Shuvah (Devarim 31:1 - 30) with song by Neshama Carlebach

We offer this version of "Return Again" by Neshama Carlebach that connects to the theme of this Shabbat and the holidays. (Return to Top)

Sukkot by Rabbi Nathan

In honor of the upcoming holiday of sukkot, for this week's drop of Torah we are sharing Rabbi Nathan's "Seven Questions for the Sukkot Holiday." 

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Ha'azinu-Ve-Zot Habracha (Devarim 32:1 - 34:12) by Lynn Cashell

The last parsha in the Torah is Vezot Habracha. Since Moses had led his people through the desert and many trials, it is disturbing that while he views the “Promised Land,” he will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He offers a final blessing, dies, and is according to the commentary, is buried by God.

This made me think about the movie, Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, has plowed under his corn fields to create a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa, and seeks out a former baseball player, Archie “Moonlight” Graham. He believes he has received a message to find this player and bring him to his field of dreams. 

Yet, when he encounters Archie Graham, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, he is an aged doctor living in a small Minnesota town. Dr. Graham recounts how he played in the major leagues, but never had a turn at bat, so he left baseball to pursue a career in medicine.

Ray is offering to take Dr. Graham to live out his dreams, but is refused. He is perplexed, and asks what it was like. Doc Graham answers, “It was like coming this close to your dreams and having them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd.” 

Ray continues to persuade Doc telling him, “If you could do anything you wanted…have a wish…” and Doc describes his wish of wanting to have a time at bat in the major leagues. Ray again offers Doc the opportunity to live out his dream and is refused again. “But your wish…” He continues, “You came this close…it would kill some men to come that close to their dream and not touch it…they’d consider it a tragedy.”

Doc replies, “If I had only been a doctor for 5 minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.” 

Moses lived to be 120 years old, led his people to freedom, and while not permitted entry, was able to see the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo. Was Moses’ dream to live out his life in the Promised Land, or did he do what he was intended to do…lead his people? While it feels like being allowed entry after such a long journey was in order, Moses did live out his dreams. Watch the clip from Field of Dreams.

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Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784