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Drops of Torah from our members (2019-20 / 5780)

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.

To see Drops of Torah from prior years, click here.

  1. Bereishit by Kathy Trow
  2. Noah by Andy Coleman
  3. Lekh Lekha by Marilyn Verbits
  4. Vayera by Julia and Noah Walsh
  5. Hayyei Sarah by Me'ira Pitkapaasi
  6. Toldot by Deb Erie
  7. Vayeitze by Lynn Cashell
  8. Vayishlach by Sharon Kleban
  9. Vayeshev by Rich Remenick
  10. Miketz by Reisa Mukamal
  11. Vayigash by Jennifer Waterston
  12. Vayechi by Katie Sibley
  13. Shemot by Judy Kinman
  14. Va-era by Helena Landis
  15. Bo by Alisa Herman-Liu
  16. Beshallah by Joyce Romoff
  17. Yitro by Julie Mayer
  18. Mishpatim by Randy Tiffany
  19. Terumah by Laura Lee Blechner
  20. Tetzaveh by Nancy Handwerger
  21. Ki Tissa by Andrea Bruno
  22. Vayakhel by Marion Hamermesh
  23. Vayikra by Emma Lefkowitz
  24. Tsav by Meira Pitkapaasi
  25. Passover by the Rabbis
  26. Shemini by Eleanor Skale
  27. Tazria-Metzora by Rae Roeder
  28. Aharei Mot-Kedoshim by Penny & Sheldon Bernick
  29. Emor by Harry Chen & Andrea Apter
  30. Behar-Behukotai video by R. Andy Kastner
  31. Bamidbar by Meira Pitkapaasi
  32. Shavuot by Reisa Mukamal
  33. Beha'alotekha by Amy Strauss
  34. Shelach Lekha by Randi Raskin Nash
  35. Korah by Alex Shapiro- Colarocco
  36. Hukkat by Anita Weber 
  37. Balak by Lynn Cashell
  38. Pinchas by Rich Remenick
  39. Mattot - Masaei by Rebecca Winer
  40. Devarim by Linda Cohen
  41. Va-etchanan by Jennifer Lenway
  42. Eikev by Michael Fishkow
  43. Re'eh by Hadassah Weinmartin
  44. Shofetim by Candy Berlin
  45. Ki Teitzei by Ben Alouf
  46. Ki Tavo/Honoring Labor Day from our rabbis
  47. Nitzavim / Vayeilekh by Larry Hamermesh
  48. Ha'azinu/ Yom Kippur Preparation from our rabbis
  49. A Sukkot offering from our rabbis
 
Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-19) by Kathy Trow

The beginning of the Torah is the beginning of Creation. What strikes me in early Genesis is the emphasis on opposites. God creates light and darkness (Day and Night), sky and water, and land and seas. Once these "opposites" are established, God populated them; first with vegetation (And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”) and then with "lights in the expanse of the sky" to differentiate day from night. 

There are many aspects of life that rely on opposites. Often situations seem black and white. For example, you don't put your hand into fire or you will get burned. However, much of life revolves around the gray such that a fire warms you if you keep a safe distance from it. If the earliest creations were black and white opposites, as God continued to create there was an allowance for the gray. The variety of species of vegetation and the subtle changes as day moves to night are all graduated differences (grays) without specific boundaries like Light and Dark or black and white. 

Reading this passage is a reminder to me that although I may wish often for black and white- the Day and Night- situations, I need to embrace an often live within the gray because there is a plethora of possibilities within the gray. (Return to Top)

Noah (Genesis 6:9-7:9) by Andy Coleman

In this week's Parsha, God instructs Noah on how to build the ark. This ark was to become the way life survived on Earth. In our day, we should think of the whole earth as an ark. Just as God saw the earth as "corrupt", we humans have treated the earth badly. It is up to us to take action to reverse climate change. We can do this on an individual scale, such as using reusable shopping bags, all the way up to the national and international level by supporting and advocating for the use of renewable resources and protecting the environment. (Return to Top)

Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-20) by Marilyn Verbitz 

The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land...to the land that I will show you". Now that's a life-changing order! However, perhaps to assuage Abram's fear of the unknown, he was assured that he would receive many blessings and successes. These all came true. Unlike Abram/Abraham, we don't get assurances when we go to a "new" place in our lives. There are no promises of success, no guarantees that we won't struggle with changes that might be thrust upon us. So I believe that we need to have faith that most times, as we sing in the Hashkivenu prayer, "everything's gonna be all right." (Return to Top)

Vayera (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24)) by  Julia and Noah Walsh 

From Julia: When Abraham argues with God to save Sodom from destruction did God already know the outcome, and if so, why bother arguing? Perhaps this was God's way of training Abraham and ourselves to find ways to bring our voice to issues we think are unjust and to stand up for what is right.

From Noah: What can we learn from the actions of the daughters of Lot when they were fleeing Sodom and their decision to make their father sire a child with them? While this is a problematic passage, some commentators stress that their motives were good. This reminds us to make sure to take a second look when we disagree or don't understand someone's actions - there may be more to learn or uncover. (Return to Top)

Hayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-11) by Me'ira Pitkapaasi 

When Sarah died in the land of Canaan, Abraham had no place to bury his wife. He asked to buy land from the Hittites.  They responded by giving him the best of their burial spots, and expected nothing in return.  In the Beth Israel community, when anyone is in need, if they let people know, we respond by reaching out and being there for them.  We have members who need assistance following the Hebrew in our Shabbat services; those who need rides to events and home again; those who need a friend to lean on; those who only have enough food with grocery cards donated to the Rabbi's Discretionary Fund.  It is up to us to offer what we can give, in time or money.  It is up to us to ask for what we need, to put aside any guilt we might feel in taking, and to allow the community to be there for us.  Abraham was able to accept the gift of a burial plot from the Hittites, adversaries of the Israelites.  The Hittites were able to overcome this adversarial relationship to give in the time of Abraham's greatest need. How much more so should we give of ourselves to our BI family, and allow ourselves to accept these gifts when needed? (Return to Top)

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-34) by Deb Erie

Toldot. Generations. Descendants..This parsha tells the story of Isaac and Rebekkah conceiving and giving birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.  Esau is the first born and therefore, the owner of the birthright. During this Parsha, Esau barters his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup.  And then later, Rebecca and Jacob deceive Isaac on his deathbed into giving Jacob his blessing.

In thinking about this portion, I was struck by the choices that the characters made and what choices we might bring into our own lives.  Some may say that Esau chose the present (his hunger) over the future (his birthright). Jacob made the choice of deception (lying to Isaac) over truth which led to his estrangement from his twin brother.  Rebecca also chose to support one son over the other leading to having to send away her favored son.

We must make choices in our lives all the time.  Everyday. Our lives are busy – we are often asked to decide what can we give up, what is negotiable.  It is when we make these decisions that we have to determine our priorities. By choosing wrong, we can give up much.  We might be giving up time spent with our family by working more for the money to purchase things we don’t need. We might be giving up doing the right thing for the easier path.  We might be giving up our religious community because we are too busy. 

Each of these decisions have an impact on our future generations. Toldot. Generations.  Descendants. (Return to Top)

Vayeitze (Genesis 28:10-22) by Lynn Cashell

In Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob had a dream/vision of angels of God going up and down a ladder and that God spoke to him telling him, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. ... Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 
     There are not many places or times in my life when I have felt such reassurance that I will be cared for and protected. I always believed that the two safest places in my world were my school and my synagogue. Events over the past several years have awakened my senses to the reality, that while the violence permeated at schools and synagogues is rare, we still have to be prepared and aware that we are not as safe or protected as we once believed. 
     Acts of violence such as these raise up the question of how God could allow these atrocities to happen. After all, didn’t God make promises to protect us? I think those are unanswerable questions and my time is better spent looking at the response to the violence. Communities pull together, people not of the impacted community offer support, and the outpouring of love is unending. That is where I think God exists. Maybe its a reminder that we need to care, protect, and love each other every day, not just when impacted by irrational acts of violence. Maybe we should not leave God until our promises to care for each other are fulfilled.  (Return to Top)

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-21) by Sharon Kleban

This week’s parsha Vayishlach tells the story of Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esav for the first time in many years.  The night before the meeting Jacob encountered a mysterious man, a messenger, and they wrestled all night.  Jacob refused to let the man go unless the man offered a blessing, and the man gave him a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
 
The name Israel is translated as struggles with God.  But even though Jacob received this new name, he still is called Jacob in the rest of the Torah.  This suggests that Israel was an additional name, perhaps a family or tribe name but maybe not a personal name.  
 
Our liturgy for the Yizkor services includes a poem titled “Each of Us Has a Name.”  The poem describes all the aspects of our world and lives that give us a different name.  When we are born our parents give us a name and that name has meaning.  Following Ashkenazi Jewish tradition I was named for great grandmothers who live only in memory.   My last name was passed down through the generations of my family.  My children wear the names of beloved family members who lived long ago.
 
The given names are more than a serial number.  The names tell us about our relationships.  My names include mother, daughter, sister, wife, and friend.  These names are as precious as my given name because they hint at what I am to people I love.
 
I offer that Israel is also a name of a relationship.  By taking this name, Jacob rises to a wrestling relationship with God that tells the story of his life and the history of the people who came after him.  As descendants of this story, we wrestle with the meaning of the Torah in the world and in our lives.  
 
The word Chanukah means dedication.  With this holiday approaching, we have an opportunity to dedicate ourselves again to our world, to our traditions and to our loved ones who give us our multitude of names. (Return to Top)

Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-17) by Rich Remenick 

Over and over in Torah, we encounter the drama of sibling rivalry. The unfairness of parental favoritism is presented without apology. Certainly, Jacob’s favoring of the son of his old age, Joseph, is related in a very matter of fact manner. To make matters worse for modern readers, it seems that the effect of this favoritism on Joseph’s character is not beneficial. Joseph not only glories in his special status as the favorite son, but even naively (or cruelly?) rubs it in, by relating dreams to his brothers that hint at his future preeminence. Is this not the person we all have learned to hate – the archetypal boss’s son?

And as we know, Joseph, this somewhat bratty child,  does become great – but that greatness is not the greatness dreamt of by a spoiled child or a social climber, not the “greatness” aspired to by Pharaoh, but a greatness acquired in adversity and humility. Seen this way, there is no need for envy; we are all destined for our own greatness, just not in the way we anticipate! (Return to Top)

Miketz (Genesis 41:1-24) by Reisa Mukamal 

At the beginning of Parsha Miketz, Pharaoh has his two famous dreams about seven gaunt cows eating seven sturdy cows, and seven scraggly ears of grain eating seven healthy ears. Pharaoh is highly agitated, but all the magicians and wise men of Egypt can’t tell him what the dreams mean. When Joseph, plucked from the dungeon, is given the opportunity to interpret them, it leads to both his own rescue and the rescue of the country. 

This is the second time Joseph has been a dream interpretor in the Torah. The first time, when he was seventeen, nearly got him killed by his own brothers. Since then, he has grown up and learned to reign in his ego. Joseph is fortunate to have had a second chance to redeem himself. May we all have second chances in life to use our talents for good. (Return to Top)

* In the spirit of Hannukah and entertainment, Rabbi Nathan offers a couple of contemporary songs from Six13 to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody and the Maccabeats Hannukah creation based on the musical Hamilton. Enjoy!

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:31) by Jennifer Waterston 

This parsha is ultimately about forgiveness between siblings for acts of betrayal that occurred decades before. Joseph decides to forgive his brothers when he believes that they have risen above petty jealously. There are basically three choices in dealing with a negative action or behavior - holding a grudge, forgiving them without making amends, or forgiving the transgression and healing the relationship. We all have our own threshold for what is forgivable. Sometimes we cut a family member out of our lives because the relationship is toxic and/or painful. Often with time and distance our perspective changes and what once seemed unforgivable seems petty or insignificant. Joseph was able to let bygones be bygones. But that isn't the path that everyone would or should take. Everyone of us decides which relationships to take with us and which ones to leave behind. We can only hope not to make a decision we later regret.  (Return to Top)

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-48:13) by Katie Sibley

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, explores the passing of Jacob, who delivers his deathbed blessings to his twelve sons.  They have various scenarios sketched out for them:  Judah, that “awesome lion,” got to look forward to washing his clothes in wine (which presumably wouldn’t stain them!) but Issachar, that “strong-boned donkey,” would become an “indentured laborer.”  Simeon and Levi were singled out for their “conspiracy” (against brother Joseph)-- they would be “dispersed.” Reuben, the first born, was told he had lost his primogeniture perks; Asher’s bounty, though, was such that he would be able to dispense “kingly delicacies”!  

As for Joseph, well, his beauty had already incited “Egyptian girls to climb heights to gaze” at him. He would now get “blessings of the bosom and womb.”  Joseph’s special place in his father’s eyes had already inflamed the jealousy of his brothers, as we know, leading them to drop him down that parched well sans fancy coat.  But despite that earlier scheme, Joseph had not only survived, but thrived.  With Jacob now gone, his siblings worried that regardless of all the blessings they’d just received, their favored brother would now turn his vengeance on them (already he wasn’t inviting them to dinner so often!)—so they quickly concocted a story: their father had told them to instruct Joseph to grant them forgiveness! 

 Joseph gently calmed them.  There was nothing to worry about; he would not harm his brothers, instead he would “sustain you and your young ones”—because God had meant for “a vast people to be kept alive,” and he intended to do just that. 

 As this story tells us, death--despite its swath of loss--can also bring us closer together; in the passing of a loved one, we find connections that we were not always aware of earlier.  In November, my dear cousin Jean Polovchik died after a long illness, and we have since heard from so many of those she touched, from handicapped children she taught in New Hampshire, to neighbors of the nature preserve she created near Montreal with her grandfather’s land.  Harvard University’s herpetologists, meanwhile, were excited to receive some rare relics--a preserved python and bat that her aforesaid grandfather, my great uncle Dr. Charles T. Sibley, found in the Philippines in 1905.  

Like so many others among our beloveds, when she died Jean left many blessings behind—and while we all wish we had been more aware of these gifts in life, we can, like Joseph’s siblings, feel sustained by that legacy granted by older generations.  (Return to Top)

Shemot (Exodus 1:1-17) by Judy Kinman 

This week’s Torah portion begins the familiar story of the enslavement of the Jews, the decree to kill the male newborn babies, and the birth of Moses. The story is familiar as it is retold every year at the Passover seder: 

There are several themes that I consider notable in this parsha: The courage and bravery of the women involved, not only Shiprah and Puah, but also Miriam in keeping watch over her brother and recommending her mother to be his wetnurse, and the king’s own daughter, who, recognizing that the baby in the river was a Hebrew child, nevertheless decided to adopt him. She defied her own father in rescuing the child she named Moses.

The enslavement of the Jews is an event that becomes a recurrent theme in the Torah, and a happening that is memorialized in Passover observance. Indeed, the first of the ten commandments enjoins us to remember our time in slavery; the commandment to observe the Sabbath ends with “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt …” (Deut. 5:15) We are exhorted to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt many times in the Torah. We are instructed to remain mindful of our humble beginnings. Whatever successes we may achieve in life, we must remember that we came from slavery; we are but the descendants of slaves.

We are also instructed to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt (36 times in the Torah); therefore we should treat strangers well. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20); “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” (Lev 19:34). We are even exhorted to be kind to the Egyptians who later enslaved us: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut 23:8). Perhaps we and our political leadership today need to be more the mindful of these messages of humility and not wronging the stranger.  (Return to Top)

Va-era (Exodus 6:2-13) by Helena Landis

This week's parshah begins with an encounter between God and Moses where God offers to be known by a new name of YHVH and also talks about waking up to the cries of the enslaved Israelites to work toward their freedom. This notion of waking up resonated with me. When I had to deal with the loss of my daughter, I knew that I wanted to be awake and connected to God. This desire has continued in my life. For me, having a spiritual practice that anchors me is critical; it allows me to not have to fight my desire to have reality be different, how I think it is supposed to be, but to approach life with more equanimity and accept things the way they are. When I am grounded I can hear the wisdom of my friends who help me to remember to accept the truth of my reality at any given moment. Perhaps this too is a kind of freedom and liberation as well.  (Return to Top)

Bo (Exodus 10:1-15) by Alisa Herman Liu

This week’s Torah portion, the second in the book of Exodus, narrates that God enacts upon the Egyptians. I sometimes wonder if the order of the plagues is significant? Death of the first born is obviously the most severe plague yet many of the plagues could also cause death to the entire group if they persisted.  Despite all the havoc the plagues seem to cause the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s heart remains “hardened” until the final plague, death to the firstborn, affects him directly. Pharaoh ultimately listens to God or at least listened long enough for the Israelites to leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea before he changed his mind(again). This behavior makes me question my own thoughts about “modern plagues” and whether I ignore the suffering around me until I am affected directly. There are many in our world suffering health issues that don’t receive proper medical care. There are people who live in areas where drought, flooding or other natural or manmade disasters prohibit them from being able to grow food to feed their families.  There are children who are not able to attend school for a myriad of reasons. The list goes on and on. When we read this story of the ten plagues, I will be thinking about our collective responsibility to repair our world, even if I am not affected directly at this time. (Return to Top)

Beshallah (Exodus 13:17-14:8) by Joyce Romoff 

In addition to being one of the most beautiful Torah portions view, Beshallah is also, for me, one of the most contradictory. 

YHVH leads the Israelites out of Egypt “by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer;” because YHVH was concerned that ‘(t)he people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt (Shemot 13:17).” Yet, YHVH has no problem instructing the Israelites to camp facing the sea even though YHVH was going to stiffen Pharaoh’s heart (how many time is this?), and cause Pharaoh’s and every chariot of Egypt to confront the Israelites at a place where there was apparent no way out for them. It’s no wonder, the Israelites cried out “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness (Shemot 14:11)? Maybe Philistia was a better choice? Where’s a GPS when you need it?

As we’re aware, YHVH causes a “strong east wind” to turn the sea into dry ground for the Israelites to let them cross safely but then locks the wheels of the Egyptians’ chariots and causes the water to “return to its normal state” while the Egyptians were in the middle of the seabed. The result? “Horse and driver (YHVH) has hurled into the sea.”  All for the glory of YHVH? It worked. We celebrate this each Pesach. 

Over the next forty years, the Israelites fight the Amalekites and many others, gain Torah, live, die and become a people that formed the basis of what we are today. This shows that patience is key. YHVH could have sent the Israelites right to Canaan and they’d have disappeared, almost immediately, when the encountered, unprepared, the settlers who were there. However, when the Israelites actually entered the Land, they were ready. It took patience and learning and we didn’t learn everything we needed all at once. 

For someone, like me, who has no patience, this is a hard but good lesson to learn. (Return to Top)

Yitro (Exodus 18:1-12) by Julie Mayer

Moses’ father-in-law observes how much he was doing for the people. “Why do you act alone…?” “…you will surely wear yourself out...for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone…” Jethro then gives Moses valuable advice: “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.” “…you will be able to bear up: and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

This portion reminds me of how often we carry burdens alone, unwilling or unable to ask for help. We may feel that the responsibility is ours alone or fear that others may reject our requests or even resent us if they do agree to help out. For many of us, it just isn’t easy to ask for help. But, as Jethro’s advice indicates, taking on all of the responsibility can become overwhelming, whether in a job or while caring for a loved one or even while caring for the entire population as in this case. As we might say nowadays, it can lead to burn out. So, how can we reimagine asking for help so that it is easier to do?

Jethro advises Moses to “share the burden.” In other words, allow others to take part so that they can serve a meaningful role. If we view asking for help not as a negative but as the possibility of giving someone else an opportunity to participate in something valuable, the idea of sharing the burden becomes much easier. We should remember that most people want to help others and that doing so is one of the most meaningful activities in life. Whether it’s running to the store to shop for someone who is ill or who is caring for a loved one, or serving the community or an organization in a volunteer capacity (such as BI), or even running for public office, most of us find that when we offer our help to others, we feel good for doing so.  

Asking for help is a way to get what we need to be able to continue on with our mission while giving others an opportunity to build more connection and meaning into their lives -- just like in this week's Torah story in which Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and began a judicial system with many community members serving valuable positions, it’s win-win! (Return to Top)

Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-19) by Randy Tiffany

Among the numerous laws enumerated in Mishpatim (“rules”), there is a puzzling passage which provides a ritual for a male Hebrew indentured servant who chooses to become a permanent slave. Putting aside the context of this law, I am struck by the question it raises for us all: Are there less than ideal situations in our own lives which we choose to accept?  Would we choose more wisely if we ritually acknowledged them, as the Torah does with the indentured Hebrew servant? Would such a ritual force us to honestly confront difficult tradeoffs rather than pretend that we are not making choices? (Return to Top)

Terumah (Exodus 25:1-15) by Laura Lee Blechner 

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, holds a special place in my heart. Fifteen or so years ago, it was the first portion that I ever chanted from the Torah. At the time of my Bat Mitzvah, the synagogue my family belonged to did not let young women chant from the Torah. I side- stepped that rule by chanting all three paragraphs of the Shema in Torah trope, but it was from the prayer book, not the Torah. 

Terumah begins a 5 week-long series of instructions describing how to build the Mishkan, or tabernacle, a dwelling place for Adonai. It is great for learning some esoteric Hebrew vocabulary, because it describes the many materials donated by the Israelites, “as their hearts so moved them”. (This is also the basis for our Nadiv Lev suggested “from the heart” donation.) One interesting commentary by Isaac Abarbanel, a Portuguese Medieval commentator, noted that the donated materials came from four groups of four – 4 mineral (gold, silver, copper and onyx), 4 vegetable (wood, linen, oil, spices) 4 animal (goat’s hair, rams skin, seal/dolphin skins, worm/snail) and 4 colors (blue, purple, scarlet, white). 

This year, I was struck again by the level of detail used to describe the building of the Mishkan, along with the amount of commentary offered by the rabbis about each of the details. It paints a beautiful picture of this holy dwelling place that was built in the desert and carried on their travels. As it says in this parsha: V’asu-li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, - “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them.” I believe it teaches an important lesson about surrounding ourselves with beauty – items created by ourselves or others and items we find in nature – so that everywhere we are can be a beautiful, holy, dwelling place filled with Godliness. (Return to Top)

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-28:10) by Nancy Handwerger

There is much repetition in the beginning of this week's parsha, Tetzaveh. There is repetition of names, particularly of Aaron and his sons. There is repetition of wise hearted people, most likely women, to make the vestments, and repetition of the colors of gold, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool to be used along with twisted linen. In Torah, repetition emphasizes  the importance of what is being said. Specific instructions are given to make unique and striking clothing and vestments to stimulate spiritual or divine connection.  

Tetzaveh means "you shall instruct." A code of holiness is given to Aaron and his sons through detailed and repeated instructions for what they are to wear during worship festivities. Skilled and wise craftspeople (most likely women) are to create specified ritualized clothing and adornments for them.

Aaron will wear seven items of clothing, symbolizing perfection and totality. Gold, a color symbolizing kingships, will combine with other primary colors of blue and crimson, along with purple, a color of royalty. Only the pure fabrics of wool and linen are to be used.

The breast plate or "ephod" of decision to be worn by Aaron is unique and invites divine intervention. The underlying intention is to uplift, perhaps dazzle, and spiritually inspire the people through divine connection. Perhaps Tetzaveh will also inspire us to consider how the clothing we wear can channel holiness as well. (Return to Top)

Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 - 34:35) by Andrea Bruno 

In this week's parshah Moses is invited to carve a second set of tablets after breaking the first set. Before he comes down the mountain he has an encounter with God who proclaims the words that we repeat each High Holidays -- "God is gracious and abounding in compassion, slow to anger, and filled with loving kindness." I was reminded of a Hasidic teaching that Rabbi Nathan once offered that when we say in our daily Shema to put the words "on our hearts," that it is only when we let our hearts break open can the words of Torah enter. Similarly, when Mosers and God were able to let go of their anger at the people did these words of compassion flow. The teaching inspired me to create a piece of art that is shown above and reflects the breaking and filling of our hearts with Torah and compassion. Enjoy! (Return to Top)

Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 - 40:38) by Marion Hamermesh

We were slaves in Egypt for 430 years. Then we were refugees running for our lives, crossing first a sea (somewhat miraculously) and trudging through a desert for 40 years hoping to get to a land we were told had been promised to our forebears. 

This week's Parsha,  Vayekhel Pekudai finds us stalled at the base of Mt. Sinai building a holy place so that G!d may dwell in our midst. That sanctuary was built by the best artisans Moses could find from offerings of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, mirrors and cherubim, gold and goatskins and love. 

In the Arizona desert, Central American refugees are running for their lives hoping to get to a land they've been told will shelter them from the gangs and governments that are endangering and impoverishing them. G!d's holy dwelling place is being built from offerings of water bottles, menstrual supplies, diapers, snack food, band aids, and love by volunteers risking arrest for providing humanitarian aid to people who are met at our border by a xenophobic government that has demonized them and puts stumbling blocks between them and the sanctuary they seek. 

In 1881 HIAS was founded to aid Jewish refugees running for their lives, escaping danger from the gangs and governments that were demonizing them. Today HIAS' mission is to help all refugees. President Mark Hatfield said, "In the past we helped refugees because they were Jews; today we help refugees because we are Jews."

As you light your candles this Friday night - which is HIAS National Refugee Shabbat- please take a minute to think of the millions of refugees and asylum seekers around the world today who are fleeing violence and persecution simply because of who they are. Here is a link to a reading you can use for your candle lighting. (Return to Top)

Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-17) by Emma Lefkowitz

This week's Torah portion begins the discussion of the instructions for the various types of sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle. In our modern lives, we sacrifice little. Compared to previous generations, who dealt with great sacrifice in wartime, for example, we today have little experience with ‘doing without’ or ‘giving up’ something for a higher purpose. Perhaps that experience is coming our way soon, as today our communities face a health crisis of unknown proportions. We are used to donating some time and some money but never to the point of discomfort or even suffering. I am not suggesting that there is something superior about that experience - simply that we are blessed to be free from the kind of conditions that would require that sacrifice. That said, we’ve had war in the last twenty years, a war that caused no difference in our tax burden or our daily lives - a war that only really touched the families of servicemen and women. So we also live in a time when the government wants to avoid asking its people for sacrifice, even when it’s needed, because they would hate to threaten their poll numbers and electability. But, perhaps at this moment, we can consider the sacrifice of our freedom and mobility as our contemporary Tabernacle offering, our "Korban"/offering , to save life and honor service to a higher good that our previous generations understood so well. (Return to Top)

Tsav (Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36) by Meira Pitkapaasi

When I was 14 years old, I was in a Chinese restaurant in Windsor, chewing on a wonton, when I suddenly realized I was eating a dead animal.  I could not finish eating that wonton, and 37 years later, I have not had a bite of meat since.  Parshat Tsav tells us that anyone consuming the blood of any animal will be cut off from the community (L7:26-27).  The JPS Tanakh tells us that this is a reminder that animals were not originally created to be consumed.  Rav Cook, 20th c. Chief Rabbi of Israel, tells us that this verse, among many, indicate that eating animals at all was only a concession in times when gaining enough nutrition in a vegetarian diet was not possible.  He teaches that we will all return to the vegetarianism of pre-Noah times as part of our spiritual enlightenment that will bring the Messiah.  Rabbi Rosen, 20th c. Chief Rabbi of Ireland, reminds us that our current treatment of livestock renders meat-eating unacceptable to the spirit of halakhah.  I would encourage our community to research not only vegetarianism but vegetarianism and halakhah, to make informed modern decisions on our need to protect the animals left in our care when they were first brought to the Earth in Garden of Eden. And to think on these issues in depth before eating their next wonton. (Return to Top)

Passover link from the Rabbis

In lieu of a traditional drop of Torah for this week we invite you to take a moment to reflect on your Passover experience with someone. Was there something positive you could lift up from a seder you attended? Did you have any new insights on liberation at this moment? And, we offer this brief teaching of a ritual created by our colleague Rabbi Yael Levy on the four cups during this pandemic moment. Wishing all a sweet and healthy rest of the holiday. (Return to Top)

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-24) by Eleanor Skale 

This parsha appears in the early part of Leviticus and contains G-d’s instructions that he gave to Moses for all the Israelites for purifying the Tabernacle within the Tent of Meeting, which was moved during the Israelites’ journey across the desert. Moses instructed Aaron that he and his two sons must go inside the tent and stay there for 7 days and work there to purify the space according to G-d’s instructions. They must  follow the instructions about what and where they may eat and drink and perform specific ritualistic actions. All of this is because it is essential to distinguish between the sacred and profane and the clean and unclean, in accordance with G-d’s law. Once completed, the priests will be able to enter and sanctify the Tabernacle and the community may then assemble and receive G-d’s blessings. 

During this time of Covid-19 pandemic, as most of us are sheltering in our homes in order to avoid a great plague which has befallen the land, I relate to this Torah portion. Our world has changed and we were instructed to seek safety by staying in our homes. We are on a journey we didn’t request. We have been authoritatively instructed, sometimes daily, on how to wash our hands. We sought qualified guidance on how to “clean and purify” ourselves and our space from visible and invisible threats. I clean surfaces in my home with soap and water and specialized cleaning agents. But what about the plastic or paper bags that my groceries came in, or the outsides of boxes or other packages? As I wipe down cereal boxes or the outside of a can of beans with a Lysol wipe, am I actually purifying them or performing a ritual in hopes of a good outcome? When I become able and willing to journey forth into the “new normal,” I must follow precautionary instructions. Wearing a mask is likely to become a lingering ritual and there will be admonishments as to going out to eat or drink or gather. As I venture into the “new normal” I do hope to receive blessings, for myself, our community and our families and friends.  (Return to Top)

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-13:3) by Rae Roeder

Two sections of this week's Torah reading jumped out at me. The beginning of the parsha (Lev. 12:1-7) deals with post-childbirth purification rituals and the beginning of chapter 13 deals with identifying and purification rituals connected to body rashes (Lev. 13:1-3).

These two sections (once I swallowed my feminist affront at ancient justifications fueling misogyny for centuries) are ostensibly about purity—what is necessary to be pure. But looking further, given the historically legitimate ignorance of disease and bodily functions, this is also about sets of rules. Rules that were an attempt to protect health and well-being. 

Fast-forward to the pandemic we are now experiencing. We have new rules, rules that evolve quickly as more is learned about coronavirus contagion. Rules that are for our own good, as well as for the protection of all others in our community. Can this also be interpreted as rules to “keep us pure?” How else can we interpret: washing our hands often as possible, wearing a face mask, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces where we prepare food? And in this context, we are all striving for purity. Perhaps we can understand our purification practices today as ritual akin to that which our ancestors did in times past? (Return to Top)

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16 - 20) by Penny & Sheldon Bernick 

In this week's double parshah of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim we encounter a variety of laws and instructions, some of which focus on ritual behavior, but many of which point the Israelites towards good ethical behavior as well. We found this to be a powerful framing for this moment. Good ritual behavior is all well and 'good' but if it doesn't sharpen your moral compass is it working? For example, while some groups may desire to gather at a funeral to mourn a loss and enact good ritual behavior (the Jewish value of Hesed shel Emet/Lovingkindness) it may not be pointing us to the right ethical behavior that we need (social distancing). And yet, we have been grateful for ritual at this moment. Having ourselves faced and recovered from the coronavirus we found the connection to ritual and community these past weeks, as well as our weekly Shabbat rituals, to be a deep comfort. And, at the same time, we are aware that this is not the moment to do all ritual "by the book." Rather, our hope is that the ritual we undertake inspire us to reach out to others at this fragile time. Just like the ancient Israelite would bring a sacrifice of gratitude to the Tabernacle, may we also be able to transmit our gratitude for our health and well-being into offerings for others, offerings of phone calls to friends and family, of tzedaka and contributions to our communities, and our presence to each other. May we all go from strength to strength. (Return to Top)

Emor (Leviticus ch.21) by Harry Chen & Andrea Apter

The beginning of this week's Torah portion lays out a variety of rules and restrictions on the priests' behavior to maintain holiness that include not burying a non-immediate relative, not shaving their head or defacing their body, not marrying a divorcee, and more. These specific rituals and rules do not seem to make much sense today. We have the benefit of time and science to know that disqualifying someone to be acceptable by the Lord on the basis of a physical disability is not only unethical, but irrational, since these individuals may well be more competent than the “unblemished” individual. So why is there this seeming contradiction?

Moses had escaped Egypt and returned to free the Israelites from slavery. That the Israelites were at war may be related to the issues described. One way of keeping greater discipline in a society at war is through the use of rules. The leaders, in this case the Priests had to be without blemish as with their family. Perhaps this restriction imposed a higher level of discipline in the context of war.

The note about cutting hair, one could hypothesize may lead to cuts of the skin and perhaps to infections, perhaps a significant concern in those days. Exposing oneself to a dead person may also risk an infection. Who knows if that distant relative died of an infection?  The passage restricts Priests from this exposure, except from the closest relative.

Today, as we confront the coronavirus pandemic, we need to impose stricter discipline on our own behavior, to minimize the risk of an infection, thus social distancing.  Yet we must still be engaged and help the increasing number of people who are hungry and may have no shelter. Unlike the Torah portion, we know that people with disabilities are not to be shunned, but to be supported. Harry is tutoring a sixth grade student in Chester in math and am becoming more active with the Social Action committee at BI. Andrea is continuing her NIH funded clinical research at HUP to understand the use of patient advocates to help with the racial disparity in our healthcare system.

May we all be inspired to both maintain discipline and to serve our communities as well. (Return to Top)

Behar-Behukotai (Leviticus 25 -27) video by Rabbi Andy Kastner 

The first teaching from this week's Torah portion is on Shmita, letting the land rest every 7 years. As we approach this coming Rosh Hashanah a new Shimta year, here is a short video offering of R. Andy Kastner talking about Shmita at Leichstag farm in Encinitas before the last round of Shmita, where he talks about his hopes for the renewal that Shmita can bring to the farm's enterprise and to us.  (Return to Top)

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20) by Meira Pitkapaasi

In Bamidbar, we read of a census taking of the people of Israel, the counting of the Jewish people as a whole.  We look at Israel as a single anonymous crowd. Britain’s Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points us to the 1895 writings of Gustav Le Bon, a prominent sociologist, medical doctor, and physicist. One hundred twenty-five years ago, Le Bon wrote that lost in a crowd, a person’s “conscience is silenced.” We are “easily led by demagogues…morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.”  Sound familiar?  

Rabbi Sacks tells us that as Jews we are expected, even commanded by The Sages, to fight against this crowd mentality.  We are to remember Maimonides’ teachings that “each of us should see ourselves as if our next act could change the fate of the world.”  In this time of our country’s latest Census, in this time of multiple great crises – Coronavirus, pending economic disaster, the Election – we must remember that every singular voice is powerful.  That every singular vote is meaningful.  That every single decision we make as individuals greatly affects the movement of the population as a whole.  Each choice we make to wear a mask, to order delivery, to vote, to work from home - is a choice we make to push our society in the direction of safety and security. Each act by each individual is a choice we make to take back the leadership of our society and place it in “less-incapable” hands. (Return to Top)

Shavuot by Reisa Mukamal

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, from Writings (Ketuvim) in the Tanach. Ruth, a Moabite, is close to her mother-in-law, Naomi. When Ruth’s husband dies, Naomi urges her to stay among her people, but Ruth replies, ““Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go…where you die, I will die…” Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is highly esteemed in Judaism, and she is known as the great-grandmother of King David.

The story of Ruth and Naomi reminds me of my Aunt Salima, a role model in my life, who welcomed with open arms every person who married into her family, regardless of their background. That is, in her grandchildren’s generation. Among her children, there was one who married out of the faith--and was disowned by Aunt Salima’s husband, my Uncle Jacob. He eventually came around, and after he died, Aunt Salima’s peaceful nature prevailed. I remember when my cousin Lisa married a Catholic from Lebanon. He was fêted.  

Sometimes we make decisions based on loving relationships we have with others. I believe these decisions simplify things, and prove to be wise and life-affirming. (Return to Top)

Beha'alotekha (Numbers 8:1 - 12:16) ) by Amy Strauss 

In this week’s portion, the laws of Passover as well instructions in how to create a menorah and the tabernacle are discussed.  The menorah is considered to be the symbolic symbol of God.  Moses is given instructions on how to receive the Passover offering.

In spite of the fact that manna  actually tastes good and was easy to come by, the Jews were complaining that they missed their meat, fruits and vegetables.  God was angry and sent too much food to the Jews.  Many overate and got sick and died.  Often times we want something, but it is not necessarily what is best for us.  We frequently don’t appreciate what we have nor take the opportunity for gratitude and to talk to others including God. It may be that instead of trying to satisfy our physical cravings we need to be more spiritual.  This is especially true in this time of social distancing, when we have more time by ourselves.  It makes the need for spirituality much greater.  A great way to satisfy our needs is to help others.  As Gandhi said, “the best way to help yourself is to help others”. (Return to Top)

Shelah Lekha (Numbers 13:1 - 15:41) by Randi Raskin Nash

In this week’s parsha Moses is tasked by Gd with sending a leader from each of the twelve tribes to scout the land of Canaan, “the land I am giving to the Israelite people.” Moses selects twelve leaders and asks them to see what kind of country it is.  He poses questions for them such as is the country good or bad, are the people few or many, is the soil rich or poor, and he asks them to bring back some of the fruit of the land.  The leaders set off for forty days and return with mixed messages — it is, as promised, a land that flows with milk and honey, but “we cannot get this land” — the inhabitants are giants and “we look like grasshoppers to ourselves so they must see us the same way.” The Israelites had a glimpse of what was possible for them in a land flowing with milk and honey, but they were afraid too.  This is what they’ve been moving towards for two years but when they saw it they seem to exaggerate their fears and minimize their agency. To me this feels like the story we are all living in right now. Black Lives Matter protests for racial equality, attended by tens of thousands of diverse people, all with the same goal: civil and human rights for all black people. A glimpse of what’s possible, of what’s been promised.  Will we minimize our own agency in this fight?  Will fear of what this will take cause us to shrink from individual responsibility?  We are not grasshoppers in this fight, each of us is a giant.  What can you do to rise to the challenge? “That is our work: to remember what we have glimpsed and to plant the glimpse like a seed in the soil of our lives.”  (Shefa Gold, Torah Journeys) (Return to Top)

Korah (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32) by Alex Shapiro-Colarocco 

In this week's parshah (which was going to be my original bar mitzvah date!) we encounter the story of Korah criticizing Moses' leadership. In one way of reading this story, Korah seems to aggressively criticize and embarrass Moses publicly, asking what makes him deserve special status. In light of the recent protests around Black Lives Matter happening in our country, I have also been thinking about what makes for good leadership. To me, I find it powerful when people continue to make their voice heard - but not through violence - to criticize current police practices and other issues. This seems to be having an effect and raises the question for us to think about: what is the best way to create change today? (Return to Top)

Hukkat (Numbers 19:1-22) by Anita Weber

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, describes the ritual of the solid brown (or red) heifer which is supplied to the priests who then transform the unblemished animal into ashes and use the ashes to ritually purify deeply impure and contagious impurity (such as people who have come into contact with corpses). Is this a description of a very ancient ritual when a series of elders cooperate to supply a rare cow, make ashes, and then store them until needed?  The specialness of the cow suggests that the richest household would give it. Has the role of the priest been added later to incorporate the ritual into the Israelite context?  

It seems very unlikely the ritual originated in the dry wilderness described in book of Bemidbar given its assumption of plenty of water for bathing and washing clothes.  

Is it interesting that no attention is given to the burial of the body - the source of contamination - in twenty-two verses full of ritual details.  But plenty of anxiety seems to be showing in these verses.  Could this ritual be a response to the possibility of plague?  We now know that contagious disease is as old as human beings themselves.  Surely some must have noticed early on that keeping the sick separated from those who are well prevents the spread of illness.    

The elaborate details regarding the preparation of the costly ashes, something that is under human control, seems likely to impress people that this ritual is important.  If more illness and death proceed among those who have touched the body or were in the tent, then the period of seclusion/quarantine is automatically extended. Another interesting aspect of the ritual, and perhaps the most important from the modern viewpoint, is the double-visit of the household by person imbued with the authority to pronounce the family clean and able to rejoin the community.  

As we consider this passage in our modern era, perhaps a prescribed seclusion after an illness or death, with interim visits from those charged with prevention of spread of disease, could emerge as a good alternative to self-imposed (and self-limited) quarantine, or even hospitalization, for someone with contagious illness. (Return to Top)

Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9) by Lynn Cashell 

A talking donkey? Yes, in parsha Balak (Numbers 22), Balaam, the prophet who is encouraged by the king to curse and destroy the Israelite nation, also has a talking donkey. What does it represent? 

After 3 miscommunications and several beatings of the donkey, an angel of the Lord tells Balaam, “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.”  Adina Gerver, writing for the American Jewish World Service states, “Speech is a profound expression of power–and the denial of it a crippling means of oppression–around the world.” 

We are currently in a time where people are speaking up on important issues involving race, gender identity, political views, and the pandemic.  For too long, we have not spoken up for those who are poor or marginalized, those whose voices have been dehumanized and silenced for too long. “But Balaam said to Balak, And now that I have come to you, have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) 

The power of speech is a gift from God, and used to celebrate, bless, and build communities, we can uplift those who have been beaten, transform our lives, and use our words for blessing, justice and truth for everyone.

As a final offering for this weekend's newsletter we want to share Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful."  Here is a link to the video which begins with his version of "Oh beautiful, for heroes proved, In liberating strife, Who more than self, our country loved, And mercy more than life." May we too aspire to mercy and liberation. Happy July 4th. (Return to Top)

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 - 30:1) by Rich Remenick 

In this week’s parsha, Pinchas is praised for his “zealotry”. The term “zealot” is troubling for modern people because it suggests violent emotionalism, inflexibility, and a taste for nihilistic destruction. But certainly, Pinchas is not rewarded with priesthood for all his descendants for these traits, even though his killing of Zimri and his consort is shocking and violent.

If we look at the essence of the situation in which Pinchas is called to action, maybe we can find a positive definition of zealotry. The actions of Zimri and his consort are so shocking, so brazen, so provocative to a community that is already stressed by the ravages of plague, that for a moment no one knows what to do, not even Moses! Everyone hesitates, the normal mechanisms of authority and action are paralyzed. The priests can’t seem to find a rule to cover the situation and Moses is not being guided by God. It is at this moment that an initiative to correct the situation can, and must, come from anyone, even the most obscure person in a community. Pinchas manages to hold on to his connection with God, even in the midst of social confusion and disorientation.

Perhaps, in the current crisis and stress on our congregation, the example of Pinchas can inspire us to look for initiative and devotion in obscure or forgotten corners of ourselves and our community. It is this zealotry that will help us to endure and thrive. (Return to Top)

Mattot/Masaei (Numbers 30:2-17) by Rebecca Winer 

This week’s torah portion Matot /Mas’ei includes the laws concerning women who make vows, (Numbers 30:2-17). Elizabeth Goldstein explains in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that “These instructions shed important light on the status of women within the family and illustrate the circumstances under which the male head of household can overrule decisions made by the women within the household. At the same time, these detailed laws indicate that women could make independent vows to God, and under normal circumstances, would be held accountable for fulfilling them.” (page 989). To summarize these laws briefly: although all women could make vows, and unmarried women, either divorced or widowed, could make them without any impediment, an unmarried daughter was not allowed to make a vow that her father objected to, nor was a married woman allowed to swear a vow against the wishes of her husband. A later explanation given for these limitations was that the service these women owed their fathers and husbands might be impeded by their vows. So, a husband might find a wife who was constantly fasting to not be a pleasant or sexually attractive companion. This is obviously disturbing in its misogyny, however, since vows are usually about religious feeling and even fervor, we should keep in mind that our tradition also holds that some women have souls that make them better people than some men. Furthermore, women’s piety is often showcased as more sincere and important than that of men. For example, although she was just a childless co-wife of an ordinary Israelite Hannah‘s prayer to God is portrayed as more worthy than the high priest Eli’s service in the sanctuary at Shiloh. The TaNaKh/ Hebrew Bible tells other stories about daughters and wives who were more decent and wise than their fathers and husbands. Indeed, a trope in Jewish literature, biblical and beyond, enshrines the power of a good and pious wife to raise the moral standard in her household and/or to reform a foolish or sinful husband. As the intelligent and beautiful Abigail did in saving the life of her husband Nabal (1 Samuel 25) and like the Eshet Chayil of Proverbs 31. We take part in Reconstructing Judaism and as such we certainly do not value the vows of men more than those of women. We can, however, take some comfort in the ambivalence the ancient texts express about women as vow-makers despite the patriarchal society in which they lived. And we can use our re-reading of these texts to push against discrimination based on sex/gender in our own society today. (Return to Top)

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22) by Linda Cohen

The book of Deuteronomy begins with a dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people. Moses, very near the end of his life, addresses the Israelites at length to prepare them to enter the Promised Land without his leadership.  He enjoins them to maintain a system of justice and ethics and to maintain a close relationship with God as they move forward. But he also reviews in some detail their previous history, pointing out their fears, mistakes and weaknesses, and also highlighting their many ultimate successes in overcoming challenges and dangers. It’s as if he is saying: “You can do this, people! Look at all of the things that you have overcome before!”

As a nation, we are certainly confronting an uncertain future, given our current political turmoil and the pandemic. It is a daily challenge to maintain hope and optimism. But I think that one helpful strategy can be to remember how we have overcome struggles in the past. I find it comforting when we are reminded of the progress made on preventing and treating devastating diseases such as polio and HIV. And it gives me hope to remember the positive outcomes of previous national upheavals, which have led to emancipation, voting rights and labor laws. We are a relatively young and unruly nation, flawed and wandering. But I hold on to the hope that, once again, we shall survive and, perhaps, transform ourselves into a union more perfect than the one envisioned by our founders. (Return to Top)

Va-etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11) by Jennifer Lenway

Moses was a great leader, yet he was never allowed to enter the Promised land. Our leader who brought us out of slavery and into freedom, carried the Ten Commandments and wandered in the desert for 40 years never joined those who crossed over into Canaan.  This is often viewed as a punishment for previous transgression(s). Could it also be seen as a microcosm for the reoccurring  historical phenomenon that leaders who are effective in one time period - like Moses and the Israelites formation as a people - are not always as effective during peacetime (or in the Israelite's case - settlement and institutionalization). Albert Einstein once said great leaders “learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow.” Who will be our next leaders ? (Return to Top)

Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25) by Michael Fishkow

In this week’s reading, Moses prepares the weary Israelites to leave the desert that had been their “normal” for the previous 40 years and enter the Promised Land. 

Today, it has been a little more than four months since we’ve hunkered down because of Covid, and already we tire and despair of the isolation and uncertainty that has become our new “normal”. 

Through the lens of our pandemic-induced vulnerability, the fragility of our society becomes more apparent. The myriad challenges we face have tested our allegiances, our institutions, and the competence of our elected leaders. At the same time, the injustices of systemic racism have brought people into the streets. Our entire world has changed drastically in just a very short time period of time. 

What lies ahead? When we envision our post-Covid world, are we looking to simply return to our normal? Or, are we looking to build our promised land? (Return to Top)

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17) by Hadassah Weinmartin

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, the same one which I read from a year ago at my bat mitzvah, God offers the Israelites the option of a blessing or a curse. Later in the parshah, God instructs the Israelites to avoid  being lured into following the practices of the other nations. Today, however, we have the opposite situation. By not following the health and safety practices of the other nations we face escalated negative effects from the pandemic. So, isolation is not always the answer. Sometimes, it can be more important to follow the paths and practices of others. May we know when and how to follow the path of blessing and not of curse. (Return to Top)

Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 20:9) by Candy Berlin

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Tzedek. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

These words of Torah with their expectation that we follow paths of ethical behavior and seek societal fairness seem baked into us as Jews. They are so ingrained and familiar that one hardly needs to ask, what do they mean to me?

Tzedek (the root of Tzedakah) is translated as Justice and also thought of as fairness. Many of us think of giving tzedakah as giving charity, but, as I understand it, the meaning is closer to 'doing or giving to restore balance or justice', as something expected rather than optional. For my mother, who taught us through doing and through repetition, births, deaths, graduations and more were all occasions for giving tzedakah. A $25 gift to a grandchild was accompanied by a note saying "$20 for you and $5 for tzedakah." 

Tzedek is personal, yes, but here the instruction is not only to an individual responsible for their own behavior but to all of us. How should we behave as a community, as a society? What's expected of us? The reminder that Tzedek, Justice, has to do with fairness confirms that, thankfully, we can leave behind ancient concepts of justice and broaden our understanding of what it is that we shall pursue.

For me, virtually every political issue is subject to this understanding. To be fair, why should health care be reserved only for those with financial well-being? Are we listening to the instruction that we must govern and be governed with due justice if we allow our leaders to act unethically or illegally without consequence?  If we shall not judge unfairly and we shall show no partiality, then not only do we have to learn to be anti-racist, but we're called to work to undo the harm of white supremacy's legacy in laws and judgements. 

Re-visiting these words of Torah, is a first step. (Return to Top)

Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19) by Benjamin Alouf

The parsha starts with the idea of victory over your enemies and acquisition of a desirous woman after which you are instructed to shave her head, trim her nails, and after allowing her a mourning period of a month, possess her as your wife. Apropos the 100thanniversary of the ratifying of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. The concept of women as property seized in battle was practiced late into the 19th century when the first woman’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The exception being that rather than seizure in battle, woman were considered property acquired in marriage. The British common law principle of coverture, which was imported to America, stated that in marriage, legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband. A woman relinquished all control of her finances, could not own property and in the event of the dissolution of the marriage, custody of the children went to the husband. The parsha does not specifically stipulate custody of the children if the woman is no longer desired, simply that she must be released and not sold or enslaved. Although some protections were put in place, the role of women as spoils of war was made pretty clear. Thousands of years later as we celebrate the centennial of the ratification of the 19thamendment, let us not forget that there is still much more work to do, here at home, as well as in countries where women continue to be treated as property with few independent rights and liberties afforded to men.  (Return to Top)

Ki Tavo/Honoring Labor Day by our Rabbis
Friends, as we head into this weekend of Labor Day, I invite us to take a moment to recognize the work of so many whose labor supports and sustains our country and world. I invite you to read a Blessing for Labor Day created by liturgist Devon Spier, and also to listen to the labor anthem, Solidarity Forever, sung by Pete Seeger. (Return to Top)

Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelekh (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30) by Larry Hamermesh

This week’s parsha (a double - Nitzavim/Vayelech) recites two striking admonitions from G!d to the people: “Surely the mitzvah I command you to follow is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach" (30:11); and “Choose life” (30:19), by following that mitzvah. Easier said than done? After five whole books, one could be forgiven for thinking that the instruction is at least a little “baffling.” 

But we have help: Micah explains the fundamental mitzvah in the only prophetic pronouncement I learned as a youngster: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your G!d.” In a world beset by plagues - unprecedented fires, ravaging virus, sectarian and political violence, to name a few - it is all the more important for all of us to recognize that the responsibility and the power to “choose life” is within our reach, if only we strive for justice, mercy and humility. (Return to Top)

Ha'azinu/Yom Kippur preparation by our rabbis
Hi friends - Here are a couple of offerings to help us prepare. First, I'm sharing a link to our Cantor, Rabbi Margot Stein's song, Limnot Yameinu, which helps us to focus on this moment and the blessings we can find in our lives. And, also feel free to listen to a  video teaching from my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, who explores dimensions of grief and praise at this moment of pandemic. You can listen to his talk here(Return to Top)
 
A Sukkot Offering from our rabbis
Since Sukkot is the time that we read Ecclesiastes, we are sharing a musical offering based on Chapter 3. Enjoy!  (Return to Top)
Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781