Shabbat Shalom! – Balak

Image: A donkey. Photo via pixabay.com, by Myriams-Fotos.

Parashat Balak is something of a curiosity. It is named after an enemy of the Hebrews, who tried to get the prophet Bilaam to put a powerful curse on our people. No other Torah portion is named after such a bad man.

The story is a very strange one, too. King Balak tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse on the Hebrews. Bilaam consults with God (?!) and refuses. Eventually Bilaam agrees because Balak offers him great riches. God puts an angel in his way, which Bilaam cannot see. Bilaam’s donkey can see it, though, and even though he beats the poor donkey, she will not move. Finally she speaks to Bilaam and explains what is happening and he sees the angel. He speaks with the angel, who warns him again.

After many more adventures Bilaam winds up blessing our people, not cursing them. He blesses them with the words we say when we enter a synagogue:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!  Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by the LORD, Like cedars beside the water;Their boughs drip with moisture, Their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, Their kingdom shall be exalted. God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows. They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you! – Numbers 24:5-9

Balak is furious – all his money and Bilaam blesses Israel? To see how the story comes out, read the portion!

Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about this bizarre story:

J’accuse! My Shock in Watching the RNC by Rabbi John Rosove

Balak: A Better Way by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger

Is Our Ability to Speak a Blessing or a Curse? – by Barbara Heller

The Curse of Being a People Who Dwell Alone by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Relatively Speaking by Rabbi David Kasher

“These People Scare Me!” by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Before You Sing Ma Tovu Again by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Chukat

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (khoo-KAHT) contains several difficult passages of Torah: the ritual of the “red heifer,” a special purification rite, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and a terrible mistake by Moses. These are also stories about the difficult relations between the Israelites and the desert peoples.

As one of the rabbis below points out, the shadow of death hangs over Parashat Chukat. Two important figures die; another learns something about his own death. The news has been very difficult this week: deaths by violence, terrorism, horrors. Torah does not avoid difficult topics, rather it can help us center ourselves to cope with difficult times.

Read these divrei Torah to learn more:

Use Your Words by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

Chukat by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Leadership Lessons from Charleston, SCOTUS, and Chukat by Rabbi Marci Bellows

On Being Effective by Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein

The Smith Speaks by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (poem)

That Which Heals, Hurts by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

The Fully Lived Life… by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

 

Shabbat Shalom! Korach

We need Shabbat so much this week – as we have so often of late – and this week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It contains the story of Korach, the Levite who felt slighted by God and by Moses. The portion is difficult to read on many levels – it is a complex text with many problems for understanding and the end of it is emotionally charged for many of us. It is one of the most famous stories in Torah, and it has resonance for today, for sure.

Have I intrigued you?  Parashat Korach is Numbers 16:1- 18:32. For some ideas about interpretation, here are some divrei Torah:

How Not To Have A Conversation by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

Praise the Contrary and Its Defenders by Sue Schwartz

Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism by Dr. Shaiya Rothburg

Korach at the Wedding by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Korach, Privilege, and Striving for More by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Korach: the Brexit Challenge of its Day by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Claims and Flames by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shabbat Shalom! – Beha’alotecha

Whew! This week’s Torah portion has a l-o-n-g name: Beha’alotecha. It means “when you ascend” or “when you mount” and as always, it’s the first striking word in the portion. In this case, it comes from a command given to Aaron:

When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand. -Numbers 8:2

This parashah begins with directions about the great menorah in the Tabernacle. It continues with the consecration of the Levites, directions about Passover, the cloud and pillar of fire that led the Israelites, silver trumpets, and then, at the end, two disasters. The first is a fateful meal of quail, and the second is a famous story about Miriam, Aaron and Moses.

For more about this portion, here are some divrei Torah from around the Internet:

The Heaviness of Leadership by Anita Silvert

The Silencing of Miriam and the Cushite Woman by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Fine Art of Complaint by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Offering God Compassion by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Nachshon Moments, on Land and on Sea by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

When You Ascend by Rabbi Ruth Adar

And Nun Shall Be Afraid by Rabbi Philip Rice

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Naso

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes the curious vow of the Nazirites, a solemn promise to eschew haircuts, wine, and contamination by a corpse. It also explains the procedure for release from that vow. It deals with the trial of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery. The portion concludes with one of the most famous texts in Numbers, the Priestly Blessing.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Naso:

With Gratitude for Converts by Rabbi Janet Marder

Community Camping by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Strange Ordeal of Bitter Water by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rituals, Spiritual Fidelity, and Turning Towards God by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Judaism and the Blessing of Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Nazirite Puzzle by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Naso Sermon by Rabbi Steven Moskovitz

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Bechukotai

It’s hard to believe: we’re at the beginning of June, and the end of the book of Leviticus.

When we hear the end of a book of Torah chanted in synagogue, the reader chants the last verse and then follows it: “Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazek!” [Be strong, be strong, let us be strengthened!]

Jewish tradition calls attention to the many tensions and balances in human life.

We are individuals (“Be strong!”)

and we are members of a community (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are responsible for ourselves (“Be strong!”)

and responsible for each other (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are people of action (“Be strong!”)

and people who are continual, lifelong learners (“Let us be strengthened!”)

Tonight we shall begin another book of Torah (“Be strong!”)

but today we enjoy the fact that we have again read Leviticus. (“Let us be strengthened!”)

 

Divrei Torah on Parashat Bechukotai:

A Shabbat for the Earth – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

B’chukotai with Rabbi Ellie – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman (VIDEO)

Rebukes Remind Us That We Must Work Together – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We Live in God’s Neighborhood – Rabbi Mark Borovitz (VIDEO)

On Civilization, Culture & True Wisdom – Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Torah, Consequences, and the Akiba Clause – Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

A Sense of Direction – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

 

Torah Schedule Mysteries Revealed!

Some of you have noticed that there is disagreement at the moment about which is the proper Torah reading for the week right now. The calendar from the Jewish funeral home says one thing, the weekly email from a Reform synagogue says another! Let me try and unravel this for you.

The Torah is divided into 54 parshiot [weekly readings.] The Mamre Institute website has an excellent table listing all the regular weekly Torah readings, along with their haftarah readings and the special holiday Torah readings. (Their website is also my go-to Hebrew Bible online. The translation is a bit archaic in some ways, but you can set it up so that both the Hebrew and English are visible at the same time.)

 

Every year, we read the Torah once through, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah. On leap years, like this year, we adjust the calendar by adding an additional month of Adar – four more weeks! In those years, every Torah portion gets a Shabbat all to itself.

On “regular” years, when there is only one month of Adar, some of the portions are doubled onto a single Shabbat. In those years, you get combined portions, like Veyakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, or Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Add to that that sometimes a holiday falls on Shabbat, crowding the Torah portion onto another week. Again, when that happens, we normally double things up with another portion.

All of this is generally transparent to most Jews, because we just look at the calendar and it tells us what to do. “Read Parashat Behar this week!” or “Read the Torah portion for Shabbat during Passover this week!”

Yes, that’s complicated. But that’s not all. Jews have historically followed a practice in which chagim (holidays mandating no work) are observed for one day inside the Land of Israel and for two days outside the Land of Israel, in the Diaspora. The reason for this was communication technology: when holidays were set by moon observations from the Temple Mount, and word of them was communicated by signal fires, Diaspora communities had to estimate the day of the holiday and then adjust when they finally received the word. To safeguard against mistakes, they took to observing all the chagim for TWO days (for instance, the first and last days of Passover are a single day inside Israel, but are doubled in the Diaspora.)  Holidays that aren’t work-is-forbidden days (Chanukah, the middle days of Sukkot, etc.) were never doubled.

Many Reform congregations in the United States follow the Israeli calendar, because Hillel II came up with a calendar in the 4th century that made worries about communication obsolete. Reform Jews observe one day of each chag, just as Israeli Jews do. Rather, I should say some Reform Jews do – some Reform synagogues observe only one day of chagim but follow the Diaspora calendar of Torah readings.

This year (5776) (aka 2015-2016) we have a leap year, so no combined parashiot. However, in the Diaspora calendar, the second day of the end of Passover fell on Shabbat, so that had a Passover reading instead of Acharei Mot, which Israeli and some Reform Jews were reading. The two schedules will not come back together until the Diaspora calendar doubles a Torah portion on August 6, Matot-Masei. Then the discrepancy will end.

I wish I could have made this simpler for you. The real rule, as with so many other things, is to follow the minhag [custom] of your community. If your rabbi is following a particular schedule of Torah readings, that’s the right one for your synagogue.

In my weekly listings, I’m following the Diaspora schedule of readings, even though I’m a Reform rabbi who doesn’t celebrate double chagim. Or, if you prefer, because I decided to do it that way!

SIMPLE SUMMARY: The schedule for reading Torah portions is the subject of disagreement at the moment. Consult your rabbi for what to read this week. Whatever’s going on, it will resolve itself after August 6, 2016. Welcome to Judaism!