Shabbat Shalom! – Bereshit

Image: The first chapter of Genesis inscribed on an egg. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Sputnikcccp on April 22, 2003. Via wikimedia, some rights reserved.

We’re back at the beginning again, reading, “In the Beginning…” We begin the Torah with two creation stories that have many contradictions, and this week’s Torah portion has both of them. Which one is true? we might be tempted to ask, if we are accustomed to think that there is one correct answer to every question.

So perhaps the first lesson in this scroll is that a good question may have more than one correct answer. Any good mathematician will tell you that there are many problems with more than one right answer.

So it is with Jewish questions.

One may ask, why did we wave the lulav during Sukkot?

An anthropologist might answer, “Because the practice began as an ancient fertility rite, and it is intended to bring on the rain and renew the fertility of the earth.”

A student of the Bible might say, “Because we are commanded to wave it in Levitcus 23:40.”

A kabbalist might reply, “Because when we wave the lulav, we bring together the seven emanations of the Holy and unite them next to our heart.”

A different teacher might say, “Because the four species represent the four kinds of people in the world.”

And yet another Jew might say, “Because it is what my teacher of Torah taught me to do.”

… and they are all quite correct.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Bereshit. Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat Shalom! & Sukkot Sameach!

Image: My sukkah. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is a special Shabbat – Shabbat Chol HaMoed, a Shabbat that falls in the middle days of Sukkot. (For more about Chol haMoed, read What is Chol HaMoed?)

It contains a famous do-over: Moses has broken the tablets in rage at the sight of the Israelites dancing before the Golden Calf. Now God directs Moses in making a new set of tablets.

Often when we have had a big fight with someone, we think, “Well, that’s it. That relationship is over.” We give up on that person, and on our ability to make things right. Torah teaches us differently in this Torah portion. God and Moses reconcile, and through Moses, God and Israel reconcile:

The Eternal came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name yud-hey-vav-hey.* The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed: “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage, and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”

He [God] said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation; and all the people who are with you shall see how awesome are the LORD’s deeds which I will perform for you.

This is both an example of how to apologize, and how to accept an apology. Moses and God meet on Mt. Sinai, and they have a conversation. Moses asks for pardon; God grants it, and re-affirms the covenant.

This is also what we can do during Sukkot: it’s a perfect time to get together with the people we apologized to during the High Holy Days and to make a real and lasting peace. If God and Moses can do it, why can’t we?

Locating sermons for this week has proved to be a real puzzle, so I’m going to suggest that we all attend synagogue. If that’s not an option for you, call up someone with whom you need to make peace and say, “Let’s get together!”

Hillel and Shammai received [the Torah] from them. Hillel says, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving living creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.” – Pirkei Avot 1:12

*The name spelled yud-hey-vav-hey is never pronounced by Jews. I usually translate it as “Eternal” or “the Eternal” because (1) you know to Whom I refer and (2) it reflects the likelihood that this name is based on the Hebrew verb “to be.” For more about The Name in Jewish tradition, see What Is God’s Name?

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Shabbat Shalom! – Ha’azinu

Image: Moses leads the Jews across the Reed Sea, pursued by Pharaoh and his army. Fresco from the 3rd c. (CE) synagogue in Dura-Europos in Asia Minor. Public Domain.

This week’s parashah, Ha’azinu, is dramatic: Moses makes his farewell in poetry.

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak! Let the earth hear the words I utter! – Deut 32:1

Moses stands before the People as he recites this, but he is speaking to all of heaven and earth. He knows that his life has had great import, and he has some things to say before he dies.

The best way to read this portion is to hear it: hear it read aloud in English, sure, but if you have the opportunity, hear it chanted from the Torah. It is a chapter of drama and poetry and prophecy.

Our darshanim this week:

Seeing Is Believing – Rabbi Avi Olitzky

The Spirituality of Song – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Listen, O Heavens, O Israel, and Moses Too – Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

Ha’azinu and the High Holy Days – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Ha’azinu – Rabbi Seth Goldstein (Podcast)

Walking the Walk – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Shirat Ha’azinu and Moshe’s Final Message – Yakov Ellenbogen

To Welcome the Stranger

Image: Modern day Bedouin offer us a window into the past. Photo by hbieser on pixabay.com

This article by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is beautiful, and it is made even more so because it is offered in honor of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Rabbi Raj made me welcome years ago when I was a stranger with a “funny accent” in the Bay Area of California. In the process he taught me by example much about what it means to follow in the tradition of Abraham our father.

Rabbi Fuchs, thank you so much for this wonderful and timely teaching!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the…

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Shabbat Shalom! Vayeilech

It’s Shabbat Shuvah – the Shabbat that falls in the midst of the High Holy Days – and this week we read Parashat Vayeilech. It’s a short portion, chapter 31 of Deuteronomy, and Moses gives his final charge to Joshua his successor and to the other leaders of Israel. He introduces the poetry we will read next week in Ha’azinu.

He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the LORD has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.” – Deut. 31:2

The traditional Jewish blessing for birthdays comes from this verse of Torah. When we say to someone “May you live to be 120” we are not only wishing them a long life, but the other attributes of Moses as well. Moses was simultaneously a humble man and a great leader, a rare combination.

Now, the divrei Torah [words of Torah] from around the Internet!

This Poem – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Someone Sees and Now We All See – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Parenting by the Parasha – Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

The Hidden Face – Rabbi David Kasher

Get Us To Safety – Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Famous (Almost) Last Words – Rabbi Jason Parr

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tavo

Image: An open Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

First fruits, blessings and curses – that’s a quick summary of this week’s Torah portion. It’s timely, coming as it does just before the High Holy Days, when we are asking ourselves:

  • What are the “first fruits” of my labor?
  • What do I share with the world and my community?
  • Which mitzvot do I keep?
  • Which mitzvot do I fail to keep?
  • What curses do I bring down upon myself and others by my behavior?

That last question isn’t very modern sounding at first blush, but it has modern implications. I do not expect a lightning bolt to strike every person on earth who does wrong. However, most mitzvot have consequences both for keeping them and for failing to keep them:

  • If I tell lies, I spread confusion in the world.
  • If I injure other people, they hurt.
  • If I fail to speak up for the underdog, the world will be a worse place.
  • If I do not pay my employees properly, they will go hungry.
  • If I use the environment carelessly, the world will be depleted and full of poison.

… and so on.

Mitzvot have consequences.

This week’s divrei Torah:

When We Reach the Place of Promise – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Unintelligible but Meaningful  – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Ki Tavo – Rabbi Seth Goldstein (Podcast)

Creating Our Own Narrative – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

You’re the Best! – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Podcast – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

Maimonides on Conversion – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Maimonides on Conversion

Image: Portrait of Maimonides, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the famous formula for bringing the first fruits to the Temple, the same formula that we recall in the Passover Haggadah, beginning:

My father was a wandering Aramean. – Deut 26:5

This line was the subject of a question sent to Maimonides (1135 – 1204) by a man known to us only to us as Obadiah the Proselyte. “Proselyte” is a fancy word for “convert.” Obadiah wanted to know if it was permissible for a convert to Judaism like himself to refer to Jacob as “my father” when in fact Jacob was not his physical ancestor. He extended the question to phrases such as “Our God” and other phrases that suggest familial relationship. 

Maimonides’ gracious answer has been a comfort to gerim [converts to Judaism] ever since. “Yes!” he writes in return, “You may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least.” Maimonides reminded Obadiah that Abraham brought many souls into the covenant, and that ever since then, all those who have adopted Judaism are counted among the disciples of Abraham. Maimonides concludes by admonishing Obadiah: “Do not consider your origin as inferior!”

So, too, do the blessings, curses and commandments in this portion apply to all Jews, not only some. We are one people, whether we became Jewish in the waters of the womb or in the waters of the mikveh.

This d’var Torah appeared in slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.