A Touch of Torah

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God speaks to Moses and instructs him to collect gifts on God’s behalf from every person whose heart moves them to give in order to build a Mishkan or Tabernacle.  God details what the Mishkan will look like and how it should be made.  God continues to elaborate that the Israelites should build a sanctuary to God so that God may abide among them.  The Mishkan serves as a visible reminder of God’s presence to the Israelites.  We may find that it is easier to connect to God in our own sanctuary because it serves as our visible reminder of God’s presence.  The challenge is to remember that we can find God everywhere.
The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole earth full of God’s glory?” Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, means “laws.” As with many of the legal sections of the Torah, this appears to be a group of laws that are not necessarily organized in any recognizable way. They come, rather, in short groupings — each group addressing different issues. One of the striking things about these laws are those that require a person to take reasonable steps to insure the safety of others, or the property of others. A separate category of consequences are given for accidental or collateral damage. While penalties for direct actions against someone else may be severe, these other consequences are carefully measured. This is, after all, the Torah portion that contains the famous — and often misinterpreted statement — “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” While this statement has been used to justify all means of retaliation, a careful examination reveals that the Torah implies “only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth….” In a more modern sense, “the punishment fits the crime,” borne out by the detailed meting out of justice for various offenses.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas
This week’s Torah portion is Yitro - or Jethro in English. While the main event of this Torah portion is the giving of the Ten Commandments, a symbol for the whole of Torah, we can also glean great lessons for our contemporary lives from the narrative at the beginning of the parasha.

Each Torah portion is named for its first significant word, in this case, Yitro. Jethro, a Midianite priest (read: non-Jew) was Moses’ father-in-law. At the outset of the portion, Jethro travels with Moses’ wife Zipporah and their sons to reunite the family after the Exodus from Egypt. When Jethro arrives with his daughter and grandsons, Moses “bowed low and kissed him [and] asked after his welfare.” This beautiful portrayal of deep respect, admiration, and loving-kindness can surely be a guide for us as we navigate the intricacies of our own complex, modern families. Jethro stepped in to help the family when Moses’ calling seemed so very great, and Moses expresses appropriate love and gratitude to his non-Jewish father-in-law.

This beautiful, functional family dynamic continues as Moses expresses to Jethro his concerns about managing the burden of leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Jethro listens to Moses’ concerns and gives him critical advice: surround yourself with those you can trust, whose opinions you value, and delegate to them. Moses heads this advice and is relieved from the insurmountable task of leading a people in isolation.

There are so many beautiful lessons that can be drawn from this text. Family love, cooperation, valuing elders, seeing beyond differences, knowing when to ask for help. I could go on, but I think you get the drift.

When you read Parashat Yitro, do not think only of the Ten Commandments, but also of the respectful and loving relationship between Moses and his non-Jewish father-in-law, Jethro.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This week’s Torah is called B’shalach, and this title word itself raises questions. Here is the translation of the opening phrase, from Exodus 13:17 - 

Now it was, when Pharaoh had sent the people free…

We, and our historical commentators on the Torah collectively, say: “Huh? Didn’t God bring us out of Egypt?” How is it that when our ancestors began their time on the way to revelation we say that Pharaoh “sent” us free? After all the story seemed to emphasize God’s hand in everything, even the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

Perhaps we learn instead that in the wake of all of the plagues and miracles that Pharaoh finally did change his mind despite his hard heart. Moses and God had to convince Pharaoh about God’s power, in the same way that they had to convince the Israelites to follow Moses into freedom.

Even through all of the divinely wrought special effects of the Exodus, people still make a difference. Pharaoh made a significant decision, and the Israelites did too. This continues into the rest of this week’s reading, as the Israelites complained the entire way. We were skeptical of God’s might and capacity to bring us through the desert.

As a stiff-necked and cautious people, we often are wary of something that might be too good to be true. Let us aim to hold onto that keen eye without losing hope that we can make things better.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler

In the midst of the overwhelming darkness of the Exodus – of the four hundred years of oppressive slavery, of the darkness of the 8th plague of locusts, the blackness of a 9th plagues of darkness so thick it could be touched, and the bleakness of the tenth plague of the midnight slaying of the firstborn, the Torah tells us something strange. In the midst of all this darkness, the children of Israel enjoyed light in their dwellings. How could this be?  How could an Egyptian home be cast in a shadow of darkness while its neighboring Israelite home was bathed in light?

In reflecting on this week’s Torah portion called Bo, our tradition teaches that perhaps the light was not physical, at all, but indeed spiritual.   As Israelites, even in the midst of devastating darkness, we held on to the light of our faith, the light of our families, the light of warmth, hope, peace, and justice -- allowing that brightness to illuminate our lives.

While we are in the darkest days of the year, the winter solstice has just passed and the days are gradually growing longer.  As we enter the New Year of 2014, may we use our gifts to bring light to our lives. May we give our time to lift up those in need whether we support friends or neighbors facing illness, strangers across our city confronting poverty, or people in far flung countries struggling to create and find peace. 

May 2014 be blessed by our actions and bring blessings to our world.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
Stubborn Pharaoh, stiff-necked Israelites - our time as slaves in Egypt ended over the objections of our oppressor and even the Israelites resisted liberation by Moses. Moses was a stranger who emerged from the desert speaking the words of our God who had abandoned us to oppression for centuries.
This week¹s Torah reading, Parashat Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), describes all of this drama. The Israelites ignore Moses:
³But they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude.² (Exodus 6:9) Between God hardening Pharaoh¹s heart and Pharaoh being stubborn on his own, the story of the Exodus from Egypt seems focused on basic failures to communicate.

     No one escapes these difficulties - to work together is to often face difficulties in understanding and persuading.

     I believe that often we lack sympathy because we hesitate to share each other¹s stories. When we speak from the heart, we can hear more profoundly. When our hearts are hardened, just as Pharaoh¹s was, no amount of persuasion and well-reasoned argument can sway us.

     As we approach this new calendar year of 2014, let us aim to share from the stories which form our true fabric, and pause to listen for those stories from each other.

Touch of Torah by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement
The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, is marked by the rise to power of a new Pharoah in Egypt, one who feels threatened by the prolific birthrate of the thriving Israelite population. When Pharoah tries to subdue the growth of the Israelites by commanding that the midwives kill all Hebrew boys, the midwives respond that the fertility of Hebrew women is too vigorous to be contained.  One Hebrew child who survives Pharoah’s decree is Moses.  Moses was sheltered by his mother after his birth, abandoned in the Nile, and rescued by Pharoah’s own daughter.  One day, while Moses is tending the flocks of his father-in-law, God appears and speaks to Moses from a bush that was burning, but not consumed by fire, telling him that he will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  This Torah portion teaches us that Jews have always been a minority community, subdued and enslaved in every generation; however, we as a Jewish people can realize our destiny to lead in spite of obstacles put before us from birth, and like the divine burning bush, we spread our light without being consumed and destroyed.


Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education
This Torah portion derives its name from the Hebrew for “he lived”.  Jacob, feeling that his death is imminent makes Joseph, his son, promise to bury him in Canaan, the land of his ancestors.  Joseph comes to Jacob with his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, as he lies on his deathbed. Before Jacob blesses his sons, he calls his grandsons to his side to receive a blessing and he adopts them as his own sons.  He kisses them and expresses his joy at having lived long enough to see grandchildren. To this day we still have the tradition of blessing our children. 
To our sons we say “May Adonai make you like Ephraim and Menashe”. 
To our daughters we say, “May Adonai make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”. 
We continue with, “May Adonai Bless you and guard you.
May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.
May the presence of God be with you and give you peace”.
What a beautiful tradition to add to our Shabbat rituals.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is the emotional climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brother’s, seeking sustenance during the famine in Caanan, stumble across their brother Joseph who had risen to a position of power in Egypt. When he reveals his identity, Joseph immediately tells his brothers that the act of selling him into slavery in Egypt was not a terrible act performed by them, but was rather part of God’s plan to send Joseph ahead to Egypt so that the promise to Abraham could be fulfilled: that Abraham’s offspring would thrive as a great nation. It was this ability to see the greater good that allows Joseph and his brothers to reconcile.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas

If you ask Cantor Bernard what this week's Torah portion Parashat Mikeitz is about, he will tell you plainly, "Parashat Mikeitz is about cows. Period." There are many torah portions like this, that have some particularly distinctive event, character, or animal that seem to sum up the whole of the portion. I will never forget what Parashat Mikeitz is about because nine or ten years ago, Cantor Bernard told me, "Mikeitz is about cows. Period."

ese cows are the seven plump and seven lean of Pharaoh's dreams. They are the premonition of years of great good-fortune followed by years of famine. They are the cows about which Joseph interprets such that he will rise to a position of great power and importance in Egypt, enabling him to provide food and supplies to those in need. He listened closely to Pharaoh's dreams and was able to discern wisely proactive steps to ensure his own safety and the safety of his people. Joseph had his eyes, ears, and mind open to the world around him.

I worry sometimes that we have become so busy that we may miss the opportunity to interpret our own "cows", that we may miss the signs of things to come - good or bad - that we might be better prepared. Where in our lives are we on a trajectory for health? For good choices, good habits, and personal success? In what ways might we be sabotaging our own well-being?

As we enter this glorious long-weekend celebrating Thanksgiving and Chanukah, I pray that we will each take a breath, enjoy good company, and, like Joseph, take a few moments to look and listen carefully to the world around us. Wishing you a Gobble Tov!

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

When we read from VaYeishev this week, we start with Genesis, Chapter 37:
Now Jacob was settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
What happened in the wake of Jacob’s hope, his plan for planting roots and living an easier life, was anything but settled.
The drama between Joseph and his brothers reached its first catastrophic conclusion, with Joseph taken away in slavery. Judah got in trouble with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Eventually, Jacob was forced to bring his who
le family down to Egypt to avoid terrible famine.
 Our classic commentators point out that Jacob’s desire to settle may have been the problem. Most of us, I imagine, once in a while, hope that at some point we will have done enough. We will have worked hard enough and then we can settle and live.
These hopes tempt us away from the task before us – to live and evolve, to work and celebrate. We are called to fully participate in life, and that requires movement and change.
These are not merely modern concepts. Here is Rashi’s comment on this verse from around 900 years ago:
“’Now Jacob was settled…’ – Jacob sought to settle in peace, there leapt upon him the agitation of Joseph. When the righteous seek to settle in peace God says, ‘Is it not enough for the righteous what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?’”

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judith Schindler

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is a changed human being.  Twenty years ago he was a competitive sibling who stole both his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing.  After deceiving Esau, he was forced to run away. 

Now twenty years later, Jacob is returning home.  He will see his brother Esau for the first time in two decades and fears that his brother is still angry.  He shows he is sorry by sending ahead of him several messengers bearing plentiful gifts.

Jacob is a changed human being. We know this for two reasons. First of all his name is changed.  He is no longer Jacob, the one who supplants and deceives, but late in the night he struggles with an angel and his n
ame is changed to Yisrael, the one who struggles with God.

The second change we see in Jacob is after he reunites with his brother.  Esau and Jacob come together peacefully, not with fists flying and angry words, but with hugs and tears, Esau tells Jacob that he should keep the gifts he had sent.  “Yesh li rav,” Esau says, “I have enough.” And Jacob responds, “Please do me the favor of accepting the gifts, as I have everything, yesh li kol.”

Jacob is no longer the conniving and covetous boy he once was.  Jacob was a nomad and had few riches but still, in his struggle with the divine being, he came to realize that he had found all that he would ever need.  He had found strength within himself, and he had found the comforting presence of God.

Touch of Torah by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob rests in an unnamed “place,” using stones to mark his sleeping quarters.  Jacob dreams of a ladder that connects heaven and earth, and in his dream God renews His promise to guard him and restore him to his land.  When Jacob awakes, the Torah says that he proclaims, “Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I did not know,” and he names the place “Beit El,” literally “House of God.”  The stone he uses as a pillow, he designates as a monument to this holy place. 

Beit El is the Hebrew inspiration for the name of our Temple, Beth El, where we gather as a community to find God.  Once Jacob recognizes the holiness of Beit El, the stones become monuments, and Jacob finds the protection he needs to continue his journey to Haran.   Like Jacob, we have the power to find God in our everyday lives and transform the markers of our journeys into sacred monuments that give us the strength and protection we need to reach our destinations.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” is filled with lifecycle occasions — ironically, most of them deaths. The portion is framed by the deaths of Isaac’s parents: the death of Sarah at the outset, and the death of Abraham at the end. The portion also notes the death of Ishmael at the end. In between, we have the meeting and betrothal of Isaac and Rebecca. One midrash tells us that Sarah’s death resulted from her grief thinking that Isaac had been sacrificed at Mt. Moriah. Abraham, the widower, wants to know that his son Isaac will carry on his lineage. He insists that Isaac take for a wife someone from the land of Abraham’s birth, and sends his servant on a mission. It is only after knowing that his son will continue the line of the Jewish people that Abraham dies.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler
This week's Torah portion called Noach, teaches us about righteousness.  Apparently there is a hierarchy of righteous behavior and Noah falls at the lower end of the spectrum. The text of Genesis tells us that Noah "was righteous in his generation."  Compared to the later Abraham, Noah fell far short. When God told Noah that God planned to destroy the world, Noah did nothing to stand up in defense of humanity. Instead, he built an ark for himself, his family, and a group of animals.  In contrast, Abraham stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, whom God threatened to destroy. The sages refer to Noah as a "tzaddik in pelz - a righteous person who wears a fur coat to keep himself warm."  The truly righteous soul lights a fire to keep others warm.  Truly righteous souls worry not only about themselves and their families, but work to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those around them and of all humanity.

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

In the first portion of the Torah, Bereshit, we begin with the story of the six days of creation and the first Shabbat.  Each of the first six days of creation brings a new gift: separating light and darkness, water and land, man and woman, etc.  It is the seventh day of creation that is the greatest gift to the Jewish people and often the least embraced.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel states in his book, The Sabbath, that “the greatest challenge facing the modern Western world is the loss of a sense for the sacred”. He goes on to say that “Shabbat offers us the opportunity to retreat temporarily from our work-a-day routine, from the world of space consciousness, and to enjoy the manifold gifts of creation provided for us by the Master of the Universe”.  The URJ website offers many ideas on how to add the holiness back into Shabbat.  Check it out at www.urj.org.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard

This Shabbat we read a special portion for the Sabbath during Sukkot from the Book of Exodus. The obvious reason for this reading is the commandment to observe the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. (The Torah reading is the same for the Sabbath during Pesach.) But this portion also features the famous encounter between God and Moses where Moses — who is feeling burdened trying to deal with the Israelites who have slipped into idolatrous practices with the making of the golden calf — asks God for a favor. Moses wants to behold God’s Presence. God tells Moses that no one can see God’s face and live, but God will protect Moses in a cleft in the rock and allow him to see God’s back after God passes by. This is a human being’s closest encounter with the Divine. In our most important celebrations — the Three Festivals and the High Holy Days — we have special rituals that help us draw closer to God. This week we will affirm God’s presence in the world with lulav and etrog. Only last week on Yom Kippur, we re-enacted the special and elaborate ceremony in which the High Priest dares to pronounce the four-letter name of God in the presence of those assembled at the Temple. Names in the Torah often represent the essence of who that is. To pronounce God’s name is to attempt to draw closer to the Divine presence. In performing each of these rituals, we affirm our continuous effort to strive to nurture the Divine spark in ourselves.   

Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas - Kol Nidrei/Yom Kippur
     This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths - Yom Kippur - and we read from two Torah portions: Nitzavim and K’doshim.
     On Yom Kippur morning we read Nitzavim and learn that every Jew was present at the moment that God entered into the covenant with our people. Nitzavim means “we stand”, but has a very different connotation than the Hebrew word “omdim,” which could be translated the same way. Nitzavim implies that we stand firmly, attentively, and with a purpose. Our tradition teaches that each Jewish soul - those who had come before and those yet to be - stood with feet planted deeply in the sand, attentively, and with the purpose of accepting their part in our covenantal relationship with God and the Jewish people.
     On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we read from K’doshim, learning that we are to be holy, just as God is holy. Again, we are instructed in the collective, that “you (all) shall be holy” - each and every one of us.
     These twin pluralities: “we stand” and “you (all) shall be holy,” remind us on our most sacred day that we are not meant to be alone. We are meant to find strength, courage, and purpose in receiving and giving love to those in our midst. We are meant to be in sacred relationship.
     Whether we were born Jewish or have chosen our Jewishness, each of our souls stood in that ancient moment of covenant, as we continue to do today: firmly, with purpose, and in holy connection.

A Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education
In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are commanded to bring their first fruits to the Temple, and to deliver all tithes to their proper recipients.  Like other portions in the Torah, Moses recounts the laws and mitzvot that the Israelites are to carry out in order to receive God’s blessings. Moses makes clear the rewards they will receive for honoring those commandments, as well as the calamities they will face for disregarding them.  The curses deal with an individual’s personal relationship with God, family relationships and moral behavior. The Torah makes it clear that there will be serious consequences if we disregard the Torah’s teaching and that “God will scatter the Israelites among all the people from one end of the earth to the other”.  Likewise, if we choose to follow the laws, God will reward us with success and well being.

A Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard   8-12-13
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, covers a record 74 out of the Torah’s 613 commandments on a vast array of subjects. One of the main categories of rules are those regarding actions that can save a life. Some — like the commandment to erect a railing around the perimeter of your roof — are designed to actually help prevent a death. Others surround our obligation to protect the health, wellbeing, and livelihood of our neighbors. Included in this group are laws about returning lost property, and not withholding food or wages. The Torah allows us to eat as much as we need to sustain ourselves; but we may not hoard food or withhold the leftovers of the field from the poor. And we must protect the rights and wellbeing of those without power: you should not return an escaped slave to his/her master, and you shall pay special attention to the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the outsider. Particularly notable is the dictate to behave proactively; not only are we commanded to refrain from harming another, but we are required to take actions to protect the interests of our neighbors.   

A Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas
The opening passage of this week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim, includes the famous charge: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” These words have provided inspiration for generations of great leaders, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and our Rabbi Judy. Words are only repeated in Torah when something incredibly important is happening, lest we miss their call. Justice! Justice is our great responsibility.

This week also marks the beginning of the month of Elul. Elul is a time of deep reflection and renewal as we prepare for the High Holy Days. The confluence of Shof’tim and Elul begs us to ask ourselves questions about our individual role in creating a just society. The text is very particular; it instructs each of us - in the singular - to pursue justice. What do our teachings and what do our hearts instruct us about justice? What does a just society look like? What can we - each in our own individuality - do to help bring that future society?

A Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
This week’s Torah reading from Re’eh seems to offer us a stark vision of reward and punishment, in its opening verses (Deuteronomy 11:26-28):
See, I place before you today a blessing or a curse:
the blessing, that you obey the commandments of Adonai your God
that I command you today,
and the curse, if you do not hearken to the commandments of Adonai your God,
and turn-aside from the way that I command you today,
walking after other gods whom you have not known.
Fundamental Jewish thinking resists this simple idea. We always understood that a mitzvah brings its own reward.

Malbim, a Nineteenth Century commentator, highlighted how the Hebrew in our quote supports this interpretation, and it hinges on the difference between the words “that” with regard to blessings, and “if” with regard to curses:
“the blessing, that you obey”, implying that the very obedience to the Divine commandments constitutes the blessing. Do not imagine that there is any this-worldly reward outside the good deed itself. The parallel is to a doctor that assures a patient that they will be well if when they adhere to a prescribed regimen, otherwise the patient will die. The consequences are inherent in the deed itself.

As Jews we recognize that blessings come as part of doing the right thing. The mitzvah is inherent in creation – the blessing is right in front of us. We only encounter the downside should we turn from participation in the creation of something better.
(This interpretation can be found in Nehama Leibovitz’ Studies in Devarim-Deuteronomy, pp. 120-123)

A Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler   7-23-13
Each decision that we make has an impact on our future. Our choices of friends, of professional paths, of cities in which to live, even of the words we utter all move our lives in one direction or another. Today’s Torah portion acknowledges this reality.  This portion is called Ekev which means literally “on the heel.”  We are told,  “In consequence of our following God’s laws, God will maintain our covenant and we will be blessed.”
The name of this portion Ekev comes from the same root as Yaakov.  Our patriarch Jacob was given the name heel because he held onto the foot of his twin brother Esau as he was born. If Jacob had not held his brother’s heel, he may not have been born alive. There are times when we need to hold onto others in order to get where we need to go. It is our connections to those around us that help to move forward. Our portion teaches that everything occurs ekev – on the heel of everything else.  No moment, no action is disconnected from the one prior.  Judaism helps us to celebrate our connectedness with each other, with God, with our families and even with ourselves.

A Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, Moses pleads with God to reconsider and allow him to join the Israelites and enter the Promised Land.  God rejects his request and Moses continues to deliver God’s instructions and warnings to the Israelites. He cautions them that if they are to survive in the Land, and survive as a people, the Torah they received at Sinai is crucial.   These verses contain a second reading of the Ten Commandments and Shema.  Moses also warns that if the people do not obey the Torah, that they will be exiled among other nations.  Today, we understand that it is the Torah that has kept our people distinct among the nations of the world.  The Torah is the glue that holds us together.  The Torah connects us to God and to each other.

A Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard
This week’s Torah portion goes by two names: Parashat D’varim — the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy; and Shabbat Chazon — named for the reading that comprises the opening verses from the prophet Isaiah. In anticipation of next week’s observance of Tisha B’av — the day marking the repeated calamities faced by the Jewish people — Isaiah condemns the Children of Israel: “O sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, depraved children! — they have forsaken Adonai, they have spurned the Holy One of Israel, they have turned their backs on God.” But Isaiah also offers a path to redemption, words of hope: “Wash yourselves clean…cease to do evil. Learn to do good; devote yourselves to justice, help those who are oppressed, seek justice for the orphan, uphold the rights of the widow.”
We stand at the turning point of a ten-week liturgical cycle in which we conclude three weeks facing our shortcomings and errant behavior, followed by seven weeks during which we are given hope through repentance and redemption. Those seven weeks will culminate with the High Holy Days. In a few weeks we will enter the month of Elul, our days of preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance. It is a time for honest, personal reflection and an opportunity to set a better path for ourselves as we seek to live lives of justice and good works. May these next weeks be a time not for self-condemnation, but rather honest, healthy self-reflection and the sincere search for a better path forward.


Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas

This week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Mas’ei, begins with rules surrounding the annulment of vows made by women. The text states that if an unmarried woman’s father or a married woman’s husband learns of any vows that the woman makes to God, he has the power to annul those commitments on the day he finds out. This relic of ancient Israelite socio-political structure makes feminists everywhere cringe! How dare someone be able to cancel a commitment or promise made by another person without their consent - especially something to profound as a vow between and individual and God? 

Yet, the text begs an important question for today: Are there people in our lives that we would give the power to double-check us, making sure that we do not act hastily or for the wrong reasons? Are there areas in our lives that are so important that we would not make a decision without talking it through with someone close to us? I think that most of us would say yes and that, depending on the situation, that person might be a friend, family member, or coworker. This text is another reminder that we must not cut ourselves off from those around us. We must strive to make choices that are not only best for ourselves, but also for our families and community to whom we are inextricably bound.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
Parashat Pinchas

Many of us are list-makers. I imagine I am not the only one who thrills in checking items off of those lists. We get to bring some order to our worlds that often seem out of control when we take all those things we have to do and itemize them. Then, with some sense of small victory, we concretely show that they have been completed with the stroke of a pen.
The Torah offers us the same kind of teaching this week in Parashat Pinchas. Two full chapters – Numbers chapters 28 and 29 – itemize the holidays of the year, from daily offerings to New Moon offerings, to all the celebrations around each holiday.
In these directions we see the need to establish regular customs and practices, expected times of gathering and prescribed things to do at those moments. So our ancient Israelite ancestors developed a structure to their lives and the calendar, allowing them to see the scope of the year in acknowledged weeks, months, and seasons.
However we manage to encounter a world that may often feel like mayhem, Judaism offers us frameworks in the calendar as models of breaking things down into smaller bits that may help us handle the whole more easily.
Happy list checking!

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler, Parashat Balak
Thanks to my GPS, I no longer get lost on the various extensions of Queens Road that lead me towards or away from Uptown. Distraction, confusion and getting lost is not only an issue for the modern driver, it was an issue for the ancient donkey driver named Bilaam. He was hired by a Moabite king named Balak to curse the Israelites. As a result of Bilaam's misguided mission, his donkey sees more clearly than he. The donkey sees an angel on the path and tries to delay or prevent Bilaam's journey. Bilaam ultimately arrives at his destination yet in place of condemning the Israelites, he offers them words of blessing: "Mah tovu ohaleicha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael -- how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel."  In our parashah, Bilaam was now able to clearly see the beauty of the Israelite camps and community. Sometimes getting lost is the first step to really finding our way and to seeing more clearly the path we need to take and the blessings that are before us.

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

This week’s portion is named for the rebellion led by Korach against Moses and his leadership.  The conspirators accuse Moses and Aaron of raising themselves above the community of Israelites, all of whom are holy.  Moses responds by chiding Korach for trying to elevate his own status above those reserved for the Levites.  During the course of the rebellion, Moses attempts to reconcile with the rebels three different times to avert their eventual demise.  Rashi points out these instances: 1. Moses sends for Korach’s co-conspirators to speak to them but they refuse to come, 2. Moses delays Gods judgment in the hope that the people would have a chance to reconsider and repent by morning, 3. Moses goes to the conspirators who refused to meet him, for he believed that they would respect him if he appealed to them.   None of these attempts dissuade Korach and the rebels and they all perish at God’s hand. 

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
This week’s parashah, B’ha-alot’cha, offers us a microcosm of the entirety of the Book of Numbers, which we call B’midbar, or “in the wilderness” in Hebrew. A patchwork of stories and rules, everything from the building of the menorah to the illness of Miriam caused by her gossip.
Amid all of this, we find a very brief and unusual story (Numbers 11:26-29):
26 Now two men remained in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, the name of the second, Meidad, and the spirit rested upon them – they were among those-recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent – and they acted-like-prophets in the camp.
27 A (certain) lad ran and told Moses, he said: Eldad and Meidad are acting-like-prophets in the camp!
28 Then Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up, he said: My lord Moses, contain them!
29 But Moses said to him: Are you jealous for me? O who would give that all the people of God were prophets, that God would put the rush-of-his spirit upon them!
From the very beginning of Jewish civilization, we seem to long for less hierarchy and more equal distribution of power. Moses longs to share his access to universal meaning.
As Jews we acknowledge the merit of every individual. We see each and every member of the community as a potential source of wisdom.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler
Tomorrow night we will welcome the holiday of Shavuot. We will hear the Ten Commandments chanted on Shavuot evening by our Confirmation students and on Shavuot morning by Cantor Bernard. Each year on this holiday, we are meant to imagine ourselves standing at Sinai and entering into the Covenant (a marriage of sorts) with God and with the Jewish people. Thousands of years ago we committed to being a people and today we remain bound by that promise. This holiday of Shavuot is called Zman Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, and not Zman Kabbalat Torateinu, the time of the receiving of our Torah, because while God symbolically gave the Torah on Shavuot, we are meant to receive the Torah each and every day through our study and through our living of the text. If you cannot make it to Temple Beth El to celebrate with us, may you celebrate Shavuot by stopping to study a text of Torah and/or by eating some ice cream as dairy is traditionally eaten on this day.  Just as milk sustains a child, Torah sustains our people.

Touch of Torah by Andy Harkavy, Director of Youth Engagement
This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, “In the Wilderness,” is the first portion of the fourth book of Torah, Numbers.  God tells Moses to conduct a census of every Israelite male over the age of twenty.  Moses takes a second census to count all of the Levite males since they are not to bear arms.  God gives specific instructions to the Levites about their roles in the Tent of the Meeting. 

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

This week we read a double portion, Behar-Bechukotai.  In Behar, the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years are described.  Every seven years the land must not be sown or planted, debts must be forgiven, slaves must be released and so on.  Seven Sabbatical cycles are followed by a fiftieth year—the Jubilee year, on which work on the land ceases, all indentured servants are set free, and all land that has been sold reverts to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands, and the prohibitions against fraud and usury, are also given. Bechukotai presents a series of blessings that God will bestow upon the people Israel if they obey God’s commandments and comply with the covenant. In contrast, there is a long list of curses and harsh consequences that will be invoked as punishments if the Israelites neglect God's law. Both of these portions serve as reminders that our actions have consequences.  If we preserve our environment “the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit”.  If we are just and pure, God will dwell in our midst.  
Parashat Behar's most famous verse – "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus. 25:1), the inscription on the Liberty Bell, refers to the jubilee year.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard
This week’s portion, Emor, opens with special restrictions imposed upon the priests to recognize their elevated position above the other people, and to maintain ritual purity. The reasoning is that they had the sacred task of making the offerings to God. It goes on to say that any person with a physical defect is prohibited from the priesthood. Just as the animals that were offered had to be unblemished, so too the person making the offering had to be unblemished as well. What a difference between the priests of the Temple and the spiritual leaders of our modern synagogues! While there are certain expectations that modern day clergy will be models for the community, the “blemishes” actually have the potential to make the clergyperson better and his/her job. Unlike our priestly ancestors whose primary responsibility was ritual, our clergy serve largely in a pastoral role. The fact that clergy have flaws just like anyone else makes them more accessible to the rest of the community and engenders greater empathy for the human struggles we all share.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary Thomas

This week, we read a double Torah portion, Acharei-Mot/K'doshim. Torah portions, like books of the Torah, get their names from the first important words in each parashah. Acharei Mot means "after death", in this case the death of Aaron's sons, and K'doshim means simply "holy", in context: "you shall be holy". Now, these Torah portions always follow each other, but are only doubled as they are this year every so often. The juxtaposition of the ideas inherent in the titles is startling: After Death/Holy.

I do not think that the connection of these two titles suggests that we attain a special kind of holiness after death, after all, Judaism is a very this-worldly religion: we concern ourselves with the business of living just and righteous lives. Yet, what if we read it After Death/Holy as: "You are holy, despite of - or because of - your mortality". Perhaps we are holy because we face our finitude. Despite the fleeting nature of human life, we carry on changing the world, making lives better, growing, and giving.

Touch of Torah - Tazria–Metzorah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
From these two difficult Torah readings about strange skin disorders, infections of houses and clothing, and a variety of impurity issues, we find two interesting teachings that form central ideas in contemporary Judaism – trust in the community's experts and conserve resources.
While we no longer have an institutional priesthood, we still read about the central role that our priests played every year. The priests consulted on issues of communal concern, and we still turn to professionals when we need insights. Doctors, lawyers, accountants (especially at this time of year), and even clergy, gain our trust by participating in communally supported institutions of learning and standards for practice. Just as in the ancient Israelite world, we still need to support the structures that grant our society wise advisors and professionals.
The priest helped determine whether or not a garment or structure was too infected to continue to be useful. One of our Bat Mitzvah students noted how important it seemed to be to try and preserve something already made.
Amazing that in our age of disposable items and fleeting information the Torah can still offer us teachings supporting the values of cultivating expertise and discernment, and using them to conserve our world's limited resources.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judith Schindler
This week's Torah portion opens with a seemingly inexplicable tragedy. We are in the midst of dedicating our very first sanctuary when Aaron's sons race forward to offer foreign fire.  God was displeased and in fury, sends forth fire to consume the boys.  The text tells us, "Vayidom Aharon – And Aaron was silent." Nadav and Avihu's father, in his grief and sorrow, has no words.  He sits in silence with his two lifeless sons before him.
This week we confront tragedy not only in our Torah but in our calendar of Jewish sacred days. For this Sunday, our community and Jewish world will mark Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. Silence is the first stage of tragedy but actions and words must follow. Elie Weisel, an esteemed author and scholar of the Holocaust writes, "I have learned two lessons in my life: first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological, or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones.  Second, just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings."  Our religious task is to move forward from the silence and despair of tragedy in order to rebuild a better world.
Join us this Sunday (April 7th) to find the hope that emerges from the Holocaust as we come together for a Shalom Park Charlotte Community Day of Arts and Dialogue to Remember the Holocaust from 4:00-5:30 pm.  There will be a variety of workshops addressing prejudice, discrimination, reflections on recent trips to concentration camps, music, and film. From painting a butterfly as you learn about and contribute to our Children's Holocaust Memorial Sculpture to exploring Dr. Seuss' (Theodor Geisel's) political cartoons advocating U.S. engagement in World War II to learning about the recipes shared in the Concentration Camp barracks and eating some of those foods, this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day will be engaging and moving. For more information go to: http://www.beth-el.com/holidays_festivals.html.

Touch of Torah by Andy Harkavy, Director of Youth Engagement
This week we take a break from the weekly Torah portion and discuss the story of Passover.  During the seven days of Pesach, we return to the book of Exodus to retell the key events of redemption.  The Passover seder (order) is one of the most celebrated and beloved of Jewish home rituals. I refer to it as the Jewish Thanksgiving because it was one of two times every year that my family was guaranteed to come together regardless of where we were living at the time.  Most Jews have cherished memories of past seders with family and friends. The obligation to tell the story of the Exodus to our children is interpreted as a positive commandment.  Freedom is one of the primary themes of Pesach.  Participating in a seder allows Jews to worship God through prayer, study, learning, and ultimately "relive" the story of Exodus, one of the most important stories in Jewish history.  Chag Passover Sameach!

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav repeats the description and procedures of offering sacrifices.  It gives all the details of keeping the altar flame burning perpetually and the cleaning and dressing rituals.  The priestly duties are outlined in great detail.  The various types of sacrifices are enumerated and explained.  There is an offering of well-being, a sin offering, a guilt offering, an offering for the anointment of the Priests.  The word Tzav means command and comes from the same root as the word mitzvah. Although many people think of a mitzvah as a good deed, the word means commandment. 

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard
This week we begin the Book of Leviticus. The narrative of our people through the Books of Genesis and Exodus now largely pauses while we receive numerous and detailed rules that would guide the daily lives of our people. While some of these continue to inform us to this day, many — especially those surrounding sacrifice — seem anachronistic. The physical actions around sacrificing at the Temple became internal sacrifices of the heart: prayer. Yet the basic principle of those sacrifices remains the same. The book opens with the laws of the korban, the burnt offering. The root of the word — kuf-reish-bet — denotes "nearness." The word "karov" means "near to;" "k'rovim" are your relatives, those people closest to you. The sacrifice of the "korban" brought the people closest to God. Our prayers — our sacrifices of the heart — also bring us close to God. But so do our sacred actions: tending to the ill and the bereaved, the giving of tzedakah, celebrating with friends and family the joyous moments of birth and marriage, reaching out to those in need, learning more about our faith. We are a strong society when we live our lives in conscious relationship — consciously drawing near — to the Divine.