A Touch of Torah

Touch of Torah by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement
In this week’s Torah portion, “Emor,” Moses speaks to the Israelites and the high priests, conveying the special rules they must obey.   He outlines the guidelines that priests must follow in making offerings to God, and the holidays that the Israelites will celebrate throughout the lunar year.  One of these seasonal festivals during which offerings are commanded is the “omer” period, during which Israelites are instructed to bring food offerings to the priests for seven weeks.  Thus began the tradition of “counting the omer” during the period that begins after Pesach and ends with Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate our receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  During these weeks we remember not only to count the time that passed until we received our sacred book, but to signify through an offering that we are making this time count.  

Touch of Torah by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education
This week’s Torah portion is Kedoshim and it opens with the words, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” God describes to Moses many ethical and ritual laws aimed to help people live lives of holiness. The laws described include some of those recorded in the Ten Commandments, such as respecting one's parents, keeping the Sabbath, and not stealing. It also includes the principles of justice and morality along with the ritual laws and observances.  The essentials of the Torah are summarized in this portion.  It also contains the famous verse, “love your neighbor as yourself”.  That is a lesson that is repeated over and over at Temple Beth El as we are committed to making sure that we love and care for our neighbors locally and globally.  Mitzvah Day is a perfect example.  It is a chance for all of us to put this Torah commandment into action. 

Touch of Torah by Cantor Andrew Bernard
During the Festival of Passover, we break from the cycle of Torah readings and — as we do during our Seder meals — retell the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt. On the first day of Passover (Tuesday morning), we will recount the Passover offering in which the Children of Israel were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on their doorposts as to not suffer the final plague: the death of the firstborn. The end of the portion enshrines the Passover offering for all times. On Shabbat we read of Moses’ closest encounter with God: God protects Moses in the cleft in the rock allowing Moses only to behold the back of the Divine presence, and reciting the thirteen attributes of God. God then makes this promise, “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 God’s deeds which I will perform for you.” The Shabbat reading ends with establishment of the Three Festivals. On the seventh and final day of Passover (next Monday), we offer the celebration of redemption from slavery with the Song of the Sea — one of the most joyous moments in the Torah.

Touch of Torah by Cantor Mary R. Thomas
This week’s torah portion is Acharei Mot, which is often paired with the Torah portion we will read on the Shabbat after Passover, K’doshim. Together, these two portions make up a section of Torah called The Holiness Code, though most of the most memorable parts are found in K’doshim.

Before the Holiness Code begins towards the end of this week’s parashah, there is an interesting episode of a scapegoat sent into the wilderness “to Azazel”. To learn more about this seemingly odd tradition, read this exploration by Educator Robert Tornberg.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
More words from Leviticus about skin afflictions, and even house afflictions!
I am always amazed how our spectacular B’nei Mitzvah students at Temple Beth El still manage to come up with something personal and interesting to talk about on these classically difficult sections of the Torah.
This week’s parasha, Metzora, reminds us that distractions to our health and our household cannot be ignored. We must acknowledge them and bring our lives to a place where we have coped with them in some way that brings our life back towards wholeness, towards shalom.
Rabbi Arthur Green writes about the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the BeSHT), and notes that the BeSHT would say:
“Do not be divided in the act of prayer; only as a whole person can you come before the single God.”
The early Hasidic teachers would go so far as to say our difficult thoughts, our flaws, they too must participate in our wholeness, both in prayer, and in every aspect of our lives. While a difficult thought may be a temporary distraction, it offers us an opportunity to examine its source, the origin of the distraction, and attempt to welcome it back into the fold of our personalities. Denying that the parts of us that we don’t like aren’t still parts of us leaves us divided within.
When we approach prayer, contemplation, and interact with the world and each other with wholeness, we do so striving to bring our full self to the conversation.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler
     This week's Torah portion, Tazria, is most challenging. It speaks of what one does when one finds a leprous affection on one's skin or a mold or discoloration on one's garment. A Priest was called to examine the infection. If there was a question about the status of the affection, the the individual or the garment that is infected is isolated. If the affection clears up, the priest proclaims that the individual or garment is "clean."
If the affections remains, the person or garment is deemed "unclean."
     In Biblical times, physical illness was directly linked to spiritual deficiencies. The spiritual leader, the priest, was the healer. While today we understand that physical illnesses are rooted in a variety of causes, we recognize the power of spirituality also to bring healing. When are bodies are struggling, both the medical and the religious worlds offer valuable and complementary paths to healing. Worship, Torah study and celebrating community all help us along the path to wholeness.

Touch of Torah by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

   In this week's Torah portion, Shemini, God outlines the kosher laws which are designed to empower the Israelites to "differentiate between the impure and the pure.” The Kosher laws identify animal species permitted and prohibited for consumption by the Israelites. Land animals are permissible only if they have split hooves and also chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales; a list of non-Kosher birds is given, and a list of Kosher insects.  Jewish Kosher laws are interpreted and practiced in a variety of ways, and to differing degrees both in our congregation and throughout the world. They reflect the value that the Jewish faith places on our sources of sustenance. While Kosher laws set all Jews apart from the rest of society, but they also bring us together.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Exodus Chapter 37 begins:

“Then Betzalel made the coffer, of acacia wood, two cubits and a half its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.”

This is the famous Ark of the Covenant, and it, like all the other parts of the Mishkan, our portable Tabernacle, or Temple in a Tent, described in this week’s Torah reading, Va-Yakheil, received incredibly thorough attention to detail.

In the Torah, we are given detailed instructions on buildings, even as we receive far vaguer directions in other areas. We are told about circumcision and its importance, and the details are left to us to work out.

Perhaps we see these differences because our ancestors understood that some things can be controlled, and others cannot. We can describe exactly how to build something, or how to make an offering, and yet the ritual for bringing a child into the world must always be relevant to the baby’s parents and their community. Relevance tends to change over time.

What a piece of wisdom!

When it comes to something that requires details that make a difference - we lay out all the details with exacting precision. 

When it comes to the best ways to create family and community, we understand that people are infinitely varied, and our applications of important principles will change over times and circumstances.

Touch of Torah by Rabbi Judy Schindler

In Judaism we have lots of builders upon whom to reflect.  We have Noah who built an ark in response to God’s command. We have the builders of Babel who strived to build a city with a tower and its top in the sky, in order to “make a name for themselves.” In our Torah today we also build.  This week’s Torah portion is sandwiched between the blueprints given to build our first portable sanctuary in the desert last week and the week before and the actual building of our sacred space described in the parshiyot next week and the week following. In this week’s portion, before we get to building our sanctuary, two things happen. First, a census is taken in a strange way.  Each Israelite gives one half of a shekel and then the shekels themselves are counted and multiplied by two.  As a community we don’t count people, because human beings are too sacred to be counted by number. So instead we count coins. The second prominent feature of this week’s parashah is that we lose our way and build the wrong thing.  We take off our gold rings and earrings and mold them into a Golden Calf – an idol that serves no one and nothing.  Whether we our building a sanctuary or building a congregation or our careers, being inclusive, giving of ourselves, and keeping our sights clearly on our goals will help us to achieve our goals.

Touch of Torah by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

In this week's Torah Portion, "Tzav," G-d communicates to Moses the elaborate requirements of high priests, who maintain the eternal light in the Temple.  The high priests are "commanded" (in Hebrew, the root of "command" is "tzav") to use pure olive oil from the Israelites to kindle the "everlasting flame" in "The Tent of Meeting."  Additionally, the priests are expected to wear symbolic garments while carrying out their duties.  Oil plays an integral role in Jewish tradition; perhaps this is because oil, like the Jewish people, maintains its distinction even when mixed with other fluids. 

One of the garments that priests are commanded to wear is a breast plate engraved with twelve stones that symbolize the twelve tribes, and a cloak inscribed with images of pomegranates.  Some sages speculate that high priests, endowed with the ultimate responsibility of Jewish leadership of the time--representing the entire Jewish people in the worship of G-d--were commanded to wear these garments in order to convey their connection to all Jews when fulfilling their spiritual duties.  Not only did they emblazon their garb with an image symbolic of the twelve tribes, but also pomegranates, which our sages believe are a symbol of people who feel they are disconnected from Judaism.

Thus, in this parshah the Israelites are commanded to contribute oil that symbolizes their distinctness to the high priests, who maintain the sanctuary on behalf of all Jews.  We can learn an important lesson about Jewish leadership from this text: that being a Jewish leader means connecting Jews who are near and far, and using all contributions from our diverse demographic to kindle our everlasting flame of Jewish values that make us distinct from the rest of the world.

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.