Parash

 

Hukkat

(Shabbat 6/19/21)

This week’s parashah contains a strange story.  As we have seen before, the Israelites are complaining to Moses:

 

“Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food (manna).” [Numbers 21:5]

 

In response, God sends fiery snakes to bite the Israelites and many people died.  The people said to Moses:

 

“We have sinned by speaking against God and against you.  Intercede with God to take away the snakes from us!” [25:7]

 

God told Moses to make a banner, and to put on it a picture of a copper snake.   When anyone who has been bitten looks at it, they would be healed.

 

Food for thought:

  • How are we to understand this story?

  • Why were the Israelites punished by snakes?

  • Why didn’t God just take the snakes away, rather than instructing Moses to make a snake banner?

  • What can we learn from this story?

  • What could the story symbolize for you?  Think metaphorically.

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Korah

(Shabbat 6/12/21)

The parashah for this Shabbat describes a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

Various groups are involved in this rebellion, which eventually spreads to the whole community of Israel.   Ultimately, the rebels are punished, and the leadership of Moses and Aaron is confirmed by God.

 

Food for thought:

  • Who is rebelling?  Why do you think it is these particular groups that started the rebellion?

  • What do the various groups of rebels object to in the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

  • Do you agree with their objections?

  • What do you see as the role of Moses and Aaron as leaders of the people?

  • Are they fulfilling this role?

  • What do you think about leadership in general?  What makes a good leader?  A bad leader?  What is our parashah teaching us about leadership?

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Shelah Lekha

(Shabbat 6/5/21)

In today’s parashah, the Israelites stand at the border to the Promised Land.  Moses sends in men to scout the land, and the scouts find a beautiful land, with gorgeous produce – truly a land flowing with milk and (date) honey.  But the land is inhabited, and the Israelites lack the confidence (and faith in God) that they need to enter the land.  Clearly, the slave generation was not ready to take on the demands of freedom.   So, God decided that they must wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the generation that had been enslaved would die, and their children would have the faith and confidence to enter the land.

 

The Haftarah for this Shabbat tells a parallel story.   Fast forward 40 years. Finally, the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership are ready to enter the land.   Again, spies are sent, and they come to Jericho, where they are met by a harlot named Rahab who helps them in return for a guarantee of safety for her family.

 

Food for thought:

  • The story of Rahab, from the Book of Joshua, has many parallels, differences, and hidden references to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ first arrival at the border of the Promised Land, as told in this week’s Torah portion.   How many can you find?

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B'ha-alotekha

(Shabbat 5/29/21)

In our parashah this week the Israelites finally begin their journey from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land.  It was supposed to be a short journey – as little as a 3-day’s walk – until they would arrive at the place from which they would send out scouts to reconnoiter the land.  But that story is for next week.  This week we learn the details of how they would know when to march forward and when to set up camp for the night.  Clearly, the primary way was that God himself would lead them.  The Torah tells us:

 

“On the day that the Mishkan was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the Tent of the Pact, and in the evening it rested over the Mishkan in the likeness of fire until morning.  It was always so:  the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night.  And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp…. They remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Mishkan.”  [Numbers 9:15-18]

 

But there were redundancies built into the system – other ways that told the Israelites when to march and when and where to camp.

 

Food for thought:

  • What were some of the other ways built into the system to lead the Israelites on their journey?  (You can find this answer in the parashah)

  • Why do you think so many modalities were needed?  (This is a thought question; no one right answer)

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Naso

(Shabbat 5/21/21)

This Shabbat we read about the nazirite – one who takes a vow to dedicate himself to God for a particular period of time. 

"The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the LORD, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.  Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.

Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the LORD, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed.

Throughout the term that he has set apart for the LORD, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head:  throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated to the LORD.'

                                                                                                                                [Naso 6:1-8]

Food for thought:

  • What do you think about the act of making a vow?  Is this a good thing to do?

  • What does Judaism have to say about making vows?

  • Why would someone vow to be a Nazarite?

  • The text tells us that the Nazarite must bring a sin offering at the end of his term.  What reason can you see for this?

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Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

(Shabbat 4/23/21) 

See my d'var Torah for this week on the Academy of Jewish Religion website

 https://ajr.edu/teachings/divreitorah/

It discusses Leviticus 19:32 - "You shall rise beofre the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am he Lord."

Food for thought:

  • What do you think about our secular society's attitude to and treatment of the elderly?

  • What message does the Torah teach? 

  • What would have to change for our society to incorporate this message?

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Tazria-Metsora

(Shabbat 4/16/21)

This Shabbat we read a double-parashah regarding the diagnosis and treatment of tzara-at, a leprous-like affliction that can affect people, fabrics and other surfaces, and houses. In the Torah, this is a disease of impurity, requiring careful diagnosis by the Kohanim (priests), isolation and quarantine, and once healed, a purification ritual to allow reentry into the community, or restoration of items or houses so that they may be used again.

 

A couple of years ago, I still found these parashot to be very foreign and difficult to read about and teach about.  What possible relevance could such a strange affliction have for us today?   Since COVID, strange afflictions sadly seem all too real. 

 

Food for thought:

  • What parallels can you find between the verses we read and our experiences with COVID today?

  • How can your own emotions in dealing with this pandemic help you understand what is being described in the Torah – and what can we learn from the Torah about our own emotions at this time?

  • The Torah describes rituals to mark the end of the affliction.  What rituals might be helpful in our day when we see an end to illness?

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Sh'mini

(Shabbat 4/9/21)

In the parashah for this Shabbat, the concept of kashrut (keeping kosher) is introduced.  Kosher means fit or appropriate – as in, there are certain parts of God’s creation that are fit for Jews to eat, and other parts that are not fit for Jews to eat. 

 

There have been various explanations given for the laws of kashrut.  This parashah provides the following explanation:

 

For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be our God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44-45)

 

Food for thought:

  • Why keep kosher? 

  • Which of the explanations of the laws of kashrut do you find compelling?

  • What is the explanation given in this parashah?

  • Can you find a relationship between the laws of kashrut and the story of Creation in Genesis?

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7th day of Passover 

(Shabbat 4/3/21)

Today is the 7th day of Passover.

 

In the story of the Exodus of our people from Egypt (the original Passover), on the 7th day of our journey we encountered the Sea of Reeds.  The Egyptians, meanwhile, had changed their minds about letting their Hebrew slaves go free.   So, there we stood – between the proverbial rock and a hard place, or the devil and the deep blue sea.  In one direction were the Egyptians coming after us in horse-drawn chariots; on the other side was Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds.  It is this Torah portion that we read, appropriately, on the 7th day of Pesach, every year. 

Some excerpts:

 

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.  Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.  And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?’” [Exodus 14:10 – 11]

 

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward!’” [Exodus 14:15]

 

This is a story of a people without faith, and the beginnings of the development of faith.

 

Food for thought:

  • What is faith?  How would you define it?  Is it different than belief?  How?

  • What faith was required of the Israelites?

  • How did God try to develop that faith?

  • What does faith mean to you personally?

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Parashat Va-yikra

(Shabbat 3/19/21)

This Shabbat we begin the 3rd book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus.  This book focuses in on the sacrificial services that took place in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple.  Of course, since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, in the year 70 C.E., Judaism has not included the practice of sacrificial offerings.  Nor do most other religions in the modern world. And so the idea of animal sacrifice has become very foreign, even repellent to us today.

 

 To understand this book, we have to understand the history of sacrificial offerings, and we have to know how prominent it was in all the surrounding cultures at the time of the Torah.  But if we just read it as history, we lose an opportunity to understand ourselves better. 

 

There were reasons behind all the sacrifices, reasons that had to do with life as a human being – its joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams, disappointments, celebrations, and need for ritual.   So, as we go through this Book, let’s look at the function, values and emotions behind the rituals we will read about, and try to figure out how we deal with those same functions, values, and emotions in our modern lives.

 

Food for thought:

  • What examples do we see of sacrifices before the set-up of the Mishkan/Temple ritual?

  • Why did the people who brought those sacrifices do so?

  • What are the functions, values, emotions behind the different types of sacrifices described in our parashah? (burnt offering, grain offering, shelamim (sacrifice of well-being), sin offering, reparation offering, Pesach offering)

  • How do we deal with each of those functions, values, and/or emotions in our modern lives?

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Parashot Va-yakhel/P'kudei

(Shabbat 3/13/21)

This double parashah will bring us to the end of the Book of Exodus.  Most of it is a replay of what we have already read.   In the two parashot before the Golden Calf episode, God tells Moses how to build the Mishkan (sanctuary) and prepare the Kohanim (priests) to serve, and today we read how those careful instructions were carefully carried out.

 

I’d like to bring to your attention to the very beginning of the parashah, which is about Shabbat, and not about the sanctuary at all.  Or is it?

 

"On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.  You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” [Exodus 35:2 – 3]

 

Food for thought:

  • How can we explain the placement of these verses about Shabbat here, adjacent to two parashot about the Mishkan?

  • The punishment of death seems too harsh to our ears.  How might you interpret this metaphorically?

  • Can you kindle fire outside your settlements?  Surely not.  So why does this verse say “in your settlements”?  Can we interpret that metaphorically?

  • The text continues by telling us what the people donated so that the Mishkan could be beautiful, according to the directions supplied by God to Moses.  How is this similar/different to the donations to make the Golden Calf?

  • Who is involved to make the Mishkan happen?   What does this tell us?

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Parashat Ki Tissa

(Shabbat 3/6/21)

In our parashah this Shabbat Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God.  The people are below, worried that they will never see him again.  Aaron is their temporary leader, and they demand of him to make an idol for them.  He accedes to their request, makes a Golden Calf, and a festival is declared.  God tells Moses what is going on, and Moses pleads for the people.  But when he goes down and sees what is going on, he shatters the tablets on which the Torah is written.  He chastises Aaron and the people, and yet goes back to God to plead once more on their behalf.

Food for thought:

  • The people were worried because Moses hadn’t yet returned.  Do you think it make a difference if they were expecting him on a particular day, or if there was no particular expectation about when he might return?  Which would make you worry more about something?

  • What does the text tell us about Aaron’s character?  Why do you think he goes along with the people?

  • God calls the Israelites a “stiff-necked people”.  What does it mean to be a stiff-necked people?  Is it always bad to be “stiff-necked”?

  • Why does Moses shatter the tablets?

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Parashat Yitro

(Shabbat 2/6/21)

Today’s parashah brings the Israelites to the foot of Mt. Sinai.  There they prepare for God to reveal God’s-self to them from the cloud on top of the mountain.  Moses delivers this message to them:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.  Now, then if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.  Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [19:4-6]

And the people answered, “All the Lord has spoken, we will do.” [19:8]

Then the Ten Utterances (10 Commandments) are given.

Food for thought:

  • What do you think of when you read, “I bore you on eagles’ wings”?

  • The Israelites will be God’s “treasured possession”.   For what are the Jews chosen? 

  • What emotions do the people show in this first encounter between Israel and God?

  • In what way do the first 2 commandments differ from what comes after? 

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Parashat Bo

(Shabbat, 1/23/21)

In parashat Bo, we read about the last three plagues – locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn Egyptians. At this terrible conclusion of ten awful plagues, the Israelites will be freed.  Thus, we also read about the laws relating to the festival of Pesach - as it would be observed at this time, and as it would observed throughout the generations.

 

Food for thought:

  • Let’s examine the plague of darkness:

    • How was this darkness unlike the usual darkness we experience at night?

    • What was the source of this unusual darkness?

    • Can you imagine a metaphoric understanding of the darkness experienced by the Egyptians?

  • Regarding the laws of Pesach

    • What is the Pesach sacrifice?  What role did it play in the original Passover?

    • What are the laws regarding the Pesach sacrifice, according to the Torah?

    • How are these observed today?

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Parashat Va-era

(Shabbat 1/15/21)

In this parashah Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness.  Pharaoh refuses, as God has predicted.  "Signs and Wonders" ensue.   At first, the Egyptian magicians can imitate these signs, and Pharaoh is not impressed.  However, as the plagues continue it becomes clear that those magicians cannot begin to rival the power of God.  Events proceed with the following pattern: Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go.  A plague ensues.  Pharaoh relents, and says they can go.  Moses petitions God to stop the plague, and as soon as each plague stops, Pharaoh's "heart is hardened", and he refuses to let the people go. This parashah describes the first seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects, cattle disease, boils, and hail.

Food for thought:

  • What accounts for Pharaoh's stubbornness?  Does he harden his own heart?  or does God harden his heart?   

  • Pirke Avot (The Sayings of our Ancestors) says: "Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given" [3:15].  How does this relate to this question of who is responsible for Pharaoh's behavior?

  • Is Pharaoh acting of his own volition? Is he responsible for his actions, and thus must be held accountable? Or is God responsible?

  • What is God's agenda?

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Parashat Sh'mot

(Shabbat 1/8/21)

"Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and come to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bust.  He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.  Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight - why doesn't the bush burn up?"  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses, Moses". He answered, "Hineni - here I am".  And God said "Do not come closer.  Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground."  [Exodus 3: 1 - 5]

So begins the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus (called Sh'mot in Hebrew)

Food for thought:

  • Why is this place called Horeb, the mountain of God?  What place do you associate with the mountain of God?

  • What did Moses notice about the burning bush?

  • What do you think the symbol of a burning bush was chosen, for God to reveal himself to Moses?

  • What does Moses' removal of his sandals signify? 

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Parashat Va-Y'Hi

(Shabbat 1/2/21)

The Smothers brothers had an ongoing routine in which Tommy (the older brother), complained to Dickie (the younger brother), “Mom always liked you best”.  It was funny because their squabbles reflected the sibling rivalry that was present, to some degree, in every family.

I didn’t realize at the time that it also reflected almost the entire book of Bereshit (Genesis) in the Torah.  Parental favoritism - especially of the younger child over the older - and sibling rivalry is a theme that runs throughout.  Brothers vie for position, for approval, for birthright, for blessing, and time after time, it is the younger, rather than the elder who is favored.  Here are some examples.

Jacob and Esau struggle with each other even in the womb.  Esau, the firstborn, is favored by his father, Jacob by his mother.  Esau impulsively gives up his birthright but is devastated when Jacob deceives his father and receives his father’s blessing in his stead.  Jacob flees to avoid his brother’s murderous rage.

Joseph is also a younger brother, though he is the firstborn of his father’s favored wife, Rachel.  His father gives him a special coat, and he brags about his dreams, which predict that he will rule over his family.  His brothers are incensed, and plot to kill him.   They throw him in a pit, sell him to some traders who bring him to Egypt, and tell his father he is dead.

Which brings us to today’s parashah, the last in the Book of Bereshit.  Jacob and his entire family are now living in Egypt, and Joseph learns that his father is ill.  He comes to his father’s bedside, bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh, the elder, and Ephraim, the younger. 

First, Jacob deals with the issue of birthright, which should by rights, go to his firstborn, Reuven, son of Leah.  Jacob adopts Menashe and Ephraim as his own sons “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine no less than Reuven and Shimon”.  In effect, this gives a double-portion (normally the right of the firstborn), to Joseph, his favored child.

Next, he moves to bless the two boys.  Joseph, perhaps because of all he has been through, is keenly aware of protocol and places his older son by his father’s right hand, and the younger by his left.  Jacob reaches out and crosses his hands, as we see the reversal of older and younger about to play out once again.  Joseph takes his father’s hand, saying “Not so, Father, for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.”  And Jacob replies “I know, my son, I know.”

These simple words, “I know, my son, I know”, contain so much.  In them, I hear the knowledge acquired by Jacob over a lifetime.  I know - that parents shouldn’t favor one child over the next, and yet the history of our family is that we have done it, over and over again.  I know - that siblings will fight with each other for the approval and blessing of their parents.  I know - that this is a field fraught with raw emotion and pain.  And yet, I know - that children are different, they are not all endowed with the same natural gifts.  Some have God-given talents for leadership or other qualities necessary to carry on the family heritage; others do not.  

“So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘by you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.”  And so we do to this day, on Friday night between the lighting of the candles and the kiddush before our Shabbat meal.

I like to think that when Jacob says that all Israel should invoke blessing through Ephraim and Manasseh, that he has learned an important lesson.  It may be that he foresees that Ephraim will be the one to pass on the family heritage (Ephraim’s descendants will include Joshua), and so he couldn’t help but to cross his hands, but unlike his previous actions and those of his ancestors, his movement is subtle.  He does not allow one child to feel lesser than the other. The soul-destroying sibling rivalry that we have seen with other siblings does not come between Ephraim and Manasseh.  For this reason, future children can be blessed in their name.

On Friday night as I place my hand (virtually, for now) on the heads of my children and my wriggling little grandchildren, I give no thought to who is under my right hand and who is under my left hand.  And I know, in part because of the stories of Torah have taught us, the hazards of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry.  I know that though children are different and may or may not resemble us or what we have envisioned for them, they are each special in their own way. They are, each of them, a blessing, and what they all need from us - is love.