Jacob Resnick’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: K’doshim

Shabbat Shalom and good morning. Today, I’ll be teaching you about my Torah portion K’doshim, which is in the book of Leviticus.

K’doshim means holy in hebrew. In my Torah portion, God gives Moses many commandments to give to the Israelites, the first one being, “You shall be holy.” Some of the commandments are basic rules that most of us still try to follow today like “You shall not steal” or “your shall not defraud your fellow”.


Others are more dated like “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruits of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” This commandment is dated because most of us don’t have vineyards now, but as Jewish people we like to take principles from the Torah and see how we can apply them to today’s world. With the law about leaving fallen fruit for strangers, I think this ancient law can teach us to not be greedy and save some of our wealth to give to people who don’t have much.

Another similarly dated commandment in my Torah portion is, “ If anyone insults either their mother or father he shall be put to death.” Instead of killing disrespectful children, today we have other less extreme punishments like getting grounded, but the principle of respecting your parents is still applied today.

The commandment or law from my Torah portion that I want to focus on today is a prohibition against worshipping Molech, where God tells Moses,

”Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. And I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name.”

If you didn’t know, Moloch is the name of a biblical Canaanite god. Moloch is usually depicted as a statue of a person with a bull’s head, and a furnace in its belly. Biblical historians believe the Canaanites worshipped Molech by offering it their children to be burned as sacrifices.

The Canaanites were an ancient people who lived in the land of Canaan, an area which most likely included parts of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The Canaanites were neighbors to the ancient Israelites once the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. So clearly, it was a concern that the Israelites might start to take on Canaanite traditions, including child sacrifice.

In my Torah portion alone the prohibition against Molech is mentioned four times.

Rabbi Ora taught me that it is not common in the Torah for words or ideas to be repeated without a reason. So the question I had is – Why is this law against worshipping Molech and child sacrifice repeated by God so many times?

I feel like God mentions this law so many times because it’s such a sensitive moral issue. We know that the Ten Commandments outlaw killing in general. The killing of anyone is wrong, but it is especially difficult to read of parents killing their children, because the child doesn’t have a choice and the child has no possible hope of a future.

I think God repeated the prohibition against Molech so many times because God needed to let the Israelites know that sacrificing your child is an unforgivable crime.

As someone who is adopted, and thinking more about this commandment, I see some connections between ancient children not having a choice on whether they got sacrificed, and me not having a choice on whether I was adopted. Obviously being adopted is not the same thing as being sacrificed, but there are some similarities.

One big similarity is that being adopted means being picked up and moved, not having a say on what’s going on. Being adopted means leaving this whole other life behind that you don’t even get a chance to try. Looking more into this law it was like looking into my life, and questions came up: Questions like not knowing why I was being given up, which was probably similar to the biblical kids not knowing why they were being sacrificed.

So, some of the challenges of being adopted are not having a choice, not knowing why you were being given up, and leaving a whole other life behind. Those are all the hard aspects of adoption, but there are more good ones. If I wasn’t adopted then I wouldn’t have met all the people in this room today, my friends, family, and this congregation. I probably wouldn’t have the great education and privileges I have today. I also wouldn’t be able to embrace being Jewish which I’m proud to be.

To me there’s nothing wrong with being adopted because I’m probably having a better life than if I wasn’t adopted.

Despite this, when I introduce myself as being adopted to other people, I notice people often seem to feel some discomfort in talking about it. Sometimes I get the response of, “Oh I’m so sorry for you.” I sometimes think that in that moment people are imagining themselves in my position and thinking about what would be different for them if they had been adopted. This could make them feel sad so then they say they are sorry for me. Or maybe they just feel uncomfortable with something that’s unfamiliar and don’t know what to say.

I’m speaking about my adoption today — the things that are hard about being adopted and the things that are good — and how I feel about it because I would like people to not get uncomfortable when talking to me about it. I want to let everyone know that I am comfortable having conversations about being adopted. I’m not necessarily saying that I want to talk about my adoption all the time but I am saying that when the topic does come up naturally I want both sides to feel comfortable when talking about it.

In our congregation, we have a custom of asking the community a question to generate discussion towards the end of a dvar Torah. I have 2 questions for you today.

The first question I have is, are there other contemporary issues where children don’t have control over what happens to them and they are penalized because of it?

The second one is, are there any topics that you feel are hard to talk about that shouldn’t be that hard to talk about?

Thank you all for your answers and a good discussion.

To conclude, I would like to thank Caroline, my mom, and Paul, my dad, for being there for me, and the rest of my family for coming today. Our great Rabbi Ora for helping me prepare my dvar Torah and having good conversations with me about my Torah portion. Deb who has helped me learn my Torah portion, my Haftorah, and the blessings that go with them. All my friends for supporting me and making me laugh. Martha our exchange student who puts up with me when I’m crazy. Lyndon who helps me practice my bass and Derek who is the best bass teacher in the world. My congregation who has been welcoming since the time I joined it. And finally thank you all for coming, Shabbat Shalom!

Ritual Lab & Learn

Brainstorming on the question, “What is ritual?” photo by Mark Schneyer

Introducing Ritual Lab & Learn: An adult education series

What makes something a ritual? Is it the act itself? The intention behind the act? How often it’s performed? Who performs it? On Sunday January 13, 2019, 23 of us gathered to explore these questions as part of the introduction to Ritual Lab & Learn, a new adult education series.

Ritual Lab & Learn will meet twice a month to learn about new Jewish home ritual. We’ll meet at the JCC on Second and Fourth Sundays, 12:30-2:00 pm. The schedule is (updated as of April 19, 2019 to reflect a few changes):

  • January 27:         Daily blessings
  • February 10:       Eating and drinking
  • February 24:       (Cancelled due to weather)
  • March 10:            Covering the head
  • March 24:            Mezuzah
  • April 14:              Shmirat HaLashon (speech ethics)
  • April 28:              Creating our own rituals

Why is the series called ‘Lab & Learn’? Because there are 2 tracks:

Just Learn: Attend any or all of the sessions. In each class, we’ll learn a new type of Jewish daily home ritual, including where it comes from, how and why it was practiced in the past, and how we might practice it today.

Lab & Learn: Commit to practicing the assigned ritual for a two-week period. During the 2 weeks, you’ll journal on your practice, and meet once with an assigned chevrutah (study partner) to discuss your practice.

Want to sign up for the Lab track, or have questions about which track is right for you? Email Rabbi Ora.

More on the topic of ritual:

Rabbi Ira Stone teaches that ritual practices are a way of ‘interrupting time’ to help us be more human.

Sigal Samuel takes a look at a design lab making rituals for secular people.

Dreaming a Holy Community: dvar on Vayigash by Rabbi Shelley Goldman

Rabbi Shelley Goldman

Shabbat Shalom.

This morning I’d like to focus on the Joseph story from the perspective of community organizing and the creation of holy Jewish space. This week marks the third and final Torah portion focused entirely on the exploits and escapades of Joseph. Today we read the dramatic conclusion of the story, where Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s son’s, takes responsibility for the wrong that all the brothers did to Joseph so many years earlier. Judah begs the viceroy of Egypt, who he does not know is Joseph, to take him, instead of his brother Benjamin. But I am getting ahead of myself. We will return to Judah’s impassioned speech in a moment but let’s first look at the dramatic beginning of the story, which we read two weeks ago in Parashat VaYeishev.

The tale is familiar to all of us. Joseph, his father’s favorite, is sent to “see about” his brothers. We understand the complicated family dynamics at play when a younger sibling tags along with his older brothers. We can imagine how tricky it must have been to have Joseph, the son of his father’s favorite wife, hanging around with the sons of the other wives, Bilhah and Zilpah. It is not a stretch for us to think about what might happen when the favorite son shows up in the special coat that his father gave him (when no one else got any presents) telling tales about his dreams. Dreams that proclaim Joseph a future king, with his brothers and parents bowing low to him, first as sheaves of wheat and then as the sun, moon, and eleven stars. We know that this is not a story that ends well. Or does it? Right now I’d like to focus on four words in Hebrew in our story.

As Joseph approaches, his brothers say to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what becomes of his dreams!” But when Reuben, the oldest, heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life,” we can put him in that pit instead. Then Judah piped up and suggested that they sell him to the traders in the approaching caravan.

The words that I’d like to focus on are “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” eight words in English or Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotav, four words in Hebrew. These four words exemplify the beauty of Torah study. Words can mean one thing in their Biblical context, or as my Biblical Hebrew teacher Michael Carasik says, “their natural habitat,” and they can mean quite another thing once the commentator has finished her work. This tradition, of reading words wholly out of context and with your own purpose in mind, was begun by the rabbis of the Rabbinic Period, some 2000 years ago. The sages of the Talmud, completed in the year 500, made this style of commentary into high art.

It is in this tradition of taking words of the Bible and flipping their meaning, that some years ago my teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, presented the graduating rabbis of that particular year with a chant, “We shall see what comes of his/her dreams.” In presenting this chant to a group of students who were moments away from becoming rabbis, and fulfilling a dream that was accompanied by years of study, the meaning of the words was flipped from the sarcastic sputter of a jealous brother to a loving send-off by a grateful community. When Joseph’s brothers’ say, “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” while he is lying, without his coat, at the bottom of a pit, the answer that they expect is, “Nothing. Nothing will become of his dreams.” When Rabbi Shefa Gold sings Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotey’ha, “We shall see what comes of her dreams,” she is saying, “I can’t wait to see what you do next!”

Two weeks ago I spent a few days on a retreat in Chicago dreaming with leaders from Faith in Action affiliates from Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota. Faith in Action is one of the three major faith-based community organizing outfits in the country. We were taking a breath after the elections to evaluate our non-partisan get out the vote efforts of the past several months. We also continued to dream, this time focusing on the future. The central question of the three days was, “What do you want to see for your state in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years?” It was a hard question, at first, but it got easier the more that we talked.

The main “take away” that I left with is this: I hope to help change the narrative in our public conversations from what it is right now – one based on fear, fear of the other, fear of immigrants, fear of people of color, fear of poor people,and, yes, fear and hatred of Jews to one based on love. I want a narrative that says, “I am responsible for my neighbor,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The current narrative holds that the job of government is to “stay out of people’s lives, except when it comes to law and order.” I humbly submit, along with my fellow dreamers, that the job of government is to protect people and lift us up.

In this moment of installing a new rabbi in the community, it is good to dream together. What do you want for your community in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years? What educational programs would you like to see? Are there social action projects that you’d like to undertake together? How do you want to grow and change? Dreaming of a different future, a better future, is a core component of community organizing and radical Jewish life. What will become of our dreams? No one knows, but we can hope that our wildest dreams come to fruition and work to make it so.

Other core components of being good leaders in the struggle for justice and building Jewish community are the ability to see ourselves as the “guarantors of our fellows” and having the capacity for self-reflection and public confession. This brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYigash, which opens with Judah’s impassioned speech to the Egyptian controller of grain in the time of famine. The speech so moves Joseph that he finally gives up his ruse and admits his identity to his assembled brothers. Judah’s speech is beautiful and as Biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg points out, is striking in that it shows Judah’s development from a devious brother who could willfully lie to his father about his brother being torn to shreds by a wild beast, to a sensitive man, who has lost two children of his own, and does not want his aging father to lose the only other child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Judah becomes the leader of the brothers, even though he is the fourth out of twelve sons, because of his self-reflection and public confession.

He says to Joseph, “we cannot return to our father without our brother Benjamin because it will kill our father for, Nafsho Keshurab’Nafsho, his life is bound up in his life.” Judah sees himself as responsible for Benjamin and responsible to his father, so much so, that he is willing to be the guarantor, to pay the price himself, for Benjamin’s alleged crimes.

As I reflect this morning, on my good friend and study partner/hevruta, Rabbi Ora, I am thinking about her qualities as a sensitive and empathic leader. She has a deep capacity to connect to pain, the world’s pain and individual’s pain, too. This means that she is a wonderful conversation partner and pastoral care giver. Her depth and introspection inspire others to examine their own lives. How lucky you are to have her as your leader!

Rabbi Ora is also a lover of words and books. As a student of fine literature, she weaves gorgeous d’vrei Torah and to this day when I sit down to write, I think about some of the pieces she presented in our Homelitics class.

Rabbi Ora’s speeches weave together many different sources and are texts that are full of other texts, dazzling with connections.

My blessing to you this morning, this Kehillah Kedosha, this holy community, is that as you install a new leader in your midst you also remember your individual power and responsibility. Vest your new leader with the authority she needs to lead you and also remember that you, yes, you, and every single one of us are the guarantors of our neighbors and the earth. It is our responsibility to dream, to reflect, to publicly confess and make amends when we have missed the mark. And as the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to popular consciousness the words of Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love one another and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” 

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. In this community and in all communities.

Shabbat Shalom.    

Our mishkanic congregation: Rabbi Ora’s dvar at her Installation

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Shabbat Shalom.

Those of you who were at the membership meeting two weeks ago may remember that Greg, in his role as outgoing treasurer, shared his opinion that our congregation is better off financially for not having our own building, and that we should never actually build our own synagogue.

The saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. That’s certainly true in our community, and of course we could debate the merits of us having or not having our own building. But I don’t bring this up to open up that conversation today, or to challenge Greg’s opinion. I bring it up because Greg’s remarks, to me, were an invitation to consider what it means to be a congregation – literally, a place where people congregate – without a synagogue?

What is a congregation without a permanent physical home?

As I reflected, I realized that this question – sparked by one member of this community – had already been answered by another member. Two months ago, when we gathered in October to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, Marcy called our congregation ‘mishkanic’ – that is, modeled on the mishkan, the biblical portable resting-place for God.

And that’s what I wanted to explore with you today. Beyond simply being without a physical home, what might that mean, to be a mishkanic congregation?

First,we should go back to the source. What was the mishkan?

The mishkan was a portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert for 40 years. Practically speaking, the mishkan was a large tent. It was made from gold-plated acacia wood and various curtains and tapestries. The mishkan housed a menorah, an altar for sacrifices, and, inside the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, an ark containing the two sets of tablets of the ten commandments, both the broken and the intact, and a space between two golden cherubim where the spirit of God would rest.

The mishkan was built to travel. There were six special wagons used to transport it. Each time the Israelites moved en masse, the ark would be carefully dismantled, and then reassembled at each new camp site. And you thought camping on Memorial Day weekend was logistically challenging.

So the mishkan is a portable sanctuary, a place for holiness to travel alongside our ancestors. How did it come to exist?

In Exodus Chapter 25, parshat Terumah, God lays out the plan for constructing the mishkan. God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me an offering; of every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” The Israelites are invited to contribute previous metals, fine cloths, and furs to construct the walls of the mishkan. Not only are these donations not compulsory, but they are acceptable to and accepted by God only when the donation is rooted in a generosity of heart.

The mishkan was built purely through volunteer effort. It was constructed out of love, of materials freely and willingly given.

And our mishkanic congregation? It also came together out of volunteer energy. AARC began as a havurah, a group of dear ones who came together to pray and learn and celebrate holy moments. And as this community has transitioned from a havurah to a congregation, we still rely on, we’re still rooted, in a generosity of heart that means ongoing investment of time and energy and care from members. And, like with the mishkan, our many sacred objects came from the hands of our incredible artists and artisans. Our Torah table, aron, ner tamid, Torah cover, decorative tapestries, yad – these are all objects of beauty that exemplify Hiddur Mitzvah, commandment to further beautify the sacred.

The mishkan was a sacred space that housed beautiful objects. And the mishkan was made to be portable. And anyone who’s ever helped with set up for services – anyone who’s wheeled the siddur cart from our storage closet, or helped transport our sacred objects to the Unitarian Universalist Church for High Holy Days – can attest to our portability, and the effort that comes with being portable. But being portable also means being able to be flexible to meet the needs of an evolving community. Being portable means lighting Chanukah candles in different members’ homes every night of the holiday; celebrating Passover seders in each other’s homes; building and sleeping in a sukkah on a member’s farm.

And being portable means not just that our things can be moved, but that we, too, are open to movement, to change. Throughout the life of this congregation thus far, there have been new worship spaces, new forms of leadership, both rabbinic and lay, a new name, new members, new collaborators within the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community. As a mishkanic congregation we don’t have to be rigid; we can be not just open to growth, but to hold it as a Jewish and a Reconstructionist value.

When God first spoke to Moses about the construction of the miskhan, God said: ‘Va’asuli mikdash veshachanti betocham.’ ‘Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.’ When I’ve spoken about this verse in the past, I’ve pointed out how ‘betocham’ is grammatically odd here. It’s commonly translated as the singular, sanctuary, but actually is plural. If we look at the text, we see that God isn’t saying, ‘Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in that sanctuary.’ God says, ‘Make me a sanctuary – and through your actions, by building this portable holy place, out of love, with a commitment to beauty and growth, I will come to dwell among you, within each of you.’

The physical mishkan takes a back seat to the act of building it. It’s the action undertaken, the creation itself that opens up the hearts of the Israelites to be a dwelling place for God.

This pasuk/verse is revolutionary. It takes holiness out of the context of space and even time and locates it in relationship. Holiness – the indwelling of God – becomes the outcome of a commitment to growth, to openness, and to being in relationship with one another.

If we are, as Marcy suggested, and I agree, mishkanic, then as a community we are the place where holiness resides. We, coming together, figuring out how to be a large, messy, loving family, create a space for God to come in.

I want to acknowledge what a blessing it’s been for me to enter into and be a part of this holy community this past year and a half – a community that is committed to growth, to openness, to flexibility, to relationships, to justice, to learning, and to beauty. I feel lucky to have been so joyfully and completely welcomed throughout the past 1.5 years and today. And thank you for embarking on this relationship of trust with me. Thank you for you trusting me to be your rabbi.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge that the Torah that I referenced this morning is not from Vayigash, from this week’s Torah portion – it’s not even from the book that we’re currently in! The building of the mishkan takes place in Exodus, rather than towards the end of Genesis. But, because everything in the Torah is connected: In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Jacob traveling down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph and to settle there. And in a midrash on this parsha, from Midrash Tanchuma, we learn that Jacob, as he prepared for his journey, collected seeds of the acacia tree in Canaan. And when he arrived in Egypt, he planted them there, and told his children and grandchildren that hundreds of years in the future, after their descendants had been enslaved and liberated, they would need the wood from these acacia trees to construct a mishkan in the desert.

So my simple blessing for this community, at this moment in our congregation’s history, looking to the past, dwelling in the present, and looking towards the future: May we remember and celebrate the many moments of holy community that have led to the present. May we continue to create a resting place for each other and for holiness to enter. And, like our forefather Jacob, may we be visionaries of the future: may our actions, our learning, and our commitment to community plant seeds of holiness for generations to come.

Amen.

Elliot Bramson’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Toldot

 

Shabbat Shalom. The Torah portion for this week is  Toldot | תולדות | “[These are the] Generations” Bereshit, 25:19−28:9. This is the story of Jacob and Esau and how conflict changed their lives and relationship. This Torah portion also contains a story about Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, and his early life before his sons were born.

The theme that I noticed throughout this portion was conflict over resources. In Isaac’s early life, the conflict is about wells. This is a conflict over water, the most basic of resources. In the Jacob and Esau story, the two brothers fight for their father’s blessing, which promises an abundance of food and land. In a way, we can view the blessing itself as a resource that the brothers are fighting over.

The first conflict, over water, starts with Isaac in a wadi near Gerar. Isaac has just been kicked out of Gerar by Abimelech, the king of Gerar, because Isaac has too many people in his family. So he leaves Gerar, finds a wadi, and decides to settle there, and begins to dig wells. When Isaac’s shepherds dig the first well, the shepherds of Gerar wrangle with Isaac’s shepherds over who the water belongs to. Isaac names the well Wrangle, לְהִסְתַכסֵך (L’heestachsech). The second well they dig is argued over, too, so Isaac names it Animosity, אֵיבָה (Avah). The third well, however, they don’t argue over so Issac names it Rechovot meaning: “Now the Eternal has granted us ample room and will make us fruitful in the land.”

From my perspective, this story is about conflict – how random and unpredictable it is, but also how it can show up in multiple generations. In my Torah portion, Isaac happens to be digging for wells because of conflict with the people of Gerar. One generation earlier, Isaac’s father Abraham also experienced conflict over the resource of water when his wells got stopped up by the Philistines. It’s an endless cycle of digging new wells, then conflict over the wells, then a need to dig new wells. The conflict also seems so random. I think it’s curious how Isaac and the shepherds of Gerar quarrel over two wells, but not over the third one. Why is there conflict over some wells but not others?

So the first story of conflict in my Torah portion is about water. The second story of conflict is over blessings.

A few years after the episode with the wells, Isaac has two children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau, who are twins, start fighting before they’re even born. Their mother Rebekah feels them fighting in her womb and wonders, why this is happening so she asks God. God answers: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

After the twins are born, they continue to be in conflict. And as they get older it becomes apparent that they have very different personalities. Esau is a hunter and is very hairy, while Jacob stays home and cooks and is much quieter. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, favors Jacob.

These conflicts become much more serious one day when Esau is coming home from a hunt and is very hungry. He sees that Jacob is making a red soup and demands he give him some of it. Jacob agrees, only if Esau will sell him his birthright. Esau sells Jacob his birthright and eats the soup.

Later, when Isaac is very old and has bad eyesight, he decides it is time to give his blessings to his oldest son. Isaac tells Esau to hunt and bring him something to eat before he gives him his blessing. Rebekah overhears this and tells Jacob to go to his flock to get an animal to cook for Isaac. Rebekah cooks tasty dishes for Isaac and tells Jacob to dress up in the skin of the animal to seem that he is as hairy as Esau. Isaac then confuses Jacob for Esau and gives Jacob his blessing. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob, so Rebekah tells Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran.

This story is challenging from a moral perspective. Rebekah liked Jacob more than his brother and didn’t want Esau to get the blessing of the firstborn, so she planned that Jacob should steal his brother’s blessing. Not only was it wrong to steal the blessing from Esau, but Rebekah and Jacob also tricked Isaac and took advantage of him being almost blind.

Although Rebekah and Jacob clearly behave badly in this story, Jewish thinkers throughout our history have tried to portray Jacob as the good twin in order to encourage people to have sympathy toward Jacob, and maybe decide that it was ok for him to steal Esau’s blessing.

Rashi took this approach. Rashi was a Jewish commentator from Troyes (twah), in the Champagne region of France. He was born in 1040 and was best known for his commentaries on the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud. Rashi portrays Jacob as being meant to lead the Jewish people because Esau was always drawn towards idol worship, even before he was born. Rashi writes that “whenever Rebekah passed by a synagogue, Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to be born, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to be born.”

Chizkuni, another commentator who wrote about Jacob and Esau’s conflict, lived in France in the thirteenth century. His commentaries contained insights from other commentators, including Rashi. On the topic of Jacob and Esau, Chizkuni challenges Rashi’s interpretation. He says that God predicted that one child would be good and one evil, but that when they struggled in the womb it was not yet clear which one would prevail. It only became clear that Esau wished wickedness to prevail on earth and Jacob wished righteousness to prevail on earth once they were older, when Esau became a hunter and Jacob a philosopher. Clearly Chizkuni thought that being a hunter was a morally inferior occupation to being a philosopher.

Based on what’s written in the Torah, as well as the perspectives of these commentaries, Jacob and Esau were destined to always be at war. Their conflict started from when they were in the womb, and continued throughout their lives, even after they separated.

Although the Jacob and Esau story is old, it has relevance to a conflict we see today. The story of Jacob and Esau shows how a conflict over resources can start an endless war. A current endless war that also seems to be about resources is the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict is an argument over land and resources between the state of Israel and the non-Jewish Palestinians who lived there before the state of Israel was created. Many Palestinians believe that they were kicked off the land when the nation was created. Many Jews believe that they have a right to the land because they were there first, thousands of years ago.

It seems to me that we can think of the conflict between Jacob and Esau as a one-on-one version of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And if we apply the lens of my Torah portion to the Israel-Palestine conflict, then one message we could take from it is that shouldn’t be fighting our brothers, just as Jacob and Esau shouldn’t be fighting. But that’s a simple message to take away from this. A more complex take-away would be to think about how the Israel-Palestine conflict has been portrayed.

I did some research on the Israel-Palestine conflict and I found that many Jewish Israelis claim that they have a right to the land because it was promised to them by God. They feel that Israel is their homeland and it has always belonged to them, and some are afraid that their historic homeland could be taken away from them because of the Palestinians who claim that it is theirs. However, there are some Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic with the Palestinians and think that how the Israeli government treats Palestinians is wrong.

On the other hand, many Palestinians feel that they are being deprived of basic human rights, that the Israeli government’s laws are discriminatory towards Palestinians, and that the US government should not be funding Israel and its military. Many Palestinians think they were turned into refugees because the Jews claimed that their ancestors lived there thousands of years ago.

As Jews, it would seem that we’d have a natural sympathy towards the Jewish Israeli version of the conflict, in the same way we might feel a natural sympathy towards or connection to Jacob, in the story of Jacob and Esau. And, as I mentioned earlier, with the commentators Rashi and Chizkuni, it is possible to interpret a story of conflict in such a way as to justify any position.

Like in any conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict is definitely being interpreted by the different sides in such a way that their actions seem justified and justifiable.

The questions that I want you to reflect on are: Do you think that you have a bias when you look at the two sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Do you think the Jacob and Esau conflict relates to other current events today? Feel free to raise your hands and give your opinion.

I would like to thank the people that have made this possible. Thank you Rabbi Ora for leading this service, and for helping me write this D’var Torah. I want to thank Deb, my Hebrew tutor for making learning my Torah portion and Haftorah so fun. Also, thanks for all the hot chocolate you gave me! I would like to thank everyone who came today from out of town and my friends and family. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for supporting me in having a bar mitzvah, helping me practice, and arranging my party. I can’t thank you enough! Shabbat Shalom!

Zander McLane Bar Mitzvah dvar: Shelach

Shabbat shalom! My Torah portion is Shelach. At the beginning of Shelach, all the Israelites are in the desert near Canaan when God tells Moses to send twelve spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, to go check out Canaan. Moses sends the spies to the hill country so that they can come back and tell the people what kind of land it is, and he also tells them to bring back ripe grapes to show what kinds of fruits grow in Canaan.

When the spies get there, they look around the country and eventually find grapes so big that they need two people and a frame of wood to carry the grapes.

After forty days in Canaan, the twelve spies come back to the Israelites and report their findings. Ten of the spies end up telling the community that the people of Canaan are giants, and will kill everybody. Thus the community goes into terror. The whole community shouts and cries, saying that that they would rather go back to Egypt and be slaves again because it is better to be a slave than to fall to the sword.

When God hears this, God gets mad. God says to Moses that God is going to strike the Israelites down because they don’t have faith in God, and will make a nation more numerous than the Israelites to replace them.

Moses begs God not to destroy the Israelites and, while God and Moses are talking, the people sneak away. (Just kidding!) What actually happens is that Moses begs for God’s mercy for the Israelites and, because of Moses, God changes their punishment. Rather than being killed, God decides that the unfaithful Israelites will wander the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day the spies scouted the land, and their children will wander until the last of their carcasses drop.

And then there’s some boring and important stuff about offerings… But who cares about that! Moving on.

As I was reading through my Torah portion, the question I was most curious about was why there were twelve spies, exactly. In my Haftorah portion, forty years after the events I just described, Joshua sends two new spies (these ones do a slightly better job) to Jericho, the city they want to conquer. In the first few minutes of being in Jericho they get caught, and hide in a woman’s house. The woman is named Rahab and she is awesome, because when the king’s men see the spies go into her house she lies to the king’s men and says they’re not there. This allows the spies to escape out her window. In return for this great deed the spies tie a red cord on her window so when the Israelite army comes back to attack the city, they make sure not to kill anyone in her house.

As you can see, in my Haftorah, there are only two spies; but in my Torah portion, there are twelve. Why this discrepancy in numbers, when in both cases there are spies being sent to check out the land they want to conquer? How did they decide who to send as spies, and how many?

Now, I’m gonna pull a Rashi here. Rashi was a medieval French rabbi and you could say he had the catchphrase, “what’s bugging Rashi?” because he would be bugged by practical details of what was happening in Torah stories and interpret them. So instead of what’s bugging Rashi, “what’s bugging Zander?” When I came up with this joke, I thought it was funny that my and Rashi’s Hebrew names are both Shlomo.

So what’s bugging me is this question: why was it important to send exactly these twelve people in Shelach to scout out the Land of Israel?

To get some things straight, these people were not the best spies of the Israelites. These people were the sons of the chiefs of the twelve tribes. So why send these people, and not, like, actual trained spies?

My answer to this is, maybe these sons of the chiefs were seen to be trustworthy people by all the tribes, and when they would report back to their own tribe, their tribe would trust their report. Also, maybe, the thought process was that the more people you send, the harder it is for lies to get through. Just see how that went down! Because in factuality ten lied and two didn’t (Joshua and Caleb, the people who called out the liars).

Also, wouldn’t having one spy from each of the different tribes potentially lead to conflict? At the very least, if each spy was from a different tribe, they’d probably have different customs, and each do things differently. This might cause a lot of disagreement within the group.

On the other hand, there would be a couple advantages to sending spies from different tribes; they probably wouldn’t know each other that well, so they wouldn’t have any dirt on each other, and wouldn’t be able to manipulate each other. Another advantage of sending one spy from each Israelite tribe is that they would be a very diverse group, with a diverse skill set. They could each weigh in to get the best possible solution to any problem that could come up as they were traveling.

As you can see there could have been advantages and disadvantages to sending these twelve spies. But what actually happened was that their spying was a complete disaster — ten lied and two told the truth, and the Israelites were almost destroyed!

So: Whose idea was it to send out twelve spies in the first place then? If we look back at my Torah portion, it says in Numbers chapter 13, verse 1: “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.’”

So it seems as though God told Moses to send one spy from each tribe. But Ibn Ezra (who was a Spanish Rabbi dude, which is interesting that the two rabbis I have talked about were both from the middle ages, and were from countries that were rivals at certain points in history) — Ibn Ezra says that when it’s written in the Torah “Send forth,” that what actually happened was first God said to the Israelites “Go and conquer.” Then the Israelites said to themselves: “Let’s send people first.” And only after this, God said: “Send forth men.”

According to Ibn Ezra, then, the Israelites were the ones who wanted the reassurance of spies — it wasn’t something that God thought should happen in the first place. It was more like God was saying, “fine, you can have that” — like God was bitter.

All in all, I have to say, that sending twelve spies wasn’t the best idea that the Israelites had. It made God mad, plus it seems like the Israelites were not the sharpest knives in the drawer, because they chose such bad spies! And because those ancient Israelites were so gullible, if Joshua and Caleb had not called out the ten spies that lied, we’d all be Egyptian. So thank goodness that the liars got called out.

A couple lessons I think we can draw from this story is that there’s not always strength in numbers. Also that liars never prosper, meaning that people who lie always can and will be found out eventually.

So kids (and maybe parents too), this is why you don’t lie. There is always some negative unintended effects from lying, cheating, and other non-truthful behaviour, like loss of trust and punishment. As the prophet Jeremiah eloquently states, “The Lord God is truth.” Also, in the Talmud, Pesachim 113b, it is written, “The Holy One, blessed be God, hates a person who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart.” I know I sounded like a book there, but the point is, Judaism teaches us: don’t lie.

Levi Kopald Bar Mitzvah drash: Sh’mini

Shabbat shalom. My parsha, or Torah portion, is Sh’mini, which is in the book of Leviticus. Most of Sh’mini is about dietary laws which is what you can and cannot eat in Jewish law. Some things you cannot eat are animals that do not have true hooves or do not chew their cud. Also, you may not eat birds of prey, and most insects and shellfish.

But what I think is the most interesting part of my parsha is the story of Nadav and Avihu. Two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, put fire and incense in a fire-pan, and then offered to God some sort of unholy, bad, or alien fire. And then for some reason God killed them; fire shot out and they died! Then Moses said to Aaron: “This is what God meant when God said: ‘This is how I will make myself holy – through those near to me I will show myself to be holy.’” And Aaron remained silent.

I had a lot of questions about what happened to Nadav and Avihu. Why did Nadav and Avihu make this offering in the first place? What made the fire they offered unholy? When God said “This is how I will make myself holy” – how did God killing Nadav and Avihu make God holier?

Many commentators have had similar questions about what happened. One explanation for what happened to Nadav and Avihu is that they were being punished because they were drunk.

Rashi, born in Northern France in 1040 and one of the most widely read commentators of the Torah, quotes an ancient rabbi named Rabbi Ishmael, who said: “[They died because] they had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. The proof is that after their death, God told Aaron and his remaining sons that they may not enter the sanctuary after having drunk wine. . . .”

Rashi offers another possible reason for why Nadav and Avihu were put to death: they were  punished because they were being disrespectful. In fact, Rashi mentions two ways that Nadav and Avihu could have been disrespectful. Rashi quotes another ancient rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, who said: “Aaron’s sons died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of Moses, their teacher.” In other words, Nadav and Avihu decided for themselves what the law meant.  They were being disrespectful to Moses, and therefore they were punished by God.

A second possibility comes from a midrash that says the Israelites were journeying through the desert with Moses and Aaron at the front, and all of Israel came after them. As they traveled along, Nadav said to Avihu, ‘Shortly, these two old men will die and we will lead the congregation.’ The way that they refer to Moses and Aaron, as old men – it could be realistic, saying that they’re going to die soon because it’s true, but it’s also very  disrespectful, and they clearly wanted power for themselves. On a deeper level, Nadav and Avihu were doubting Moses and Aaron’s abilities to teach them anymore, or to lead the nation.

So far, I’ve looked at the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as a punishment from God, either because they were drunk or because they were being disrespectful. But another, very different interpretation of what happened is that Nadav and Avihu just wanted to be close to God. What do I mean by this? Back in the book of Exodus, there’s a story of Moses, Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu going part of the way up Mt. Sinai to prostrate themselves before God. Quoting from Exodus Chapter 24, it says: “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the God Of Israel and beneath God’s feet, a brickwork of sapphire … They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank.”

What’s happening here?  Nadav and Avihu went up Mount Sinai, and saw God! What was this experience like for them? It was probably incredible – and pretty unimaginable. So maybe they had such a transcendent experience that they wanted to repeat it, and that’s why they ran to bring God a fire-offering, not thinking about or even caring about what might happen to them. Or, maybe they just made a mistake based on this past experience. Maybe they assumed that because they’d gone partway up Mount Sinai in the past, with Moses, to see God, they would also be able to offer sacrifices however they wanted in the future – because they were so dear to God.

Up until now, we’ve looked at Nadav and Avihu’s actions and motivations. But what about God’s?

If we look back at Leviticus chapter 10, verse 3, it says: “Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God spoke, [when God said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

Some commentators have suggested that this verse is related to what happened to Nadav and Avihu. What could this mean, that in killing Nadav and Avihu, God was glorified? Perhaps God wanted the people of Israel to see God again, because God had already been seen at Mount Sinai. So God demonstrated God’s glory to the Israelites by consuming Nadav and Avihu.  In other words, God wanted an audience. And I can relate to this – for example, I want people I’m close to to see me at my basketball games or baseball games–it’s understandable to want to be seen, especially when you’re good at something.

In this interpretation, God acts without caring about Nadav and Avihu. But there’s also another possible interpretation: that  God actually helped Nadav and Avihu by killing them.  In this interpretation, their death is not a punishment, but actually a reward from God–a way of being one with God, which they desperately wanted. It’s even possible that the strange fire they offered was such a wonderful, spontaneous offering that God instinctively drew them in and consumed them.

This interpretation is supported by a passage from  Torat Kohanim, which says that when Nadav and Avihu died, “Two thread-like [sparks] of fire entered their nostrils thereby destroying their souls along with all their internal organs, but leaving their external body structures intact.” It’s possible that this is proof that their being consumed by fire was a favor or blessing from God because their souls simply joined God and their bodies were left unharmed.

So. What kind of God is this? How does this relate to our lives?

The first time you hear this story, you might think Aaron’s sons died for no reason. Yet after many weeks of study and comparing the commentators’ interpretations, I think this story teaches us that there’s more than one way to be close to God. Everyone doesn’t have to have the same practices. However, the repercussions of trying to get close to God can be very dangerous.

Another possible moral of this story is that it’s hard to get close to God. It takes a lot of work, and we don’t necessarily know how to do it. There’s a lot of mystery there–not knowing what will happen. But above all, it’s important to be respectful–not just respectful to God, but also respectful to those around you, because they are extensions of God.

We don’t actually know what God is like, or what will happen when we try to get close to what is holy. This is all a mystery. However, what we’re left with is something that’s less mysterious, but almost as challenging: We know that what we can do to be close to God is to be respectful of other people.

With this in mind, Rabbi Ora asked me to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments on how to be respectful, and I’m going to teach them to you now: 

  1. Don’t say hateful things – don’t swear, don’t say hurtful things, don’t be mean, don’t insult people.
  2. Don’t talk bad about people behind their backs. In Hebrew, the phrase for this is lashon hara.
  3. Give compliments to people – truthful ones, in order to make them feel good. In order to do this, first you have to think about the person and think about their positive qualities. Like my sister Ahava – she helps with my math homework, and then I thanked her for it.
  4. Say thank you to people. Showing manners is important by thanking people, and showing gratitude and appreciation for people.
  5. Show respect to parents, teachers, principals, rabbis, adults in position of authority – to people who can teach you things. Listen to instruction. Don’t argue with someone in authority.
  6. Greet people – show people that you care that they’re there. I could do that here at services – saying hello to a new kid, a new family.
  7. Listen – honor when someone else is speaking and don’t interrupt.
  8. Always keep promises that you make.
  9. Be respectful of places – of other people’s property, and don’t litter.Take care of nature, don’t pollute.
  10. Show that you care about people through your actions – let them know you’re thinking about their feelings.

In conclusion, I have learned many things throughout this process like the many ways to respect other people and God. But I have also learned what is disrespectful. Most of the things I have learned from reading my torah portion is from Nadav and Avihu. What do you think about Nadav and Avihu? Do you think it is just as simple as God killed them because they were drunk or do you think there is some higher meaning involved such as that God did Nadav and Avihu a favor?  What do you think?

Finally, I would like to thank my mom and dad for helping me in the entire process with making sure I practiced, taking me to different appointments, my dad helping me write this speech and  my mom planning the party and helping me study my Torah portion. Also, I would like to thank my Zede Newman for helping me embrace Jewish culture and become my Jewish self. I would also like to thank my Bubbe for teaching me about Judaism and about life in general. I would also like to thank my sisters Ahava and Clara for helping me study my Torah portion and helping me throughout this entire process. I would also like to thank Scott for helping make sure I practiced and also taking me to appointments. I would also like to thank Kathy for making my invitations and decorating the baseballs for my party. I would also like to thank Deb Kraus for helping me learn my Torah portion my haftorah and how this whole service is run. I would like to thank Rabbi Ora for helping me write this speech and teaching me about my torah portion and more about Judaism. Last but not least I would like to thank this whole congregation for supporting me throughout this entire process. Shabbat shalom.

Zichronot/Memories

Memories by Josh Samuel, on Rosh Hashanah 2017

My family moved to Israel when I was eleven. Israel is built on shared memory.

The memory of the Holocaust permeated my coming of age in Israel, building a wall of justification.

Memorial ceremonies in white shirts on Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, the day before Independence Day, with wisps of flute music snatched by the wind and solemn poems about the youth being a silver platter on which the country was served.

But there was an earnest sense of belonging, a feeling that our path was right. I remember standing with friends in a clutch of bicycles, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, discussing seriously what we would do if we were invaded and how we would resist.

Years later, at my farewell party in Albuquerque NM, heading back to Israel after my two-year postdoc, we heard that Yitzchak Rabin had been shot and killed. We returned to Israel, but that sense of belonging had evaporated.

There is a hole where that feeling of belonging was, like a missing filling, huge when probed with the tongue, but seemingly imperceptible when viewed from the outside.

I no longer celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, nor do I celebrate the 4th of July.

There is a sense of loss when a place leaves you, or maybe it was never actually there from the beginning.

I fight against the cynicism and anger that the loss of belonging to a country can invoke.

I strive to find belonging in a community for myself and my family.

Because that is all there is.

and it is enough.

[Editor’s note: Each year we extend the learning from the High Holidays by publishing some of the talks given during services. You can find other Rosh Hashanah talks from past years here.]

 

Miriam Chava Berman Stidd dvar on Bereshit

Shabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Bereshit, which as most of you know, tells the story of the creation of the world. We read today the first chapter of Genesis, verses 1 through 23, which takes us from Day 1 through Day 5, from the creation of light and darkness all the way through the creation of birds and fish.

I wanted to read this last Aliyah because it reminded me of the Marc Chagall stained glass windows in Nice, France, at the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum, which feature birds and fish. These stained-glass windows mean so much to me because they are by one of my favorite artists. His art pieces about creation almost make me think they are not just about the creation of the world, but about Marc Chagall creating himself through his art, because his visual interpretation of the creation story tells you so much about who he was as a person. It wasn’t just that Chagall was expressing himself, he was creating who he was right then and there, in that moment.

So, who was Chagall? Born into a very religious Jewish household on July 6, 1887, there weren’t any pictures of anything, because according to his family and tradition, any representations were idolatry. Despite his parents not wanting him to, he still left his home in Belarus and went to art school in France and eventually became a great artist. (This clearly shows the importance of listening to your parents). He is well known for his paintings and stained-glass windows that depict biblical stories and other things. This was a way he displayed his spirituality.

Out of respect for his parents, he didn’t want to display them in his art, so the fish represented his father (he sold fish at a local market). His mother’s name in Yiddish sounded like the Yiddish word for chicken or rooster, and if you look closely, there is a rooster in almost every one of his paintings. Chagall is creating himself through including these elements by letting you see a piece of his parents’ and his childhood, which are still a part of him at the time he creates the art. [Read more…]

The Call of the Shofar: Rena Basch on Activism

Rena and Jeff Basch at our 2017 Annual BBQ. Photo by Stephanie Rowden

by Rena Basch, from her dvar on Rosh Hashana

Often people hear a distinct, sharp call to action. Something happens; something shocking or traumatic happens to you, your family, your community, or your nation. We hear these calls to action. They’re often loud and clear. Yet, we struggle with what actions to take. We hear the call. But then what?

There are also softer, more subtle calls to action. You’ve heard something over and over again, but then one day, the same words sound different. Something crystallizes in your head. “Aha,” you say. You hear the call.

For me, current events of 5777 provided an unrelenting cacophony. Deafening calls to action. I sifted through the noise, adjusted priorities, and chose a path for tikkun olam. I’m fortunate and grateful for being able to do this: hear the call–consider, contemplate, plan–then act. I have learned how to do this from all of you. Our community sounded the shofar, then taught me how to hear it. You’ve showed me how I can be useful, can help change the world.

Here are just a few examples:

A pair of our founders, my friends Aura and Aaron Ahuvia, extend an invitation to me–a call to an unaffiliated, uninvolved Jew: Come to our Reconstructionist Havurah. I’m like, “What’s a Reconstructionist Havurah? Sounds like a cult.” They took the time to explain, and Aha! I’m in. This is Judaism to me.

Over the years, these subtle calls to action continued from our community members. A very young Sarah Kurz–I will always remember her empathy. Back when the Hav was still meeting in the basement of a church near the law quad. A special aunt of mine had died. I’m crying during services and Sarah comforts me. I hear the call: I need to do that too – comfort those in need. Stop being afraid to reach out.

Again, a few years ago – Marcy Epstein says “let’s plan Shmita. Let’s plan Shmita for the Jewish community of Ann Arbor and southeast MI.” And I say, “Huh? What’s Shmita? Never heard of it.” Then, “that’s too devout, that’s too spiritual, that’s too big an endeavor. I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “Food! Land! Justice! Shmita!” Aha, I hear the call. She and Carol, and Idelle and many others made me see how I was needed to help us study and celebrate Shmita.

Last year, Rabbi Alana spoke at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice 50th Anniversary dinner. Here’s what I heard her say–more or less: “You old activists need to listen to the young activists to understand today’s issues, to understand today’s methods. And you young activists need to learn from the old how to build infrastructure.” Aha! A clear call to action. I can help with that. I can learn from different generations. I can help build bridges.

Again, this past year, right now really–the cacophony. Bells are ringing loud and clear. The shofar blowing every morning in the form of daily news. Fresh assaults on our values nearly every day. The antithesis of tikkun olam. I heard, I hear this shofar. Most of us here today hear the call to action. And our community, like usual, we’re hearing that call–we’re listening, processing–the are wheels turning, and we’re helping each other find our way to action.

I decided in November to become “An Activist.” (Because I need yet another career path, another to-do list, right?) I’ve been listening to my mother saying over and over again–“gerrymandering is tearing apart our nation.” Aha! The light bulb goes on, the idea crystallizes, I hear the call. I can act to fix that.

I look around our congregation and see role models everywhere, activists of all sorts, hearing the call, living their values, giving their skills and time, acting to make the world a better place in a myriad of different ways. I tell Rebecca Kanner I’m going to work on redistricting reform. I ask her to teach me how to be an activist.  She says “you already are.” What? Huh? ……Aha! thank you. Thank you for giving me the confidence to say, yes. Yes, I am an Activist.

So thank you, my Ann Arbor Reconstructionist community for giving me the support, the role models, the opportunities and the confidence to truly heed the shofar. We all hear the call. We are all acting.