Odile Hugonot Haber on Parashat Shemini

Odile Hugonot Haber Bat Mitzvah Words, April 11 2015

We are reading in Leviticus now, and it is a good time to have a Bat Mitzvah, a recommitment, because in Hebrew, the book of Leviticus and its first chapter are named Vayikra,–“and the Lord Called.” I read in Avraham Burg’s Torah commentary, Very Near To You “When the time comes for the book of Leviticus, with all its sacrifices and their spattered blood, I raised my spines like a hedgehog…” We do too, so how do we understand these passages today?

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of  Jerusalem after a snowstorm in 2014

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of Jerusalem after a snowstorm, 2014

The Hebrews came out to the desert led by Moses and Aaron, liberated from slavery, from alienated labor and from the whip of Pharaoh, the ruler and employer. They found themselves suddenly in front of the silence–and beauty–of the desert, a simpler life in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Yes, life in the desert can be humbling, very simple, bringing us back to our core. The few sounds in the silence, the plants that grow against the wind, the crackling of the sand, the trails of little animals, all that immensity of sky, earth and cloud. Definitely a new way of life.

The desert can be very intimidating, such a change! It was important to organize that emerging society, give it some structure and community. Rather than leave them in front of each other in distress to fight and divide, it was time to build on their freedom and support a spiritual life that would nourish them and open their minds and hearts. The tribes had to be kept assembled and form a new identity. So the services were created, the priesthood was formed, the people performed, then the laws were given from on high.

But what about the sacrifices of animals, the spilling of blood? How could it possibly mean something to us now? Very few of us are prepared to spill blood, and yet we are living from the continual sacrifices of others. Our nation and its might of military arsenals is continually spilling the blood of some of the poorest people on earth. Many animal species are moving to extinction because humans are gorging ourselves on materialism while the rest of nature is perishing around us.

The second temple has been long destroyed, animal sacrifices have been eradicated, and many of us here are vegetarian. So what are the sacrifices that Adonai wants to get from us at this time? “The building of the temple and the renewal of the sacrificial service are the climax of the Jewish state’s true rebirth and the redemption of the world,” as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook expressed it, “to build the temple and the sacrificial service is the noblest and highest of aspiration.” It certainly beats materialism and shopping. Yet, Isaiah tells us that God does not delight in sacrifices and in rituals. God instead would like us to do the work of Peace and Justice around us. [Read more…]

Caleb’s drash

Mazel tov to Caleb on his becoming Bar Mitzvah! Here is his d’var torah, on Parashat Yitro

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

 Welcome, Shabbat shalom.

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, Exodus 18 through 20. The Israelites have just left Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea, and they are in the wilderness. In the first part of the portion, Moses meets up with his father-in-law Jethro (His Hebrew name is Yitro, thus the name of the portion). Jethro notices that Moses is carrying too much responsibility by solving everyone’s little arguments and disputes. Jethro suggests that Moses should have other people solve the Israelites’ minor disputes and bring only the big problems to Moses. Moses follows Jethro’s advice.

Meanwhile, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites to prepare for God to come down to Mount Sinai to talk to the people. The people follow God’s wishes and wait for God to come down. When God comes down in a theatrical show of thunder, lighting and the trembling of the mountain, God makes a set of rules that are now known as the ten commandments.

I will read the ten commandments in my Torah portion today. [Read more…]

Mazel Tov, Avi!

Avi became Bar Mitzvah on Saturday, December 6.  Here’s his thoughtful d’var torah, on Jacob and Esau and their reconciliation.

Avi

Avi, at his Bar Mitzvah

Shabbat Shalom!

My parshah is VaYishlach (and he went), set in the book of Genesis. And he went refers to Jacob leaving Laban’s house to slowly work his way home again after “being paid” and accruing a lot of wetalth, including loads of goats and sheep from Laban, two wives, a large family, and lots of slaves.

The Parshah is about the Jacob and has three small stories within it:

First, Jacob wrestling with the being, where Jacob bumps into some being in the night and wrestles it. As the day is breaking, the being asks to be let go, and Jacob says he will let it go only if it will give him a blessing. He gets the blessing and the name Israel.  By the way my haftorah, Hosea 11-12 references this moment, connecting it to my parshah.

The middle of the parashah describes how Jacob, on his way home after running from Esau twenty years earlier, realizes that he will now have to confront his brother.

The end of the parashah tells the story of the possible rape of Dinah. I am not going to discuss this in my D’rash today, but if you don’t know about it then you should read it yourself. It is interesting and important.

Let us begin with the story of the wrestling. [Read more…]

A D’var Torah about the Akedah

by Margo Schlanger

ShofarThe traditional Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of Isaac and the near-death of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by a woman whose name we never find out – Hagar, the name given in the Torah, means “foreigner.”  Ishmael, of course, is the father of the Ishmaelites.  In the Muslim tradition, he is the Muslim patriarch, ancestor of Muhammed, and more generally of the Arab Muslims.

It’s the relationship between that first day’s parsha and the parsha for today, Rosh Hashanah’s second day, that I want to talk about.  Today’s parsha is Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As we all know, it’s a difficult portion.  If the project of our Torah reading is to find inspiration and edification, that’s a tough undertaking from a story that seems to portray just about everyone behaving badly.

How can we reconcile ourselves to a God who says to Abraham “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”?  And if the answer to that question is, it’s a test, then that raises another question:  How can we admire an Abraham who is so bold, so compassionate, as to argue with God over strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, but not bold enough and compassionate enough to argue with God about the command to murder his own child?  If it’s a test, didn’t Abraham fail, when he set so silently to obey?

These are not new questions.  [Read more…]

Erev Rosh Hashanah Message

Rabbi Michal Woll

Rabbi Michal Woll
Photo: Stephanie Rowden

Rosh Hashanah may be the most complicated of our holy days, for its identity is fractured. In biblical tradition it was simply “day of blowing the horn.” Over millennia other purposes and themes have been layered upon it – the new year, the day of judgment, the day of remembrance, the day of crowning God, the day the world was made. I was inspired some months ago to focus this year on the last one – RH as the anniversary of creation, and tomorrow we will read a traditional alternative to the conventional torah reading – the first chapter of genesis, the original creation story.

Jews don’t seem to need to argue so much with this version of creation. One possible reason is that our tradition recognizes that the world is constantly being recreated and renewed. We sang at the opening of the service – chadesh yameinu kekedem – renew our days as of old, like at the beginning. We find in the morning liturgy: b’tuvo m’chadeish bechol yom tamid ma’aseih v’reishit – with divine goodness you renew, each day, continually, the work of creation. We too are renewed each day, reminded with the elohai neshamah – each morning we find a pure breath, a clear soul, ready for a new imprint that we make with our daily lives.

And our obligation following the second biblical creation story – the expulsion from Eden, which will be read and discussed a few weeks from now – is not to atone for the mistake of Adam and Eve but to strive to repair the gap between the world as we find it and the original vision of paradise. Unfortunately our job is not as easy as God’s was. God exclaimed: let there be light, and there was. As we will sing in the morning – baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam – blessed is the one who spoke and the world was. Wow – like magic. In fact, this moment is imbedded in the common language of conjuring and magic. Abra-cadabra is not merely gibberish syllables, but Talmudic Aramaic. A’bra – I create – the same root as the first line of torah – breishit bara elohim – in the beginning god created. Dabra – I will speak – related to the most common phrase in torah – vaydaber adonai el moshe – and God spoke to Moses. Abra cadabra – I create just as I speak. [Read more…]