Thursday, August 15, 2019

TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Va'etchanan


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Va’etchanan Shabbat Nahamu August 17, 2019 | 16 Av 5779
Annual (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11): Etz Hayim p. 1005-1031; Hertz p. 755-776
Triennial (Deuteronomy 5:1-7:11): Etz Hayim p. 1015-1031; Hertz p. 765-776
Haftarah (Isaiah 40:1-26): Etz Hayim p. 1032-1036; Hertz p. 776-779

D’var Torah: Finding Consolation
Rabbi Joe Schwartz, Conservative Yeshiva Alumnus (2010-11)

Moshe prays many times in the Torah — for God to forgive the people after the sin of the golden calf, to allow God’s spirit to rest on others and devolve some of Moshe’s authority; for the healing of his sister — and in every instance, his prayers are for the wellbeing of others. Only once in the Torah — in Parashat Va’etchanan — does Moshe pray for himself.

In point of fact, Moshe doesn’t exactly pray. He begs. “At that time,” Moshe tells the assembled Jewish people, all of them destined for the land of promise, “I begged God, saying. . . ‘please, let me cross over and see this goodly land across the Jordan, this good hill country and the Lebanon.’” (3:23, 25)

But, for the first time in their long relationship, God refuses his faithful servant’s plea: “Rav lach” God replies to Moshe, “you ask too much. Speak no more to me of this thing. Go up to the top of Mt. Pisgah, raise your eyes to the west, the north, the south, and the east and look with your eyes — but you shall not cross this Jordan River.” (3:27) It is especially painful to hear God use the same words to chastise Moshe as did the rebel Korah, who also said rav lachem. After all, what did Moshe ever seek for himself? And still he’s told it’s too much.

Of all the Jews gathered in the plains of Moab, Moshe alone is barred from entering the land. This is almost unbearable, for the reader and for Moshe alike. His entire life has been devoted to the service of God and the Jewish people. He has sacrificed all he had, forsaking his home and position. And now he has nothing: his parents are gone; his beloved sister and brother have died, he is without friend or peer. He wants only one thing: To enjoy, if only for a little while, the fruits of his life’s labor.

And yet, the pathos here is only an extreme instance of the human condition. Kohelet, that extended meditation on the absurdity of life, says this plainly: When one realizes that all one’s toil will be at best for the benefit of others, and at worse for no one at all, one can come to despise life. Indeed, Devarim Rabba (2:2) tells us that one name for Moshe is simply “ish”, human being. And God’s “no” to Moshe is the same as God’s “no” in the Garden of Eden, from which humanity was driven “lest they stretch forth their hand, and take from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever.”

It is an astounding irony, then, that the Shabbat on which we read Parashat Va’etchanan is known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. Even the Prophet Isaiah, whose words we read this Shabbat, tells us that “all flesh is grass, all its goodness like the flowers of the field.” How are we to find consolation in any of this?

R’ Ovadia Sforno offers us a hint of how we can move from despair at the futility of life to consolation. He writes that when God instructed Moshe to climb Mt. Pisgah, it was so that Moshe would bless the land and the people who would live in it.

The final lesson that God has to teach Moshe is that the way we can rescue ourselves from the mood of disappointment and despair that mortality can provoke — is to bless. To behold the green vistas we will never enter, consider the grandchildren we will never know, imagine the joys we will never taste doesn’t have to fill us with regret. It could do the opposite. We could smile upon it.

And, indeed, Moshe learns this lesson. It is with the text of Moshe’s blessing (V’zot Habracha) that the Torah ends.

Even for the greatest of us, it is not an easy thing to accept our death. And it is not an easy thing to bless. But if we can turn despair to blessing, if we can find a way not only to accept, but to embrace that the world will continue without us, there may be, in the end, a reward for our labors, and consolation. Rabbi Joe Schwartz served for three years as Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, a small, traditional-egalitarian synagogue in Greenwich Village. He is now working on the creation of IDRA, a house of culture, learning and coffee in Brooklyn that is a new-old model for the Jewish and Jewish-adjacent and Jewish-curious community.

Parashat Va’etchanan Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In this parashah Moshe begins his epic speech about the Mitzvot, which we will follow for many parashot to come. Moshe will deliver commandments; some new and some renewed, as well as speak about them in general. Keep your eyes open for the 10 Commandments, as well as the first passage of Shema.

1) Moshe asks God again to enter the land: “let me cross and see the good land across the Jordan” (3:23-28). How can Moshe define the land as ‘good’ having never been there?

2) Moshe says to obey the laws that Moshe is teaching them so that they may live and possess the land (4:1-2). Why would this be a prerequisite for survival?

3) Moshe warns the people about the time when they will have been established in the land for many generations. They will “make sculptured images of all sorts, as well as do what is evil in the eyes of The LORD your God…” (4:25). Why is this warning given specifically to future generations? Why stress the ‘doing of evil’ after already mentioning the transgression of worshiping images?

4) At the revelation at Sinai the people turned to Moshe stating that they had heard God and lived, but fear that they will be consumed by the great fire if they continue to hear God’s voice (5:20-22). What do the words of the people tell you about their experience of revelation?

5) The first section of the Shema is found in 6:4-9. After discussing our relationship with God, we are told to speak and teach the words we were commanded. We should also tie them on the arm and between our eyes (tefillin), as well as write them on the doorposts (mezuzot). Why do you think that physical reminders of the mitzvot were added to the instruction to study and teach mitzvot?

D’var Haftarah: The Source of Comfort*
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

With this week’s haftarah, we begin a series of seven haftarot of consolation (Shiva D’nehamta) which follow Tisha b’Av and bring us to the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe) - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These haftarot are drawn from the last part of the book of Isaiah which contains prophecies from the beginning of Shivat Zion, the return from the Babylonian exile. And many contain messages of reconciliation with God, inspired by the end of the exile from Eretz Yisrael.

The prophets emphasized that with the end of physical exile the people’s relationship with God was also on the mend. This message comes through most clearly in the opening words of this week’s haftarah, which famously begins: “Nahamu nahamu ami yomar Eloheichem,” which translates most simply as “Be comforted, be comforted, O My people, says your God.” (40:1)

Commentators throughout the ages have sought to explain both the doubling of the word “nahamu” as well as the odd syntax. While it is likely “just” a literary device used by this particular prophet, Rabbi Mordechai Malkovitch, the teacher of the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Berezovsky, takes more creative license. He reads the verse to say: “Nahamu / Be comforted, ami / that you are My people, yomar / then your God will say, E-loheichem / I am your God.” For Malkovitch our consolation lies first in knowing that we are God’s people, because, as God’s people, reconciliation is always possible.

For Malkovitch though, this isn’t a reason to feel entitled. He elaborates: “Since you are children of the King, don’t make yourselves loathsome through inappropriate behavior, since being the child of the King necessitates totally ‘other’ behavior.” (Netivot Shalom, Devarim p. 41) For Malkovitch, as CHILDREN of the King, we are expected to live up to our elevated status. Though we will be given second and third chances, we live (or should live) with a healthy fear of causing God to be disappointed.

Jews view exile and redemption through this prism. National sin leads to periods of alienation where we are exiled from our home - the place where we feel closest to God. It is painful to come to grips with God’s disappointment and feel exile’s chill, but we are ultimately supposed to trust in our special bond with God and know that God will never refuse our return. Like a child who trusts their parent’s love, even when we do wrong there is a core of self-esteem that motivates us and gives us the confidence to do the work of repenting and returning.

Rather than make us complacent and entitled, our people’s unbreakable covenant and bond with God should inspire us to be our best selves, as individuals and as a nation. * In memory of my beloved teacher, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, zichrono levracha.

from USCJ
via USCJ

Monday, August 12, 2019

TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Devarim


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Devarim Shabbat Hazon August 10, 2019 | 9 Av 5779
Annual (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22): Etz Hayim p. 981-998; Hertz p. 736-749
Triennial (Deuteronomy 2:31-3:22): Etz Hayim p. 981-990; Hertz p. 736-743
Haftarah (Isaiah 1:1-27): Etz Hayim p. 999-1004; Hertz p. 750-754

D’var Torah: A Paradoxical Identity
Rabbi Shoshana Cohen, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) is filled with retellings of earlier stories, and Parashat Devarim begins by retelling one of the most famous and important episodes in Sefer Bereishit (the Book of Genesis): Brit Bein HeBetarim, the “Covenant Between the Parts,” when God made this famous promise:

(13) Then the Lord said to Avram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be gerim (strangers) in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; (14) but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. . . (16) And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”. . . “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, (19) the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, (20) the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, (21) the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Bereishit 16)

In these few verses, we have an abridged version of the beginning of Jewish history, from Avraham through Egypt and into the Land of Israel.

When Parashat Devarim nods to this text, we are meant to understand that now is the moment we have been waiting for:

(6) The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. (7) Resume your journey, and go into the hill country of the Amorites. . . the land of the Canaanites and the Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. (8) See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.” (Devarim 1)

Here the mysterious “iniquity of Amorites” has apparently been resolved, and it is now time for the offspring of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov to claim the land of the Canaanites.

One of the key features of our story, as told here, in Bereishit, and elsewhere in the Torah, is that we are on the move. On the one hand, we are told that this is our land, the land of our ancestors. On the other hand, we are told that our forefathers came from elsewhere and that our inhabitance of the land will happen after a long period of time; we will first be slaves, wander in the desert, and only later will we enter and settle. Thus at the core of the Jewish narrative, and therefore Jewish identity, we find a paradox. We are native and conqueror, from here and from there, all at the same time.

Enough of the wandering says Moshe here, you have sat here at Horev too long, it is time to enter and settle the land. And yet our formative experiences as a people, in Aram, in Egypt, and at Sinai, all happened when we were wandering strangers.

What does it mean to live with this paradox of native and conqueror? Our duel identity can allow us to be honest about our own power while keeping it in check. Yes, we Jews, in Israel and in the United States, have a lot of power and a strong sense of belonging, but our other role as former slaves reminds us that this power must be balanced with a strong commitment to justice and looking out for those less powerful. As wanderers, we remember what it was like to be weak and on the outside of society, but part of our survival as a people was an ability to stay true to a textual tradition and narrative that never let us let go of a sense that we were one people bound together.

It is critical that we look deeply at these core elements of what it means to be Jewish. It means leveraging our power and sense of security for the sake of those less secure and it means doubling down on our commitment to our language and textual tradition that has kept us together, creative and thriving throughout our generations.

Parashat Devarim Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

We are starting the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the fifth book of the Torah. It contains mostly Moshe’s final words to the People of Israel including historic narratives, legal material, and Moshe’s take on what might happen in the future.

1) The book opens with the statement that “these are the words that Moshe spoke… across the Jordan, in the wilderness…between Paran and Tofel… It was in the 40th year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month…” (1:1-3). Why do you think the exact location and time of this speech are given?

2) Moshe starts his words with ‘God told us to go and conquer the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…’ (1:6-8). At what other points in the story might he have started? Why does he start with this?

3) In recounting the travels on the east side of the Jordan, Moshe mentions the nations that lived there earlier and were conquered “just as Israel did to the land of their possession” (2:9-23). He does not mention events such as Balaam who tried cursing them and instigated the events at Baal Peor (Bemidbar 22-25). What might be his reason for telling the events with this focus?

On Saturday night and on Sunday we will be observing the fast of Tisha Be’Av, commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples. The Book of Eicha, Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B’Av, grew out of the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE.

1) In the opening verses of the first chapter Jerusalem is described as a woman who has been forsaken by those who had been her fans, her friends become her enemies (1:2). How does this image help us understand the trauma experienced by Jerusalem of the 6th century?

2) Chapter 3 is unlike the other 4 chapters. It is made up of short verses spoken in first person. It does not speak of the historic event but rather reads as a stream of consciousness full of (often theological) thoughts. Why do you think that this was placed in the middle of the book?

D’var Haftarah: Isaiah’s Vision
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This Shabbat is the last of the three Shabbatot which precedes Tisha b’Av. It takes its name – Shabbat Hazon - from its special haftarah which opens with the words “Hazon Yishayahu – The Vision of Isaiah”. The “vision” of historical events as seen through the eyes of the prophets is different from how we might see historical events. Yishayahu, characteristically, views the tragic events which befall his city and its people through the prism of the behavior of its inhabitants. Outside threats are seen as a divine response to the internal wrongdoings of the city.

Yishayahu’s prophecy is not a response to the Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple. He lived during an earlier threat from the Assyrians who also sought to conquer and destroy Jerusalem. Still, the threats to civil and moral society which afflicted his generation were common to the later generation as well. The city was rife with violence, corruption, and disloyalty to God, all serving as a rationale for the downfall of the city. The prophetic objective was to turn the city away from its evil ways and to restore its worthiness for redemption. Of course, the first step in the process is the realization that something is wrong. This is not always obvious to a society overcome by vice. Prophets had the unenviable task of confronting the society that they lived in and Yishayahu did not spare his tongue in this role: “How has the faithful town become a whore? Filled with justice, where righteousness did lodge, and now – murderers.” (1:21) Yishayahu pins the responsibility for this condition clearly on the heads of the leaders of the people: “Your nobles are knaves and companions to thieves. All of them lust for bribes and chase illicit payments. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s case does not touch them.” (1:23)

The nation’s problems trickle down; corrupt leadership inspires the populace to do the same. Also, the leadership’s self-indulgence leads it to ignore what is going on around them and leaves the nation to fall prey to further depravity. If the leaders will not take responsibility for the nation’s problems then the problems will fester until they bring about the nation’s downfall.

The Jewish liturgical tradition has us read this haftarah in the days before we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem as a reminder that the fate of society is in our hands and especially in the hands of the leaders of the people. If the leaders of the nation are unresponsive to society’s ills, the nation will fall. If wanton murder is endemic and the leaders fail to curb it for whatever reason there will be a price to pay and the Yishayahu warns us the consequences will be grave.

from USCJ
via USCJ

Friday, August 9, 2019

Sulam Text (Tisha B'av 2019): Forget About Facts: Tisha B'av and Why "Nothing" Matters But the Story

"Recall, O Lord, what befell us, look and see our disgrace–our estate turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners” (Megillat Eikha 5:1-2)"

The final chapter of Megillat Eikha is about return and memory. The narrator opens by asking God to recall the events in Jerusalem, and ends by asking that God let them spiritually and physically return. Generations later, after a second Temple was built and destroyed, our rabbis continued to make similar pleas to God, only over time the actions the rabbis proscribed include more about remembering the temple, even as they longed to rebuild it. The Talmud states:

And the Sages say: Whoever performs labor on the Ninth of Av and does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her future joy, as it is stated: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all who love her; rejoice for joy with her, all who mourn for her” (Isaiah 66:10). From here it is stated: Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy, and whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her future joy” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 30b).

Traditional Judaism never lost the aspiration to rebuild the Temple, as traditions ranging from breaking a glass at a wedding to concluding the Pesah Seder implicitly and explicitly alude to this hope. At the same time, the command to remember remains, and this might seem odd the longer we go without a third Temple, to say nothing of the Messiah. What this suggests to me is that the rabbis made the choice that we must emphasize the story to compensate for lack of evidence. We have little reason to believe that a third Temple will be rebuilt after two thousand years (modern messianism notwithstanding), but, on Tisha B’Av, we are challenged to recognize that the facts do not always matter.

As a rabbi who does leadership development, I will admit that I am a split personality when it comes to the gospel of metrics. On the one hand, I believe that organizations fail to make evidence-based decisions time and time again; the first article I wrote as a rabbi was called “Moneyball Judaism” for that reason. At the same time, Judaism is not only a religion of the head, but of the heart, and anyone who denies the role of emotion in how our Judaism came to be is selling themselves a lie. Facts versus feelings is not a tension to resolve, but a polarity to manage.

Dara Horn captures this tension in her recent novel Eternal Life, which tells the story of Rachel, the mother of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the sage credited with creating the yeshiva, the foundational institution of rabbinic Judaism. In a dramatic exchange between Yohanan and his mother, she asks Yohanan why he did not try to save the Temple itself. The passage states:

Mother, don’t you understand? When Vespasian asked me what he could give me, I knew exactly what to ask for. I asked for permission for the Torah scholars to be protected near their garrison in Yavneh. That way, no matter what happened to Jerusalem, there would still be people who could teach the Torah in the future. That way the Torah would be safe.” “But you could have saved the Temple!” “I don’t think I could have done that. If God wanted to destroy the Temple, God would destroy the Temple. God destroyed the Temple before”…“You’re like a child! You saved your favorite book!” “Yes! Because nothing matters but the story!” (Dara Horn, Eternal Life, 205-206).

Is Yohanan right that nothing matters but the story? I’m not sure, but this is the question that Jews grapple with each year on Tisha B’Av. Generations upon generations have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple, and what drives our connection to this physical place is not that any of us can say that we saw it with our eyes, but that we heard that story, felt the story’s impact, and passed it onto others. At the same time, what makes Tisha B’Av powerful is that it reminds us that telling the story is necessary, but not sufficient, to preserve Jewish tradition, for no story can take away the fact that there is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem.

Bill George writes in True North that “Leaders are defined by their unique life stories and the way they frame their stories to discover their passions and the purpose of their leadership” (xxvii). Sometimes, I find that synagogues are so wrapped up in the facts of the moment, everything from the budget obligations to the leaky roof, that they forget about the inspiration that makes those facts relevant, in the first place. Yet at a time when our institutions find many facts difficult to face, the only way to find new vitality and creativity is to momentarily forget the facts and focus on the story they seek to tell. Facts matter because they give us evidence, but stories matter because they give us hope. And in times when facts can discourage us from transformative work, hope matters a great deal.

May you have a safe and easy fast.

Click here for the printable text study.

from USCJ
via USCJ

Monday, August 5, 2019

A Transformative Experience through “Sulam Leadership”

When Rabbi Steven Rein took the reins of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, in February of 2014, he told the congregation that his number one goal as their new rabbi was for the congregation “to come together to engage in meaningful relationships with God, with family, and with community.”

In the Spring of 2017, Agudas Achim joined the fifth cohort of USCJ’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program in order to identify a path forward to help them achieve their vision of a community built on covenantal relationships.

The Strategic Planning Committee at Agudas Achim spent a year and a half working through the program – refining their vision, holding community conversations, conducting a survey, interviewing stakeholders, and engaging task forces. They chose to focus their work on the areas of leadership and governance, operations and finance, spirituality, prayer, and learning, member engagement, and communications, and as Rabbi Rein explained, the “sacred relationships with one another” which are the “connective tissue” that bind all of them together. In Rabbi Rein’s words, “We are in the business of helping people find connections and experiences of wholeness through relationships.”

In fact, one of the benefits that Agudas Achim saw from the strategic planning process was that the planning committee bonded as a group. There was a cohesiveness that resulted from working so intensively together on this project over the course of the year. Though this wasn’t necessarily a stated goal of the process, it fit nicely with the congregation’s goal of building sacred relationships.

In response to the planning committee’s strategic recommendations related to leadership and governance, the Board has implemented changes in their board structure to ensure that every board member has a portfolio and is working with a committee. They have also brought new people onto the board, some of whom were involved in the planning process, in order to further ensure that the strategies contained in their plan have the buy-in needed to move forward. In fact, the new president who was just elected this summer was a member of the planning committee and selected to chair the implementation effort.

Congregational leaders have also worked with the budget committee to ensure that their budget includes the high priority items that came out of the planning process, and the new president has already committed to including a strategic planning update on the agenda of every board meeting this year in order to ensure continual progress on their objectives. In fact, all major objectives identified in the strategic plan are in process and moving forward, albeit cautiously, in order to ensure proper buy-in and budgetary support.

In discussing the impact of Sulam for Strategic Planners at Agudas Achim, it became clear that the success of the program built on the success of some of USCJ’s other Sulam programs in which the congregation had previously participated.

Just before embarking on their strategic planning effort, Rabbi Rein decided to participate in USCJ’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL) program, where the rabbi and a lay facilitator from the congregation jointly facilitate a year-long program for members in their 30s and 40s who have not yet taken on synagogue leadership positions, but have been identified as people with leadership potential. At Agudas Achim, two members of that emerging leaders group were selected to be on the strategic planning committee, and are now new “rising stars” on the board, one of them chairing the membership committee.

Agudas Achim had also participated in USCJ’s Sulam for Purposeful Living (SPL), a program geared to members of the congregation who are part of the baby boomer generation, who may have already served in leadership positions, and are no longer as engaged in the congregation as they once were. As part of the SPL program, participants are encouraged to think about the talents and skills they have acquired over the course of their lifetimes, and how they might contribute those skills to the community. It turned out that one of the participants in the SPL group was a nonprofit consultant, who agreed to help train the board in best practices of nonprofit boards, in direct response to the need for more board training, which was identified in the strategic plan.

The Hebrew word, Sulam, means “ladder.” Our Sulam suite of leadership programs constitute a ladder with several rungs, which together give congregations the ability to reach higher toward their goals of becoming thriving congregations with thriving leaders.

from USCJ
via USCJ

Thursday, August 1, 2019

TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Matot & Mas'ey


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Matot & Mas'ey August 3, 2019 | 2 Av 5779
Annual (Numbers 30:2-36:13): Etz Hayim p. 941; Hertz p. 702
Triennial (Numbers 33:50-36:13): Etz Hayim p. 957; Hertz p. 716
Haftarah (Yirmiyahu 2:4-28; 3:4): Etz Hayim p. 972; Hertz p. 725

D’var Torah: Partners & Obligations
Rabbi Joel Levy, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh Yeshiva

The start of Mattot addresses the significance of religious oaths and vows. A man who makes a promise using the power of God-language binds himself totally to keep his word: (Bemidbar 30:3) “A man who vows a vow to YHVH or swears a sworn-oath… he is not to desecrate his word, according to all that goes out of his mouth, he is to do.” A religious vow creates a unique individual obligation quite different from the shared communal obligations of the whole community.

I say “man” advisedly. For women, the situation is more complicated and the parashah goes on to paint a picture of most women living so deeply under the authority of men that most of their vows are subject to a male veto. There are three categories of women described here:

  1. A young woman in her father’s house; here the father has the right to annul her vows when he hears them. (30:4-6)
  2. A married woman in her husband’s domain; here too her husband has the right to annul her vows. (30:7-9, 11-16)
  3. A widow or divorcee; she is free to make religious vows free of male interference. (30:10)

Since categories 1 and 2 of women live with and under the authority of men, the authoritative male in a woman’s life can choose to prevent her from making any binding vow. It is disturbing to see that in this biblical classification a woman needs to wait for divorce/bereavement in order to experience the full freedom of an unmediated relationship with God! The early rabbis tweaked this model and radically introduced a fourth category of womanhood, the independent young woman or "p’nuya" who is not under male authority. Nevertheless, they did not disrupt the core gender hierarchy, wherein married women and daughters not yet living on their own have their relationship with God mediated by their menfolk.

The Tosefta (parallel text to the Mishnah from about the same period, Masechet 1:8) articulates this hierarchy with clarity when discussing the obligations that an adult has vis-a-vis his or her parent:

What is the obligation of the son to the parent? He feeds and gives drink, clothes and covers, takes out and brings in, and washes his face, hands and feet. Men and women are equal except that the man has the means at his disposal and the woman does not have the means at her disposal, because there is the authority of others over her.

Women end up exempt from caring for their parents because they are not free agents. It would be cruel or ultimately destructive to place an obligation upon her that she could not fulfill because of her husband’s prior, and primary, claims. As Rabbi Pamela Barmash puts it, “her time, activity, and financial resources are not in her power”. To allow women the power to make independent vows would undermine the whole hierarchical structure of society (“I vow never to wash the dishes/cook for you/sleep with you again!”) Neither the Tanach nor the rabbis seem to want to allow models of religious liberty or piety that would subvert the established smooth running of society. After the Exodus from Egypt, Israelite men are radically free to serve God, but a woman’s freedom is only partial.

Most of the liberal Jewish world has long since lost a sense of fully binding communal norms. Practically speaking then, all decisions to embrace a life of deeper Jewish practice now come from a place of individual piety rather than mere conformity. But with the huge cultural shift toward full egalitarianism in our personal relationships, many couples in the liberal Jewish world have extended our parashah’s biblical right of veto to both sides in the relationship! There is often a tacit, or even an explicit agreement, that neither party will rock the marriage boat by getting more observant! The underlying assumption is that novel religious piety will inject damaging instability into a marriage. Deepening one’s religious practice is hard enough when one is single, but nigh on impossible when one’s partner holds the power of veto!

Since marital stability is such a high value for our tradition, there is an ever-present danger that the egalitarian relationships so many of us seek will, almost by definition, make us more attuned to the needs of our partners than to anything else that calls to us. With none of us fully in control of our own time, activities and financial resources, how do we tune in to God's voice?

Parashat Matot & Mas’ey Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This double parasha that ends the book of Bemidbar contains some topics that form a closure to events that started in earlier parashot, and others that are looking forward to the entry into the Land of Israel, just across the Jordan River.

1) In the previous parasha Moshe was instructed to assail the Midanities for their trickery in Baal Peor (resulting in the death of 24,000 Israelites). Now it is time to fulfill the instruction. Unlike other armed conflicts, in this one ‘engagement in battle’ is never mentioned. The instruction is to avenge (31:1-12). What might be the difference in the state of mind of the people participating? How might that manifest itself on the ground?

2) When sent out against the Midianites, every tribe sends an equal number of people regardless of the size of the tribe (31:4). Why?

3) The land conquered in trans Jordan (2 parashot ago) turns out to be excellent pasture land. 2 tribes, Reuven and Gad, ask to receive their allotted land there, and not on the west side of the Jordan (chapter 32). After some negotiations they get the land, as does ½ the tribe of Menashe. What would be the benefit of attaching ½ a tribe to the 2 tribes in trans Jordan?

4) The Israelites are instructed to set aside 6 cities of refuge, a place where a person who killed a fellow person accidentally may take refuge from the blood avenger until a court determined if the killing was indeed unintentional. 3 of these cities are in trans Jordan, despite only 2.5 tribes living on that side (35:9-24). What might be the reason for this?

5) The book closes (chapter 36) with a continuation of the story of the daughters of Tzlofchad whose demand to inherit land established the exception for land inheritance by women. The leaders of the tribe are concerned with the consequences of this exception. What will happen if the women marry men from other tribes, causing the land of the tribe to switch to the husband’s tribe? The solution is that they many marry whomever they wish, if they marry within the tribe (36:6). Why do you think that the women did not contest this limitation?

Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek!

D’var Haftarah: Going After Mere Breath
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

We are in the midst of the three weeks of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples, once in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. Is our mourning during this period just a commemoration of the past or does it represent something deeper? Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe), in his work, Netivot Shalom, points out that the special days of the Jewish calendar are meaningful only because their messages are eternal - they have something to say about who we are as Jews and human beings that will be forever relevant. This week’s haftarah, the second of the three special messages chosen to precede Tisha b’Av, the day in which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, illustrates this point. In it, Yirmiyahu, the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple, presents his people with two contrasting paths of action, one offering hope and the other disaster.

God, obviously, urges the people to choose the path of hope, reminding them to be cognizant of God’s blessings for His people and, in particular, the nation forming redemption from Egypt. He challenges them to remember their unique identity based on this event and their relationship with God and asks them to be grateful for what God has done for them. In contrast, the people seem to be bent on disregarding the past, on adopting the religious and social patterns of their neighbors, lacking gratitude and in denying God. Yirmiyahu’s message is that this attitude will bring about the destruction of the nation: “What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they grew distant from Me, went after mere breath and turned into mere breath? And they did not say: ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and led us through the wilderness in a land of desert and pits, in a land of parched earth and death’s shadow, in a land where no man has gone, and where no human dwelled?’” (2:5-6) Yirmiyahu is confounded by the people’s choices. How could they cast off those events which shaped who they are and ignore the Source of who they are?

Judaism, as a religion, stresses the importance of gratitude and loyalty. As a perpetual minority people, it is very difficult to juggle the above values together with the desire to fit in and be like everyone else. Even when the choices taken are bad choices, mere “breath” without substance, even if they are clearly wrongheaded, the desire to conform is still strong. This dilemma has tormented Jews throughout the ages and the pull of the ephemeral “breath” never disappears. Yirmiyahu’s message urges us not to forget where we come from and the power of our story when we confront life for to forget these things comes at a very high price.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Our 5780 Calendar is Out and Ready to Order!

In the 5780 calendar, you’ll notice our theme of rituals, and their role in the binding of a community. Rituals provide a sense of identity and are sacred to everyday life. Ritual objects are utilized both for special events and weekly occurrences and weave their way through some of the most important practices of Judaism. They are how we seek meaning, together.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Pinchas


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Pinchas Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
July 27, 2019 | 24 Tammuz 5779
Annual (Numbers 25:10-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 918; Hertz p. 686
Triennial (Numbers 28:16-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 931; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Jeremiah 1:2-2:3): Etz Hayim p. 968; Hertz p. 710

D’var Torah: E-lohei HaRuchot
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

When Moshe Rabeinu was about to relinquish his leadership over the children of Israel, he addressed God in a most unusual way: “Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying, 'Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh (E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar), appoint someone over the community.'" (Bemidbar 27:15-16) This being the only place where God is referred to in this manner, the sages were inspired to find deeper meaning in this phrase.

But what could “Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar” possibly mean? One answer became the basis for an unusual blessing. When a person sees a gathering of 600,000 Jews, (the number that tradition tells us was gathered at Mt. Sinai), one is supposed to say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who knows all secrets” (Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Chacham HaRazim). According to our sages, God knows all secrets because God is E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar. The sages thus read “ruchot” here to mean “spirits.” A little midrashic sleight of hand - spirits means ideas, ideas means secrets - and E-lohei HaRuchot becomes Chacham HaRazim.

When we say this upon seeing 600,000 Jews, we are praising not only God’s capacity to know people’s thoughts - their secrets - but also tacitly calling attention to the uniqueness of each individual. As Rashi says in his comment on 27:15-16,: "Just as no two faces are alike, so, too, no two people's ideas are alike." But most important for our sages, God knowing the thoughts of every individual means that God values the individuality of each and every person. (See Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2).

This is a critical message for the Jewish people today. Not only do we come in all sizes, shapes and colors but more than anything else, we contain a multitude of different opinions. And the sages ask us to thank God for this diversity because it is not a foregone conclusion that we, or any people, could successfully contain such diversity and still be one nation. And so when confronted with 600,000 very different members of a single people, we are called upon to appreciate what a blessing it is.

Reading all of this back into the parashah sheds some light on what Moshe is doing. According to Rashi, he is saying: "Master of the Universe: "You, God, know what everybody thinks, even though no two people think alike. I want you to appoint a leader who will also be able to tolerate the opinions of others." As hard as it had been for him to lead such a stubborn and unruly bunch, Moshe wants God to choose a successor who won’t just seek to suppress dissent.

This radical appreciation of diversity of opinion is essential to rabbinic thinking. Jewish sacred literature, whether it be the Talmud, Midrash and even Halakha (Jewish law) - is replete with debate and argument. Monolithic thought is Jewishly inauthentic. Why? Perhaps, they valued dialectic as a means for getting closer to the truth. Or perhaps they recognized the inherent limitations of any single human point of view when considering and describing the divine. Thus the Talmud presents multiple opinions and arguments, but few definitive answers.

What keeps these arguments from breeding hostility - what enables the center to hold - is a shared commitment to the questions themselves and the ultimate purpose of the argument. In Mishnah Avot (5:21) we learn: “Any dispute (mahloket) which is for Heaven’s sake (L’shem Shamayim) will endure; but any which is not for Heaven’s sake will not endure.” In rabbinic Hebrew, “L’Shem Shamayim” means "for the sake of God.” In modern Hebrew, we might understand it to mean "for positive reasons" or “for pure motives.”

Our tradition calls upon us to be radically accommodating of those who hold opposing views - even views we think are fundamentally incorrect and even dangerous - if they are sincerely offering their best answers to the great questions of the day. Although the back and forth can be frustrating and painful, and our instincts may be to either disengage from the other side, or actively suppress it, we are directed to walk in the way of God, and do our best to see the other side’s unique spirit, understand it’s thoughts, and appreciate it’s secrets.

Parashat Pinchas Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Our parashah opens with the rest of the story of the zealotry of Pinchas. We move on to prepare, in various ways, to enter the Land of Israel, and receive one more chapter of sacrifices – this time the special communal additions for Chagim (holidays), the source of our Maftir readings on those days.

1) Pinchas, who in the previous parashah killed the couple composed of an Israelite man and Midianite woman, is given God’s covenant of peace as well as an eternal position as Kohanim for himself and his descendants (25:12-13). Why do you think that there might be questions about his position as Kohen? He is a direct descendant of Aharon!

2) A census is carried out, counting all men 20 years old and upward who could go to the armed forces (26:1-51). Why is this a logical criterion at this point of the people’s story (we are in the 40th year, positioned in trans-Jordan)?

3) Following the census Moshe is told ‘to these should the land be portioned out…’ (26:52-56). What is the message in giving land to those who were counted as part of the armed forces? Who would be excluded?

4) The daughters of Tzelofhad approached Moshe with their case: Their father died with no sons but had 5 daughters. Why should his name be reduced from his people? let his daughters have his land! (27:1-11). What does their request add to our understanding of the meaning of having a land-holding? What might be the logic of not giving land to daughters?

5) Moshe is told to go up and see the land, but he will die on the mountain. No response is heard from Moshe, but he asks God to appoint a person who will go and come before the people, so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd (27:12-17). What do we learn about Moshe from this passage?

D’var Haftarah: Yirmiyahu’s Challenge
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This past week, the period of the year known as the Three Weeks or Bein HaMeitzarim (Between the Straits), commemorates the days between when the walls of Jerusalem were breached during the period of the Second Temple through to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. One of the liturgical markers for this period is the reading of three special haftaroth on the three Shabbatot which precedes Tisha b’Av. In the first of these haftarot, God initiates Yirmiyahu, who is known as the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple, into his role as a prophet.

The opening words of the prophecy present us with Yirmiyahu’s lineage: “Yirmiyahu the son of Hilkiah of the priests that were in Anatot in the land of Benjamin.” (1:1) There is a rabbinic tradition which links Yirmiyahu with a heroine from a much earlier biblical story, Rahab the prostitute, who is known to us from the story of the conquest of Jericho. In that story, Rahab rescues the two spies sent by Yehoshua to reconnoiter the city and moreover, asserts her loyalty and faith in God, who rescued the children of Israel from Egypt. (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 13:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 228-9)

This association led one rabbinic sage to make a profound moral pronouncement to explain Yirmiyahu’s role as a harbinger of the destruction of the Temple: “Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: … There will come along the son of the woman who sinned and mended her deeds and reprove the goodly son who has tainted his deeds.” (Pesikta 13:4, pp. 227-8) For Rabbi Abba, Yirmiyahu is the son (great great grandson) of Rahab who has been sent to challenge the sinful behavior of the children of Israel.

While obviously, Rabbi Abba’s teaching is based on creative genealogy, the point he is trying to make is poetically moralistic. The offspring of a reformed sinner is the one who challenges the moral deficiencies of those of supposed moral “pedigree” who have fallen into sinful ways. The irony here is intentionally biting and not surprising from the sages. The sages often play with presuppositions about status, turning them on their head. Yirmiyahu, who heralds from the lowliest of roots, comes to challenge those who consider themselves the top society. This is meant as a reminder for all of us that social status is no guarantee of dignity in life; what matters are our actions.

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