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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
Another Yom Kippur has come and gone; we have communally and individually celebrated, reflected, and atoned. Now we shift our focus toward the conclusion of our cycle of Torah readings with parshat Ha’azinu, the penultimate portion of the Torah. In a few days we begin the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot followed by Simchat Torah – a holiday whose name literally means “joyous celebration of Torah.” Then we start over as we do each year with Genesis – and the cycle begins anew.
Endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. I’m reminded of that popular song from the 90s by the band Semisonic – “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Ha’azinu is the epitome of this cycle, for the parsha is Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites. He reflects, at times with pride and at others lament; yet the centrality of God is paramount throughout. Just as Moses bids farewell, the Israelites gear up for their new chapter in the Promised Land. It is a strange juxtaposition between old and new; between ending and beginning, between life and death.
The parallel between Ha’azinu’s message and the passage of time in our Jewish community is no accident. In these days our transitions are abundant – from year to year, season to season (hello, autumn!) chag (holiday) to chag, school year to school year and Deuteronomy to Genesis. In these sacred days, may we continue to pay attention to those transitions, reflecting on the centrality of our Jewish community and our belief in something greater than ourselves.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
“Tune in to the 11:00pm news if you want to keep your kids safe…”
“One of you will be Chopped”…right after this commercial break!
“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…”
Cliffhangers are the norm rather than the exception in modern American life. Television programs are particularly notorious for building toward a climax and then taking a commercial break, in order that we stay tuned through the less-compelling advertisements. Our, Torah, too, uses this tactic in Parshat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30).
During the Yamim Nora’im, when our religious consciousness is heightened and our receptivity to hearing what we can do to make 5776 better is at its peak, Torah leaves us with a cliffhanger. Knowing that the people would turn aside from God when the entered the promised land, God gives Moses a poem to teach to the people of Israel that bears witness to the covenant. This week’s portion ends with the words “then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…” We only get to hear the poem itself next week, when we tune back in to our regularly scheduled Shabbat programming.
It’s worth staying tuned.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer
The rock band “fun” had a song popular back in 2012 called “Some Nights.” You’ve probably heard it – with its catchy lyrics and nonstop radio play, it was hard to miss! One of the most memorable lines in the song is this:
Oh, Lord – I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Most nights – I don’t know …
When you’re driving along and singing aloud to the song blasting back at you, it can often be hard to focus on what its lyrics contain. Only when one stops and pauses might we consider that existential question “fun” is pointing us toward – what do I stand for?
Parshat Nitzavim begins this week with the following: You stand here this day, all of you before, Adonai your God, your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp … to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God … to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … I make this covenant with its sanctions not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)
In parshat Nitzavim, we learn that the people stand together, united as one, about to cross a threshold into the land of Israel. They are not perfect people – not the tribal heads, nor the elders or officials, nor the children or the strangers within the camp. We know that the forty-year trek which led them to this moment was an arduous, painfully human voyage – one where leaders made mistakes, where humans complained and questioned authority, where rebellions led to loss of life, and where God at times grew profoundly impatient with this people. Yet – here they are, standing together. Here they are – united to receive God’s promise. Here they are – standing as one community, a part of an everlasting Covenant that stretches to this day. What do they stand for? They stand for God.
And yet – we also read that this day, God makes this covenant not just with those who are present but those who are not. We realize that “one need not physically stand among those destined to dwell in the Land of Israel in order to stand before God as part of the People Israel. While we may be separated by time, by space, by native language, by ritual practice, or by the conditions in which we live, we who embrace the Covenant are all worthy of being part of K’lal Yisrael – the Jewish people.” (Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin)
This Sunday we will begin our celebration of the New Jewish Year, 5776. At this time of year we ask ourselves – what do we stand for? We take stock of our actions and look ahead to the opportunities of a fresh start and new beginning. This coming Sunday, many of us will stand together – shoulder to shoulder, machzor to machzor, as we pray Avinu Malkeinu. Yet some of us will be absent, bound elsewhere – either due to illness, choice or circumstance.
No matter where we physically stand this coming High Holy Days – we still stand together. No matter what we hold in our hearts – what pain and grief, what joy and excitement, what anticipation and anxiety, what pride or fear – we stand together as one holy community, united in our bond to one another and our tradition.
What do we stand for? We stand for one another, no matter where we are.
Shana Tova U’metukah – to a good, sweet year ahead.
“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-2
In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo the Israelites are commanded to sacrifice their first fruits to God. In these line the Torah is drawing a direct connection for the Israelites between the food they will grow and the role God plays in providing that fruit. I would offer that this Torah portion should remind us of how we are connected to the world around us. As our culture moves more and more away from an agricultural society the more and more we move away from a connection between us and the world around us.
Two possible ways of looking at our connection to the world is that we are all separate individuals that exist together on the same planet or to see that everything is interconnected and our sense of separateness is merely perception. This week’s Torah portion attempts to remind us that we are all connected by reminding us that the fruit we receive does not magically appear but is a part of system that we are connected to through God.
There is a Hasidic teaching that our lives are like waves in the ocean. The wave is not separate from the ocean but rather a part of it. Similarly, the Torah asks us to offer our first fruits to recognize that there is no separation between the fruit that is grown, the farmer who cultivates it and God. Similarly, for us we are all interconnected and part of something bigger which might force us to change how we look at the world, the food we eat and each other.
Rabbi Micah Ellenson