Month: July 2017

Parashat Devarim • Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

In his commentary on this week's portion, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), Nachmanides states: "It is a repetition of the Torah, in which Moses explains to the generation that will enter the land most of the commandments that the Jews will need." In a series of five speeches, Moses reiterates the commandments and covenant between God and the early Israelites. His methodology is one quite familiar to us as Jews: storytelling.

Events from the people's past are retold with an eye toward their moral lessons and enduring understandings. It is an effective model, and one we all use subconsciously today. When telling others about our day, our travels, or even something we have read, we tend to focus on that which has lasting impact upon us and not gritty minutiae. We thus retell events in such a way that they become beneficial to the listener as well as the one telling the story. May we continue to learn from Moses' stories as have generations of our people's past.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Mattot–Ma’asei • Numbers 30:2–36:13

This week in Torah we find ourselves at the very end of the book of Numbers. These endings are momentous, and we mark them in the public recitation of the parsha by reciting the words, “chazak, chazak, ve-nit’chazek,” “be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.” The ending of the book of Numbers is particularly exciting within the larger narrative, as for the past many parshiot the Israelites have stood poised on the edge of the Promised Land, preparing to enter. This parsha is also one of seven double-portions that is either read as two separate portions, or individually, depending upon the number of Shabbatot in the year, to ensure the reading of the entire Torah.

As one can imagine, this double portion is full of last minute details to be accounted for before entering into the land. Mattot addresses vows and vengeance; supplementing earlier laws about vows, with specific attention paid to those of women. The narrative then moves to details of how to deal with the Midianite survivors of the recent Israelite/Midianite war, and closes with a continuation of the conversation about apportioning land to the Israelite tribes. Ma’asei describes the journey’s end, with a recounting of the journey itself, and a farewell to Aaron – Moses’ brother and first High Priest of the Israelites. As the Israelites turn their attention to securing the land, the text concerns itself with the establishment of boundaries between and amongst the Israelites, and what to do with those who break certain of those boundaries.

Rabbi Callie Schulman

Auf Wiedersehen and Shalom, by Rabbi Daniel Weiner

As I reflect on my recent trip to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Ministry (detailed daily at, the journey fulfilled both my aspirations for the experience and the intention of the Germans. I hoped to broaden my perspective, to push the boundaries of my collective aversion to the people, land and their products (“Jews don’t buy Mercedes, Krupp or Braun”) toward a more contemporary, accurate and authentic view of 21st Century Mitteleuropa. My hosts sought to demonstrate that “this isn’t your grandparent’s Germany,” that confrontation of sin, repentance for evil and devotion to a very different national path now characterized this infamous culture. Both endeavors succeeded.

Well beyond renowned trials, reparations and national mea culpas, today’s Germans strive to overcompensate like the ex-smoker, addict or philanderer: To be not only better than most, but to lead the world in significant, impactful ways. Germany’s vow to memorialize, to glean and to impart lessons from such remembrance, rivals that of its victims, particularly Jews. It’s growing role as regional sanctuary for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers is the gold standard toward which all nations should aspire, and for which less willing nations should feel inadequacy if not shame. And in an era in which the New Global Authoritarianism, with its toxic blend of historic amnesia, base populism, delusional mythology and denial of reality besots the Continent as it threatens our very own Land of the Free, Germany strives to provide a cautionary example resounding with the echoes of Santayana’s plea.

As with any sponsored trip, I am wary of the propagandizing and agenda-peddling that often accompany such hospitality. My skepticism melted away as effortlessly as my preconceived discomfort. Yet I am left with a sense of pained irony as an American Jew, seeing in the contemporary convictions of this prior perpetrator a genuine, moral evolution that leaves our current State of the Union wanting, yet hopeful. Perhaps an apt reflection of my experience lies in my recent acquisition of a Volkswagen for my newly-minted-college-graduated daughter. The pervasive power of purchase, indeed!

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parashat Pinchas • Numbers 25:10−30:1

While much of the Mishnah is a dense discussion of Torah and early Jewish legalism, one tractate stands out for its accessibility. Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Ancestors, provides ethical maxims associated with our early sages. Chapter 5, section 9 of Pirkei Avot is helpful in understanding this week's parasha: 

"Ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath:
the mouth of the earth (Numbers 16:32);
the mouth of the well (Numbers 21:16);
the mouth of the ass (Numbers 22:28);
the rainbow;
the manna;
Aaron’s staff;
the Shamir, writing;
the inscription on the tablets of the Ten Commandments;
and the tablets themselves.
Some also include the evil spirits, the grave of Moses, the ram of Abraham; and others add the original tongs, for tongs must be made with tongs.

"Our sages seem to reckon that parts of our sacred literature so exceed the plausible course of events - like the hole in the earth responsible for swallowing Korach and his followers - that they must be preconceived by God. Tongs, which could only be rescued from the forge by other tongs, thus become a theological statement "proving" the existence of God. It is curious logic, perhaps, but imagine: if only Korach knew!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Balak • Numbers 22:2−25:9

"Who is wise?" our sages ask in Pirkei Avot. "One who learns from everyone." This quote forms part of the summer theme campers at URJ Camp Kalsman are studying and is particularly poignant in the context of this week's Torah portion. Balaam, a prophet sent to curse the Israelites, is enlightened by one so humble as his donkey.

Wisdom can be found throughout our world if we but open our eyes. Sometimes we recognize ourselves to be in the presence of a great scholar and open ourselves to drink in knowledge as if we were parched. At other times, we are forced to learn lessons despite our kicking and screaming. We all seek wisdom -- let us all be open to learning from all our fellow creations.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer