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

Parashat Chukat • Numbers 19:1-22:1

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), describes a most curious incident. When commanded to “speak to the rock” in order to produce water for the Israelites to drink, Moses instead hit the rock with his staff. Though this was exactly the recipe for producing water Moses had used previously (in Exodus 17:6), this time it is seen as an act of defiance. God took offense, claiming “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 

It seems that a good defense lawyer would be able to make an argument that the punishment was far more severe than warranted by the crime — if in fact a crime even occurred. Was not Moses just doing what he was already commanded? Should the leader of the people be held to that much higher a standard than the average Israelite? Was Moses really offering an intentional slight to God through his action? Join us for our Shabbat morning Torah study at 9:30 AM on Temple’s Seattle campus to argue the case! 

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Sh’lach L’cha • Numbers 13:1−15:41

As the culmination of the ancient Israelites' wandering in the desert approached, Moses sent spies to scout Eretz Yisrael. Ten came back quite concerned about the reality they saw: "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size... and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them!" (Number 13:33-34) Only two, Caleb and Joshua, maintained faith in God and certainty in their ability to enter the Promised Land.

Human beings in every day and age know the dilemma of the spies. Fear and uncertainty often pervade our lives, both interpersonal and professional, and threaten to derail even the most seemingly-assured plan. Others look like giants to whom we will never measure up, challenges of space and time seem insurmountable... and yet with faith in God and certainty in our abilities we can make the conscious choice to be like Caleb and Joshua. Chazak v'ematz, may we each be strong and courageous!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat B’ha’a’lotcha • Numbers 8:1-12:16

I’m going to let you in on a little secret – one that my sorority sisters and college a cappella buddies wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled over me telling you. Well … maybe it’s not a secret so much as a "trick of the trade" or one of those “everyone-knows-this-is-how-they-do-it-but-no-one-wants-to-admit-it” things. Are you ready?

Nearly every religion, subgroup, secret “society” and extracurricular league uses candles – and, thus, light – for significant episodes, rituals and initiations.

Thus, the “special sauce” of some of humanity’s most sacred moments – Shabbat dinner, group initiation or Sunday mass, among them – often involves the kindling of light.

The question of “commandedness” always comes into play for us Jews and this week’s Torah portion hits on that directly. In the first verses of B’ha’a’lotcha God speaks to Moses, instructing him to tell Aaron to “mount the lamps; let seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand.” (Numbers 8:1-2) This direction might seem like a simple instruction given from boss to employee – yet dozens of commentaries draw out a deeper meaning of phrase.

What God is telling Aaron to do is not so much a “put this here and move that there” directive – THIS is a message colored by a pursuit of holiness and desire to create a sublime system of worship. Rather than rely on one simple light – the ner tamid alone, perhaps – God insists on multiple lights, drawn together in the form of a menorah. Those lights extend and increase that which has been kindled in the presence of the community, for the community. The light goes further, penetrates deeper into the darkness, and serves as a symbolic anchor for the greater whole. Additionally, the increased light echoes the many faces, names and identities of those gathered there in the first place. Thus, the light is an extension of the community itself.

A long time ago, one of my teachers shared with me that B’ha’a’lotcha is really a message to the community – not just the priests, or the leadership – that each light matters. Each light counts. When we kindle a light, as God instructs Aaron to do, we bring forth increased possibility and potential; we ignite the spark within one person, and another, and another – inspiring them to bring their light and potential to the greater whole. And when we do this, we inspire an entire community to continue bringing forth their light and finding others, thereby raising each and every one of us up to our fullest potential. May we continue to be blessed with the ability to kindle the lights of one another in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Naso • Numbers 4:21−7:89

Watch the Best of Rabcast for Rabbi Weiner's interpretation of this week's parashah, Naso.

Parashat Ba’midbar • Numbers 1:1-4:20

Parshat Ba’midbar, the opening of our fourth book of Torah, Numbers, always seems to come around at exactly the right moment. Jews all over the world read this Torah portion this Shabbat, right in the midst of this season of transition. We will read Ba’midbar – which translates as “in the wilderness…” as our children and grandchildren prepare for prom and senior projects, as they graduate from high school and college, and as families worldwide – particularly in the Pacific Northwest – gear up for the blissful days and cool nights of summer. Yes, transition abounds this time of year, and perhaps no more powerful symbol of transition exists than what we find in the turning of our Jewish calendar.

Next week our community will celebrate Shavuot, a chag (holiday) on which Jews the world over recognize the giving of our Torah, our tree of life, from God. Shavuot is no small holiday – it is the very foundation of our identities. Without Torah there is no Judaism, and without Judaism our world is incomplete. Without Torah, we as Jews would be rootless wanderers. And so it is poignant that, at the start of Ba’midbar our people are those rootless wanderers, searching for a sense of stability and rootedness in the midst of the wilderness.

Each one of us has found ourselves in the wilderness – some literally, some figuratively – at some point in our lives. We know that, as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “nothing is permanent – all is ephemeral” and some of us live that notion every single day. And so the pressing question becomes, what is it that gives US structure, that gives US meaning, that roots US to something, even when transitions abound, or when uncertainty seems to dominate each conversation?

For me, what has always rooted me is a sense of community – an entity that is bigger than one person alone. To be a part of a congregation – this congregation – has been a gift and a privilege these past three years. You have raised me up in immeasurable ways and empowered Josh, Avi and I to grow as a family. Your love and support has meant the world; now, please join us on Friday evening at 6 PM in Seattle as our family gets to say “thank you” for these three incredible years. Let us celebrate the rootedness of community, the opportunity of transition and the possibilities of the future through song and prayer. Join us this Friday in Seattle – and know that we are deeply grateful to this community and send you all our love and blessings.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshayot B’har-B’hukotai • Leviticus 25:1-26:2, 26:3-27:34

Is God’s love conditional?

Most of us would (hopefully) answer no. Of course the God of our imaginations and prayers possesses unlimited, unfiltered love. Of course the God in which we may or may not believe possesses the type of love most akin to that between a parent and child. Whether we were raised in a home rooted in Jewish values, a Christian family led by the teachings of Jesus, or a non-religious environment entirely, most of us can agree that God loves us no matter who we are or what we do. God’s love is eternal, steadfast, and sees no boundaries. That’s the beauty of being human.

Yet for some who follow the exact letter of the law, (halachically speaking, at least) a piece of this week’s double portion hits on a caveat: “IF you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4) That major conjunction (or is it a noun?) sets us up with a condition: 'to get the benefits, you’ve gotta have a little skin in the game.’ When it comes to God, one must follow the laws and observe the commandments faithfully. Otherwise, you’re up that creek without a paddle.

And so two questions emerge for me: first, why set the Jews up for failure? No one is perfect – no entity knows this better than God – and so, why pose this thinly veiled threat to our continued existence? And second, what does it mean to “faithfully” observe commandments? Can one even observe the commandments and prescriptions without faith? What happens when your faith wanes – as it can, over time – and where does that leave you?

All this leaves us open to a multitude of interpretations (and further questions). This week I choose to focus on the following: God does not demand our perfection, but our best. We bring what we can and give what’s possible. We are encouraged (yes, some might say commanded) to plunge ourselves to the depths of Jewish belief and practice; it’s not enough simply skimming the surface. Similar to other corners and pockets of Torah where God comes across more like a strict school principal than a loving, supportive and evolving presence, here in Leviticus we find a hint of hyperbole intended to push us toward action.

And when it comes to faith, well – like humans, God’s faith often wanes too. We witness it in Torah and throughout the corpus of sacred text. If God can ride the wave of emotion that is faith, so can we. To demand perfection of human beings is a whole lot like expecting those up a creek without a paddle will make it safely back to the dock; it’s just not likely to end well. And so we strive for our best each and every morning – climbing, falling, and rising once more to meet the challenges of the everyday.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Emor • Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Watch The Best of Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner's interpretation of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Arabian Knights of Faith: The Road From Abu Dhabi, by Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Ten rabbis, ten imams and ten evangelical ministers board planes to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Government of the United Arab Emirates… Sounds more like an overwrought joke at a UN reception than an attempt at achieving world peace. But there we were, 30 American clergy from ten pilot cities, overcoming fears and prejudice where the rubber of faith meets the road of possibility. 

The goals were deceptively simple, though such illusions often mask the hard realities of the work of peace: To bring together those who often fail to hear, understand or even know one another on the other side of the earth in a place fairly foreign to all in the hopes of producing something outside of the box when we were outside of our daily lives.

Sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of the UAE, this ongoing process emerged from the efforts of Dallas Evangelical Megachurch Pastor Bob Roberts and the eminent Islamic sage Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah. For the pastor, it was his sometimes quixotic, but passionately authentic attempt to counter the pernicious Islamophobia stoked by most of his colleagues. For the sheik, it was a vaunted desire to convey a moderate approach to Islam from within, combatting the extremism, ignorance and intolerance that plagues so many of his coreligionists. And for the rabbis…well, let’s just say that if both groups can find accord with the Jews in light of our histories, achieving this utopian goal would be that much easier to attain.

We agreed to put aside the harder issues: the Mideast conflict, evangelical proselytizing, and the role of women to name just a few. Yet this was no mere avoidance of challenge, but rather a realization that nothing can be accomplished until we get back to the basics of knowing one another, learning to trust one another, and ultimately loving one another.

The hope was to leverage relationships through inverting the common approach to interfaith relations. First we would start with our hands, working together on key projects in our communities. Then we would create a basis for the heart, forging relationships of mutual respect and recognition of our essential humanity out of our shared efforts. And then, perhaps, we could discuss matters of the head, affirming common insights and conceding distinct matters of theology in the purified spirit of learning from each other without ulterior motives or hidden agendas.

Each city triad committed to:

  1. Breaking bread in one another’s homes.
  2. Bringing our congregations together toward shared work in our communities.
  3. Recreating our experience in Abu Dhabi with a widening circle of clergy.
  4. Standing by one another at times of crisis, attack or in response to other acts of intolerance.

I gleaned much from this experience, more than I could have imagined. But the biggest take-away for me, aside from a deepening of my regard for Islam and the majority of its peace-loving practitioners, was the dispelling of my stereotypes about Evangelical Christians. While my interfaith efforts have encompassed enriching, ongoing bonds with Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, I have neglected opportunities for outreach to Evangelicals, assuming the chasm dividing us on social and political issues rendered partnerships untenable.

Not only did I learn that Evangelicals are anything but monolithic in their views and priorities, but even those articles of faith that seem to divide us leave ample room for reciprocity of respect and abiding friendship. My newly discovered brother in faith, Pastor Dean Curry of the Tacoma Life Center, taught me much through his efforts and his example. I look forward to working with him and our friends in the Muslim community to extend the spirit of Abu Dhabi to the Puget Sound Region and beyond. With so many in the world exuding the toxicity of hate and the virus of religious violence, I am deeply appreciative for the immense hospitality and generosity of the UAE government, the gentle, incisive wisdom and vision of Sheik Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the openness of heart of all of my fellow participants. May the spirit of our few days together inspire our efforts and deepen our commitment, radiating a love for peace that will transcend our current moment and unfinished world. If you’d like to see more of my daily impressions and some accompanying photos, see my Facebook Blog:

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry