Matot - Mas-ei | Numbers 30:2–36:13

Jewish tradition makes use of many different names for God dependent upon situation and desired outcome. Offering prayers or making reference to Adonai Tzva’ot (the God of Armies), for example, draws upon a far different set of historical experiences and images than would approaching Shekinah, God’s more feminine presence. While each name only reveals a singular facet and small portion of the Infinite’s identity, they speak volumes about the person making use of them.

One of my favorites, Fount of Living Waters — M’kor Mayim Chayim, is a poetic name for God used in this week’s Haftarah portion from the Prophet Jeremiah. (If you ever want to feel old, watch subtle attempts at Jeremiah / bullfrog humor fall flat before today's Bar and Bat Mitzvah students…) For the generation wandering in the desert, relating God to an oasis evokes emotions tied to the fragility and presence of life itself.  While it rains a considerable about more in the Pacific Northwest, Fount of Living Waters remains powerful. A place to turn for the sustaining of life and its highest virtues is indeed the draw of the God of Israel even for us.

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Pinchas | Numbers 25:10−30:1

One might imagine, given his long history of leadership and thin pretext for not entering the Promised Land, overwhelming malevolence between Moses and his successor. It would be natural for a lifelong leader to be reluctant to relinquish the mantle, to fight even harder to maintain power as imposed transition approached. A careful reading of this week’s Torah portion, however, paints for us a different picture. God commanded Moses to offer charge and lay hand (singular) upon Joshua, yet Moses went above and beyond, providing even greater conference of status by using two hands in blessing.

This distinction might seem like our Sages are making a mountain out of a molehill, but in reality they highlight an important point: we all have to do things that are disagreeable on their face, day in and day out. Moses’ choice is one we all face. How we choose to respond is entirely up to us. We will do so petulantly or by embracing the task? Will we do so half-heartedly or with gusto? May we learn from the greatest prophet who ever lived!

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

 


Balak | Numbers 22:2−25:9

This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains a very identifiable section from our morning liturgy. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel: May tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” This “curse” turned blessing, offered by the prophet Balaam, sees beauty in the places of God’s people. While it begins as a recognition of their physical encampment — and thus serves in liturgy as a recognition of the beauty of our sacred spaces — the poem goes on to describe an idyllic scene:
 
“Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water; their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water.” The Israelite camp, then, is an oasis in the desert containing physical and spiritual nourishment for all who enter. That should be the goal of our sacred spaces to this day: a chance to refresh, the repair, to envision the ideal that we might be better empowered to make it real.
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Chukat | 19:1−22:1

To fly off the handle. To go ballistic. To blow one’s lid. To lose it. We have many idioms in English for describing when someone loses control of their emotions and acts in a way not in accordance with their highest intentions. Unfortunately, this plethora of words would not exist were it not for the frequency with which we need to call upon them. It is all too easy to become excessively angry and to behave both impulsively and destructively…losing control unfortunately happens to all of us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, too, loses control. The early Israelites were complaining — yet again — and instead of following God’s recipe for drawing forth water like a baker, Moses followed it like a chef, being a little less precise with his control. His punishment should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. Instead of rationally addressing the underlying issues, Moses lashed out in anger, and was subsequently prevented from reaching his ultimate destination. So, too, it is with us. When we lose focus, when we fly off the handle or go ballistic or lose it, we lose sight of our goal and face repercussions both immediately and for the long term.
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Korach | Numbers 16:1−18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, two divergent models of leadership are presented. The leadership of Korach, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the prioritization of particularistic concerns from a heterogenous group of malcontents born of shattered hope and unrest. The second is that of Moses and Aaron, described eighteen times in Torah as “servants of God,” who sought only to teach, guide, advocate, and defend the early Israelites. Sacks’ takeaway is that “a true leader is a servant, not a master. He does not seek to set himself above others or lord it over them. Leadership as power, dominance, mastery, or rule has no place in Judaism.”
 
Too often our society overlooks those in servant leadership roles. Perhaps because they don’t command as much oxygen in a room, or because they prefer to empower others and stay out of the spotlight we miss them entirely. Yet it is often they who are truly effective, a lesson Moses and Aaron learned the hard way. When they lost their way, when they failed the challenge of remaining firm in their convictions as servants of God when presented with Korach’s model, they lost their place in the promised land. Join us on Saturday morning at 9:30am as we study these prooftexts from our tradition!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

B'haalot'cha | Numbers 8:1−12:16

Success is not a zero-sum game. While theoretically we might understand that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” we tend to fall prey to jealousy when we see another succeed — be they foe or friend, rival or colleague. Instead of celebrating and sharing in their accomplishments, we resort to belittling the character of good people, tarnishing the reputations of the famous, and trying to make the great seem small. Bachya Ibn Pekuda, in Duties of the Heart, offers this important psychological insight as commentary on this week’s Torah portion: "Should one of your colleagues be superior to you, his deeds better than yours…your evil inclination will seduce you and say to you: his greater efforts to achieve moral perfection only throw into relief your faults.”

When Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, speak out against him (seemingly without cause), their words come off as embittered. Many commentators read the lack of context given by our sacred scripture as a commentary upon itself, modeling for us the prohibition against disparaging others by leaving out the hurtful words. Before we lash out against the success of others, Bachya and Torah tell us, we would be well reminded that we are “commanded to love and to honor those who honor God.”
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat B'har - B'chukotai | Leviticus 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

Fairytales and stories are replete with perfect worlds where ideals are made manifest: ideas of beauty, concepts of justice, and the like. We call these imaginary worlds utopias, from the Greek meaning “no place,” because they are so far from our lived reality as to seem fictional. The Book of Leviticus, torat kohanim, sees things differently. At regular intervals — every seven days, every seven years, every seventh seven years (as we read in this week’s Torah portion) — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests we are to perform a dress rehearsal for the Messianic Age, living the ideal in the hear-and-now. These Shabbatot — for the economy, the land, and for ourselves — serve as the perfect amuse-bouche, whetting our appetites for what could be and reminding us why we need to continue the work to merge our two realities.


Parashat Emor | Leviticus 21:1−24:23

We know that words have the power to hurt and the power to heal, and we also know that sometimes, we speak without thinking. In fact, some of us need to talk things through in order to think (one definition of an extrovert is a person who needs to "think out loud" in order to process). Our parsha this week begins and ends with a focus on speech, its power and the dangers thereof.
Parshat Emor (literally "say") continues the guidelines of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17 - 26) from last week's parsha, and then covers a lot of ground from there. We move from instructions regarding the sanctity of the priests and sacrificial offerings into the notions of sacred time (shabbat and festivals in this parsha in particular), which pertain to all Israelites, and finally, to a curious episode regarding blasphemy. The only woman to be named in the entire book of Leviticus appears here, Shelomit bat Divri, and it is her son who commits the crime of speech.
No name should go un-dissected in Torah, and it is quite striking that the woman whose son trespasses the bounds of sanctity by the use of words should have a name so associated with speech herself. "Divri," means "speaker" or "to speak" and Shelomit, of course, is related to the word "Shalom" - peace or wholeness. While it's too complex a problem to suss out in these 2 minutes of Torah, I suggest that our parsha is once again, at both its opening and its closing, adjuring us to pay attention to our words, and to the power of our speech.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Tazria - M’tzora | Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Tazria-Metzora, perhaps the most challenging parsha of the most challenging book of the Torah for us moderns. This double portion completes the Levitical laws about ritual impurity (i.e. the conditions in which a person must find themselves in order to come before the sacred spaces of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle). According to The Torah: A Women's Commentary, the Torah is concerned with certain actions and physical conditions that might produce, "an invisible, airborne pollutant that invades the sanctuary, the selling place of the Divine Presence... [which could] cause Israel's God to abandon the Sanctuary, an event thought to bring about national disaster."

All of these concerns around ritual purity and impurity focus primarily on the nexus between life and death; a mysterious liminality not only for the ancients, but for us still. While many of these laws were used over the centuries to keep certain groups of people (namely, women) away from proximity to sacred spaces and ritual items a kinder reading of the text could see them as primitive ways that our ancestors went about trying to restore peace of mind and spiritual wholeness after the destabilizing effects of birth, death and disease. No matter how we parse it, though, these are parshiot with which we are meant to wrestle, question, and as Progressive Jews, from which we are invited to take our distance and argue with the Torah; it can handle us reading against it from time to time.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat Sh'mini II | Leviticus 10:12–11:47

Have you ever felt entirely unequal to the task in front of you? The Hebrew prophetic tradition is famously known for our reticent prophets, from Moses who balked at the idea of being a mouthpiece for God, to Jonah who famously tries to run away from his call to action. Ours is a tradition that recognizes the fear and uncertainty, as well as the courage that lies within the human heart. 
 
In the Reform tradition we get the opportunity to take a deeper look at Shmini for a second week as we move out of Passover and back into our regular Torah reading cycle. As Aaron and his sons make their way through the seven-day ordination ceremony and prepare to take up the regular work of the tabernacle, Moses utters an interesting phrase to Aaron. "Come forward," he says, "to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people..." (Leviticus 9:7). Rashi assumes from this "come forward," that Aaron has kept his distance from the altar all throughout the ordination proceedings; and wonders why. 
 
Perhaps Aaron was ashamed of the role he had played previously in the incident of the Golden Calf. Perhaps he felt, like his brother before him, that he was not well-suited to the task at hand. And yet Moses, who had experienced God's ability to see beyond the limitations he saw within himself, offers him this invitation. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, "Aaron had to understand that his own experience of sin and failure made him the ideal representative of a people conscious of their own sin and failure." In these moments of hesitation, of doubt, of fear, we - like Aaron - are invited to turn our weaknesses into strengths; to build upon our past experience and use it to help others. 
- Rabbi Callie Schulman