Parshat D’varim • Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

This weekend, traditional Jewish communities around the world recognize Tisha b’Av. It is a lesser-known day in our Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. It is also a day on which our sages believe all terrible things have befallen the Jewish people. It is, quite simply, the saddest, darkest day of our entire year.

During my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, on erev Tisha b’Av I made my way to the Western Wall with some classmates. As we walked from our shabby limestone apartments in the Rehavia neighborhood down the hill, toward the walls of the Old City, we found ourselves swallowed up by a massive throng of people – hundreds of them, many dressed in dark wool. They were crying – no, not crying, wailing. And as we drew closer and closer to the Kotel, their cries grew louder and louder. When we finally reached the Western Wall we saw thousands of Jews acting as if their closest relative had just passed away. The words they chanted were from Eicha, or “Lamentations,” a collection of laments and prose that are some of the saddest, darkest, most haunting words you’ve ever heard. It was, for us modern Jews, a totally surreal sight.

It is not coincidental that we begin the book of Deuteronomy right around Tisha b’Av. Whereas this lesser-known Jewish holiday is all about remembering – and mourning – the past, Deuteronomy is a retelling of all that has befallen the people Israel from the beginning of the Torah onward. There is sanctity and beauty in this holy act of remembering: only through telling stories of the past are we able to look to our future. Mourning the destruction of the Temple – and all horrific things that have happened to our people – leads us to rejoice and celebrate the new year just over one month later at Rosh Hashanah. Looking back to the challenges and victories of Moses’ leadership in Deuteronomy, we understand the gravity of what we are about to do as we open with Joshua at the start of N’vi’im.

Together, Tisha b’Av and Deuteronomy remind us of the power of knowing our past. As we begin this new book of Torah, may it add depth and color to an understanding of ourselves and our people.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Matot / Mas'ei • Numbers 30:2-36:13

“The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham. They set out from Etham and encamped at Migdol. They set out from Migdol…” This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Ma’asei, feels as if a travel journal sponsored by AAA. The Israelites follow a circuitous TripTik laid out by God during their 40 years wandering in the desert, and this week’s portion recaps their journeys before entering the Promised Land.

This summer, many in our congregational family are off on journeys of their own. From exotic destinations abroad to day-trips in Washington State, everyone gets bitten by the travel bug during the days of summer. As our time on vacation begins to come to an end, it is common to wax nostalgic with favorite memories and stories before returning to the difficult work of catching up from vacation. The fun of sharing these memories becomes every bit as important as the events themselves — and often more informative. We learn from our mistakes, revel in our joys, and build upon our successes when we share these stories… just like our ancestors did so long ago.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Pinchas • Numbers 25:10-30:1

The RNC, the DNC, and Parashat Pinchas

The Democratic National Convention, following on the heels of the Republican National Convention, dovetails perfectly with this week’s Torah portion. All three are concerned with picking a worth successor to leadership. In Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God reminds Moses that although he has been preparing the people Israel to enter the Promised Land, he will not be joining them. Instead of complaining, instead of asking for a reprieve, Moses’ thoughts turn not to himself but to the people. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes in his 2009 book Entering Torah, “indeed the true measure of a leader is his concern for his people.”

In his words, “Moses may not have been a perfect leader. Had he been perfect, perhaps he would have entered the land. No human being is perfect; we leave perfection to God. But he was a leader who placed the needs of his people and the good of his people above his own personal concerns. He thought of them before he thought of himself and even at the moment of his greatest personal tragedy, he looked for the way in which Israel could be led to the Promised Land, though he himself would never get there. Moses set an example and a standard for leadership that should inspire all of us and direct all our leaders to follow in his ways.” May those seeking the highest office in our land find the same selflessness demonstrated by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat Balak • Numbers 22:2-25:9

What does it mean “to dwell apart?”

At first blush, the phrase conjures any number of benign images: a divorced couple, sharing custody of children, living in separate homes. A college dormitory with men and women living on separate floors. A group of sojourners finding themselves on separate paths. The key word here, of course, is “separate.” Distinct, distant, disconnected. Perhaps the most powerful image, though, is the one on which this Torah portion focuses: a people - our people - set apart from the nations of the earth. One people – unique in temperament, belief, identity – separate from all the rest.

In this parsha, Balaam, the prophet for hire, remarks on the People of Israel, singing: “there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” Highlighting our millennia-long identification as the “Chosen People,” Balaam’s words are intended not only to make us pause, but also to highlight just how fabulous we really are. This parsha is typically recognized for its comedic retelling of Balaam, this prophet gone rogue, blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them at Balak’s command. How funny – and how powerful – it would be if all our curses emerged as blessings.

Yet Rashi, our medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator par excellence notes that there is a certain ambivalence there – is this really an example of blessing? He writes, “when [the Israelites] are joyful, there is no nation joyful with them.” How lonely we might feel in that often problematic state of “chosenness.” How isolated we could be continuing to live in our own “otherness,” dwelling apart from all the other peoples of the land.

We know that today we live in a world seemingly overflowing with curses; with darkness, and pain, and – at the root of so much of it – an overabundance of fear. How we see ourselves in relation to all of it can result, as Rashi warns, in a pretty lonely life. And while there is significance to our Jewish value of chosenness, to be sure, we also must recognize that dwelling apart from the rest of the earth, separating ourselves, and pulling away from the common, collective plight of humanity only perpetuates the cycle. By working together, sharing common ground, recognizing our ability to help, empower, and inspire – by changing the narrative of “dwelling apart” - we build bridges instead of walls. We promote tolerance, peace, and understanding. And maybe – through that – we turn curses into enduring blessings.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Chukat • Numbers 19:1-22:1

Parashat Hukkat - Deafening Silence

I’ve often heard that bad things come in threes. For Moses this week, they certainly do - first, Miriam, his sister, passes away. Then God curses both he and his brother Aaron with not finding their way to the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites. And then Aaron passes away as well. On the face of it, Moses has little to no reaction to any of this. The Torah’s narrator makes no comments clarifying Moses’ response to his entire world falling down around him, but what the narrator and Moses do not say is much louder than words.

Silence in the Torah is often a pregnant one. Much like in jazz, it’s the notes that the Torah doesn’t play that matters. After Moses speaks the words that end up being the reason for his being cursed to not enter the Land with the rest of the Israelites, he does not speak for the rest of the parashah. In fact, the next and last time he speaks in the book of Numbers is only to find a replacement for himself as leader. Otherwise, the one person who has spoken to and for both God and the Israelites is silent.

Earlier on in the Torah when Aaron was confronted with God’s killing of his sons Nadav and Abihu, Moses rebuked him. In response to Moses’ rebuke, the Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.” The language that Moses used then, in Leviticus 10:3, was strikingly similar to that with which God rebukes Moses in this week’s portion. And, like his brother Aaron, after being rebuked, Moses is silent.

Silence in the face of tragedy, that feeling of turning inside ourselves and no longer engaging with the world outside, is something everyone is familiar with. Moses and Aaron reflect a clear and universal human reaction to personal tragedy. Our tradition, though, bids us to not keep our inner pain to ourselves. Through the tradition of shiva, the seven days after the death of a close relative in which the community comes together to commemorate the lives of the departed and to offer support to the bereft, those plunged mourning are able to share their experience of loss.

We can see these two contradictory approaches to grief as showing us that, in some cases, people may need time alone in their own silence, and in others people may need to air their emotions. An individual in the throes of loss, like Aaron with the loss of his son, and Moses with the loss of Miriam, Aaron and his own future, is one who may not need to be told how to process their grief, but instead, be allowed to share their anguish in their own way.

When our world overwhelms us with tragedy, as it seems to be doing so often these days, we all respond in our own ways. Sometimes silence, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness. Our tradition gives us leeway to react in manifold ways. This freedom not only allows for the diversity of human response, but also demands something of us - to hear the silence of others, to pay attention to this multiplicity in human reactions, to give ear to those who may respond in ways alien to us, and to work to find the elements of human connection between our many experiences of tragedy. Moses and Aaron’s silence bid us to hear the pain of our friends, loved ones, and neighbors in the way that they express it, even if the mode of expression is silence itself.

Parashat Korach • Numbers 16:1-18:32

High Noon and Holiness

Inspired by my father’s penchant for citing parallels between narrative themes in Judaism and film, this week’s parashaKorach, brings to mind the climatic conclusion to the iconic Western High Noon. But instead of a dusty Western’s Main Street in which good triumphs over evil, the Torah story occurs before all of Israel. Korach, a leader amongst the Levites, challenges Moses’ authority with a familiar plea to modern ears. Korach asserts that if all Israel is, indeed, holy, why should only Moses lead? The Orthodox sage Rav Soloveitchik sees in this argument echoes of the contemporary emphasis on egalitarianism and democracy, both of which were foreign to most of humanity until the last few centuries. The Rav continues by delineating types of holiness. There is a common holiness which all of Israel possesses. But there is also a singular holiness that only Moses maintains emerging from his special skills, virtues and commitments. Even for contemporary, Reform Jews and Americans ardent in their autonomy, this is a critical insight. We want leaders to whom we can relate, but who transcend our capacities, discipline and self-sacrifice in bearing the burden of leadership. I may want a president with whom I can have a beer—for 20 minutes! Afterward, I want him or her to ramp up their expertise to deal with issues and challenges that far surpass my abilities to respond. Korach’s error is an object lesson in the hollowness of ambition as basis for leadership, and Judaism’s distinct insistence on a counter-intuitive, but nonetheless morally and intellectually superior leadership.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Sh’lach L’cha • Numbers 13:1–15:41

View the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner commentary on this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach L'cha:




Parshat B'haalot'cha • Numbers 8:1–12:16

One of the clichés of modern capitalist society is the struggle to “fill the void” - that is, to quench the thirst for personal completeness with material objects or gain. I fall into the trap all the time - maybe if I get this piece of technology, that pair of shoes, this new internship, I’ll finally feel complete. But maybe there’s another way to look at this feeling. The Hebrew word for prophet, navi (נבא), is related to a Hebrew root that means hollow, navav (נבב). This makes sense in a basic way. In order for God to speak through a person, his or her identity and ego had to step aside - they had to become hollow. As we get further into the prophetic books, the n’viim even begin speaking in first person as God, losing their personal identity entirely. In this week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha, the relationship between prophecy and hollowness takes center stage.

While the Israelites continue to kvetch their way through the desert on their journey towards freedom, Moses finally begins to bend under the pressure. He asks God to spread n’vuah, usually translated as prophecy, amongst the people. Seventy elders are chosen to receive a portion of the spirit of n’vuah that rested upon Moses, and to therefore take over some of the responsibilities of running the nascent Israelite society. Apparently Eldad and Medad, two of the selected elders, were too busy that day to make their meeting with God, so only 68 of the selected honorees show up. Being from God, the spirit of n’vuah was able to reach the two absentees anyway, and to the surprise of all around them they began prophesying in public. Joshua, Moses’ rabbinic intern, ran straight to Moses and said, “These two guys are prophesying out in the camp! We’ve gotta stop them.” Moses, in his wisdom, replied, “Stop them? If only all of God’s people were prophets, then we’d be in good shape.”

What Moses was experiencing was not, as Joshua assumed, an attempt at overthrow (that comes in a few weeks). Instead Moses was finally seeing some of the other Israelites, if only momentarily and in a lesser version to that of Moses, allowing into themselves a more holistic vision of their world. This vision, this n’vuah, is reliant upon hollowness. It is simultaneously more attainable and more personally challenging than the prophecy of prediction. N’vuah is rooted in radical empathy, viewing one’s own desires as only one part of a greater Oneness.

In those moments where we strive to fill the hollowness we feel by having seeking to be more, have more, or control more, maybe we’re avoiding that which is really trying to get in. Menachem Mendel of Koretz, one of the great Hasidic masters of Kabbalah, once said, “God dwells wherever we let God in.” In B’haalot’cha, Moses and the Israelites find that n’vuah is not only about God imbuing someone special with power, but it is also about individuals allowing that hollowness, that space inside that seems unfillable, to be filled with chesed, loving-kindness. These elders of Israelite society invited in that divine Oneness of which each and every person is a part, so that they too could share the burden of responsibility that had rested solely on Moses’ shoulders. In this, the elders not only fulfilled their own roles more fully as leaders, but we may surmise felt more fully actualized, and more personally in touch with God and each other. In a world so often focused on individuality, this message of n’vuah beckons us to look into the hollowness we may feel, and to seek to allow God to fill it with chesed - with the spirit of God that touches all, including ourselves, with love.

Andy Kahn, Rabbinic Intern


Parshat Naso • Numbers 4:21–7:89

In this weeks Torah Portion, Parashat Naso, we read the priestly benediction: a threefold blessing we recite on Shabbat over our children, at conversions, and other moments of blessing. The blessing goes as follows:

May God bless you and keep you

May God’s presence shine upon you and be gracious to you

May God’s presence be with you and grant you peace

How might it change your reading of this prayer if we understood God not as a noun, but rather a verb or adjective? What if "Yud Hey Vav Hey" was not God’s divine name as often is said but rather are the divine actions we are capable of performing. That we are not praying to God, but rather to our best selves. That God and prayer become the actions we do that allow holiness to enter our world.

This idea was proposed by a Rabbi in the 1950’s named Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan suggested that "To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” (Sonsino, Rifat. The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. 2004, page 22–23).

In other words, God is the spirit within all of us that compels us to act for good. Therefore when someone acts in such a way as to destroy or uses God to carry out an act of hate they are not acting Godly. One way to understand the shooter in Orlando this past week is to say he was shutting out the Godly in himself by doing what he did. With understanding God not as force that commands us from outside, but rather a voice that commands us from within to act upon the world, we can see these murderess actions for what they actually were, the acts of a selfish narrascist. The mark he left was mark of destruction not divinity. It was not an act of transcendence. He did not rise above anything internal. Rather he merely used God as an excuse to rationalize what he wanted to do, which was to destroy. When we understand God as a noun this type of fanatical behavior becomes much easier to justify. However, when we begin to understand God as a verb or adjective suddenly we become much more responsible for our actions. Therefore rather than the priestly benediction being award for acting out God’s will, perhaps it is call to a certain action that will bring a certain reward. Therefore perhaps we should understand the priestly benediciton in the following way:

May you cause through your holy actions blessing and protection

Your sacred actions will cause holiness and graciousness to emanate from you

External holy acts will allow divinity to turn inward towards you, and as a result you will granted peace

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat B'midbar • Numbers 1:1–4:20

“Come on now, count the Omer

You can count the Omer

Come on now, count the Omer

1, 2, 3, 4 Count with me!

Think of us as having just left Egypt (a narrow place)

Liberation’s precious — not a gift to waste

Think about the ways in which we can do our share

The world still needs all of us to work on its repair…”

With this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, we begin the Book of Numbers. Moses was commanded to take a census, to count the Israelites who had left Egypt. In the later rabbinic mind, the Israelites being counted were also themselves counting, numbering the days between Passover and Shavuot as they awaited acceptance of their sacred obligation. They knew the narrow straights (mitzrim in Hebrew) of Egypt (mitzrayim), and with the acceptance of the commandments on Sinai, learned their role in saving others from the same predicament. These song lyrics, written by Juliet I. Spitzer, remind us that we, too, count. Can we count on you?

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer