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 https://www.facebook.com/RadbamfromUAEtoTXL/), 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


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