Parshat Ki Teitzei • Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Watch Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s Rabcast for his reflection on Parshat Ki Teitzei.

Parshat Shof’tim • Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

TDHS Volunteers and Bellevue Police Department Officers Serve a Warm Meal to the Residents of Tent City Four
TDHS Volunteers and Bellevue Police Department Officers Serve a Warm Meal to the Residents of Tent City Four

“Justice, justice you shall pursue” we read in this week’s Torah portion. In a sacred literature where every word matters, why this doubling of the word “tzedek”, justice? Perhaps it serves to emphasize the centrality of justice to the society that was being created. Or maybe it describes who was to seek justice: both the judges and the common person. More often it is understood to mean justice must be more than merely respected or sought by actively pursued.

Last night, Temple’s volunteers and officers of the Bellevue Police Department offered another interpretation of this commandment. By serving a meal to those in need at Tent City 4, justice was sought as human beings helped other human beings to meet their physical needs in order to survive. A second level of justice was also pursued during this meal. Too often police and the communities they serve are or feel at odds. Last night, over BBQ brisket and french onion soup, conversations happened that allowed people to connect beyond their living situation or professional occupations. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” is as relevant today as 2,500 years ago.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat Shof'tim • Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

Watch Rabbi Daniel Weiner's Rabcast for his reflection on Parshat Shof'tim.

Parshat Re’eh • Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

All life is a series of choices. Some are small: what to eat for dinner, whether to hit the snooze button on a Wednesday morning. Others are much bigger: continue dating this person or break it off? Go for the promotion or seek employment elsewhere? Yet no matter the size of the choice, each and every one we make has consequences. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, every action has a reaction and that means we must live with the decisions we make. For children that’s one of the toughest lessons to learn; recognizing cause and effect can be, for some, (probably all) a rude awakening. Ironically, we simply cannot move through the world without choosing but when we do, we have no choice but to accept its aftereffects. 

It is within the chapters of of Re’eh that Moses continues to present the people of Israel with a choice: a life of blessings or a life of curses. Urging them to choose blessing means continuing to observe God’s commandments in the unknown reality of the Promised Land. That means letting go of the temptations of idolatry and the false promises of anything posing to be greater than God. That means proclaiming true allegiance when they’re not sure how their move into Cana’an will go. 

It’s hard to decide whether or not this qualifies as a “big choice” or a “small choice,” and indeed, maybe it’s both. When faced with the unknown we humans often respond in curious ways; surely each one of us can look back on examples of this in our own lives. While some, faced with Moses’ proposal, might have reacted with assured confidence, others undoubtedly questioned the legitimacy of this setup. Why must one path only equal blessing and another only equal curse? Surely, there had to have been a middle ground. This is, after all, the messy experience of being human. There’s never one totally right or completely wrong. 

Perhaps the most significant element of this parsha is its name – Re’eh – which comes from the Hebrew root word meaning, “to see.” Choice – however complicated, however daunting – is often presented to us as an “either / or” option. No matter which path we choose – big or small, seemingly insignificant or perilously monumental – that choice illuminates for us a path. That path takes us forward or it takes us backward. It inches us into new territory or announces a grand move in a new direction. No matter the way we humans choose to go, I pray that we may be able to see that path fully and clearly, illuminated by the knowledge that we have done the best we can in a valiant effort to choose wisely. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of Re’eh. 

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen 

Parshat Eikev • Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

We Jews are the “Chosen People”. This idea, and these words, might be used as either a moral imperative or an anti-semitic trope depending on who is speaking them. As such, I am a bit squeamish when I hear the phrase… and I suspect I am not alone. A redeeming explanation is provided by this week’s Torah portion, Eikev.

“For God, your God, is bringing you into a good land (Deuteronomy 8:7).” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, perhaps the founder of modern orthodox Judaism, writes: “Your training course of wandering in the wilderness has now come to an end. You are about to enter upon that future for which your anomalous situation on earth thus far was to be a preparation. Now, given a normal position as individuals and as a nation, you must demonstrate in practice the lessons which you should have learned during that singular training course, and which you must not forget if the future you are about to enter is to endure.” We wandered that we might learn. We learned that we might positively impact. We positively impact if we are to endure. Am Yisrael Chai — for that we are chosen.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat V-etchanan • Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

The Power of Love

When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.
-Jimi Hendrix

The Seattle guitar-deity’s words reflect well the essence of this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. This parasha contains passages that form the cornerstone of our liturgy: Shema and Ve’ahavta. The Shema is the somewhat cryptic and deceptively terse affirmation of our faith in the one God: Adonai. But it is more than a self-directed meditation.The words compel each Jew to remind the other of God’s name and nature. To begin with the word "Shema/Listen" is to invite focus, heighten awareness and inspire action. This is followed immediately by the V’ahavta, an expression of the ways in which we show love for God, practical and tangible acts that render faith more a “walking the walk” than a “talking the talk.” And its proximity to Shema is pedagogically sound: the power of love can only be fully realized when we are keenly aware of the object of that love and our motivation to express it. More than even Jimi intended, true "Shalom", true wholeness, integration and peace will come only when the quest for love transcends the pursuit of power.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

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