Parshat Chayei Sarah - Genesis 23:1-25:18

It is perennially ironic that the title of this week’s parsha – Chayei Sarah – speaks to the “life of Sarah,” Abraham’s wife, yet this parsha begins and ends with death. Just last week we read the troubling account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice at Mount Moriah. That we open this week with Sarah’s death – at he age of one hundred twenty seven – is no accident. Many commentators connect Sarah’s death with Isaac’s narrow escape from tragedy. Some believe Sarah died of shock upon learning of her husband’s actions; others posit that Sarah’s death was the result of “an inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” (Zornberg, Etz Chayim Torah & Commentary) Once Sarah dies, her grieving husband Abraham arranges to have her buried – at full price – at the Cave of Machpelah, receiving permission from the Hittites to purchase land in what is present-day Hebron.

Two chapters later, having secured a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented.” (Genesis 25:8) He is buried alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. Though the circumstances of their deaths are different, each of them lived full, complete lives – filled with celebration and sorrow, pain and joy. For both Abraham and Sarah, their endings are treated with dignity and respect; the final resting place for both is one arranged with thought, care and consideration.

The arrangements we must make in the face of loss are at times overwhelming – from burial plots to funeral plans to shiva. Processing one’s grief in the midst of those plans can make the process that much more challenging – yet, as Chayei Sarah reminds us, making those very plans not only help us say goodbye to our loved ones; they help us demonstrate kavod l’meitim – respect for the deceased – one of the highest of all mitzvot. Whether one suffered or died peacefully, we remember our loved ones by celebrating their life. The very title of the parsha – The Life of Sarah – is a reminder of just how significant that distinction can be.

Tonight in Seattle at 7pm, I invite you to join me and Adam Halpern, JFS’ Director of Aging in Place, to discuss the practical, logistical and emotional needs involved with life transitions and preparing to say goodbye to our loved ones. It is the conclusion of our series “Life is a Journey,” presented by Temple’s Sacred Journeys Initiative. Whether we currently find ourselves in the midst of those challenging questions or not, at some point we will all find ourselves in that peculiar, overwhelming space. We invite you to join us, to learn and ask questions, so that we may continue to enrich our lives and the lives of those we love with dignity, respect and care.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Noach • Genesis 6:9-11:32

“Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”

What does it mean that “Noah was blameless among the people of his time”? When God comes to Noah and tells him the world will be flooded, Noah says nothing. Unlike Moses and Abraham who argue with God, Noah seems to accept the fate of mankind without batting an eye. This hardly seems like the acts of a righteous man.

According to the Seforno, a Rabbi from the 15th century, his commentary on the Torah states that, “Noah walked in God’s ways by trying to help others and to instruct and if necessary rebuke them.” One can assume that by walking in God’s ways, Noah did try to tell the people to do the right thing but they did not listen to him. Therefore, when God told Noah to build the ark, the fact that Noah did not say anything in response to God is more a reflection of the fact that even Noah thought the people were beyond helping.

However, according to Rabbi Yochanan, a third century Rabbi, Noah was only righteous in comparison to the other people that lived at his time. If Noah had been born at a later date, he would have been no better and perhaps even worse than most people. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yochanan, had Noah been such a great man he would have spoken up and tried to negotiate with God.

The lesson we can derive from these teachings is that we are all products of the age in which we are born. We are molded and shaped by those around us. Yet, we always have the power and the ability to rise above and be our best selves. When you are remembered, do you want to be remembered as righteous in your generation, or as a model of righteousness for all time?

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat B'reishit • Genesis 1:1-6:8

Bereshit bara Elohim…In the beginning, God…” The first words of Torah, which we begin reading anew this week, present us with a challenge. Why does Torah starts with the letter “bet” instead of the first letter in the alphabet? The Zohar, the mystical text of Jewish tradition, presents a creative answer. “As God verged on creating the world, all the letters presented themselves before God, from last to first.” Each letter presents the case for why it should begin Torah, the sacred work of all creation, and each is ruled out in turn. Tav, which is the seal of the word for truth, emet, is also the seal of the word for death, mavet. Shin, which is the first letter of God’s holy name Shaddai, is also the first letter of the word for lie, sheker. The text continues in similar fashion until the bet is reached, the first letter of blessing, bracha. “Master of the world,” bet said, “may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are blessed in the heavens and on earth.” May this new year give us the opportunity for the recreation of our worlds closer to how we wish them to be, and may this new cycle of reading Torah be a blessing for us as we bless our God.

Parshat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot • Exodus 33:12-34:26

“…u’dar Adonai mirushalyim.” As part of our Torah service on Shabbat morning, we sing that Torah comes from the Land of Israel, the word of God from Jerusalem. A city central to our people’s narrative and promise, we might actually conceive of two Jerusalems as did the Talmud. Jerusalem shel mala, the heavenly, ideal concept of Jerusalem mentioned in prayer; and Jerusalem shel mata, the everyday Jerusalem subject to human struggles and strife.

In two weeks, these Jerusalems collide. The World Zionist Congress, an every five years gathering of 500 Jewish leaders from the world over, gathers in Jerusalem to discuss and debate issue of global Jewry. I have the honor of being a voting delegate at this conference and need your help! I will be journaling the experience on a Facebook page linked to Temple with two purposes: first, to share this unique experience with the our TDHS community, and second to allow your voice to be heard in real time. You can read about the issues being discussed and the resolutions up for vote, and your feedback and responses in real-time will help inform my vote and voice!

Please “like” the Facebook page to receive daily updates,, and share with anyone who might be interested!

Parshat Haazinu • Deuteronomy 32:1-52

Another Yom Kippur has come and gone; we have communally and individually celebrated, reflected, and atoned. Now we shift our focus toward the conclusion of our cycle of Torah readings with parshat Ha’azinu, the penultimate portion of the Torah. In a few days we begin the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot followed by Simchat Torah – a holiday whose name literally means “joyous celebration of Torah.” Then we start over as we do each year with Genesis – and the cycle begins anew.

Endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. I’m reminded of that popular song from the 90s by the band Semisonic – “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Ha’azinu is the epitome of this cycle, for the parsha is Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites. He reflects, at times with pride and at others lament; yet the centrality of God is paramount throughout. Just as Moses bids farewell, the Israelites gear up for their new chapter in the Promised Land. It is a strange juxtaposition between old and new; between ending and beginning, between life and death.

The parallel between Ha’azinu’s message and the passage of time in our Jewish community is no accident. In these days our transitions are abundant – from year to year, season to season (hello, autumn!) chag (holiday) to chag, school year to school year and Deuteronomy to Genesis. In these sacred days, may we continue to pay attention to those transitions, reflecting on the centrality of our Jewish community and our belief in something greater than ourselves.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Vayeilech • Deuteronomy 31:1-30

“Tune in to the 11:00pm news if you want to keep your kids safe…”
“One of you will be Chopped”…right after this commercial break!
“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…”

Cliffhangers are the norm rather than the exception in modern American life. Television programs are particularly notorious for building toward a climax and then taking a commercial break, in order that we stay tuned through the less-compelling advertisements. Our, Torah, too, uses this tactic in Parshat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30).

During the Yamim Nora’im, when our religious consciousness is heightened and our receptivity to hearing what we can do to make 5776 better is at its peak, Torah leaves us with a cliffhanger. Knowing that the people would turn aside from God when the entered the promised land, God gives Moses a poem to teach to the people of Israel that bears witness to the covenant. This week’s portion ends with the words “then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…” We only get to hear the poem itself next week, when we tune back in to our regularly scheduled Shabbat programming.

It’s worth staying tuned.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Nitzavim • Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

The rock band “fun” had a song popular back in 2012 called “Some Nights.” You’ve probably heard it – with its catchy lyrics and nonstop radio play, it was hard to miss! One of the most memorable lines in the song is this:

Oh, Lord – I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Most nights – I don’t know …

When you’re driving along and singing aloud to the song blasting back at you, it can often be hard to focus on what its lyrics contain. Only when one stops and pauses might we consider that existential question “fun” is pointing us toward – what do I stand for?

Parshat Nitzavim begins this week with the following: You stand here this day, all of you before, Adonai your God, your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp … to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God … to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … I make this covenant with its sanctions not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

In parshat Nitzavim, we learn that the people stand together, united as one, about to cross a threshold into the land of Israel. They are not perfect people – not the tribal heads, nor the elders or officials, nor the children or the strangers within the camp. We know that the forty-year trek which led them to this moment was an arduous, painfully human voyage – one where leaders made mistakes, where humans complained and questioned authority, where rebellions led to loss of life, and where God at times grew profoundly impatient with this people. Yet – here they are, standing together. Here they are – united to receive God’s promise. Here they are – standing as one community, a part of an everlasting Covenant that stretches to this day. What do they stand for? They stand for God.

And yet – we also read that this day, God makes this covenant not just with those who are present but those who are not. We realize that “one need not physically stand among those destined to dwell in the Land of Israel in order to stand before God as part of the People Israel. While we may be separated by time, by space, by native language, by ritual practice, or by the conditions in which we live, we who embrace the Covenant are all worthy of being part of K’lal Yisrael – the Jewish people.” (Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin)

This Sunday we will begin our celebration of the New Jewish Year, 5776. At this time of year we ask ourselves – what do we stand for? We take stock of our actions and look ahead to the opportunities of a fresh start and new beginning. This coming Sunday, many of us will stand together – shoulder to shoulder, machzor to machzor, as we pray Avinu Malkeinu. Yet some of us will be absent, bound elsewhere – either due to illness, choice or circumstance.

No matter where we physically stand this coming High Holy Days – we still stand together. No matter what we hold in our hearts – what pain and grief, what joy and excitement, what anticipation and anxiety, what pride or fear – we stand together as one holy community, united in our bond to one another and our tradition.

What do we stand for? We stand for one another, no matter where we are.

Shana Tova U’metukah – to a good, sweet year ahead.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-2
In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo the Israelites are commanded to sacrifice their first fruits to God. In these line the Torah is drawing a direct connection for the Israelites between the food they will grow and the role God plays in providing that fruit. I would offer that this Torah portion should remind us of how we are connected to the world around us. As our culture moves more and more away from an agricultural society the more and more we move away from a connection between us and the world around us.

Two possible ways of looking at our connection to the world is that we are all separate individuals that exist together on the same planet or to see that everything is interconnected and our sense of separateness is merely perception. This week’s Torah portion attempts to remind us that we are all connected by reminding us that the fruit we receive does not magically appear but is a part of system that we are connected to through God.

There is a Hasidic teaching that our lives are like waves in the ocean. The wave is not separate from the ocean but rather a part of it. Similarly, the Torah asks us to offer our first fruits to recognize that there is no separation between the fruit that is grown, the farmer who cultivates it and God. Similarly, for us we are all interconnected and part of something bigger which might force us to change how we look at the world, the food we eat and each other.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat Shoftim • Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

We have, at last, entered the Hebrew month of Elul. It is a sacred period in which we consciously mark the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new Jewish year. Traditional Jewish communities sound the shofar every day throughout the month, inspiring all who hear its call to teshuvah (repentance) t’filah (prayer and reflection) and tzedakah (righteous giving). The shoresh (root) of tzedakah is tzedek – justice. And in this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we find the battle cry of our social justice movement, one that captures the ethos of our modern Reform sensibilities and inspires our working toward a more just, whole world.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – justice, justice you must pursue … that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God has given you.”(Deuteronomy 16:20) With these words, every person of Israel – no matter their age, gender, or status – is charged to actively work for tzedek, justice, for shalem, wholeness, and for shalom, peace. In biblical times that charge was directed towards the land God promised to our ancestors. In modern times, that message is one that transcends our people, our traditions, and our Jewish communities.

At this very moment, hundreds of our Reform Movement colleagues are marching from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC – an 860-mile trek – as part of “America’s Journey for Justice” in partnership with the NAACP. The goal of this march is to powerfully convey to our nation’s leadership that “Americans of all faiths and backgrounds share a commitment to racial justice, and that it is past time for passage of legislation that will help bring the United States closer to its founding ideals of equality for all…” writes Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. There is such power in this journey, and in its message. Harkening back to our biblical ancestors’ mandate to pursue justice so that we may live, our contemporaries are presently pursuing justice so that all might live with dignity, opportunity, and freedom.

Read more about America’s Journey to Justice here:

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat R'eih: Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

In this week’s Torah portion — R’eih from chapter 14 in the Book of Deuteronomy — we are given the foundational rules for keeping kosher.  In these verses, the Israelites are commanded  about which animals they may and may not consume.  These animals are divided into three categories: land animals, sea animals, and birds.  For land animals, they must have a cloven hoof and chew their cud in order to be kosher.  For sea animals they must have fins and scales to be kosher.  As for birds, there is not as clear a general category as much as a list of birds which may and may not be eaten.  This all begs the question: why?  Why these animals and not the opposite?  Why separate at all?

One answer is that the animals that are forbidden are seen as scavengers or dirty.  In order for us to be holy, which according to the text is God’s goal for the Israelites, we must eat animals which act in what could be perceived as holy way of being.  Cows eat grass.  They are peaceful.  Chickens give eggs that we can eat to help sustain life.  The animals Judaism says we can eat are all life-affirming to a certain degree.  The pig eats what it wants but does not give anything back.  Here our tradition teaches that to be eating itself is an act of holiness and that what we eat is a reflection of who we are and what we put out in the world.

As for the second question, Jeffery Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary on page 137 states,  “The command [in this case of Kashrut] itself made humanity aware that it may not satisfy every desire, that there are prohibited as well as permitted actions.  Distinguishing between these is God’s first requirement of [humans]”.  Many people use the term “I am not kosher” when speaking of keeping kosher.  This is true enough.  Human beings are not kosher.  However, an individual keeps kosher, they are not kosher.  In other words, keeping kosher, like everything else, is a choice.  That is not to say you have to keep kosher to be holy and pure, but rather that holiness and purity are a result of choice, that they are not simply conferred upon us.  Therefore, the laws of kashrut teach us, not merely about which animals our ancient ancestors could and could not eat, but really teachers us about the sacrifice and personal agency trying to become holy requires.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson