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

There is so much going on in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, that it is hard to focus on any one part. This week we read the Ten Commandments for a second time, we read about Moses recounting that he is not allowed to enter the land of Israel and we hear the Sh’ma, the central prayer/statement of faith in Judaism.

It is the Sh’ma I wish to focus on this week. Roughly translated the Sh’ma says, “Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”. One teaching about this prayer that I truly enjoy comes from a former teacher of mine, Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, in the Torah commentary he edited, Etz Chiam. In the Etz Chiam on the Sh’ma he cites a Midrash, a Jewish legend about the Torah, that says the words of the Sh’ma were actually first uttered on Jacobs death bed by his children. For Jacob’s sons their fathers birth name was Jacob, however, later in Jacob’s life God gave him the name Israel. Therefore, on Israel/Jacob’s death bed he expressed a worry that because his children and grandchildren were going to live in Egypt that they would turn to the Egyptian gods and turn away from our God. To assuage his worries, Israel’s children said, “Hear Oh Israel (Jacob), we accept the one God as our God”. With these words Israel’s children swore an oath that we still recite and bind ourselves to today.

In some prayer books there are two letters in Hebrew that are made larger than others in the Sh’ma. The two letters are the Ayin, which is the last letter in the word Sh’ma, and the Dalet, which is the last letter in the word echad, which means one. When one puts these two letters together it spells the word “ed” which means witness. According to Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, “…to recite Sh’ma Yisrael (Hear O, Israel) is to testify to the unity and uniqueness of God. To live by the precepts of the Sh’ma is to bear witness to the truths of God’s Torah” (Etz Chiam Torah commentary page 1024).

What is this truth? The truth of what it means to bear witness. When we say the Sh’ma we are ostensibly saying we bear witness. We bear witness to the glory and majesty of creation. We bear witness to being committed to social justice. We bear witness to being a sacred community and sacred individuals. There is a lot we can learn about and study in this week’s Torah portion, but perhaps no concept is as central to what it means to be Jewish then to bear witness. When we bear witness to something, especially God’s role in the oneness of the universe, we become accomplices in that oneness, and therefore are complicit in all that happens in the world and by extension our role in bringing holiness into the world and all we do.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat D'varim • Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Can you name the books of Torah in Hebrew? In English, or perhaps Greek, we have a helpful mnemonic to recall the books —GE Lights Never Die — which are named after significant events or intellectual understandings of the material contained within. Genesis, for example, speaks of the origins of the world; Leviticus, with its concern for the sacrificial cult is properly attributed as a concern for the Levites; and Numbers draws its name from the various censuses of the people. Not so for their Hebrew names, which are simply the first significant word in the text: Bereshit, or “in the beginning”; Shemot, “names”; Vayikra, “and God called”; B’midbar, “in the wilderness”; and D’varim, “words”. As you can see, the derivation of the Hebrew and English names are quite different, though less so for the book we begin this week.

The Book of Deuteronomy features a grandiose recapitulation of the Torah in the language of Moses, presented as a series of five speeches to the Israelite people. Both the English name, derived from the Greek for “second law” and the Hebrew, meaning “words”, capture the essence of this book. Sometimes we need to hear something important multiple times for its meaning to resonate, something as true for our ancestors as it is for us today. May our second study of these important words open our hearts to new meanings and greater understanding.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

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

And the stones in the road fly out from beneath our wheels
Another day, another deal, before we get back home.

And the stones in the road leave a mark from whence they came
A thousand points of light or shame … baby, I don’t know.

– Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones in the Road”

This week we reach the end of B’midbar / Numbers with the double portion of Matot-Masei. The portions begin with a list of each location the Israelites reached on their journey from Egypt to Israel. There are forty-two in all, from Ramses to the plains of Moab. We read that Moses made a point of recording each location where they camped, thereby creating a travel log of sorts for the people of Israel and – thousands of years later – for us, their descendants. While the text does not offer commentary for each of the forty-two locations, we and they know each place bears its stories. Each place bears its memories. Bright or dark, triumphant or defeatist, these dots on a map are powerful reminders of our past. They are the stones in the road towards freedom and promise.

I believe Matot-Masei intentionally shares these forty-two points on the journey to remind us of two important things: first, that “the journey” – the movement from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land – took Moses and the people to places they never expected to go. Physically and metaphorically, what became a forty-year trek delivered extraordinary lessons in patience, peoplehood, change and renewal. And second – it teaches us that “the journey” upon which each one of us has embarked – be it the journey of life, or love; education or parenthood or simply a new path we have forged – will take us to many new places, several of which we will not expect to go. Yet we can and will look back on the stones of our own road, our own life’s journey, and know that they have paved a way toward our own freedom and our own promise.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Pinchas • Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

Often overlooked in favor of examining the troubling deeds of Pinchas (after whom this Torah portion, Numbers 25:10 – 30:1, is named) of the plea from the daughters of Zelophehad, our Torah portion also contains a large census of the Israelite people. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” It turns out that Jews in every day and age have been as concerned with numbers as we are today. The “ever-dying” people, we stand up to be counted in various censuses measuring and evaluating and weighing behavior from the latest Federation study ( back to Sinai.

Given this emphasis on numbers, not to mention our sacred teaching that one who saves a life has saved an entire world, the Jewish community expresses eternal gratitude for the actions of Nicholas Winton, z”l. A quiet, unassuming stock-broker who saved more than 650 children from death at the hands of the Nazis, Winton’s actions did not come to light for almost 50 years. He was some humble and unassuming that even his wife didn’t know! May we all strive to do such good in this world, not in search of notoriety or fame but because it is simply the right thing to do. Zichrono L’vracha, may his memory be an everlasting blessing.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Balak • Numbers 22:2-25:9

This week’s parsha contains within it one of Torah’s rare attempts at comedy. The Moabite king Balak hires Balaam, allegedly the world’s powerful sorcerer, to curse the people of Israel whose numbers intimidate Balak. Despite Balak offering him hefty payment for his work Balaam initially balks, for God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with Balak and his people: “you must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” So Balak sends more powerful, persuasive dignitaries and offers more money. Again, Balak refuses, saying: “I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of Adonai my God.” God once again comes to Balaam but says, “you may go with these men … but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” Soon we meet a talking donkey – one powerful enough in her own right to see an angel of God blocking her path. Through the donkey God speaks to Balaam, startling Balaam on his journey.

Eventually, this comedy of errors results in the people Israel being blessed three times instead of cursed. And among the blessings offered to the people Israel is the well-known prayer in our daily liturgy, Ma Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings O Israel!” The parsha implies that Balaam did not have control over what came out of his own mouth; that it was God directing the show right from the start. Balaam’s blessings were therefore predetermined by God who stated to Balaam right from the start that this was a people who was already blessed.

While this parsha is a joy to read and re-read year after year, there is a poignant, often overlooked side to it that begs to be paid attention to. Right from the start, God is in control. God tells Balaam how everything will play out. God controls the donkey. In Balaam’s final monologue, he cries out: “who can survive except [when] God has willed it?” While this idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity is still en vogue in many communities today, many of us struggle with the idea of a God who knows, sees, and controls all. We question the idea of a God who has already laid out our futures, particularly when those futures take some unfortunate and tragic twists and turns.

And so – I believe parshat Balak is meant to push us: to question and wrestle, to think deeply about control and power, to examine and evaluate our own perceptions of God and God’s presence in our human lives and our visions of curses and blessings in the modern day.

And, yes – it’s meant to give us a few laughs, too.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Chukat • Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen writes: “Perhaps one of the laws of Judaism that seems most distant and irrelevant in modern times is the idea of ritual contamination emanating from a corpse. Corpse defilement, as outlined in Leviticus 21 and elsewhere in Torah, is “cured” by the strange rituals set out in this week’s parsha, Chukat. We take the ashes from the parah adumah (red heifer), and create a strange liquid mixture to sprinkle on the people, vessels, and rooms that came into contact with the corpse. Within seven days, everyone is purified.”

Not exactly an easy ritual to explain — indeed, to some it might sound like a bit of a-religious ancient magic — and yet this ritual has staying power in Jewish consciousness. Those traditional Jews who pray for the dedication of the Third Temple while using modern science to clone a red heifer seek a type of purification they don’t believe possible without these trappings. As Reform Jews, we take a different tact. Spiritual purification comes from making amends bein adam l’haveiro, between people, and bein adam l’makom, between people and God. Perhaps it isn’t good material for DIG Episode 1, but this too needs staying power in the Jewish conscience.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Sh’lach L’cha • Numbers 13:1-15:41

Sh’lach L’cha – Numbers 13:1-15:41

And God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send your men, that they may survey the land of Canaan which I give unto the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a prince among them …’ And [when] they returned from spying on the land at the end of forty days … they told [Moses], ‘We came into the land to which you sent us and surely it flows with milk and honey … yet the people who dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified and very great. And moreover, we saw the children of Anak there.’ Yet Caleb quieted the people and said, ‘We should go up at once and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ But the men that went with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” -Numbers 1:1-31

Sh’lach l’cha centers on a narrative many of us know as the story of the twelve spies: twelve men – “every once a prince…” – sent to scope out a land that would soon become the people’s new home. Ten return with fear in their eyes and doubt on their lips. Two – Joshua and Caleb – insist that all will be well. The ten wind up spreading an “evil report” about Canaan, striking fear and anxiety in the hearts of countless wandering souls still mourning their enslaved yet predictable lives in Egypt. Unrest, dissent and revolt breaks out in the camps – and once again Moses and Aaron are placed in the role of mediators, tempering a furious God who condemns this generation to die out in the desert, never to reach the land of Canaan.

Is the punishment too severe? Perhaps. Are the people so in the wrong to be fearful? Not completely. Yet, as commentators throughout time have noted, this is a key moment in which the people’s faith and trust in God seemingly evaporates. After years of wandering, after years of proving God’s self and God’s powers to the people; here they choose to listen to the gossips and the pot-stirrers, the fear-mongers and the bullies. Here, the people are unable to rise above the negative. They choose to give in to their worst instincts and as a result, they suffer.

The title of the parsha, Sh’lach l’cha – means literally to “send to yourself.” As Rabbi Steven Kushner writes in this week’s Ten Minutes of Torah for the URJ, “[The title] is instructive. No matter the task, no matter the challenge, the success of my mission depends entirely on how I see myself as being integral to its fulfillment … if my concern is focused [outward] … then I act without integrity. Lest we forget, the opening words of this parshash’lach l’cha – are uttered in the singular. It speaks to you.”

We humans make choices every single day. When we choose not to rise above the din of fear, when we choose not to act with integrity, when we ignore what we know in our hearts is truly right – even when it is the harder choice – and when we refuse to listen, we suffer. Sh’lach l’cha serves as a reminder that each of us has a choice in how we move through this planet. And when we “send ourselves” out into that great blue world, our choices, behaviors, and how we choose to respond and react to all life throws at us are what truly dictate our future.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat B’ha’alotcha • Numbers 8:1-12:16

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘when you mount the lamps, – b’ha’alotcha et ha’ne’rot el mul p’nei ha’m’norah – let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’
-Numbers 8:1-2

The menorah is one of the most recognizable symbols of our Jewish community. From our own spaces of worship here at Temple to the walls and stained glass windows of sanctuaries throughout the world; from Jewish organizational letterheads to the seal of the State of Israel. We know the image of the menorah and claim it as our own. Many of us identify most intensely with the menorah as a functional yet triumphant piece of Temple property reclaimed by the Hasmoneans – descendants of Aaron – after the Maccabean victory, giving light to a dark Temple over a period of eight miraculous nights. This seven-branched symbol is a statement of solidarity, unity, and strength – and it traces its roots to the Tent of Meeting mentioned throughout Torah and here in parshat B’ha’alotcha.

The use of the word b’ha’alotcha in the opening sentence of the parsha is striking. B’ha’alotcha contains within it the same root as the word aliyah, meaning to ascend or rise up. God does not speak to Moses and simply say, “Tell Aaron to turn on the lights.” Rather, God refers here to the act of kindling flame as a rising up; an ignition and a spark. The use of this particular word elevates what would ordinarily be a functional task into something more; something holy.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Darren Kleinberg once explained parshat B’ha’alotcha as a reminder of the potential spark that can be ignited in the exchange between humans, particularly in the realm of Jewish leadership. When a match is struck against a coarse surface it causes a brief, brilliant spark to ascend into the air, followed by a glowing gold light. Similarly, when leaders, committees and entire boards come together to share and explore passions and stir within one another the desire to create a better future, that spark of an idea or a purpose turns to a glittering series of possibilities with the light of the future and its potential raising us to unlimited heights.

Tomorrow evening in Seattle we will celebrate the leadership of our congregation – honoring those who have served our community with dedication and devotion and welcoming our newest leaders into a cadre of committed congregants. May their light and warmth increase and continue to inspire, raising up each and every one of us to the heights we do not yet realize we can achieve. We invite you to celebrate our Board Installation and Volunteer Appreciation Shabbat at 6pm in Seattle tomorrow – let us welcome and kindle that sacred, inspiring light together!

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Behar-Behukotai • Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

They are beautiful yellow flowers, adding a bit of color to an otherwise brown field of vision.  Small, yes, but plentiful…and a crisis of faith?  The broccoli in our Urban Garden has “bolted” and is now producing flowers instead of vegetables.  While our first instinct might be to shake our head at the irony of it being too warm in Seattle for these early plants, this week’s Torah portion translated the problem rather differently  In Behar-Behukotai, we read: “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.”  Did our broccoli plants respond not to natural conditions but to the transgressions of its planters?

Reform Judaism would affirm that this isn’t the case!  Our understanding of meteorology is quite different than the authors of the biblical text, as is our understanding of why bad things happen to good people – or broccoli plants as the case may be.  We affirm that torah (with a little ’t’, the collected wisdom and writings of Jewish tradition) offers many competing theological views, and while we do indeed reap what we sow we also understand that there is a time for everything under heaven.  A balance must be found among these competing theologies – won’t you join us for Torah study on Shabbat morning at 9:30am?

Parashat Kedoshim • Leviticus 19:1 - 20:27

“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” These words we read this week, taken from the holiness code of Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27), occur at an auspicious time for the American community. As we wrestle with issues of race and economic justice as a broader society, our sacred text reminds us of our responsibilities to every other human being.

Unfortunately, the Torah does not offer a prescription toward their realization. That, I believe, is up to us, for it can and should be different at every time and in every place. Smart people can disagree about how to achieve this noble aim; no one should believe that we are already doing enough. Let us take the heart the aspirations of Kedoshim, that “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” and let us continue the work of extending justice to all those who sit in the gates.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer