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

Parshat Tazria/M'tzora • Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33

Not sure which Torah portion we are supposed to read this Shabbat?  Blame the Cutheans.  Beginning some 2,736 years ago, division within the Jewish community led to a power struggle over who controlled the calendar: the early Rabbis or the Cutheans (also known as the Shom’rim or the Samaritans).  The Rabbis ultimately won and instituted an infiltration-resistant system for verifying the full-moon - involving two witnesses and a rabbinic court in Jerusalem - that incidentally created the 8th day of Passover.  Traditional communities in the diaspora continue to observe this additional day in our time, while progressive communities and all Jews in the land of Israel observe only the biblically-mandated seven days of Passover.

On years such as this, when Passover begins and ends on Shabbat, this divergent practice becomes a practical division.  Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47) is read by Orthodox communities in the United States this week; Parashat Tazria/M’tzora (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33) is read by Orthodox communities in Israel.  Because Reform Jewish practice is to observe Passover for 7 days, as do our co-religionists in Israel, we have opted to continue with the Israeli cycle of Torah readings and will read Tazria/M’tzora on Shabbat.  Join us at Torah Study at 9:30am on Saturday and for services at 10:30am to learn more!

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Tzav | Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Our parsha this week continues to outline the korbanot (sacrifices) that are to take place in the Temple. The parsha's title, tzav, is an imperative – it means command, from the same Hebrew root as mitzvah. While last week’s portion Vayikra was a specific list of instructions for the individual tasked with bringing the offering, this week’s parsha is dedicated to the priest assisting with the offering; in other words, the layperson. This parsha outlines what they should do, how they should act, and what they must wear. In its specificity is a certain degree of holiness; one cannot approach any parsha in Leviticus without recognizing the sanctity of its amazingly detailed instructions.

As my teacher Rabbi Richard Levy writes, “While the lay-offerer placed his or her hands on the animal’s head, suggesting a desire that the offerer himself or herself might be accepted as the offering, the descriptions of the garments of the priest suggest that the priest is part of the offering, offering up himself each time he assists a “layperson” to do so. [It is] an impressive display of altruism – and of psychological resilience.” In other words, the priest – in a demonstration of true devotion – is expected to become physically immersed in the ritual taking place so that they may draw their assistant closer to God. In that way, the layperson is empowered – and, by extension, so is is the community.

I cannot help but breathe into this text a modern-day parallel. This past Sunday Rabbi Aaron Meyer led a group of our congregants in the planting of an urban garden on our Seattle campus. Thanks to the efforts of Brian Holers, Allen McCall and many others, the earth was prepared for plants and seeds of all kinds; vegetation that will – in due time – feed the hungry in our midst. This modern-day korban is indeed an offering of the highest order from these men and women. By physically participating in the taxing process of urban farming, our congregants – led through the tireless efforts of one of our rabbis – were indeed immersed in a certain type of holy ritual, one we pray will continue to sustain our community in the months and years to come. Through their actions and devotion, they were empowered – and, by extension, so are we.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Vayikra • Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Soul Sacrifice

This week we begin reading Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, a text which challenges the contemporary faithful to find meaning and relevance in an obsessive description of a cult of worship relegated to our distant past. Yet it does not require the erudition nor the unmoored, tortured interpretation of any self-respecting rabbi to discern deeper, more incisive lessons.

While the word sacrifice has generalized to encompass many kinds exchange, from the most mundane concessions to the most noble gifts of self, its etymology is rooted in the sacred, ritual offerings delineated in this week’s portion. Yet the Hebrew word employed to describe these offerings, korban, connotes something deeper, something more individual, something more personal. The Hebrew root k-r-v conveys a drawing near to something or someone. The lesson is implicit and potent: An offering to God was a gesture of spiritual approach, a desire to get closer to God and to bring God closer to us. But the gesture itself was insufficient. As the prophets admonished, without authentic, transformative intent, the gesture is but empty choreography, the symbol robbed of its essence and effect.

The same is true of the contemporary prayers of words and heart. Perhaps there is an even greater challenge when worship transcends the material signs that root it in our more common experience. Yet the boon is even greater when true intent binds with abstract entreaties more fitting for an intangible, incorporeal, and loving God.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parashat Vayakhei/Pekudei • Exodus 35:1-40:38

In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, Moses gives a detailed description of the building of the tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary the Israelites carried in the dessert.  The instructions for building the tabernacle, are laid out in minute, almost obsessive detail by Moses.  Everything from the metals to be used to the clothes that needed to be worn to how the incense should be burnt and used are explained component by component.

One of the questions that arises is  why did the Torah feel it was so necessary to go into such detail about the building of the tabernacle?

One explanation that is offered for the need for detail in this week’s Torah portion is suggested by Sforno, a 15th century Torah commentator.  He says that rather than refer to the items used to build the tabernacle by their generic name, i.e. utensils, or even specific name, i.e. fork, that every single “fork” was given an individual name.  Sforno suggests that this individual naming of each item leads to each item being of permanent significance to the entire functioning of this mobile sanctuary.

It would be easy to take for granted the importance of the fact that blue, crimson and purple yarn were all used to make the vestments for the priests.  However, what Sforno wants to highlight is all three yarns were not only necessary but integral to the completion of the tabernacle. The same can be said true for all of us.  Each of us makes a permanent mark on the world.  Even if we are not always aware of it, our existence leaves an indelible imprint on the fabric of the world.  Just as the tabernacle would not be truly complete without every jewel, or ring, or piece of yarn so to would the world not be complete without you in it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson