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

Shiva for the Dead

As the echoes of the last encore caress Sandberg’s big-shouldered host, and the gathered tribe of tapers, technicolor-adorned septuagenarians and youthful strivers for a handful of history return to the monochrome world of gainful responsibility and uncomprehending kin, embracing a moment of reflection seems apt before the haze of fading memory levels experience into nostalgia more quickly than the ardent, Buddy Holly-inspired love professed at the final show’s denouement. Aside from the prodigious legacy of the band itself, more was revealed, affirmed, and even sanctified by the show’s themselves than in what they represented.

Much has been made of the religious dynamics inherent in the Grateful Dead and their faithful family. Its bearded prophets, liturgical set-lists and myriad concert rituals are de facto religion, especially for spiritual skeptics of institutional ecclesia. But there is a facet of Jewish ritual, in particular its mourning rites, which emerge as salient parallels to this wistful moment of closure and uncertainty for the now unmoored legions of Deadheads.

Shiva is the most immediate and visceral period of Jewish mourning following death and burial. A seven-day period of reflection on the departed encouraged by a disconnect from the daily grind, it provides as much comfort to the grieving as it does direction for a future made frightening by the void. In critical ways, the Fare Thee Well shows shared much with this period and its practice.

Shiva is kind of reunion, bringing far-flung friends and family together for an intense, sometimes awkward, but eminently necessary chance to bond in the face of anxious transition. Think of The Big Chill without the Baby Boom neurotic narcissism. Stories are shared, memories challenged, corrected or affirmed as apocryphal, and perspective is gleaned to assuage confrontations with mortality and existential inquiry. For many, these shows marked more than the conclusion of a band’s career. It was an end of an era in ways far more genuine than the cliché conveys, both for stages in individual lives and for the cultural currency of 60’s idealism and exploration. It’s not quite the dramatic cresting of the wave prophesied by Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, but there is a sense of finality, an inexorable passing from one epoch to another. This shiva of shows celebrated an ending as much as it lamented change for a community that traverses time.

Shiva lays the groundwork for a different but hopeful future. Though mired in the sadness and absence of loss, the shiva process evolves into a forward-looking embrace of what’s to come. For Jews, there is little pride or value in endless mourning as reflection of love for what’s lost. But there is much striving for what’s next as fitting tribute to the life and legacy of the dead…and The Dead. Mickey Hart’s final, benedictory paean to take the power of presence at these shows into the world, distilled into the compassionate imperative to “Be Kind,” was as much a redirection of faith and hope as it was a securing of immortality for the values undergirding the band and its acolytes.

And finally, shiva provides structure and meaning through established ritual, transcending generations and applied universally, even for, or perhaps especially for, those unaccustomed to strictures, obligations and responsibilities. And while the Grateful Dead as archetype of 60’s liberation and boundary-crossing attracted many to its inherent inclusiveness of self-identified “misfits,” most remained committed out of fidelity to distinct and anticipated ritual: the renowned framework of 2 sets, encompassing Drums/Space and encore; the well-established pairings of tunes and scripted song cycles that emerged mystically from diffuse, amorphous jams; the post-show sharing of set lists and cacophonous commentary on and comparison of song iterations; and the unflinching, even sacred promise that each show will be singular, unprecedented and, in many ways, ephemeral, despite the obsessive “taping” community that produces recordings that only hint at the actual experience.

And so, as this period of shiva concludes for a seminal band of merry pranksters, we are mindful of the origins of the name itself. Garcia is said to have found it in Lesh’s copy of a medieval dictionary, a description of a folktale in which the spirit of an impecunious corpse expresses appreciation to the stranger who secured its burial. The Grateful Dead have far exceeded this eponymous mandate, showering us with a treasury of evocative sound and indelible moments, melding hearts as they altered consciousness in ways that have transformed our world forever. Fare Thee Well and Zichrono livracha—May its memory be for an ongoing blessing.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

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