Parashat B'reishit • Genesis 1:1-6:8

Meaning and Metaphor

It is an error in perspective to believe that those who came before us were primitive in their literal interpretation of sacred scripture, and that we modern sophisticates alone possess a nuanced appreciation for the power of metaphor.  In some cases, quite the opposite is true.  The authors and conveyors of the biblical text intimately intuited the capacity of metaphor to convey meaning beyond the constraints of mere expository language, while it is often our contemporaries who mistake the integrity of faith for fidelity to, or even an idolatrous devotion to, the text. (My teacher and past Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi Michael Cook coined the term “bibliolatry” for such errant obsessiveness.)

Those who came before us understood that the biblical account of creation was most probably not an historical or empirical account of the world’s birth a mere five millennia prior, even in the absence of scientific insight.  The truth imparted from both creation stories within the first chapters of Genesis is a moral truth, not an historical one.  It is God’s resume, a testament to the beneficence and power of the Creator in bequeathing the world to us.  It provides the background for the peak experience on Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus, when the Jewish people intoned as one “We will do and we will hearken.”  They accepted the constraints and direction of Torah wisdom because God had earned credibility through ma’aseh bereishit, the acts of creation.

Parshat Bereishit reminds us of the many truths beyond the sensory and measurable, the moral truths that are truly the gift and boon of the Torah as the terms of our covenant with God.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner


Chol Ha’Moed Sukkot • Parshat Ki Tisa • Exodus 33:12–34:26

Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

In Ki Tisa, found in the book of Exodus but read during the holiday of Sukkot, Moses emerges from the episode of the Golden Calf feeling lost. His fellow Israelites have just committed an act of total disobedience to the Eternal; having grown impatient and anxious, they created an idol as a supplement for God. Following that episode we recall as one of the most memorable in Torah, Moses pauses. Faced with tremendous doubt and internal strife, Moses seeks a sign from God to continue moving forward in their story. And so, God complies, choosing to show God’s back as God passes by. Moses emerges from this encounter glowing and radiant – and it is this sign from God that renews Moses’ faith. Shortly thereafter, the Israelites march onward.

I have always loved this Torah portion, for it portrays Moses as so distinctly, unabashedly human. Even more, this is an extremely rare occurrence of God manifesting in the closest thing to human form. And it is not insignificant that God shows God’s back to Moses; many Torah commentaries suggest that one’s back is a symbol of strength; their spine, like the central palm of our lulav, a symbol of conviction and confidence.

Who among us has not had their moments of doubt, or a feeling that perhaps that vision they were reaching for was suddenly out of reach? Who among us has not struggled; who has not been told “this too shall pass” by someone we love? As I read Ki Tisa this year, I cannot help but think of all the ways our world appears to be spinning and spiraling – and how many of us might feel overwhelmed at the mere mention of tikkun olam – the repair of the world. Repair? Me? Where do I even start?

Perhaps the enduring message of Ki Tisa this year is this – Moses is one man, one human being, with an enormous responsibility to humanity. But even Moses had his moments of self-doubt and of pause, wondering if he should even continue moving forward with this overwhelming burden. But Moses knows he must press onward, moved by the prospect of something greater than him alone. And, to me, Moses’ chutzpah in asking God to reveal God’s self to mortal man is inspiring, for it teaches us who reside in the present to believe in our convictions and – above all – to seek, to ask, and to reach out in order to move beyond.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen


Parashat Haazinu • Deuteronomy 32:1–52

This week’s Two Minutes of Torah come to you courtesy of the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism).

A Failure of Leadership and Moses’ Downfall
D’var Torah by Reuven Firestone

This is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term “awesome” tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome. Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” (Deuteronomy 32:1). Thus Moses commences to “sing out” the majesty of God (the word for poem in Hebrew, shir, is also the word for song). Read more…

 


Parshat Vayeilech • Deuteronomy 31:1–30

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, contains a verbal curiosity. Our sacred text, known for its paucity of words — wouldn’t it be nice to know how Sarah felt about the Akeidah or how Aaron responded to the death of his sons Nadav and Abihu — repeats the same phrase twice, duplicating two of the thirty verses found in the portion.

“God will not fail or forsake you.”

It is no coincidence that this message is hammered home during the most spiritually difficult week on the Jewish calendar. During these ten days of repentance, we are asked to account for our transgressions and misdeeds. Is God listening? Are the people we have wronged? Can we move forward from our sometimes shameful actions? T’shuvah – repentance; T’filah – prayer; and T’zedakah – righteous acts avert the severe decree. With serious intention, we read in this week’s Torah portion, God will not fail or forsake you. Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer


Parshat Nitzavim • Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

During our Tuesday night high school program, Livnot Chai, our 9th and 10th graders walked through the difficult language of our Yom Kippur confessions. “For the sin I have sinned against you by…” We explored together what each of these couplets means, and sought understanding by finding real-to-life examples from their experiences. At the end of our time together, one student remarked “wow, I didn’t realize how much I had to change.”
 
We all have much to change as we approach this new year. Where have we wronged others? Where have we come short of being our highest selves? What successes have we had that we need to continue? Tomorrow evening, we will join in a creative project as part of our Shabbat service to articulate our list of ways in which we have missed the mark in preparation for the Days of Awe. Rabbi Weiner and I will be leading this creative Shabbat Omanut and I hope to see you!
 
Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat Ki Tavo • Deuteronomy 21:6–29:8

The Commandment to Love and Help the Stranger
This week’s Two Minutes of Torah are courtesy of ReformJudaism.org and Reuven Firestone.

“This week, the Israelites are instructed that after they enter the Promised Land and begin to farm it, each head of household is to fill a basket with the very first fruits produced there and bring it to Jerusalem. They are to bring the basket before the priest and recite a story that we read every year in our Pesach seders…”  Read more.


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