D’varim | Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22

Have you ever noticed how a story's details can morph slightly from telling to telling? It's a trick of our memory that these details change as we gain (or lose) perspective on a particular event. Often laden with emotion, we can layer over details with shades of judgment, interpretation and even change entire meanings of a particular scenario. This week we begin our fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which is a review of all that happened to the Israelites during their journey from Sinai to the Promised Land; as remembered by Moses.

In this week's parsha, D'varim, Moses begins to recount the story slightly differently than we read it in the book of Numbers. He is older, approaching the end of his life, and he knows that he cannot enter into the Promised Land with the Israelites. From this perspective, his recollection of past events is understandably laden with emotion, and not without a strong dose of judgment. We, moderns, have the luxury of being able to flip back in the Torah to the first hand accounts of these stories, to compare and contrast, but what must this retelling have felt like for Moses?

What does it mean for us that our tradition includes this second-hand reflection, full of interpretation and potentially mis-remembered details? It is to be read as part of a whole, for sure, and perhaps teaches us that the memories of our ancestors, emotionally laden as they may be, are as important for our understanding of who we are as the straight-forward first-hand narrative, which may lack that layer of emotional interpretation. Both are important for they tell us where we have come from, and potentially clue us in about where we are heading.

Rabbi Callie B. Schulman

Matot - Mas-ei | Numbers 30:2–36:13

Jewish tradition makes use of many different names for God dependent upon situation and desired outcome. Offering prayers or making reference to Adonai Tzva’ot (the God of Armies), for example, draws upon a far different set of historical experiences and images than would approaching Shekinah, God’s more feminine presence. While each name only reveals a singular facet and small portion of the Infinite’s identity, they speak volumes about the person making use of them.

One of my favorites, Fount of Living Waters — M’kor Mayim Chayim, is a poetic name for God used in this week’s Haftarah portion from the Prophet Jeremiah. (If you ever want to feel old, watch subtle attempts at Jeremiah / bullfrog humor fall flat before today's Bar and Bat Mitzvah students…) For the generation wandering in the desert, relating God to an oasis evokes emotions tied to the fragility and presence of life itself.  While it rains a considerable about more in the Pacific Northwest, Fount of Living Waters remains powerful. A place to turn for the sustaining of life and its highest virtues is indeed the draw of the God of Israel even for us.

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Pinchas | Numbers 25:10−30:1

One might imagine, given his long history of leadership and thin pretext for not entering the Promised Land, overwhelming malevolence between Moses and his successor. It would be natural for a lifelong leader to be reluctant to relinquish the mantle, to fight even harder to maintain power as imposed transition approached. A careful reading of this week’s Torah portion, however, paints for us a different picture. God commanded Moses to offer charge and lay hand (singular) upon Joshua, yet Moses went above and beyond, providing even greater conference of status by using two hands in blessing.

This distinction might seem like our Sages are making a mountain out of a molehill, but in reality they highlight an important point: we all have to do things that are disagreeable on their face, day in and day out. Moses’ choice is one we all face. How we choose to respond is entirely up to us. We will do so petulantly or by embracing the task? Will we do so half-heartedly or with gusto? May we learn from the greatest prophet who ever lived!

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer


Balak | Numbers 22:2−25:9

This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains a very identifiable section from our morning liturgy. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel: May tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” This “curse” turned blessing, offered by the prophet Balaam, sees beauty in the places of God’s people. While it begins as a recognition of their physical encampment — and thus serves in liturgy as a recognition of the beauty of our sacred spaces — the poem goes on to describe an idyllic scene:
“Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water; their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water.” The Israelite camp, then, is an oasis in the desert containing physical and spiritual nourishment for all who enter. That should be the goal of our sacred spaces to this day: a chance to refresh, the repair, to envision the ideal that we might be better empowered to make it real.
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Chukat | 19:1−22:1

To fly off the handle. To go ballistic. To blow one’s lid. To lose it. We have many idioms in English for describing when someone loses control of their emotions and acts in a way not in accordance with their highest intentions. Unfortunately, this plethora of words would not exist were it not for the frequency with which we need to call upon them. It is all too easy to become excessively angry and to behave both impulsively and destructively…losing control unfortunately happens to all of us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, too, loses control. The early Israelites were complaining — yet again — and instead of following God’s recipe for drawing forth water like a baker, Moses followed it like a chef, being a little less precise with his control. His punishment should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. Instead of rationally addressing the underlying issues, Moses lashed out in anger, and was subsequently prevented from reaching his ultimate destination. So, too, it is with us. When we lose focus, when we fly off the handle or go ballistic or lose it, we lose sight of our goal and face repercussions both immediately and for the long term.
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Korach | Numbers 16:1−18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, two divergent models of leadership are presented. The leadership of Korach, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the prioritization of particularistic concerns from a heterogenous group of malcontents born of shattered hope and unrest. The second is that of Moses and Aaron, described eighteen times in Torah as “servants of God,” who sought only to teach, guide, advocate, and defend the early Israelites. Sacks’ takeaway is that “a true leader is a servant, not a master. He does not seek to set himself above others or lord it over them. Leadership as power, dominance, mastery, or rule has no place in Judaism.”
Too often our society overlooks those in servant leadership roles. Perhaps because they don’t command as much oxygen in a room, or because they prefer to empower others and stay out of the spotlight we miss them entirely. Yet it is often they who are truly effective, a lesson Moses and Aaron learned the hard way. When they lost their way, when they failed the challenge of remaining firm in their convictions as servants of God when presented with Korach’s model, they lost their place in the promised land. Join us on Saturday morning at 9:30am as we study these prooftexts from our tradition!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Sh'lach L'cha | Numbers 13:1−15:41

There's nothing like the unknown to amplify fear; and there's nothing like the wilderness to amplify the unknown. Our parsha this week, Sh'lach L'cha, features the famous story of the Israelite spies who ventured into the Promised Land to scout it out in advance of the rest of the wandering Israelites. It is a famous parsha for a few reasons: 1) it reinforces the image of the land being one "flowing with milk and honey," with produce so large that it requires multiple people to carry one bunch of grapes, 2) it is also a land full of "giants" to whom the Israelites "seem like grasshoppers," thus adding to the terror of it and 3) because two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua speak up in favor of entering the land - and they wind up being the only two of their generation who will survive to see the people enter in to it.
In these wilderness chapters, we become "a stiff-necked people," challenging Moses & Aaron, and therefore God, at every turn; bemoaning the unknown road ahead. Countless times, our leaders ask God for strength to continue to lead, and countless times God threatens to wipe us out, only to have our leaders come about in our defense. It is a wild ride through the wilderness as we ping-pong back and forth between being secure in who we are and where we are headed, and downright terrified and indignant in our ignorance of the path ahead... How like life? The journey to a new place is always harder traversing than the known path. The road-less-travelled is the one full of fears and doubts and terrors, and yet in the immortal words of Robert Frost - taking that Road Less Travelled By makes all the difference; in becoming who we are, in facing our fears, and moving through the uknown into the wilds of deep discovery.
- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Thoughtful Thursday - June 6, 2018

As we reach the end of the shloshim thirty-day mourning period, I am finally able to gather my thoughts to share about Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, former President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and my close friend.

Most of us live divided lives, split between the need for a public persona and a private striving for a more intimate authenticity. Rabbis bear the additional, amplified demand of the clergy archetype, a spiritual Rorschach upon which many project their ideals and concerns.

And so, it is a special province for rabbis to spend time amongst ourselves, permitted to let our entrenched guard down, relating to one another as the human beings we were before committing to this vocation-- the people we still are in our most essential, protected moments.

This inevitable distance between private persona and public image increases even more when the rabbi is a global leader, one who serves so many as a nurturing mentor, institutional visionary, and symbolic purveyor of tradition. And when one is taken from this life at the pinnacle of powers and prowess, the list of achievements attained, and those unrequited, forges memory of nearly mythic proportions, weighted with the promise of the could-have-been.

I was blessed to call Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l a colleague, and fortunate to look to him as a rising leader of our Reform Movement. But I am luckiest to have cherished him as friend for more than three decades, and I grieve a loss that traces the deep contours of that bond. For friends of this nature, duration and faithfulness come rarely in a lifetime, and even in his absence, his imprint impresses.

I met Aaron in that strange and liminal moment of our first summer in Israel upon entering our rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the seminary at which he would later become President. It was a challenging time of transition, barely adjusted to completing undergraduate studies, uprooted physically, emotionally and spiritually to a life in Israel, embarking upon a journey of sacrifice and service that we could scarcely envision. Our youth and inexperience was obvious and manifest, as we struggled to embrace our launch into both adulthood and this most idiosyncratic of paths. We shared a singular flash in time, still unmoored by the freedom of the inchoate, but increasingly bound by the expectations of what lay ahead. We forged a friendship rooted in what we had been, encompassing what we were becoming.

There were unbridled moments pursuing the excesses of youth, hold overs from our undergraduate exploits, celebrating our temporary lack of encumbrances and exploring the possibilities for new and different kinds of experiences. We embraced the rigors of novel study, traveled to new, exotic locales with an emerging community of classmates, all while laying the foundations for our evolving identities.

While all of us possessed unique qualities and traits, elements that became abundantly familiar in the course of such intense interaction, Aaron exuded an infectious energy and inimitable presence that drew us in and drew us close, inviting us to become co-conspirators in his great assault on a fuller kind of living. He was intellectually omnivorous, passionate for adventure, and compulsive to fulfill the longings of his heart and mind. While most of us were content to satisfy the demands of the curriculum, balanced with the travails of this year of transience, Aaron consumed as many new ideas as he could plumb, immersing deeply into everyday Israeli culture in ways that seemed to defy the physical limits of time and vigor.

There is no looking back upon that first, formative year without reflecting on Aaron’s significant role in it. And as I’ve shaped and been shaped by my distinct rabbinic path, the fidelity of my connection to Aaron, and his conscientiousness in its sustenance, endured, despite the exponential growth of his responsibilities and the pull of myriad demands. It is a testament to his capacity as a person and acumen as a leader that so many feel his loss in personal, impactful ways. But I will always remember the “husky” red head with the stubbled baby-face, driven by an East Coast angst for that which remained undone, assailing me with a sarcastic but-not-too scarring retort which disarmed with a wry smile, charting a course that he alone would tread, beckoning me to follow in a path as singular as his own.

-Rabbi Daniel Weiner

B'haalot'cha | Numbers 8:1−12:16

Success is not a zero-sum game. While theoretically we might understand that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” we tend to fall prey to jealousy when we see another succeed — be they foe or friend, rival or colleague. Instead of celebrating and sharing in their accomplishments, we resort to belittling the character of good people, tarnishing the reputations of the famous, and trying to make the great seem small. Bachya Ibn Pekuda, in Duties of the Heart, offers this important psychological insight as commentary on this week’s Torah portion: "Should one of your colleagues be superior to you, his deeds better than yours…your evil inclination will seduce you and say to you: his greater efforts to achieve moral perfection only throw into relief your faults.”

When Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, speak out against him (seemingly without cause), their words come off as embittered. Many commentators read the lack of context given by our sacred scripture as a commentary upon itself, modeling for us the prohibition against disparaging others by leaving out the hurtful words. Before we lash out against the success of others, Bachya and Torah tell us, we would be well reminded that we are “commanded to love and to honor those who honor God.”
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Naso - Numbers 4:21−7:89

Upon first glance, this week's parsha, Naso, could appear to be a somewhat dry account of an Israelite census. The opening chapters of the book of Numbers retell the Israelite people's self-organization and preparation for the trek into the Promised Land. Not only do they face the challenge of traveling in a group in excess of two million, but they must do so while maintaining a proper relationship with God (and by extension, each other). As anyone who has ever led a field trip, or even a family vacation knows, the former is no small feat, and the ladder may sometimes feel impossible.

This segment of their journey begins then, as does any sound journey, with an accounting-for of all the souls who were to travel together. A veteran chaperone of many a field trip with young people, I have myriad first-hand experience with this exercise of roll-call. As a staffer of young adults, I've tried counting people off, so as to expedite the on-and-off boarding process from buses and at group meeting points. But our parsha does not use any of the Hebrew words for "counting," as it retells the way in which the Levites took census of the Israelite people. Rather, God tells the Levites to, "naso et rosh," "lift the head" of each of the people present.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this choice of language and instruction illustrates a revolutionary idea: that each person should be seen as an individual, human, single, and valued and not just a part of a mass, or a number in a tally. This census reveals a "supreme religious principle," that people aren't just numbers. In the priestly act of lifting each head, looking each individual in the eye, and counting their personhood amongst the Israelites, we learn that we are as important as we make other people feel; that by acknowledging one's humanness we inherently acknowledge both their independence and our interconnectedness.

Rabbi Callie B. Schulman