03/29/2018 12:27 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Yom Rishon shel Pesach
1st Day of Passover
Exodus 12:37-42, 13:3-10 (Bo)
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot … 

Freedom, Equality and Redemption

These were the three main themes that our students mentioned when asked what they had learned were the most important values we learn from Passover.

This week, we read from the Passover selection that brings us back to Bo (go!)  Consistently in services, we have been awaiting this time of year because as we have been reading about the Exodus from Egypt since early February and we have been foreshadowing Pesach.

The centrality of the Exodus narrative in our tradition is undeniable.  Mitzrayim is one of the most frequently occurring words in the Torah and there is good reason for that.  Mi Chamocha – a song about moving from bondage to freedom – has the singular privilege of bringing us back to that moment in every service we are a part of.  So we ask the question, why?  Why is this story so central, so important and so relevant?

Well, if our students are correct, the themes of Freedom, Equality, and Redemption are probably some of the most important concepts one might need to live a good life.  And Passover – and the references throughout our narrative and liturgy – remind us to reflect on those themes more often than any other.  We can be slaves to so many things.  How do we free ourselves when that happens?  Enslaving another – either literally in the common usage or figuratively in other more nuanced ways – is something we never want to be a part of and should work to eradicate.  And redemption – the idea that we can always be freed or that we can always recover from a moment of weakness – what an amazing concept for people to understand.  For a student to realize that a wrong can quickly be atoned for and a behavior quickly changed is most likely a liberating concept in the pressure filled world of youth today.

More importantly, our students also understand these concepts are not just about history and philosophy.  Passover comes around every year and is referenced in every service so we can remember that we were once slaves in Egypt.  Therefore it is our obligation to make sure that doesn’t happen to us or any other group of people ever again.  And to do that we need to act.  We need to care.  We need to notice.  We need to remember what it must have been like for the slaves of Pharaoh so that we can realize how hard we must work against those evils today.

In a concluding conversation and in response to one student’s question, we focused on the phrase "mixed multitude” in this Parashah.  A diverse group of people, Israelites and others, left Egypt.  And later on in the Parashah, there is explicit reference given to those people who were not children of Jacob, but who wanted to be a part of our community.  If those people wanted to fallow the God of Abraham and were willing to adopt the teachings of Moses, they could.  They were welcomed.  Even then, the stranger was welcomed.  We live in a diverse world and in a diverse country.  Our tradition teaches us that remembering Passover and the joys of freedom are for everyone.  

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

This week’s Parasha for Tweens

Categorized under:  Torah

03/23/2018 10:12 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Command [Aaron and His Sons]
Leviticus 6:1−8:36

Sacrifice and Connection

In the week’s Parashah, Leviticus continues with its focus on guidelines, rules and regulations.  More specifically, Tzav, commands certain requirements for the ritual sacrifice that was an ancient part of our tradition.  

When asked about the importance of this kind of "sacrifice” some of our students went back to the construction of the Mishkan when Israelites gave of their most prize possessions.  Likewise, the literal sacrifice of the animals or crops we needed for sustenance were no less valuable than the jewels or gold that were collected for the Mishkan.  In fact, the sacrifice of what you need to live as opposed to the sacrifice of your wealth may be even more important.  

In modern times, we think of the word sacrifice in terms of giving something up for someone.  We will give of our time to help someone.  We will give of our strength to protect someone.  We will often sacrifice health and well-being for those we love.  Yet, our students see that each kind of sacrifice is about giving up what is of value to you for the sake of another or for the sake of something important.

So, what was so important for the ancient Israelites to make the sacrifices they did for God?  Some would say that they would have been asking God for things – for protection, for good health, for help.  Some might say that this was their way of communicating with God.  Today we are very used to the concept of prayer that has been handed down by our Rabbi’s to replace our sacrifice at the ancient Temple.  After the fall of the Temple – what were we to do?  If we could not go to the dwelling place of God and sacrifice as we had – how would we approach God?  How would we ask God for things without our "sacrifice” to show our seriousness?  Well the answer for the Rabbi’s was that we would sacrifice in other ways.  Prayer allows us to proclaim our commitments to be better people, to love others, to repair the world.  The product of our actions and intentions to be better people are the tools now with which we approach God.  When we pray, we can’t really go in as empty handed as it seems.  We go in with reverence for creation, with an appreciation for family, with a dedication to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  These may not be the animals and crops that were brought to the Temple, but they are powerful commitments that require incredible sacrifice on our part.

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03/09/2018 11:08 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Vayak'heil - P'kudei
[Moses] Assembled / [The] Records [of the Tabernacle]
Exodus 35:1–40:38

Space and Time.

This is the contrast in this week’s Parashah.  For weeks we have been reading about the careful construction of the holy Mishkan that will house the spirit and laws of God as the Israelites travel across the wilderness.  We often do present the wonderful metaphor of our own bodies and minds also housing the spirit and word of God – much like the Mishkan - but primarily this is a story about the importance of space and physical constructs.  Our students really do understand both these concepts – the metaphor and the literal meaning of the Mishkan in this ongoing story.

Then we get to Shabbat.  Our sages speak of the inclusion of Shabbat in this Parashah as kind of wake-up call or at least a reminder about the risks of focusing too much on the physical.  Shabbat is of course about time.  Shabbat is not a physical place to be.  It is, in a sense, a state of mind.  Yes, we have a tradition of gathering on Shabbat as a community to read from Torah around the occurrence of Shabbat.  But the commandment about Shabbat – as retold by Moses – is about personal and individual rest and restraint from work.  We retell the creation story and are commanded to rest on the 7th day just as God did.  

Much or our faith tradition revolves around balancing these two concepts of place and time – or form and formlessness.  So it should be no surprise that much of our Jewish politics also revolves around the contrast between the physical and the non-physical.  We cherish the sanctuary and the congregations we join.  But our relationship with God – and Shabbat – is not dependent upon it.  We value and cherish Israel as the birthplace or our people and the modern manifestation of a national Jewish identity.  But for centuries, scholars have asked how the physical place impacts the global Jewish ideologies of today.  

The Parashah seems to emphasize what is so hard to grasp in our modern era.  The answer to the question of space and time is not a zero sum game.  The physical is always important,but it can’t be the total sum of our focus.  Form-less concepts like God, Shabbat and Middot, are vital to who we are as Jews.  But without the ritual, the physical, and the space to connect to –many of us might not have the grounding we need.

Lessons abound in our texts, but maybe none are as important as those that point out contradictions we need to wrestle with on a daily basis.  This seeming contradiction between time and space, between the form and the formless – this could be one that we revisit time and time again as we ask the serious questions about our identity, our Judaism, our connection to Israel, and our connection to our community.  
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03/02/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

Ki Tisa - When You Take a Census
Exodus 30:11−34:35

In this week’s Parasha, we have a continuation of our instructions from God – in this case instructions about a Census, or the counting of the tribes of Jacob.  However, we also bear witness to the dramatic story of the Golden calf – a time when the impatient tribes of Israel decided Moses wasn’t coming back from his trip to commune with God.
While these two segments of our story seem disconnected, one could see them as part and parcel of the same unfolding story.  

People often wonder how the newly freed slaves, after all the miracles of the Exodus, could so easily turn to an idol as opposed to their own God.  In many commentaries we are reminded of what the reality of living in Egypt may have been like.  Whatever picture we may have in our minds of a Jewish community, what existed in Egypt was most likely very different and not very cohesive.  The need for a census informs this conversation.  In every major city in North America, we have regular "counting” of the Jewish community by our own Jewish Federations for the purposes of funding and the study of population trends.  No such organizing of our community existed back then.  We also must keep in mind that this "community” had not received their laws yet.  Without the Torah we are left to wonder what exactly made them "Jews” aside from belonging to the lineage of Jacob?

Many also believe this was a very assimilated group.  Joseph’s example is just one, but the text does seem to indicate that prior to one particular Egyptian King coming to power, the Hebrews were not looked upon poorly.  Even so, one could definitely ask how could they be so assimilated with the Egyptians at one time and then be so ostracized and treated poorly at another.  Well, we need only look to our modern History to understand how this can happen.  It is quite easy for a small difference to be the basis for hatred, bigotry and bias that may be lying dormant.  

Interestingly, it is at this time in our Jewish calendar that we visit Shushan and hear the story of Esther.  People may not realize that there were many other scrolls written in ancient times that did not make it into our Jewish cannon, but our sages thought so highly of this this text that it was included.  We are compelled to ask why.  It may be because this story of Esther had become our constant story of survival among others since our time in Egypt.  Yes we will conquer the Promised Land in future chapters, and yes in modern times we will have the state of Israel.  But in so many ways, the Jewish story is the story of the surviving as the "other” in a larger communal or world order.

The Shabbat before Purim is known as "Shabbat Zachor” or the Shabbat of Remembrance.  We are asked to remember quite often in our tradition and this is a time to remember when were weak, on the outside, and were persecuted.  Shabbat Zachor, Purim, and even this story of the Golden Calf teach us lessons about being an "other” in a larger community.  Haman didn’t like Jews because they wouldn’t bow down to him.  We are not told exactly why Pharoah soured to the children of Jacob, but we are told that he thought them dirty and a threat to his rule – much like Haman told his own King.  In both stories we eventually prevail, but the pattern has been laid out for us – and we again are commanded not to forget.

In the modern day, Jews should be especially sensitive to those who are also "others.”  Shabbat Zachor is not just a story about another Haman like figure called Amelek, it is a story about someone who chose to prey on the most vulnerable among us.  A modern lesson we take from this is that a society is only as good as it treats is most vulnerable.  Purim is about the need to be brave when someone in power threatens a minority group for seemingly no reason.  

The Golden Calf is a clear indication that we were very much a part of Egyptian culture before we fell out of favor.  This is our modern story of Shoah as well.  The Jews of Poland were the most populous of any country in Europe.  They were seemingly so engrained in Polish society despite their difference.  Yet it was that very difference that resulted in the Jewish population in Poland now being one of the smallest in Europe.  And now there is actually debate over how that happened.  That is why we must remember.

Shabbat Zachor.  Purim.  Our life in Egypt.  And our life in Europe.  All reminders of how amazing it is to keep our identity in a larger society.  All reminders of how precarious that way of life is unless we stand up to those who try to prey upon the weak, the different, or the in-firmed.  These are lessons we give our students every day – and this season more than any is the time to reinforce them as strongly as we can. 
Categorized under:  Torah

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