11/02/2018 12:03 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah)
Genesis 23:1−25:18
Sarah lived to be 127 years old--such was the span of Sarah's life.
"Adding Life to Years"
A D'var Torah by Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D.

What is it that most people want to become but nobody wants to be? This paradox is no riddle, it is simply a reality of life. In our youth-oriented culture, almost everyone wants to reach old age but no one wants to be old. Consider the elixirs, tinctures, potions, stairmasters, elyptical trainers, and so many other nostrums and contraptions employed to aid in the search for the fountain of youth whereby we hope to forestall and even halt the inexorable march of time.

The tension between growing old and wanting to stay young takes on greater urgency because the aging population today is quite different from that of any other period in history, evidenced by the sheer number of people living beyond retirement age. The 65-74-age category is approximaely eight times larger than it was in 1900; the number of 75-84 year olds is 17 times larger; and the 85-and-up population is nearly 40 times larger. Future projections indicate that by the year 2030, there will be more than 70 million people over the age of 65, and the population aged 85 and over, the group most likely to need health- and long-term care services, also will increase dramatically.

Today, lives no longer conform to past expectations and patterns. Marriage, schooling, career, child bearing, and child rearing are more fluid than ever before. Many do not look or act their chronological age, making necessary new benchmarks for the retired set, a mixture of young-old, old-old, sick-old, well-old, well-off-old, and so forth.

Chayei Sarah was written at a time when growing old was the exception rather than the rule. It is a narrative that bids a reader to pause and consider the prospect of aging and the personal hope that growing old will be gentle and graceful rather than severe and graceless. The text reminds the reader that Sarah was 127 when she died (Genesis 23:1) while Abraham lived to be 175 (Genesis 25:7). Both Sarah and Abraham accomplished their most significant achievements in the latter part of their lives, well past the age that would be considered feasible today. Abraham set out on his fateful journey at God’s command from Haran (in northwest Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq) to "the land that I will show you” at age 75 (Genesis 12:1, 4). When Abraham reached age 90, God revealed Himself to Abraham and promised to make his descendents exceedingly numerous (Genesis 17:4-6). At age 99, Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself (Genesis 17:24). Although, Sarah, at age 90, and Abraham, at age 100, were well past normal child-bearing years, nevertheless, Isaac was born (Genesis 21:2-3). Thus, for Sarah and Abraham, age provided no barrier to accomplishment. They launched themselves onto new pathways at a time when they might have been expected to retire to rocking chairs.

Those who think that growing old is just mind over matter fail to recognize that genes, nutrition, proper care, exercise, and just plain luck cannot be disregarded. Nevertheless, an individual’s attitude toward aging is important. Contrast the comment of one older woman, "I tried being old a couple of years ago and I hated it, so I am never going to do that again,” with that of the 91 year old standing by a grave at the end of a interment service who said to me, "You know, rabbi, it hardly pays for me to go home.”

Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, "I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” "Why shouldn’t you?” she asked. "You look perfectly healthy to me.”

Until this modern age, those who managed to grow old were anomalous; few people lived long enough to prevent leisure time, longed for when young, from becoming a burden when aged.

The Book of Proverbs finds increasing currency in an age when the number of septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, centenarians, and even a sprinkling of supercentenarians (those 110 years old or more) are rapidly increasing: "The gray hair is a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31). By extension, Rabbinic tradition teaches: "ben arba-im labinah, ben chamishim l‘eitzah ... ben sh’monim lig’vurah — at forty one is fit for discernment; at fifty for counsel … at eighty for strength” (Pirkei Avot 5.21). These are not isolated statements about growing old; comparable maxims fill the pages of traditional texts, aphorisms that can be utilized in formulating attitudes about growing old gracefully. The example of Sarah and Abraham’s longevity, and the accomplishments realized during their advanced years provide new ways of thinking about adding meaningful life to extended years, fulfilling the Psalmist’s prayer: "Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalms 90:12).
Categorized under:  Torah

10/26/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
I (God) Appeared [to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]
Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day.

A creative D'var Torah on the Binding of Isaac, by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

Did you ever wonder what Abraham thought about in the years following his "almost-sacrifice” of his son Isaac? In this midrashic monologue based on Parashat Vayeira, we imagine Abraham’s inner struggles:

"As I held up the knife, I knew I had failed. In my passion to please, I lost my head and my son Isaac nearly lost his too.

"Three days before, I heard God talking about Isaac, my son, my only one (from Sarah), the one who was so beloved (Rashi on Gen. 22:2). God said, v’ha-aleihu sham l’olah, "bring him up as an olah,” (Gen. 22:2). I figured God wanted a sacrifice, because the word olah, from the Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, means, "to rise up.” You light a fire, making a sacrifice, and the smoke rises up to God.

"If the Holy One wanted me to sacrifice Isaac, who was I to question? In fact, I rose early to do God’s bidding, completing the preparations myself: I saddled my own donkey and chopped the wood myself (Gen. 22:3). I was so pumped to please that I forgot to consult with Sarah. Didn’t even kiss her goodbye.

"What was I thinking? Maybe I wasn’t.

"This Akeidah (binding of Isaac), the almost-sacrifice of my son by my own hand, remains the most painful moment in my life. Some characterize this incident as an example of deep, unquestioning faith (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p.190) saying I loved God so much I was willing to give up the child we waited so long to bear. Others portray this as a definitive repudiation of child sacrifice because ultimately I did not kill my kid. In each case, I seem heroic.

"Yet each night as I toss and turn, I wonder how I could have so been such a dangerous fool. I completely misunderstood God’s intended purpose (Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, commentary on Pri Ha’Aretz:Vayera, Institute for Jewish Sprituality). That Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, meaning "sacrifice,” also points to the word aliyah, meaning "spiritual uplift.” In retrospect, I realize that God did not specify sh’chateihu, "slaughter him,” but only ha-aleihu, "bring him up.” Did God want me to bring Isaac up top the mountain to introduce him to my passion for the Divine, and then bring him back down? (Rashi on Gen. 22:2; B’reishit Rabbah 56:8). It was supposed to be father-son spiritual "quality time” (Tanchuma, Vayeira, 22).

"In my haste, I sacrificed the protection of my child. I caused our family significant stress and pain. I scarred my son for life. When Isaac closes his eyes, does he also see the horrific image of me raising up the knife?

"Thankfully, the angel of God stopped me in time, providing a ram in Isaac’s place. Afterward, God was kind, but not pleased. Praising me saying, "I will bless you greatly (Gen. 22:17),” reaffirming love for my descendants, God also signaled that humans may no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show our love for God (Rashi on Gen. 22:12).

"The angel’s words may remind some of parents who walk into a freshly painted house to be greeted by their smiling young child saying, "Come see how much I love you.” In the next room, the child proudly shows off a picture of a red heart, drawn on the wall, inside of which are the words, "Daddy/Mommy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love? Many parents would yell loudly. But if we stop first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, "I love you too, my child. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!”

"This incident transformed our relationships. Isaac took off, and we never spoke again. I fear he will skip my funeral. God ceased direct communication with me, using intermediaries from that moment on. Sarah died before I returned home and could tell her.

"And me? I cannot even stand myself. Because I failed the real test. I loved God but I didn’t love God’s child sufficiently (Rashi on Gen. 22:12; B'reishit Rabbah 56:7). Because I didn’t protect my Isaac. That’s the message for future generations: God wants us to love and protect our children as the ultimate expression of our love for God.

"It doesn’t get any clearer than that, does it?”

Categorized under:  Torah

10/19/2018 12:35 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Lech Lecha (Go Forth)
GENESIS 12:1−17:27
The Eternal said to Abram, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

A Letter from Abram
A very creative D'var Torah by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

Dear Mom and Dad,

By the time you read this letter, Sarai and I, and our nephew Lot, will be well on our way to the land of Canaan. I wanted to say goodbye to you personally, but couldn’t figure out how to tell you we were leaving and not coming back. I love you dearly and would never do anything to hurt you.

Why are we leaving? The short answer is that God told me to leave. I know that may sound strange to you, but for some time now I have had a strong feeling that I didn’t belong here. Don’t get me wrong. Haran is a beautiful city and I have enjoyed living here, but it has never been home.

I remember when we left Ur, you told me that one of the reasons we had to go was that it never felt like home. At the time, I couldn’t understand it because it was the only place I had ever known. But now I get it. It is not about where you are born or where you have lived the longest. It is about where you feel you belong, and I just never have felt that I belong here.

I am sure you remember the day a few years ago that you left me alone in your idol shop. At first, I was so proud that you trusted me and gave me the responsibility. I really thought that I could do a good job, but when the first person came into the store I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. And then, well, you remember what happened. I don’t know what came over me, but before I realized what I was doing all of the idols were smashed except for the biggest one. And I felt so good. You were so much more understanding than I expected you to be. Maybe you knew then what it took me much longer to discover.

I remember those stories you used to tell me as a young child about the struggles of the gods Marduk and Tiamat. I was so intrigued by those tales and wanted you to tell me more. At some point, though, I realized that they were just stories. And later I realized that the idols were just pieces of stone. Everyone around me continued to be intrigued by those stories and enthralled with the idols but they just didn’t speak to me anymore.

At first, I thought that there was something wrong with me and I really tried to continue to believe, but my heart wasn’t in it. For a long time I just felt empty and I didn’t think that there was any "being” out there and thought that we were it. I just laughed at those people who bought their little idols, set them up in their homes or stores, and trusted that they would protect them. And then, when something awful happened, they thought it was because they had the wrong idol and would buy a different one. I shook my head.

But soon I felt that something was missing. I would sit up late at night and gaze at the stars and wonder how everything came into being.

"Who created the heaven and the earth and me?” I wondered.

Maybe it was the sun that created everything, I thought. But when the sun set at the end of the day, I knew it could not be the sun. Perhaps the moon and stars, I thought. But they disappeared during the day. Still, I soon came to realize that it couldn’t all be by chance; there had to be someone behind it all, some being that we couldn’t see that must be there.

Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone; they would just laugh at me. "A God you cannot see! That’s ridiculous.”
I felt so all alone, like I no longer belonged here. I guess that is when I first began hearing a voice within me saying, Lech l’cha, "Go! Get out of here.”

I tried to ignore it at first. Where would I go? But each day it grew a little stronger. "Lech l’cha—Go for your own sake! Lech l’cha—Go to your roots/discover who you really are.” Pretty soon it didn’t seem so crazy after all.

And then I remembered. When we left Ur, we were headed to the land of Canaan. That was where we were supposed to end up. For some reason—I don’t think you ever told me—we stopped in Haran and settled here. No wonder I felt like I never belonged.

And that is when I knew that I had to leave. I had to complete the journey we had started. I had to set out for the land of Canaan.

I was so excited and couldn’t wait to tell you. You and I and Sarai and Lot and the rest of our family could make the journey together. But then I realized that perhaps I was meant to go to Canaan and not you. I struggled with this thought for many days. A couple of times I almost blurted out my plans wanting to beg you to go with me. But each time something stopped me.

And then I just knew that it was my moment, my journey, my lech l’cha.

That was just a week ago. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Sarai. I began preparing for our trip; you might have noticed a few things missing from around the house.

I should have been sad. After all, I was leaving you and the rest of the family and this place where we have lived. But I wasn’t sad. And that’s when I knew I had made the right decision.

I never went to bed last night. After you and mom were asleep, I woke up Sarai and told her to get dressed. She was confused at first and didn’t want to go. But then she saw the look in my eyes and knew that it was futile to argue. We then woke up Lot and our servants. After that I placed this letter on the kitchen table we took off.

Please don’t be angry with me. I hope you understand why I can’t stay here and had to make this journey.
And know this: unless you had set out from Ur to go to Canaan, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I am doing. That was the beginning; I am only finishing what you started.

Who knows how it will end up? But I have never been more certain in my life that this is the right thing to do. You will always be with me.

I love you,

Categorized under:  Torah

10/12/2018 12:08 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
GENESIS 6:9−11:32
NOACH (Noah was a righteous man; in his generation, he was above reproach: Noah walked with God)
D'var Torah by Rabbi Steven S. Pearce, Ph.D

In Parashat Noach, the designation of Noah as an, ish tzaddik tamim, a "blameless” or "wholehearted person in his age” (Genesis 6:9) provides an opportunity to focus on a biblical model for a behavioral ideal. Although Noah’s inner life does not match his behavior. Commentators frequently criticized his conduct, including a lack of compassion.  Nevertheless, the designation of Noah as wholehearted provides grist for understanding the biblical view of ideal behavior.

The Hebrew word, tamim, "whole heartedness,” resonates throughout sacred Jewish literature and is favorably utilized to describe a number of biblical protagonists. The meaning of the variety of closely related words — t’mimei, t’mimah, and t’mimim — is best captured by the opening line of Psalm 119: Ashrei t’mimei-darech, hahol’chim b’torat Adonai, "Happy are those whose way is blameless [t’mimei-darech], who follow the teaching of the Eternal” (Psalm 119:1).

Of course, there are exceptions to rules. Of the Passover Haggadah’s four sons, the one who does not know how to ask is called a tam, translated from the Hebrew as a "simple son,” and portrayed as guileless, immature, inexperienced, and without much, if any, intellectual capacity. His naïve, innocent question, Mah zot? — "What is this?” — casts him as a simpleton who is led to an uncomplicated answer appropriate to his unsophisticated level of understanding. However, this portrayal of t’mimut as the opposite of wise is inaccurate because in most other texts, being a tam is defined by purity, truth, genuineness, being unblemished and blameless, and having integrity (see: Proverbs 10:29). Deuteronomy (18:13) best describes this more expansive and accurate meaning in the command: Tamim tih’yeh im Adonai Elohecha, "You must be wholehearted [tamim] with the Eternal your God.”

Abraham was commanded by God to "walk along before Me and be pure of heart [vehyeih tamim]” (Genesis 17:1). Jacob was described as an ish tam, "a gentle or mild-mannered man” (Genesis 25:27). In two instances, God describes Job as tam v’yashar, "a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).

Jacob ben Meir, known as Rabeinu Tam, grandson of the medieval commentator Rashi and the greatest of the Baalei Tosafot (skilled commentators whose insights form the core of Talmud study) was a man of integrity and wholeness, and certainly not a simpleton. Centuries later, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav reported that he spent all of his life trying to achieve t’mimut, "purity, integrity, undivided faithfulness, and wholeheartedness.” Medieval commentator Bachya ibn Pakuda, the author of Chovot HaLevavot, The Duties of the Heart, further explained the ideal of t’mimut as "…complete harmony between inner and outward actions…. This is what the Holy Writ (in Psalms) refers to in the term "whole-hearted,” when it admonishes us to be "whole-hearted with the Eternal your God,” and commends "he that holech tamim — walks uprightly, works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:2).

Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, once asked: "Should a person strive for greatness or wholeness?” He explained using the example of two challot, one large but sliced and one small but whole. It is customary to bless the whole one because wholeness is more valuable than greatness. By extension, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan of Kovno cited the familiar verse from Psalms (19:8), Torat Adonai t’mimah, "The Torah of God is perfect,” whole, or complete, to explain that a Torah missing even one letter is pasul, "flawed,” and cannot be used because the missing letter destroys its t’mimut, its "wholeness.” Furthermore, so important was tamim, "integrity in Jewish law,” that an entire proceeding was debarred if one witness was disqualified. Similarly, when an individual misses one opportunity to sanctify life, one act that strays from the highest ideals of the Torah, then something is lacking in that person.

T’mimut, "wholeness,” in ourselves and in a broken world in need of tikkun, "fixing,” is the model that Noah and other wholehearted righteous individuals provide Jews in every age. Today, more than ever, the nature of an ish tamim, a blameless or wholehearted person, should serve as a reminder of the noblest ways in which Jews ought to conduct their lives.

Categorized under:  Torah

10/05/2018 01:21 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
GENESIS 1:1−6:8

D'VAR TORAH BY:  Ellen M. Umansky
The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).

In Isaiah 45:7, God seems to reiterate both the goodness of light, and the existence of light and darkness as separate entities. As the One who creates all things, "I form light and create darkness," says God, "I make shalom [peace] and create ra [woe, that which is bad, or evil]." Yet in contrast to the plain meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and Gen.1:2, Maimonides' later view was that light and darkness are not entities that exist in and of themselves. Rather each, he wrote, is simply the absence of the other (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 10, commenting on Isaiah 45:7).

My interest, however, does not lie primarily in the nature of light and darkness, but in how we actually experience them. The early verses of Genesis, describing the chaos of darkness accurately reflects, I think, the muddiness of dark thoughts and the sense of aloneness that people often feel when they are literally or figuratively in the dark. In contrast, many of us equate light with physical and spiritual illumination — moments of clarity or meaning often accompanied with feelings of joy and gratitude. These are the moments in which I count my blessings, reminding myself of how many things in my life are good, instead of dwelling on that which is bad.

In those moments, I experience what B'reishit identifies as God's "spirit," ruach, as divinity itself: God, not as a being on high who zaps the light, and eventually the world and all living beings, into Creation, but rather God as a life-source and life-force who helps bring forth and sustains Creation. Ruach can also be translated as "wind" or "breath," words that, like spirit, convey motion. Spirit, wind, and breath can be felt and experienced but not seen. They are invisible forces that energize us, perhaps leading to an awareness of God as a "Power not ourselves that makes for righteousness" — a well-known formulation from Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma (1873), appreciatively cited by liberal rabbis in England and the United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries in sermons, essays, and books, including Mordecai Kaplan's 1937 The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Third printing, The Reconstructionist Press, 1962, p. 297).

Arnold's formulation is reminiscent of a Rabbinic legend identifying the light created by God with the primordial light of consciousness, a light much brighter than the sun that shines on the deeds of the righteousness (B'reishit Rabbah 3.6 and 3.8, The Soncino Press, 1983, pp. 22, 24). Similarly, the great 13th century mystical text, The Zohar, equates the primordial light with the light of the eye, a light showed by God to Adam, which enabled him to see from one end of Creation to the other (see Daniel C. Matt, trans., The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 1, 1:31b [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003], p. 192). Rabbi Lawrence Kushner identifies this "inner structure of consciousness" as a "realm of being that comes before us and follows after us, streaming through and uniting all creation." It is, he writes, "the way of the Tao" or, drawing on the Zohar, a "river of light" (Lawrence Kushner, The River of Light: Spirituality, Judaism, and Consciousness [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1981], p. 94).

Kushner does not limit awareness of this river to the righteous. Ideally, it is available to all who open themselves to the reality of light in the world and in each of us. And when we open ourselves to this reality, we actually may experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the "momentous realness of God," and the "beauty, peace, and power" flowing through our souls as a result of this realization. Thus, as Heschel wrote: "The essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination" by the divine presence (Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955], pp. 138, 140). These memories help us recognize our own experiences of light.

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


Categorized under:  Torah

09/28/2018 12:14 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Exodus 33:12–34:26

More than any other Jewish holiday or ritual, I love the audacity of Sukkot. After the many profound words and seemingly endless prayers of the High Holidays, Sukkot offers a very different holiday mode. The main theme and ultimate goal of the holiday is to achieve climactic joy. While there are a myriad of customs and rituals associated with the building of the sukkah, and we celebrate the fall harvest, there main mitzvah is to be exceedingly joyful: First the Deuteronomist declares a few times "you shall rejoice” (Deut. 16:14) and then: "you shall have nothing but joy” or said another way, "you shall be exceedingly joyous" (Deut. 16:15).

While there are many interesting rituals, the main theme of the holiday is pure joy. We even include in the liturgy in several places a request for a special blessing for Z’man Simchateinu, this "season of our joy.” Why is this season particularly joyful? How can God demand or command an emotion?

What is the source of the joy? The sources of this joy are simply the reality of freedom and the possibility of a radically different future. If we’ve really been forgiven on Yom Kippur, if the world is truly renewed and freedom is real, then Sukkot is the culmination of all we’ve ever dreamed of or prayed for—it is a climactic moment. How can we not be joyful?

Like many people, I often bristle at the idea of being told how to feel. But there is something about the motivation for the directive to be exceedingly joyous on Sukkot that makes the idea of transcending oneself and our own issues possible. The motivation is the possibility of a much bigger joy. Emerging out of many hours of prayers, hopefully some deep internal reflection—and definitely a lot of time inside—we suddenly burst out of the synagogue walls and the walls of our homes into the great sukkah outdoors. Dwelling outside in nature is beautiful, but doing so in the insecurity of booths is a powerful ritual reminding us both of the journey out of Egypt and, ultimately, of our place in the universe. We can now fully imagine the joy that is possible if we are willing to embrace it.

Sukkot is also different than all other holidays because it doesn’t commemorate a historic event of liberation like Passover but rather an extended journey forward out of slavery, and toward freedom and self-determination. As my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches: "On Passover, Jews restage the great event of liberation. Sukkot celebrates the way of liberation—the march across a barren desert to freedom and the Promised Land” (Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,1988, p. 96). Now that we’ve declared the new year, repented, and declared our intentions, we must set out to embody who we want to be as people, a community, and a force for good in the greater universe. But what is the way of liberation?

There is no better way to embrace our place in the larger universe than leaving our secure dwellings and going outside into whatever the weather is (as long as it’s safe!) and embracing it as a reality beyond our control. This letting go of our capacity to control everything and moving into the world with confidence is definitely a potential source of great joy. Redeemed from Egypt, purified by Yom Kippur, we are free to determine our journey and our future. What greater joy can there be?

The Sukkot ritual we still observe today is based on the biblical commandment that the Israelites of ancient times—and we today—dwell in temporary huts for one week a year "in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God” (Lev. 23:43). But we don’t just go out and embrace the great outdoors, we are required to do so with a particularly deep and profound joy, even if we have to force it a bit at first.  

As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg writes, "Sukkot has become the model for this wordily [as opposed to the next world] enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing” (ibid., Greenberg, p.112). The Talmud outlines some of what we can do to help make it happen for those around us. "Our Rabbis taught: A man is duty-bound to make his children and his household rejoice on a festival, for it is said, ‘And you shall rejoice on your feast, [you and your son, and your daughter, etc.]’ "(Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 109a). The Talmudic passage continues by describing the fine food, wine, clothing, and so on that one must give each member of the family so that each one can truly rejoice. It follows that this is a good time to ask how we can help not only ourselves, but also those closest to us to rejoice as well.
Sukkot offers a myriad of ways to ritualize and live the way of liberation, and experience the profound joy in being free to do so. The pure joy of the journey, however, will be constantly challenged by the elements. Every day of the Israelites’ journey through the desert, their building sukkot repeatedly only to have to take them down and keep moving forward, tested their faith and commitment to the journey. As Greenberg writes: "It is relatively easy to rise to one peak moment of … courageous commitment. It is more taxing and more heroic to wrestle with everyday obstacles without highs or diversions. True maturity means learning to appreciate the finite rewards of every day along the way” (ibid., Greenberg, p. 97).

In this season of our joy the climax is ours to experience, if we realize its potential. But the greater gift is to enter into renewed relationships with those closest to us, with God, and with the universe. Then some deep joy will be ours not only on this holiday, but also for many days in the days and years to come. As the Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav is famously quoted as saying: "It is a mitzvah to be joyous at all times.”

Greenberg writes, "Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment…. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot” (ibid., Greenberg, p.112).

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

Categorized under:  Torah

09/21/2018 11:29 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
HAAZINU (Listen)

D'VAR TORAH BY:  Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beti-Halachmi, PH.D 

As we near the end of Deuteronomy, prepare to begin the yearly Torah cycle anew, and celebrate the end of the fall holidays, we are poised for a remarkable spiritual climax. This week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, includes Moses’ dramatic theological poem—a powerful cry of the heart because he wants to ensure that the community understands the core principles of what it means to be an Israelite. At this climactic moment, with multiple orations at the finale of Moses’ life and leadership, this section expresses his own theology, which has broad implications. While much of Deuteronomy is an interpretive rendering of aspects of the Israelite civilization we already know, this oration entails a paradigm shift on five levels: Moses, the people of Israel, God, the universe, and ultimately us—contemporary readers. A dramatic shift begins at each level.

After repetitions of history and law; the details of setting up a priestly cult, courts, and judges; the renewing of the covenant; and much discussion of reward and punishment; suddenly the tone and the layout of the text shift—even the portrayal of God shifts paradigms. Moses desires an audience greater than the community of Israel or even God: he calls upon the heavens and the earth to hear his elegy and affirm the truths he has learned.

While for most of the book, God has been portrayed as the mighty redeemer, the supreme warrior who leads Israel into battle, and the One who reveals Torah with thundering skies and threats of a conditional covenant, Moses now employs a variety of powerful but gentle images to describe God’s words:

"May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass …” (Deut. 32:2)

The well-known medieval commentator Rashi teaches that these expressions are a poetic description of Torah as the source of life. Just as the grass needs the rain and the dew so do we need the words of Torah. God’s words nurture us and sustain us. The holiday of Sukkot emphasizes a similar theme: we are ultimately dependent on forces beyond our control. The warm houses and incredible technology many of us are fortunate to have may give us a sense of security and power and make us feel that we have infinite access to knowledge, but in fact we all are ultimately vulnerable. We live in total exposure and are in need of a more transcendent kind of protection and guidance.

At this critical juncture in the narrative, the Deuteronomist ascribes to God many new names and characteristics that become important in the later books of the Bible, such as the Book of Psalms, and in the liturgy and in the prayer books that emerged in the following centuries. God as the rock, the source of justice. Any imperfections or problems in the world are because of human imperfection and human error—not because of God (Deut. 32 4-5). God is the father, the creator, the nurturer, like an eagle caring for its youngest eaglets in their nests and carrying them on its back.

By definition, these images of God ascribe complementary characteristics to the Israelites. If God is the saving eagle, the Israelites are the eaglets in a desert wasteland. If God is a wise and perfect and nurturing father, we are imperfect, naïve, and unenlightened children in need of the moral and communal direction of the Torah and a new generation of leadership. Without this theological widening it might not be possible for Joshua to be accepted and for the community to move forward.

These verses also emphasize a core feature of Judaism; it is not only a religion, culture, and civilization unto itself, but also the story of the Israelite people, which has metaphysical significance. Moses’ oration also confirms Judaism’s connection not only to religious and legal doctrines, but also to a God that is part of a metaphysical reality extending from Creation to all of eternity. By calling on the heaven and the earth to hear him, Moses returns with pathos to many of the themes of the Creation at the beginning of Genesis. Moses calls upon the heavens and the earth to witness his theophany concept. And through this powerful sermon he returns the people of Israel to the foundational elements of Creation—to the first days when heaven and earth are first distinguished by God, before humanity was even created. This is essential for the consciousness that must remain with the Israelites even after Moses is gone. God undergirds all of existence. Remember that is not just God the giver of the law, the judge, the warrior who will continue to accompany the Israelites, but also God the Creator and the devoted, protecting parent who will remain with us forever. This knowledge is a central goal of this season, to reach the spiritual climax in which we shift our existence toward all the goodness and hope that the universe holds in store for us.

Categorized under:  Torah

09/14/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Deuteronomy 31:1–30
[Moses] Went

Responsibility and Freedom, That’s the Deal!

In this week’s Parashah, we are presented with the very memorable moment of Moses telling the Israelites, that he will not be going with them into the promised land.  In our teachings, we learn of some of the concrete reasons for what is generally seen as a "punishment” for Moses.  Was Moses too brazen with God?  Was he too angry and possibly not as faithful in God’s support when he struck the rock that was to trigger nourishment for the wandering tribes of Jacob?  This is all very possibly the "reason” Moses did not go forward with his people.

When I put this question to our 4th and 5th Grade students this week, their responses were enlightening.  I asked if something that seemed so catastrophic - losing the teacher of all teachers, the leader who had seen then through so much - could something that seemed so bad have been for any other reasons?  Are there any positives to such a new situation for our ancestors?

Some students mentioned age.  "Moses was very old.” They said.  "Maybe they could use some new leadership.”
Others said that well, maybe they needed to go it alone.  Maybe they wouldn’t be able to grow as much with the same leader they had had for so long.

Their insights were amazing, and I told them, actually in line with many commentators who believe this may have been part of a necessary plan for the children of Isaac and Jacob.  Independence would definitely have forced them to grow in new ways.  

I also related their responses to the previous Parashot.  Moses had just been retelling his people about all the laws handed down by God.  He was now telling them that they were the ones who had to continue on without him.  They had to really take these laws to heart, believe in them, and teach them to their children.  He was not going be around anymore to keep reminding them.  They had to do that for themselves now.

One student also reminded us that the last time Moses was separated from the Israelites, things did not go so well in that regard.  They did forget, the did lose faith and the did turn away from God.  So in many ways, if this was God’s plan, this was taking a big risk.  Or was it the ultimate test of faith - seeing what would happen if their faithful leader was really not coming back?

I also related this conversation to what we ask of all of our students at Shlenker.  We teach them so they can do.  Yes we are often there to remind them of what they need to do.  But not always.  And not when they go home – or when they "Walkest by the way” as it says in the V’ahavtah.  

Much like the Israelites now had an independence that would be their greatest test, our students have that same independence – and what they do with it is the test of their commitment to our values, our principles and all the mitzvoth we ask them to follow.
Categorized under:  Torah

09/07/2018 11:53 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
You Stand [This Day]

Standing up and saying YES!

This week in Good Morning Shlenker, we didn’t need a video or poster to create an image of this weeks’s Parashah.  In what may be one of the more compelling scenes in our historical narrative, Moses is speaking to all the tribes of Israel.  In some midrashim, we are told of two mountains that the children of Jacob are gathered on, and the conversation that may have taken place.  In the Midrash, we are presented with what could be described as a one of the largest reality show competitions ever imagined.  The tribes are in a sense shouting in response to Moses presentation of the choice they have in accepting or rejecting God’s covenant.  The debate was in a sense between the forces of good and the forces of evil – the inclinations that might lead us away from God’s laws.

In our gathering, we imagined that we were the Israelites gathering in front of Moses, presented with accepting or rejecting God’s principals on how to be good and kind human beings.  I asked what we thought about a set of ideas that asked us to make good choices and be kind to one another, support one another, love our mothers and fathers, and care for the earth around us.  I asked if we would agree that this was a good thing.  The entire group said yes!  Emphatically!  I then asked them if we could try to recreate this scene from our Midrash, with all the tribes of Israel agreeing to follow God’s commandments, reminding them that any tribe could have said no.  I asked – and they all shouted yes in agreement.

Later in the week, as we continued our celebration of Elul, I spoke of a passage from Pirkei Avot, also a song, that begins "Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li."  This was a perfect passage for the time of year.  With a new year coming, there is no one but us, who can begin to change the world.  And the passage continues – if not NOW then WHEN?  Again, a perfect idea for the beginning of the New Year.  Now is the time.  Now is the time to stand up and say YES!  I AGREE!  Now is the time to say, YES!  I CAN MAKE THE CHANGES I WANT TO SEE!  And the time to act is not tomorrow.  The time is TODAY!

08/31/2018 10:52 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
When You Go Out

Featured from the URJ website from RABBI RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI, PH.D
Relationships—even sacred relationships—are not static. While there may have been glorious moments of deep commitment and mutual love in the past, sometimes the past isn’t enough to sustain the future. Because people change, and time and life’s experiences can be challenging, every relationship must also evolve. Even the most profound covenants and commitments between us sometimes need to be renewed or reestablished. But is this true even of our relationship with God? Isn’t our covenantal commitment with God unqualified and beyond limitation? Wasn’t the covenant established with the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai enough?

In an attempt to summarize Moses’ final orations in the beginning of Deuteronomy, the text of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, emphasizes something very powerful about Moses’ third oration: it calls for an additional covenant to be made between the Holy One and the people of Israel. "These are the terms of the covenant which the Eternal commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb” (Deut. 28:69). On the high-stakes journey between Sinai and Jerusalem a new covenant was needed.

A new covenant? Why was a new one needed? When the covenant was made at Mount Sinai the people of Israel accepted it wholeheartedly and committed themselves to observe the Torah and its commandments, as we saw in Exodus: "Then he [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!’ ” (Ex. 24:7).

But the Sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) recognized that the kind of covenant established initially was in a particular context. In a shocking midrashic explanation of the verse "And they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Ex.19:17), R. Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa made the following radical assumption about what really happened at Sinai: "This teaches that God held the mountain over their heads and said to them 'If you accept my Torah, good. If not, here will be your graves!’ ” In other words, God threatened the Israelites with death! They must accept the Torah or else they would be killed. According to this reading we entered the covenant with God under duress. If so, how can such a covenant be binding?

The coercive element in the covenant at Mount Sinai can be interpreted in various ways. Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), a French medieval halachic commentator, ascribes the coercion to Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai: "For it was by the Word [of God], albeit under duress.” In other words, direct Revelation of God created a situation in which there was no free choice, for who can refuse the direct word of God? (see the Tosafot on the same passage). But still, a two-fold problem remains: did the Israelites voluntarily accept the covenant and, if not, is it binding?

Other Sages of the Talmud recognize the deep theological problem Avdimi bar Hama had suggested, and Rav Aha bar Yaakov responds: "Thus we learn an important thing about the Torah.” That important thing, say other commentators, is the warning about the necessity and power of Torah, and our covenant with God. Some scholars, like the modern French Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) teach that, in fact, choosing Torah and entering into the covenant is the choice between life and death. A covenant with God affirms life in juxtaposition to the death and suffering of Egypt, and the death-worshipping of other cultures. Our covenant with God and, in fact, Judaism as a whole, is ultimately about choosing life.

Yet the problem of whether or not the Israelites actually voluntarily accepted the covenant with God still shouts out from the Talmud passage. Did we really accept the covenant voluntarily or if we entered into the covenantal relationship with God at Sinai under duress is the covenant really binding? The next line of the Talmudic text, however, is perhaps the most important: ‘’Said Rava, ‘Nevertheless [it is binding] for they accepted it again in the days of Ahasuereus, as it is written "The Jews upheld that which had been accepted,” (Esther 9:27) they agreed to uphold that which they had already accepted.’ ”

Relying on a new proof text to confirm that in fact we did accept the covenant voluntarily and that, yes, it still claims us, Rava—a later Babylonian Sage—presents an even more compelling argument about the covenant. Yes, we did and do accept the covenant voluntarily, but we did so hundreds of years after Sinai in a very different context. Only after generations of living with Torah could the covenant be fully embraced. In each generation we must understand the covenant anew and embrace it in new ways.

Long before the Book of Esther or the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud who come together to respond to these questions with the benefit of great historical distance, the Deuteronomist already knew that the covenant between the Israelites and God established at Mount Sinai needed to be reframed. This is precisely the predicament of the Israelites in Parashat Ki Tavo.

As the Israelites are straddled between two mountains on their way to a new reality, Moses advises them to rethink the covenant. The covenant delivered on the plains of Moab created what can be described as the establishment of mutual accountability within the Jewish people.

This mutual accountability requires that we are mindful of each other. We are not just a collection of individuals; our future also depends upon our capacity to live as a community, a well-formed collective entity. The Israelites became a people in the full sense of the word only after the covenant on the plains of Moab: "To enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions: in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you ... ” (Deut. 29:11-12).

While our sense of peoplehood began once we left Egypt and was declared at Mount Sinai, only upon entering the Land was it clear to the people themselves that their future depends upon mutual commitment. We become a people who are able to live out the possibilities of covenant only when we understand collectively and are committed together to whatever the future might demand.

When there is so much at stake on the journey toward the future, the opportunity to pause and renew our commitments not only to God, but also to each other can be the difference between floundering and flourishing. All commitments—all covenants—are regularly in need of reexamination. And in order to embrace the future together it is quite possible that the covenants of the past will not be enough.

Especially at this time of the year, and in this age of Reform Judaism, we too need to renew our commitments and our understanding of covenant and mutual responsibility. What claims us now, and why? Is there any limit to our proud autonomy that also allows simultaneously for some authority of the tradition? Ultimately and especially in this moment our mutual commitment both to each other and to our broader sense of Jewish peoplehood will be powerful sources for the covenants we need in order to thrive in the future.

Categorized under:  Torah

08/24/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
When You Go Out

Preparing for a new year and a new you:

This week’s Parashah, by examining codes of laws and regulations, presents a set of ethical and moral dilemmas.  One could group them into three areas:
1How ethics uphold our society.
2How the concern for others is a universal concept we need in our world.
3The importance of our concern for the natural world.

As we begin a new school year, and the month of Elul leads us into the High Holidays, it is a perfect time to speak to our students about how these themes come together at this time of year.

In the beginning of a school year, we are trying to establish norms and routines.  But we are also creating community and asking our students to focus on kindness, respect, welcoming, and self-control.  And the purpose need not be just about keeping order.  We may be creating a contract of behavior in our rooms – a Brit – so that learning can take place.  But we can also acknowledge that these are universal values that Judaism provides us as ways to improve society as a whole – and by extension the world.

Elul is about taking stock of some of these values that we will then reflect further upon during Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.  Yes, we are hopeful for a sweet new year ahead and will celebrate that with our food and our prayer.  But we can only bring about the full sweetness of a new year when we have made changes in ourselves and the world.
In speaking with our students about this, I asked what would happen if the world never changed?  Their reactions were impressive.  They know the world needs to change and they began to realize that changes in themselves, in their own behavior, is what starts that process.

Students at the younger ages may not see that connection, but the fact that this is the time of year we focus on these new starts, on creating community, and on being the most welcoming and most compassionate person we can is a connection to our tradition we can make every year at this time.

Categorized under:  Torah

05/25/2018 01:57 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Naso - Take a Census
Numbers (4:21−7:89)
The Eternal One spoke to Moses: "Take a census … by their ancestral house and by their clans."

In honor of our graduating class and the students who crafted an amazing D'var Torah this week, I wanted to include excerpts from their speeches, in this our final "Friday Final" of the school year.  The product of our work together was original, insightful and personal to each student - and deserves an additional place in the spotlight.

As we examined different rabbinic commentaries on one of the central elements of the Parashah – the Miskan – the themes of sacrifice and action rose to the surface.  Carly Katz and Elie Bernstein both focused on the idea that the Mishkan was a model for parts of our lives. 
Carly also explored ways the Mishkan was a way for the divine to live among the people and the way that can help us follow a more righteous path:

" ‘And they shall make me a holy place and I shall dwell among them.’ It is interesting that G-d tells Moses he would like to live among them, not live above them just to watch over the Jewish people. For me this is a very important statement that G-d tells Moses. The fact that G-d wants the Jews to build him the Mishkan makes the Jewish people feel honored. Not only do the Jews not want to let G-d down, but they also want a place to be in G-d’s presence. The Jews felt special because G-d wanted to dwell among them, not just watch over them. To build this Mishkan, the Jews would bring only their finest of items and make big sacrifices. The roof was a tapestry with linen and red, blue, and purple wool. The walls of the temple were made of thick wooden beams directly beside each other on three of the four sides. On the fourth side was a curtain. The Jewish people tried to make the Mishkan the absolute best it could be, and it was a success.

Since some suggest that the Mishkan actually represented the path to correct religious behavior, today, synagogues, families, and even Jewish communities try to use the Mishkan as a model for how they may create the world around them. What I mean by this, is that some use the Mishkan as a guide because they believe that if you honor G-d through your actions, G-d will watch over you and protect you. Other people think that if you are a Jewish person, as soon as you are born, G-d is watching over you and making sure that you are safe. But, this may not be true. In order for G-d to watch over you and protect you, you have to follow proper Jewish behavior. For example, you must follow all the commandments, do mitzvot, and more. It is a two way street. If you respect G-d, G-d will respect you. So, this Mishkan is used as an example today, because it is used as a reminder to do what is right and follow the laws of the Torah.”

Elie used the metaphor of the Miskan to examine how we can carve out holiness in our modern, technology filled lives:
"How many of you feel close to your home or have something special at home? (pause to take answers or count hands)  In this case, G-d is asking to have a Mishkan be built for him so he can have a special place to stay for himself, like your home, so he can do things for us. If you built a house for someone, you would be in their debt. G-d is in this deal- the Jewish people built the Mishkan, now G-d will help them.

To me, Mishkan can be considered a figurative home, especially in our modern world filled with unending technology at our fingertips. We - build Mishkan - when we take a break from our smartphones. We create a metaphorical space for G-d when we take a pause from the internet. This is not to say we need to get rid of technology, but create space, a figurative home for Hashem in our minds and hearts. When we allow stress to run our lives we are living from our egos and literally Edging G-d Out. For us to have a relationship with Hashem, we need to build one, creating space and time to slow down and recharge our spiritual batteries.”

Elie also spoke of the importance of sacrifice, which was a key element to the way the Mishkan was to be used:

"Have any of you worked really hard hard on something and gotten better grades or a prize? In the Torah, it talks about something similar to that. It says, "Accept these from them for use in the service of the Tent of Meeting, and give them to the Levites according to their respective occupations.” G-d is telling Moses to give the Jewish people more sacrifices based on their work, so that each person will get to give what they have earned through work. 

In my own life, sacrifice looks like helping Mr. Phillips out or studying for a test when I’d rather be doing something else. It’s focusing on the greater good which isn’t always immediately rewarded. It’s doing what feels good, even when no one is looking.  When I think of sacrificing for greater rewards, I think of my parents and teachers, the ones who go out of their way each day to ensure I am, in equal parts, challenged and nurtured. Often, these adults will go without sleep or food to make sure us kids are on track.”

We received many compliments on the entire graduation service this year, including comments about the depth and insight of Carly and Elie.  I could not agree more and will go further to say that their insights represent the deep and complex thoughts of all of our 5th graders and the way they have approached Torah all year.

Y’shar Koach and Mazaal Tov to them all!!

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

Categorized under:  Torah

05/18/2018 01:40 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
B'midbar - In the Wilderness
Numbers (1:1 − 4:20)
"…  following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Take a census of the whole Israelite company…'"

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish world syncs back up as we read the Parashah B’midbar.

While it is often difficult to find meaning in the detailing of a census, as with most of our texts, there is rich meaning beneath the surface.  On the one hand, the modern concept of "census” is only one way to look at what was happening.  Another interpretation of the Hebrew leans more toward a "raising up” rather than counting.  For many, this sends our minds to thoughts of what it means to "rise up and be counted.”   To take account of something is also one way to look at it – as is the idea of "taking account”.  All of these should bring to the surface ideas of taking responsibility for something – or standing up and being recognized as a part of the community.

The richness of these divergent themes can also lead us in other directions.  This book of the Torah we are now reading, B’midbar, or "in the wilderness,” has many commentators asking questions about the order a census brings – in the face of the chaos implied by the term wilderness.  So whether one is being accounted for as a member of the Jewish community – and accepting all of its obligations – or one is being literally counted – the community is becoming more and more defined.  We left Egypt as a people with a name but not an identity.  With the arrival of the Mishkan and this this census – as well as the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat – our identity as a people is become more and more clear.  This progression toward what it means to be a member of this community, is an important development in the evolution of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition.

Still others use this communal identity – as a contrast to the individual accounting that is taking place all around them with the census.  Some describe how this accounting places a focus on individuals to see how they fit as unique members of this Kehillah Kedoshah, our holy community.

What is interesting about all these interpretations, is that as we approach Shlenker graduation and Shavuout – a time when we celebrate Torah and Torah Study – these are the themes we have been imprinting on our older students especially.  This idea of balancing the individual with the communal is in many ways at the heart of adolescence.  Peer pressure, puberty, dating, acceptance, all take center stage with our students right now – yet we want them to take the mitzvot to heart and to make the right, or the good choice.  Making good choices does strengthen them and the community, but it is often hard for them to see that connection.  In our recent Human Development class with our fifth graders, our closing unit focused on how hard it is to make good choices in the face of the challenges that adolescence and adulthood bring.  We spoke of the challenge however as a great responsibility that comes along with the gift of Torah.  How to see yourself as B’tselem Elohim - and thus a member of this holy tradition - is a frame we found useful.  It was a frame that helped focus our students on ideas like respect, dignity, and humility when it came to our bodies and our relationships with one another. 

As Shavuot approaches, many Jewish communities around the world are asking graduates to look at the story of Sinai and see themselves at the foot of that mountain. We ask them to see themselves accepting the challenge and responsibility that leads to acts of kindness, compassion, and empathy.  As are we all, they are unique and special – yet contain the same holiness as their peers and all those who came before. We ask them to be proud of who they are and who they have become – yet at the same time we ask them to be humble, to place the needs of others ahead of their own, and to be awed by the presence of God in our lives.  We ask them to do this because we know if they can, they will have achieved the balance the Torah asks us to find.
Categorized under:  Torah

05/11/2018 11:40 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

B'har - B'chukotai / On Mount [Sinai] - My Laws
Leviticus 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Eternal."

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.

On Gifts, Obligations, and the Actions We Need to Take for Each:

In different parts of the Jewish world this week, we read either B’chukotai or a combined B’har-B’chokotai Parashah.  In each we are still being commanded about various holidays and observances – and about the census and the tribes that will be counted. 

One construct that seemed appropriate for this week was the opening of B’chokotai which told of the rewards the Israelites would receive if the followed God’s laws.

When speaking about this passage with students, I asked them if they thought it was that simple.  I asked if you simply did X or Y and your crops would grow or you would have the happy life being promised.

I didn’t ask the questions to see if they believed that God wasn’t being forthright.  I asked them if they thought any work was required on their part.  To a student, they agreed that work was required.  But then I asked them how they knew what to do?  

After a moment of silence, I asked them what they thought they needed to do to live a good life.  Many responded with ways to be healthy and to be kind to others.  I ran with the health part – and even alluded to a human development class the 5th graders were about to have the next day.  I asked them what it meant to live a healthy lifestyle and what they actually had to DO to BE healthy.  Many told me of diets, keeping hydrated, going to the doctor if they don’t feel well.  Then I asked them if Jewish law said anything about what foods to eat.   Gradually, eyebrows raised and a significant group shouted "Oh, keeping Kosher!”  I replied with a resounding yes and expanded on what Kashrut could mean for all of us. 

But then I focused on the idea that laws of Kashrut were both about humanitarian treatment of animals and our own health.  God, or the Torah, knew something about health.  And so if God says – follow my commandments and you will be rewarded, it is not about a magic wand being waved and a pot of gold appearing.  If you follow these laws – laws that were meant to guide you and help you – you will gain the benefit.  The law is somewhat of an obligation or a burden.  But it is also a gift.  It is a guiding set of principles to help us lead a better life.  That IS the reward.

We also discussed the general idea of taking care of one’s own health and looking out for the health of others (telling a friend they need to go to a Dr.) and began to talk more about the values our Mitzvot teach.  I asked – if they were all followed – would this create a pretty awesome world.  More accurately, I put that premise to the students and asked the question.  What would the world be like if all these values were adhered to – Lashon Harah – no gossip – Gimilut Hassadim – loving kindness – these were examples.  There was a short silence until one student exclaimed – "Whoah!  That would be a pretty awesome world.”  And that I said, would be the awesome reward.

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

Categorized under:  Torah

05/04/2018 01:25 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Emor [Speak]
Leviticus 21:1−24:23
The Eternal One said to Moses: "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron …

From the Sacredness of Space and Time – to the Sacredness of People, Justice and Fairness:

In different parts of the Jewish world this week, we read either Emor or Bahar.  In each we are being commanded about various holidays and observances. And interestingly, as we move from a conversation about marking time, we are presented with ways to mark time – and fairness.

When we are presented with the concept of Shabbat – and reminded of it here – we are told it is a time to rest, to refrain from work.  We are rarely told exactly why however.  We can of course extrapolate that rest is good - especially since we are told that God rested on the 7th day and that was good.

But as we are presented with additional "Sabbaths” we can glean more understanding about the original Shabbat.  We are told that not only are we to rest every seven days, but also, we are told of a very special Shabbat that happens every seven years (the original Sabbatical).  On that seventh year, we are to rest our fields so that they can be rejuvenated and not be over-used.  Might that be the Torah’s way of saying that this is why WE are to rest as well?
Even beyond the rest we are commanded to take on the seventh year, there is an even more dramatic "rest” we are to take on the seventh cycle of seven years.  The text relates the concept of the "Jubilee” year when debts are to be forgiven.  After 49 years of toil, in the 50th year, in our very own texts, we are supposed to – in a sense – reset to zero.  Debts are to be forgiven and practically – that would mean many people get to start our fresh.  And given our current system of investment, banking, and mortgage backed capital, those who make money off of those debts would no longer do so.  They also, in many ways, would re-set to zero.

If you are thinking that this exact interpretation of the Jubilee year seems radical or even crazy, what would be interesting to think about is the concept behind it.  We are being told that there is value in fairness.  We are being told that there may be something inherently unfair about the way wealth is accumulated and debt amassed.

As with many things in Torah, considering the lesson may be even more important than the context or events that are being presented.  If the value is sound, it may be incumbent upon us to ask ourselves – and share with our children – the extremes of our monetary systems that may inherently create inequality and it’s perpetuation.  This lesson would not fly in the face of the value of hard work, or the value of earning to take care of your family.  What it would reinforce however, is the imperative to acknowledge privilege and the responsibility to give back to help those less fortunate than ourselves – something we already teach to our children and hold as one of our highest values through Tzedakah and Gimilut Hassadim.   
Categorized under:  Torah

04/27/2018 12:18 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Acharei Mot - K’doshim
After the Death [of the Two Sons of Aaron] / [You Shall Be] Holy
Leviticus 16:1-20:27

The Eternal One spoke to Moses … when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy."

The Special Nature of the People and all that is Holy:

Marking Sacred Space, Sacred Time, Sacred Events, and Sacred People
In different parts of the Jewish world this week, we read either from the double portion of Acharei Mot – K’doshim or Emor.

In all of these narratives, we are told – or re-told – about certain Holy observances and are commanded in the ways of Shabbat – and a number of very important holidays, like the High Holy days, Sukkot, and Passover.

Even in the somewhat gory and questionable portion where G-d punishes the sons of Aaron for coming too close to the Holy flame – we are presented with the special nature of, well, things that are EXTREMELY special – the sacred and the Holy.

There is no more sacred physical place on earth for the Jewish people than the Holy of Holy’s.  Not the Kotel.  But the place behind the Kotel where it is believed the Israelites housed the tabernacle of Adonai.  And the most Holy place Jews can pray – again is not the Kotel – but a dark window like part of the wall in the Kotel tunnels that we believe is the closest physical place to the Holy of Holy’s that is not on the Temple Mount – where Jews are not allowed to pray.   

The reason I bring up this example of physical holiness is because the Holy and Sacred for the Jewish community - which is about space, time, and events – is wrapped up in political, religious and cultural conceptions of what is and is not important (or Holy).  For some, the space I just described is literally meaningless.  For some, it is everything.  And in that difference lies many disagreements over the State of Israel, Jerusalem, pluralistic and egalitarian prayer space in Jerusalem – and really – conceptions of what Judaism itself is all about.

For our students, we need to present these differences – but gradually.  For Shlenker, we want our students to understand Holiness – that a person, place, and time can be Holy.  We are Holy because we are made in the image of G-d (B’Tselem Elohim). 

A place can be Holy because of what happened there, who lived there, and whether it is a place we believe the Holy spirit resides.  And of course, time can be Holy - the moments we set aside for celebration and commemoration.  Shabbat is neither a place nor a physical thing.  It is a time we mark as important, special, and different from other moments of the week.  Passover is an event with physical happenings – but it is marked in the Jewish calendar as a time of Holiness and special designation – as are the times for Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashannah and all of our festivals and days or remembrance.  

The Jewish calendar and Jewish ritual provides a subtle lesson in space and time for our students that we should be thankful for.  By seeing that all these different elements of our world can be Holy, we hope that we have students who see things from many different perspectives and appreciate the varying beliefs of others.

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

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04/20/2018 12:31 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

Tazria - M’tzora (Bearing Seed / A Leper)

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days;" - Leviticus 12:1-2
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: "This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time of being purified ..." - Leviticus 14:1-2

Sacredness, Purity, and Separation

Separation is a big theme for schools.  As much as togetherness and community are goals, we deal every day with those who need to be separate – and those who are separated from the group against their desire.  Sometimes being separated happens as a result of a group and their peer pressure.  Sometimes it is because of a bully or a group of bullies.  But sometimes it is a subtle separation that can happen through insensitivity in the form of careless words, physical distancing, and sometimes physical or psychological harassment.

Much of our dual Parashah this week is about medical conditions.  But much more of it is connected to conceptions of purity, holiness, and communal separation.  While there is some credence to the risks associated with menstruation – for those living at the time of the Biblical narrative - we know that today, we do not have that same practice of separation for most cultures and for most in the Jewish community.  That is not to say that cleanliness is not important.  It is simply that we have found ways to address cleanliness without ritual separation or fear of menstruation.

As for leprosy, the term that has been imprecisely translated for centuries, studies have shown that what we know of today as leprosy may not have existed until the middle of the first century CE.  The origins in the text come from Miriam’s punishment for spreading rumors – or committing lashon harrah.   Did Miriam really come down with an immediate illness that required her to be separated or is "leprosy” about being ostracized for perceived violations of community norms.  And if that is the case, as many scholars have claimed, this Parashah is incredibly relevant beyond the illness we read about on the surface.

In speaking with students this week about this Parashah, the focus was on this idea of communal or group norms, and the way groups sometime separate from those who do not conform.  In the spring, sometimes thoughts of summer break down a student’s focus both on school work and our communal values.  Sometimes their judgment lapses and their choices are not their best.  Sometimes their patience for those who are "different” is not as it could or should be and this is what we discussed - on a global level.

The history of communal separation – for many reasons – can be seen in many tragic episodes.  I asked our students questions about how a community begins to target people who are different, unwanted, or thought of as evil and asked them to think back to just last week when we had our incredibly powerful Yom Hashoah program for 3rd through 5th graders.  The idea that ostracizing an entire people could begin with small acts of bullying, discrimination, or jokes, was an incredibly relevant connection for them and one we hope they took to heart as they reflect on the Chesed week that also just passed. 

The tools to combat communal targeting of scapegoats are core values like B’tselem Elohim and Chesed.  If we are commanded to be kind.  If we are told that every person should be treated as a holy vessel since we all have that spark of the divine inside of us.  Then to treat people as jokes or as less than human is going against what we teach here at Shlenker and what our values tell us is the right and good thing to do.  These are lessons we said, that can have our students be the guardians of their own communities and the only protection we have to prevent things like the Holocaust from ever happening again.   
Categorized under:  Torah

04/13/2018 11:49 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Sh'mini II - The Eighth [Day]
Moses spoke to Aaron and to his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar


As our "Chesed” or Kindness week comes to a close – it is fitting to ask the question; What is Holy?
In our Parashah we are not only presented with many of our dietary laws which are meant to set our minds to what is sacred – and what is not.

In modern times we do still use the tool of food to help us actualize holiness for our thoughts.  Passover is a perfect example of that.  We are to think of Freedom – and physically deprive ourselves of bread to connect the idea to something tangible.

But our lives face this dilemma in a larger sense. What are the values and actions that create holiness?  What is it that can bring us closer to the Holy One?  Some would say the rituals we do on a daily basis.  Others would say the actions the bring good and caring into the world.

Kindness Week at Shlenker follows through on that idea that our actions can create a better world and bring us close to a state of holiness.  When those around you are spreading kindness in small and large ways we should feel that the Holy has entered the world at that moment.  When we elevate ourselves to do good, we do become closer to the Holy in that moment.

Our Chesed Essay award winners all exemplify how seemingly small actions can not only show this act of holiness – but that these actions reflect the Jewish values and connections we teach about on a regular basis.

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

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04/06/2018 02:06 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

Sh'mini I - The Eighth [Day] - Leviticus 9:1–10:11

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons.




It is fitting that as Passover ends and we read the story of the song of the sea, we also contemplate sacrifice with Sh’mini I. 

All week we have been speaking with students about the significance of giving up bread as a symbol of our appreciation for the freedom of our ancestors and our own modern freedom.  

And as we return to our cycle of Torah readings, we recount more of how we are to sacrifice to honor the gifts we have received in this life.  

To add an additional layer, we are also counting the Omer - another traditional sacrifice we give to acknowledge the wonders of creation.  

For each of these examples of sacrifice, we are reminded that there is so much more to sacrifice than we see on the surface.  

If we did not give up something, would we truly stop to contemplate the meaning behind our gratitude.  The physical and the intellectual are so often bound in our tradition - it is no wonder we wrestle with which is more important. 

The sephirot, or mystical attributes we reflect upon during the Omer are the gift we have only because we stop to physically count the days and take time to consider our progress as evolving and maturing individuals.  

The time we take to pray or meditate on the wonders are god is a modern sacrifice.  But it is also a gift.  We take the time and are then are rewarded with new insights, new thoughts, new appreciation for the good things in our lives. 

And as Passover concludes, we realize we can only be as grateful and appreciative of Freedom because we have given up just a little of it to better connect with our family, our community, and our inner soul.  

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



Categorized under:  Torah

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

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