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

Categorized under:  Torah

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

Categorized under:  Torah

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

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.

Categorized under:  Torah

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.  
Categorized under:  Torah

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

02/23/2018 08:39 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
T'tzaveh - [You] Shall Further Instruct
Exodus 27:20−30:10
You shall further instruct the Israelites …

The Mishkan - or the holy sanctuary – is once again at the center of our Parasha this week.  We continue to read of the details the Israelites are to follow to make this very important home for our laws - so that God "may dwell amongst them.”  
We continue this week with more stipulations about this sanctuary but are further instructed on the sons of Aaron, the priests who will attend to this sanctuary and its workings.  We are also instructed as to the eternal lamp that we see in almost every synagogue we may visit.

When speaking to our students last week, we spoke first about the way the Torah – or God’s words – can be a part of them and be spoken by them as a way to "house” the spirit of God.  This week we returned to a more literal Mishkan to ask a question about focus and respect.  I asked why they thought there was a need for so many specific rules and methods in their lives – whether it be at school or at home.  The answers were about how these things help us focus on the task at hand, take things seriously, and how they also keep us safe.  And so when entering a sanctuary – like when entering a school – having such guidance can really help us focus on our tasks and lends it a little respect.
Then we discussed what that really looks like in a synagogue or sanctuary.  What are the tasks at hand.  We focused on this one moment in the Parasha when God expands on his desire to "dwell among” the Israelites.  God tells Moses – in the midst of all of these details about the Mishkan – "For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you.  And there I will meet with the Israelites.”

We rarely think about prayer or our visits to a synagogue as a time to meet with and speak with God.  I asked them to think for a moment about what they would say in such a personal meeting.  What would they ask?  What would they want to say?  Some of the responses were profound.  Some were of praise for a job well done.  Some were about needing some help.  And some were about the need to stop bad things in the world – like what had just happened in Florida.  I asked them to hold on to that idea and those questions and think of their time in a sanctuary – the modern Mishkan – as a time they can always have that meeting with God and ask those very important questions. 

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /
T’tzaveh for Tots / T’tzaveh for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

02/16/2018 11:08 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
T'rumah [Gifts]
Exodus 25:1−27:19
"The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts”

As we read the narratives of Genesis and early Exodus, one can easily see all of the compelling stories being told.  The drama of creation and the wonders of the Israelites escape from Egypt are great tools for our work with young children.  Once we get to these latter sections of Exodus, however, we begin to see a larger focus on the laws and guidelines that shape the future rituals and beliefs of the Jewish people.  In T’rumah, we are talking less about behaviors and more about the literal dimensions of the Mishkan the Israelites are told to build.  This Parashah has proven to be a challenge for teachers and Bar Mitzvah tutors alike as they struggle to find relevance and meaning for our younger students.

So let me propose three components of the story that have had success in letting students find relevance and feel connected to the story.  In many ways this Parasha, more than others that come before it, is actually more vital for our students to see their role in the story that is unfolding.  We read amidst all the details that describe the Mishkan or "sanctuary” this sentence.     "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  

We can ask three revealing questions about this sentence that can unearth incredibly meaningful ideas.
1)  What is a Mishkan or Sanctuary?
2)  Why is it important that the Laws of Moses be housed there?
3)  What are the different meanings of "so that I may dwell among them?”

The concept of a Mishkan – a sanctuary or place of safety for the Laws of Moses – is one that can be either literal or figurative.  And what is amazing in this case is that both meanings are incredibly impactful for children.   If it is a literal home – a home is a place where they feel safe.  It is a place where they are protected not only from the elements, but by their parents who bathe them, feed them and love them.

So home is as much a physical structure as it is a place where you find all the things and people you love.  If that is how we talk about the Mishkan – as a place built with care and love for one of the most important things in our lives – like our children are for their parents – we can begin to attach amazing feelings of love and compassion for Torah and God. And of course, by saying that God is not just dwelling on earth but "among” the people, we have an excellent way to talk about God wanting to be among the people and not wanting be a distant God.  

On an entirely different level, we can speak about using the learning we get from Torah – and the literal reading of Torah – to talk about God and God’s laws living in us and being realized in the world through our actions.  How awesome is to be able talk both about a physical Sanctuary for those who prefer a concrete lesson – and then to be able to talk about PEOPLE as a kind of Mishkan that also keeps the laws alive and safe by learning them and living them?

This week in Torah service with our 4th and 5th grades, this was a large focus of our conversations and worship.  Rabbi Foster introduced the song V’asu Li Mikdash which presents these English lyrics:  "Oh Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary - pure and holy - tried and true and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

The concept of BEING a living sanctuary can be a powerful message for a child and a teen.  To not only be the one who is meant to keep these special words safe, but also to be the one who is living out these values – for God – can be an "ah, ha” moment for many who hear this idea for the first time. 

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /

T’rumah for Tots / T’rumah for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion
Categorized under:  Torah

02/09/2018 12:25 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Mishpatim - [These Are the] Rules
Exodus 21:1−24:18
"These are the rules that you shall set before them.”

Compassion and Covenant.  These are two words that come to mind when considering this week’s Parasha.  Mishpatim – or rules – is at the core of what we read this week.  In the narrative, we have been exposed to the 10 commandments and we read about our gathering at Mount Sinai.  Moses and the Israelite leadership get additional "rules” from God, and we then have the compelling moment where the Jewish people are said to have accepted God’s law.
In reading the various laws, some seem rather mundane.  Lists are not often fun to read.  But upon closer look we see the root of some of our modern conceptions of community and governance.  When talking to students about this week’s Parasha, it is clear that they understand rules and what they are meant to do.  Whether they can follow them all the time is another story entirely.  But even our younger students seem to understand that rules keep them safe and ask them to be kind to others.  They understand that they shouldn’t steal someone else’s toy because they would not want someone to steal their toy.  And sharing is not only something they like to do, but it is clearly something that makes them feel good about themselves.

So when we read in this week’s narrative about the Sabbatical year – when we let the land rest and give what grows there to the poor, we see the roots of environmentalism and our impulse to care for the poor.  In so many other passages we read of fairness and restitution.  There is much to wrestle with that we may not agree with, but that overarching attempt to list rules that create a more just and fair society is admirable.

A very important part of this story is how those gathered at Sinai accepted these rules. It’s what makes this story about a covenant.  In some interpretations that means a code that must be followed – because it must be followed.  In the progressive tradition, the term "obligation” is used.  I have always agreed with that approach because obligation connotes a responsibility for a larger purpose.  Is a law to be followed just because – or because it signifies our role in bringing justice, compassion, and fairness into the world?

Children sometimes need "just because.”  But what they will need in order to make these laws a part of their being is the understanding that they have a role to play in a divine plan.  Having an obligation also implies choice.  If you accept this obligation – you have accepted your role as a partner in creating a just society.  If you choose not to – you are responsible for breaking it down.  Just like a classroom.  If you choose to follow rules, you have made a good choice that benefits all.  If you choose not to follow rules – even though you agreed with them – you are responsible for breaking apart its communal fabric.  It is amazing how at such a young age, we really do get that.


Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study /

Mishpatim for Tots / Mishpatim for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

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