Parshat Hashavua, Uncategorized

Parshat Noach – Conscious Faith

I’m going to jump right in to this week’s Torah portion, since we have a lot of ground to cover! In this week’s sedra Noach, perek 6, pasuk 9 states, “Eilah toldos Noach, Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah bidorosav Es HaElokim Hisalech Noach”. Translation, “This is the line of Noah, Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” Noah’s generation is commonly referred to as the dor Hamabel, the generation of the flood. In this parshah, God comes to understand that humanity is corrupt and believes the solution is to simply wipe the slate clean and start over…however one man, Noah, finds favor in God’s eyes. God sees in Noah righteousness and resolves to spare him the fate of his contemporaries. As the story goes, Noah is seen as the template for future humanity, as it is his progeny that will repopulate the entire world!

What was so righteous about Noah? According to Rashi, this dor Hamabul generation were living in a state of lawlessness – committing violent and forceful theft and traipsing around in a sexually promiscuous manner. God never explicitly mentions what makes Noah blameless or what qualities make him righteous. This is left for us to discuss…perhaps Noah kept to himself and was not impressionable to the lawlessness around him and this may have been enough to make him righteous in a world of chaos. I propose what separated Noah from his generation was a strong sense of faith. God shares with Noah in verse 18, “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your son’s wives”. From this we can surmise that Noah’s wife, sons, and son’s wives were also righteous and deserving to live and begin the world anew. In Chapter 7, we learn that Noah has followed God’s instructions to round up two of every animals and that he has completed the proper tasks in preparation for the flood. The question I cannot remove from my mind is how does one live knowing that everyone not on the ark will perish?

When I think of the concept of faith in relation to Noah and this parshah, my mind is also reminded of Abraham. Noah and Abraham had very different responses to God when presented with God’s plan to bring about death and destruction. Noah pronounces his submission to God’s decision; Abraham pleads with God to spare lives in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. What can we take away from these two different responses? Noah was a bystander – willing to passively stand by while God wiped out all around him, while Abraham was an upstander, advocating for lives of others. Both men showed faith in God, but it is not enough to have blind faith. Our faith must be consciously informed and we must employ the mind and heart that God has given us in practicing our faith.

The Torah is very specific with respect to some aspects of the flood and completely disregards what we may refer to as character development. In Genesis 7:11 it is written, “in the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the flood gates of the sky broke open.” The Torah is very particular to share how old Noah was and the precise day of the year that God unleashed the waters. While the Torah is specific here and also when providing measurements and specifications for the ark itself, it is vague in providing any explanation as to what stood out about Noah and why he and his family were so exceptional. It may seem odd at first glance to place so much emphasis on these details; the world as Noah has known it is coming to an end, however I see these ambiguities as opportunities for us to engage with the text and one another in dialogue and discussion.

This week’s Torah portion ends with the tower of Babel. How can we understand the juxtaposition of the dor Hamabel (the generation of the flood) with the dor Haflaga (the generation building the tower)? During the time of the building of the tower there was one common language shared by all of humanity. A midrash, which you might have heard, is that the people of the dor Haflaga deliberately constructed the tower to make war with God. In Chapter 11:2 the Torah states, “and as they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.” Later, in chapter 11, God expresses his frustration by what the people are building and is angered by their actions. God’s solution is to scatter the people and to eradicate their common tongue and therefore put an end to their collaboration. Babel means bilbul, confusion. I see this generation, the dor Haflaga, through a different lens. The Rabbis of old thought of this generation as evil and having malicious intent in their construction of the tower. However, in light of the flood earlier in the parshah, where the waters were the force of destruction from above and below, could the actions of this generation be defended? I heard once, from a rebbe of mine that this generation was constructing the tower to protect themselves. The tower was not an act of aggression, but rather meant to unite the people to work together in order to survive God’s wrath. Their intention was to block the waters from above and be high enough to survive when the ground water’s opened up. We also know that in Genesis 9:15 God told Noah, “I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Therefore, I challenge us to see this generation not as evil, but as lacking faith.

Faith is what brings us here together – faith in one another and faith in something greater than ourselves. May we take away something from Parshat Noach that we can incorporate into our lives to enhance our understanding of faith and may we all have the wherewithal to incorporate our faith into making the world a better place.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Hashavua, Uncategorized

Simchat Torah – Hadran Alach

Hadran alach – this is the phrase that one says upon the completion of a Talmudic tractate, referring to the fact that the learning continues. However, the Talmud commonly referred to as Torah she b’al peh (spoken Torah) does not have the same authority as the Torah she b’ktav (written Torah). Whenever the Rabbis engage in halakhic discourse, d’orisa (from the Torah) always trumps d’rabannan (from the Rabbis). After we finish learning one of the many tractates, we start on the next, though we do hold a formal ceremony to acknowledge the completion of a tractate called a siyum. Traditionally, a siyum is celebrated with a seudah, a festive meal where the community comes together to rejoice with the individual(s) that has/have completed the tractate. Many times those who study do so in the honor or memory of someone else and they speak about what they have gained from the tractate and share their wisdom with the community.

I once heard Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel z’’l (may his memory be a blessing), the previous Rosh Yeshiva of the largest Yeshiva in Israel (the Meir), describe this phrase, hadran alach, as the most beautiful pharse in the Talmud as these words mean that learning is never complete. What is the counterpart of a siyum when finishing the Torah?

Upon the completion of each of the five books we say the words, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened). As we read the final chapter of the Torah, v’zot habrachah, we recall the blessings that Moses bestows upon the tribes. At the end of the Torah, Moses effectively transfers leadership to Joshua stating, “Chazak ve’ematz“, be strong and courageous (Deuteronomy 31:23). Knowledge is a source of strength and through learning we empower ourselves.

Generally it happens that one’s Jewish education ends after his or her bar or bat mitzvah. Maybe you take a course on Judaism in university; perhaps you encountered the documentary hypothesis, which postulates that there are four writers of the Torah and rather than the Torah as divine the Torah becomes an academic source. Though traditional Judaism understands the Torah to be dictated by God and recorded by Moses, in the Talmud, in Bava Bathra specifically, the Rabbis debated whether Joshua or Moses wrote the final verses of the Torah. None of this matters on Simchat Torah, similarly it doesn’t matter if you read the entire Torah in one year or three years…there’s no halakhic guideline for Simchat Torah, it is all minhag (custom). What is important is to understand that the Torah is a tree of life, a living and breathing entity, which informs our lives. This is done by constantly engaging with the Torah.

On Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah. We do so by dancing and basking in the glory of the Torah. This is a time to truly feel connected with Torah. One does not need to have a preparatory course on Simchat Torah in order to partake in the happiness and delight of this holiday. Many times the Torah can seem inaccessible, the words within the Torah can be challenging and require interpretation and language skills, and from a physical standpoint the Torah itself is closed off within the ark and paraded only once during the service. As a seminary student I remember the fear and trepidation that my fellow classmates had upon receiving the honors of hagbah, the lifting of the Torah, and gelilah, the wrapping of the Torah. They feared dropping the Torah or not performing the dressing of the Torah appropriately.

On Simchat Torah our focus is love rather than fear, as influenced by our positive physical interaction with our Torah. We have seven hakafot, seven processions with the Torah. This holiday brings out our inner child; it is about joyfully living out the notion of Jews as ‘people of the book’.

During the morning service, all children will be called up to the Torah. This practice only occurs during Simchat Torah. For many, this is a highlight of the Holiday and it is a experience that reinforces the importance of the Torah for our youth. Children and adults alike participate in the celebration of completing the Torah. Often times young children will also be given plush Torahs to dance around with to familiarize them with a Torah that can be accessible and personal.

The Torah reader reciting the first section of Genesis has a specific title called the chatan bereshit, the groom of genesis. From the death of Moses to the creation of the word, we renew our vows and betrothing ourselves to our creator. The Torah is not simply a book, but a blueprint for life. Just as we finish the last verse we re-roll and begin anew. In some communities after Genesis is read, the book of Joshua is also read to show that the Israelites, under the leadership of Joshua, crossed over the Jordan river into the promised land, their new beginning.

As a child I remember carrying a flag (the idea of the flag to be united under one banner) marching throughout the streets in Chattanooga, TN. I recall feeling so proud, although I’m certain most of our neighbors were perplexed by our joy and our parade. Even today, working as a chaplain I find that my non-Jewish colleagues have a strong educational background in what they refer to as the Old Testament, but lack the emotional connection so palpable and infectious on Simchat Torah. Jewish tradition is unique in that even with our holiest, and valuable work, the Torah scrolls, we understand that we can revere and dance at the same time. The Torah is not meant to be held at arms distance, it is meant to be embraced both tangibly and metaphorically.

As we enter Simchat Torah, may we embody the phrase hadran alach in our collective understanding that our learning and growth continues.

Shabbat shalom!

Parshat Hashavua, Uncategorized

Sukkot – Z’man Simchateynu

Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu, a time of rejoicing. Sukkot is one of the holidays I look forward to most. If Judaism is a religion of action, Sukkot does not disappoint! We construct temporary structures with friends, family, and community. We take time to decorate these temporary dwellings to enhance the gatherings we organize. We acquire the arba minim, the four species, which we shake, smell, and engage with fully. To sum it up Sukkot is a time for feasting, festivities, and fellowship.

During Sukkot we read Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes. Kohelet may not immediately resonate with the joyfulness that we are tasked with experiencing during the days of Sukkot. On the surface, Kohelet is rather depressing and discouraging with a refrain of “utter futility! All is futile!” However, upon closer reading, Kohelet’s message is life affirming. Kohelet reminds us, that no one knows the length of his or her days under the sun stating, “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might” (Kohelet 10:9). Since our time is limited, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be intentional with the time we have on this Earth. Though Kohelet is also quick to point out that it is important to not simply work hard, but to work smart. In Kohelet 10:10 it is written, “If the ax has become dull and he has not whetted the edge, he must exert more strength. Thus the advantage of a skill [depends on the exercise of] prudence.” While reading Kohelet, I was reminded of a quote from our 16th president Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln is credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Both Kohelet and President Lincoln underscore the importance of employing intelligence when approaching any task. If we fail to heed this insight, we will end up exerting additional effort that can be better placed elsewhere.

Kohelet also articulates the message that ultimately what we have is from our creator. Therefore, when we encounter success and setback, both are equally imperative to acknowledge. As Kohelet states in 7:14, “So in a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect: The one no less than the other was God’s doing; consequently, man may find no fault with Him.” It can be tempting to attribute good fortunate to our own efforts and misfortune to God, but doing so would be inappropriate. Kohelet ends with the importance of revering God and living a life of observing mitzvoth, since we will all be held accountable for our actions during this life. Kohelet serves as a reminder that we are mortal, but in our mortality is an opportunity to live a good and impactful life.

Returning to the joyousness of Sukkot, Kohelet remarks, “Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion” (Kohelet, 9:17). Although we understand that good comes from sharing what we can with others, eating and drinking are linked to this joyous holiday. It is not enough to simply assemble a sukkah and enter it, we are commanded to eat and drink. Judaism understands the importance of satiating our bodies and souls. Therefore we prepare lavish meals to enjoy with the people that matter to us. Although we are careful to construct our sukkahs as a temporary structure to remind us of our wandering in the desert, we also do what we can to make it feel like home, as instructed by our sages. I have seen a great deal of variation in sukkahs, from the bare minimum, scarcely large enough for one person to the other extreme in which a family brought in couches, lamps, artwork, and armoires…definitely one of the more elaborate sukkahs I have been to. There is no right or wrong way to furnish a sukkah, so long as it contains ample dining space for your guests to eat and drink in comfort.

On the topic of guests, guests are very significant to sukkot. We use the Aramaic word for guests, ushpizin, and there is a custom and a short ceremony of welcoming influential biblical ancestors including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Today, it is customary to also include our matriarchs and influential females ancestors from biblical times to further elevate the holiness of our celebrations. In addition to the ushpizin of our past, Rambam relates that anyone who sits with his or her family comfortably in the sukkah and does not share with the poor has failed to understand the mitzvah of sukkot. If someone does not reach out to those less fortunate, they miss fulfilling the mitzvah for joy, and are motivated by their stomachs rather than their hearts.

This sukkot let us heed the wisdom of Kohelet and remember that life is precious and may we recall the words of Rambam to welcome in those who are in need. May this sukkot remind us that there are those in our communities that lack even a temporary structure to shelter them and to call home.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Parshat Hashavua

Kol Nidre – Doing Jewish

I want to wish all of you a zis yor, a sweet New Year – bruchim haba’im, welcome, to 5778!

I’d like to begin with the story of a young man, a Zionist growing up in a very small town in the Southeastern, US. Most of the population in this town had never encountered a Jew before. Our young man grew up in a culturally, but not religiously, Jewish home. Upon graduating from High School, this young man made aliyah, immigrated to Israel, looking for adventure, excitement, and to immerse himself in a Jewish, but not religious, nation. When he arrived in Israel, he saw his Israeli peers dressed in military fatigues and walking around with a confident swagger and in an instant all became clear. This young man became a chayal boded, a lone soldier, and due to his exceptional physical and mental capabilities was accepted into an elite combat unit. Being a chayal boded can be very difficult, but our young man is friendly and engaging and in no time he was ‘adopted’ by a secular Zionist family from an affluent neighborhood outside Be’er Sheva. His adopted brother, Roi, served in the Israeli Air Force and was just as secular as our chayal boded. The Yom Kippur holiday arrived and the young man’s unit was on leave from base. The young man was ready to sit back and relax after a challenging few weeks of training. Upon walking in the door, he dropped his bags in his room, kicked off his boots, jumped on the couch, and turned on the TV for some much deserved chill time. Some time later Roi arrived home flabbergasted at the sight that welcomed him! He immediately turned the TV off and announced to his brother, “get off the couch and make yourself presentable, we are leaving for Yom Kippur services in an hour”. This announcement takes our young man by surprise. He responds, “Since when are we so religious?” Grudgingly our young man follows suit and attends services with his Israeli family. At shul, all of the young people from the secular neighborhood are dressed in white and have gathered for Kol Nidre. Even though these young, cool, and good-looking Israelis that our young man had befriended generally never did anything outwardly religious, it was understood that as a Jew this is what you do. The labels chiloni, ba’al teshuva, reconstructionist, reform, conservative, orthodox, haredi, etc. ultimately lead to the same outcome on Erev Yom Kippur. We do Jewish. Eventually this young man came to understand the power of Kol Nidre and became the man sharing this tale with you today.

As we prepare for our service we don our tallitot, prayer shawls. What makes tonight different from all other nights? Although this is a question that is more commonly associated with Passover, it is appropriate this evening as well. This is the only evening service in which we will don the tallit. Why, you may ask? Because the Rabbis want us to feel angelic. We also abstain on this day from activities including eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing, anointing, and marital relations. These are also meant to put us in an angelic mindset, as angels do not have these human urges. On this day are tasked with transcending our human desires in order to humble ourselves and connect to our creator. However, in the event that one is pregnant, ill, or otherwise finds these mitzvoth to be a hardship, he or she is permitted to practice self-care and be lenient. These stringencies should not make this day unbearable.

Very soon during our Kol Nidre service, we will bring out three sifrei torah to recreate the heavenly court. Kol Nidre is part of Yom Kippur, but also takes place prior to Yom Kippur. What do I mean by this? Kol Nidre stands alone and prepares us for our Yom Kippur service. What is Kol Nidre? We are all working towards gaining a closer relationship to Hashem. For this to happen we have to make recompense for our past. Kol Nidre is a legal declaration that allows us to move forward. In Judaism vows, oaths, pledges, promises, commitments and the like are all taken seriously. When I was a yeshivah bocher, a young seminary student, I dedicated a month to studying tractate nedarim (Babyloan Talmud) in order to learn about neder and shavu’a, vows and oaths. Personal declarations of a religious nature are generally frowned upon in Judaism, as we never want to commit to something we cannot guarantee. In more observant communities, you may hear the phrase ‘bli neder’ commonly used. This phrase means ‘I hope to, but I’m not making a vow’. It expresses the intention without making the commitment in order to avoid the possibility of breaking a vow to God. Words are very important in Judaism, as they are in life. Jewish wisdom likens the tongue to an arrow. Why an arrow? Once the arrow is shot, it cannot be returned. We are often consumed with what goes into our mouths, but we are reminded during this time of year that what is more important is for our speech – and not our food – to be kosher, fit and appropriate.

 

Returning to the power of Kol Nidre – there is a famous tale about Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century. It is said he considered leaving the Jewish faith to convert to Christianity. Prior to finalizing any such decision, he attended Yom Kippur services in a small shul, yet during the Kol Nidre service something happened. To use the phrase coined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz experienced what I believe to have been radial amazement– though he himself never admitted what occurred. Franz had a transformative experience and from that day on he never entertained the idea of leaving Judaism again. Similarly, it is my hope that we all experience a sense of radical amazement over these next 24 hours. May we do Jewish, find closeness with our creator, and be sealed in the book of life!

Tzom Kal – may we have a meaningful and easy fast!

 

Parshat Hashavua

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Wishing everyone a good and sweet new year! Rosh HaShanah always reminds us of family. We fondly recall the memories we have shared with our immediate, extended, and chosen families – the smells, the sounds, and the feeling of starting the New Year surrounded by loved ones! We are excited that this time next year we will be celebrating with our Shalom Home family and are conscientiously taking our time before opening to ensure Shalom Home is everything we know it can be and more.

We wish everyone a good, sweet, and healthy 5778!

Shira and Jesse

Parshat Hashavua

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Ad me’ah ve-essrim shana” or for those who understand mamaloshen, “Biz hundret un tsvantsig!” Have you ever wondered where this phrase commonly found in birthday greetings wishing a loved one to live until they reach age 120 originates? The answer is found this week as we are treated to a double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech (As we stand-And then we go out).

The second parshah Vayelech (Dueteronomy 31:1-3) begins*, “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: I am now 120 years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Lord has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.” The Lord your God Himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who shall cross before you, as the Lord has spoken.”

We learn from these pesukim that Moses was an active leader through the age of 120. What is the Torah teaching us about qualities of leadership? We commonly refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi (or Moses our teacher). Moses exemplifies two important qualities for successful leadership. First, Moses has complete faith. Even though he will not enter the Promised Land, God allowed him to visually cast his eyes upon it. Moses is human and therefore not free from errors of judgment or being swayed by emotion. However, Moses communicates to the Israelites that although the Promised Land is a place inhabited with potential adversaries, God is with them and will protect them. Moses relays this commitment from God to the Israelites with certainty, not leaving any room for doubt.

The second quality possessed by Moses is his keen sense of awareness. In the Torah it was not uncommon to live well past 120 years. It is therefore not a foregone conclusion that it was time to pass on the proverbial torch due to Moses’ age alone. The text itself underscores this point by stating that Moses had been active. Here Moses acknowledges that he can no longer be active in this next phase for the Israelites. Rather than try to hold on to power and delay the Israelites entry into the Promised Land, Moses informs the people that a new leader, Joshua, will take the reigns.

These qualities expressed by Moses are accessible to all of us, faith and awareness. We each have the capacity to focus and sharpen these qualities. Why have we centered our wishes for our friends and family upon Moses? We wish one another that we should all live as Moses did – fully present and active in our lives for all of our years – until we too reach our age 120.

Shabbat Shalom!

*Translation source: Sefaria

Parshat Hashavua

Ki Tavo

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (when you enter), the sedra opens with the presentation of the first fruits of the land to the Cohen. After presenting the first fruits to the Cohen, one is instructed to say, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, a few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong, and numerous”. This is the translation provided by the Stone edition Chumash for Dueteronomy 26:5. This is not the only translation, as the Rabbis teach there are many faces to the Torah. According to the Hertz Chumash this same pasuk is translated as, “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous”. The JPS Chumash seems to take this same approach, with variation, in translating this line as, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation”.

Three different Chumashim, three different translations…clearly this is nothing new in our tradition! This pasuk has been a source of debate for generations as to the identity of the Aramean, was it Laban or our patriarch Yaakov? According to the maggid section of our Passover Haggadahs, our patriarch Yaakov was being pursued by his Uncle Laban, the Aramean, favoring the Stone edition. Rashi, the most famous Torah commentator offers his textual analysis in support of the Hagaddah and the Stone chumash. Another prolific and revered commentator Ibn Ezra takes a different approach in support of the JPS and Hertz translations stating that Yaakov was the Aramean. While this pasuk may seem insignificant it is connected to why the first fruits were being presented. We are called to remember, time and again, that we were once strangers in a strange land and it is our responsibility to be a light in the darkness. If Yaakov is the Aramean or being pursued by the Armean, the outcome was the same, he sojourned to Egypt, a land in which he was a stranger. These first fruits from the opening of the parshah were to be offered to the Cohen in order to provide nourishment to the stranger. The Torah commands us many times to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The introduction to this parshah is the practical application of this mitzvah. Not only are we to provide, we are to offer our first fruits to the stranger, which must come from our first harvest.

What is the implication of this requirement in our modern lives? We know the Torah is timeless and we read it and seek to embody the characteristics and principles to live a meaningful and holy life. Though there are many examples of modern day “strangers”, I will highlight one group in the news of late. This group is comprised of individuals in our society brought over at a young age to the USA in search of a better life. In recent years these kids have been brought under the shelter of the DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals) program that enabled these young people to dream and pursue their educational and vocational aspirations. DACA has recently come under threat and now the status of tens of thousands of productive members of our society including students and members of our workforce, is in limbo. It is our duty to speak out and to offer our first fruits once again. Our figurative baskets of fruits to extend include our voices, compassion, and support. We must not delay in caring for the stranger, even when the stranger has been living among us for the majority of his or her life. May we all find the courage to stand up for what is right and follow the guidelines set out by Ki Tavo. Shabbat Shalom!