Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

Vayikra

This week, with Parshat Vayikra, we begin the book of Leviticus. The first word of the book, and the one that also gives this Torah portion and indeed this entire book of the Torah its Hebrew name is, “Vayikra” – He (sorry for the gender pronoun) called. The use of this word to start the Torah portion seems redundant. The first verse of Vayikra reads, “The Eternal One CALLED (Vayikra) to Moses and SPOKE (vay’dabeir) to him from the Tent of Meeting SAYING (leimor). The Torah is famously succinct, so why so many words that seem to say the same thing?

Most of G-d’s messages in the Torah are preceded by the words, “Vayomer” (He said), “Vay’dabeir” (He spoke) or “Vay’tzav” (He commanded). These are all words of authority. But Vayikra doesn’t have this connotation at all. Vayikra is an invitation to engage. The book of holiness begins with a sacred summons.

The word, Vayikra is written in an unusual way in the Torah itself. The aleph at the end of the word is tiny. Why should this be so? If the aleph were not there at all, the word would be vayikar – He encountered, chanced upon. What is the connection? Why make the aleph small? Some people experience holiness in grand moments or major life events. For others, it’s more subtle. It’s a chance experience, an encounter with the Divine, a “still small voice” – a tiny, silent letter aleph.

The book of Vayikra brings to mind both types of holy encounters and invites us in to find a spiritual path. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices. The second is about the boundary between the holy and the world – the things that prevent us from entering sacred space. The third is about taking the holy into the world. Leviticus democratizes holiness so that it becomes a part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole, and not something that only Moses can approach. Later, when prayer replaced sacrifice, this process would get taken even further.

Holiness is about setting things apart for a sacred purpose. Vayikra calls us to live a life of sacredness – whether we are the person who sees G-d’s hand in everything, or the person who seeks to hear that tiny, silent aleph. Vayikra is a challenging book, it is difficult to understand, has moral difficulties, and is hard to relate to. But we cannot begin to approach it without first engaging with it, and with that first word, Vayikra, we are invited to start.

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It’s All About the Journey

With this week’s Torah portion, Parshat P’kudei, we complete the reading of the epic book of Exodus. The book began with the words, “V’eileh sheimot” – these are the names. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” A new king arises who did not know Joseph and the children of Israel become slaves. The book tells us of the birth of Moses, his rise to leadership, the plagues, the Exodus, the ten commandments, the sin of the golden calf, and finally the building of the Tabernacle – a portable sanctuary. The people leave Egypt a “mixed multitude” and over the course of their wanderings in the dessert will become the Jewish people.

The last sentence of the book of Exodus reads, “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal One rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” By the end of this grand book of the Torah, we have not completed our journey. We are still in the wilderness, but now we have an accessible, visible, spiritual presence that accompanies, unifies, and comforts us.

The book began with the names – the foundation of who we came from, but it ends with the word, “journeys.” Our journeys are what will define us going forward. As Jews throughout our history, we have always been wanderers, but our connection to our people, our faith, our history, and our Torah have been the fire and the cloud that have united us. The names are our foundation. The journey is our destiny. The destination has never really been the most important part. In fact, even by the end of the Torah, we haven’t reached The Promised Land.

It is so easy to become caught up in our visions for our future, in goals yet to be realized, but we learn from the Torah that perhaps the purpose of the goal is to lead us through the journey.

Shabbat shalom.

Finding Stillness

A few days ago, there was an article in the New York Times entitled, “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” The author discusses how his use of his smartphone had become a problem in his life. “I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.” He decided that, despite the fact that he is a tech columnist, he needed to find a way to bring himself back into having a more normal, healthy relationship with his phone use. He sought help. In the process of working on the problem, he noticed that he was reaching for his phone in every spare moment he had – while brushing his teeth, walking outside, even during the “three-second window” between when he would insert his credit card in a chip reader at the store and when it was accepted. He realized in trying to wean himself off of these extreme behaviors that he had become “profoundly uncomfortable… with stillness.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’heil we read, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal…” (Exodus 35:2). In the traditional observance of Shabbat, Jews do not use electronics. This includes not only the lights and television, but indeed cell phones. Many Reform Jews that I know take a cell phone Sabbath every week. I will admit that I have not yet done this, partially because it is not practical for my life as a parent. Still, I felt some discomfort as read this article in the Times (and I read it on my cell phone). I do not have an extreme problem like the author does but I do (and I suspect many of us do) recognize this new discomfort with stillness and the empty time that appears while waiting in line.

One of the beauties of Reform Judaism is that we have the opportunity to define what Shabbat means to us. What does a “Sabbath of complete rest” mean? What are some new ways to distinguish Shabbat for all the other days of the week, to make it stand out as set apart? Maybe a break from social media, or from cell phone use altogether could be an interesting way to mark a separation “bein kodesh l’chol” (between the sacred times and all other times.) Maybe it is time off from something else that disturbs your sense of stillness and peace. But even if you choose not to go this particular route, the point is to find ways to distinguish Shabbat from the rest of your week, to find paths to stillness and rest. As Reform Jews, we often don’t walk the traditional route, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ultimate beauty that our tradition is trying to help us bring to our lives.

Becoming Worthy… Becoming Moses

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, G-d called to Moses from out of a burning bush. “Moses! Moses!” and he answered, “Hineini – Here I am.” G-d gave Moses the sacred task of saving an enslaved nation. It is a job that Moses did not feel up to. Moses argued, “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and free the Israelites from Egypt.” Later he argued, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?” and beyond that he said, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Moses is Moses, but he is not yet MOSES. He will become MOSES in due time. Like G-d, Who reveals G-d’s name in this moment of Torah as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I am what I am” or also translated as “I Will be What I Will Be,” Moses’s identity will be shaped by this pivotal moment in our historic narrative. Moses will find a way to approach Pharoah, to be believed and listened to, and he will find his ability to speak for himself, eventually speaking the entire book of Deuteronomy as a farewell sermon to his people.

How often are we faced with an important task that seems too great for us, too important, and for which we do not feel capable? This moment in Torah teaches us that it is the tasks themselves that make us capable of completing them – all we really need to do is show up and say, “hineini – here I am.” If the task is worthy of us, we can BECOME worthy of the task. The only question to ask is whether the task is truly worth doing.

On this Shabbat before the secular New Year, many of us are considering our new year’s resolutions – all the ways that we hope to better ourselves in 2019. I would suggest that this is a great moment to seek out remarkable tasks, things that seem beyond our reach, things that will help to make the world better than how we found it. This is a great moment to say, “Hineini.” I am here. I am worthy. I am ready.

And You Shall Be a Blessing

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vay’chi, Jacob prepares to die. He asks Joseph to bring him his two sons so that he can bless them as his own. Jacob blessed these two grandsons and added the words, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.’” And so this has become the traditional formula for parents’ blessing their sons throughout the generations.

Why, you might ask, would we bless our sons by these names, rather than by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Ephraim and Menasheh were born and raised outside of the land of Israel. They were fully immersed into the highest echelons of Egyptian society. Deeply entrenched, they were in grave danger of losing their sense of their Jewish identity and their moral foundation. Tradition teaches that, despite the temptations of Egypt, they remained true to Jacob’s Judaism as transmitted through Joseph.

Perhaps we bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasheh because we wish them to have the inner strength to hold on to their Judaism in the midst of a secular society. There are times in everyone’s lives where faith is challenged, but we wish for our children to be able to hold on to the faith and traditions of their ancestors.

In my family of origin, we did not do a blessing every Friday night, but rather only once a year on the High Holy Days. I remember the strange and wonderful feeling of my father taking my head in his hands and offering a blessing that I no longer remember. I don’t remember the words to the blessing, but I remember the feeling of being blessed. It is not the words that matter, but the tradition, the sentiment, the holy moment passing between parent and child.

With what words would you wish to bless your children?

With what words would you wish to bless yourself?

Shabbat shalom.

What’s In a Name?

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob wrestles with G-d and in the end, G-d blesses him saying, “Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Yisrael.”  Yisrael means one who struggles with G-d and, as I wrote in a previous D’var Torah, it is our struggle with and engagement in faith that truly makes us a part of Yisrael.  But I want to focus on something different and that is on the concepts of naming and renaming.
A name defines something, gives it a role.  Those who choose to be Jewish have the opportunity to select a Hebrew name for themselves.  Some choose to honor a deceased relative as their parents might have done.  Others honor a Biblical personality or a character trait that they admire.  In the Torah, adults often receive additional names.  But today, we change our names only through three mechanisms – marriage, the addition of nicknames (often given by family or friends with humor), or through the bestowing of titles or honorifics earned through schooling.  In changing Jacob’s name to Yisrael, G-d attaches Jacob’s struggle to his identity.  Our additional names are given to us by others, but they rarely say something truly deep about our own inner lives
If you could choose a new name, Hebrew or otherwise, what would you choose?  Who would you honor or remember?  What character traits would you want as a part of your name?  Are there other ways that you can express that identity, honor those loved ones, bring those names forward in your life?
The great Israeli poet, Zelda (1914-1984) wrote:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
What will be your name?

When you are just… DONE

In Genesis 25:29, we read: “One day, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the hunting field. He was famished, and he said to Jacob, ‘I’m famished: let me gulp some of that red stuff!… Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright here and now.’ And Esau said, ‘Here I am going to die; what good is the birthright to me?’”

The Hebrew word that gets translated as “famished,” is ayeif – which also means exhausted. We see Esau coming in from the field at his wits end – exhausted, hungry, or just, as we would say today, “DONE.” His exhaustion is such that he doesn’t even care if he gives up everything. I think we can all relate to this at some level. The exhaustion of our family lives, our efforts at tikkun olam (repairing the world), keeping up with social media, making a living, and so much more. The exhaustion at hearing what is happening in the world and how so much of it just keeps happening, with no lessons learned. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, to want to throw up our hands in feeling ayeif and just be DONE.

Ah, but you see, we cannot be done, because if we give up, or give in, we risk giving away our birthright for a bowl of stew. So, what do we do when we are as done as Esau was?

If Esau had taken just a moment to stop, to relax, he surely would have known the folly of selling his birthright. But he didn’t stop. Shabbat is our birthright as Jews – it is the gift of stopping, of refilling our personal, spiritual, and emotional buckets. On Shabbat we can have family time, alone time, friend time. We can take a moment for the art and music that feeds our souls. Whatever it is that helps you to face another week, relieved and ready. When you, too, are ayeif, I hope you will take that moment and take care of you.