Parshat Va-etchanan • Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

There is so much going on in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, that it is hard to focus on any one part. This week we read the Ten Commandments for a second time, we read about Moses recounting that he is not allowed to enter the land of Israel and we hear the Sh’ma, the central prayer/statement of faith in Judaism.

It is the Sh’ma I wish to focus on this week. Roughly translated the Sh’ma says, “Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”. One teaching about this prayer that I truly enjoy comes from a former teacher of mine, Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, in the Torah commentary he edited, Etz Chiam. In the Etz Chiam on the Sh’ma he cites a Midrash, a Jewish legend about the Torah, that says the words of the Sh’ma were actually first uttered on Jacobs death bed by his children. For Jacob’s sons their fathers birth name was Jacob, however, later in Jacob’s life God gave him the name Israel. Therefore, on Israel/Jacob’s death bed he expressed a worry that because his children and grandchildren were going to live in Egypt that they would turn to the Egyptian gods and turn away from our God. To assuage his worries, Israel’s children said, “Hear Oh Israel (Jacob), we accept the one God as our God”. With these words Israel’s children swore an oath that we still recite and bind ourselves to today.

In some prayer books there are two letters in Hebrew that are made larger than others in the Sh’ma. The two letters are the Ayin, which is the last letter in the word Sh’ma, and the Dalet, which is the last letter in the word echad, which means one. When one puts these two letters together it spells the word “ed” which means witness. According to Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, “…to recite Sh’ma Yisrael (Hear O, Israel) is to testify to the unity and uniqueness of God. To live by the precepts of the Sh’ma is to bear witness to the truths of God’s Torah” (Etz Chiam Torah commentary page 1024).

What is this truth? The truth of what it means to bear witness. When we say the Sh’ma we are ostensibly saying we bear witness. We bear witness to the glory and majesty of creation. We bear witness to being committed to social justice. We bear witness to being a sacred community and sacred individuals. There is a lot we can learn about and study in this week’s Torah portion, but perhaps no concept is as central to what it means to be Jewish then to bear witness. When we bear witness to something, especially God’s role in the oneness of the universe, we become accomplices in that oneness, and therefore are complicit in all that happens in the world and by extension our role in bringing holiness into the world and all we do.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat D’varim • Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Can you name the books of Torah in Hebrew? In English, or perhaps Greek, we have a helpful mnemonic to recall the books —GE Lights Never Die — which are named after significant events or intellectual understandings of the material contained within. Genesis, for example, speaks of the origins of the world; Leviticus, with its concern for the sacrificial cult is properly attributed as a concern for the Levites; and Numbers draws its name from the various censuses of the people. Not so for their Hebrew names, which are simply the first significant word in the text: Bereshit, or “in the beginning”; Shemot, “names”; Vayikra, “and God called”; B’midbar, “in the wilderness”; and D’varim, “words”. As you can see, the derivation of the Hebrew and English names are quite different, though less so for the book we begin this week.

The Book of Deuteronomy features a grandiose recapitulation of the Torah in the language of Moses, presented as a series of five speeches to the Israelite people. Both the English name, derived from the Greek for “second law” and the Hebrew, meaning “words”, capture the essence of this book. Sometimes we need to hear something important multiple times for its meaning to resonate, something as true for our ancestors as it is for us today. May our second study of these important words open our hearts to new meanings and greater understanding.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Matot/Mas’ei • Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

And the stones in the road fly out from beneath our wheels
Another day, another deal, before we get back home.

And the stones in the road leave a mark from whence they came
A thousand points of light or shame … baby, I don’t know.

– Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones in the Road”

This week we reach the end of B’midbar / Numbers with the double portion of Matot-Masei. The portions begin with a list of each location the Israelites reached on their journey from Egypt to Israel. There are forty-two in all, from Ramses to the plains of Moab. We read that Moses made a point of recording each location where they camped, thereby creating a travel log of sorts for the people of Israel and – thousands of years later – for us, their descendants. While the text does not offer commentary for each of the forty-two locations, we and they know each place bears its stories. Each place bears its memories. Bright or dark, triumphant or defeatist, these dots on a map are powerful reminders of our past. They are the stones in the road towards freedom and promise.

I believe Matot-Masei intentionally shares these forty-two points on the journey to remind us of two important things: first, that “the journey” – the movement from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land – took Moses and the people to places they never expected to go. Physically and metaphorically, what became a forty-year trek delivered extraordinary lessons in patience, peoplehood, change and renewal. And second – it teaches us that “the journey” upon which each one of us has embarked – be it the journey of life, or love; education or parenthood or simply a new path we have forged – will take us to many new places, several of which we will not expect to go. Yet we can and will look back on the stones of our own road, our own life’s journey, and know that they have paved a way toward our own freedom and our own promise.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Pinchas • Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Often overlooked in favor of examining the troubling deeds of Pinchas (after whom this Torah portion, Numbers 25:10 – 30:1, is named) of the plea from the daughters of Zelophehad, our Torah portion also contains a large census of the Israelite people. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” It turns out that Jews in every day and age have been as concerned with numbers as we are today. The “ever-dying” people, we stand up to be counted in various censuses measuring and evaluating and weighing behavior from the latest Federation study (http://www.jewishinseattle.org/community-study/community-study-full-report) back to Sinai.

Given this emphasis on numbers, not to mention our sacred teaching that one who saves a life has saved an entire world, the Jewish community expresses eternal gratitude for the actions of Nicholas Winton, z”l. A quiet, unassuming stock-broker who saved more than 650 children from death at the hands of the Nazis, Winton’s actions did not come to light for almost 50 years. He was some humble and unassuming that even his wife didn’t know! May we all strive to do such good in this world, not in search of notoriety or fame but because it is simply the right thing to do. Zichrono L’vracha, may his memory be an everlasting blessing.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Balak • Numbers 22:2-25:9

This week’s parsha contains within it one of Torah’s rare attempts at comedy. The Moabite king Balak hires Balaam, allegedly the world’s powerful sorcerer, to curse the people of Israel whose numbers intimidate Balak. Despite Balak offering him hefty payment for his work Balaam initially balks, for God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with Balak and his people: “you must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” So Balak sends more powerful, persuasive dignitaries and offers more money. Again, Balak refuses, saying: “I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of Adonai my God.” God once again comes to Balaam but says, “you may go with these men … but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” Soon we meet a talking donkey – one powerful enough in her own right to see an angel of God blocking her path. Through the donkey God speaks to Balaam, startling Balaam on his journey.

Eventually, this comedy of errors results in the people Israel being blessed three times instead of cursed. And among the blessings offered to the people Israel is the well-known prayer in our daily liturgy, Ma Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings O Israel!” The parsha implies that Balaam did not have control over what came out of his own mouth; that it was God directing the show right from the start. Balaam’s blessings were therefore predetermined by God who stated to Balaam right from the start that this was a people who was already blessed.

While this parsha is a joy to read and re-read year after year, there is a poignant, often overlooked side to it that begs to be paid attention to. Right from the start, God is in control. God tells Balaam how everything will play out. God controls the donkey. In Balaam’s final monologue, he cries out: “who can survive except [when] God has willed it?” While this idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity is still en vogue in many communities today, many of us struggle with the idea of a God who knows, sees, and controls all. We question the idea of a God who has already laid out our futures, particularly when those futures take some unfortunate and tragic twists and turns.

And so – I believe parshat Balak is meant to push us: to question and wrestle, to think deeply about control and power, to examine and evaluate our own perceptions of God and God’s presence in our human lives and our visions of curses and blessings in the modern day.

And, yes – it’s meant to give us a few laughs, too.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen