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

The Power of Love

When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace. 
-Jimi Hendrix

The Seattle guitar-deity’s words reflect well the essence of this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. This parasha contains passages that form the cornerstone of our liturgy:  the Shema and Ve’ahavta. The Shema is the somewhat cryptic and deceptively terse affirmation of our faith in the one God: Adonai. But it is more than a self-directed meditation. The words compel each Jew to remind the other of God’s name and nature. To begin with the word “Shema/Listen” is to invite focus, heighten awareness and inspire action.

This is followed immediately by the Ve’ahavta, an expression of the ways in which we show love for God, practical and tangible acts that render faith more a “walking the walk” than a “talking the talk.” And its proximity to Shema is pedagogically sound:  the power of love can only be fully realized when we are keenly aware of the object of that love and our motivation to express it. More than even Jimi intended, true “Shalom,” true wholeness, integration and peace will come only when the quest for love transcends the pursuit of power.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

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

This weekend, traditional Jewish communities around the world recognize Tisha b’Av. It is a lesser-known day in our Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. It is also a day on which our sages believe all terrible things have befallen the Jewish people. It is, quite simply, the saddest, darkest day of our entire year.

During my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, on erev Tisha b’Av I made my way to the Western Wall with some classmates. As we walked from our shabby limestone apartments in the Rehavia neighborhood down the hill, toward the walls of the Old City, we found ourselves swallowed up by a massive throng of people – hundreds of them, many dressed in dark wool. They were crying – no, not crying, wailing. And as we drew closer and closer to the Kotel, their cries grew louder and louder. When we finally reached the Western Wall we saw thousands of Jews acting as if their closest relative had just passed away. The words they chanted were from Eicha, or “Lamentations,” a collection of laments and prose that are some of the saddest, darkest, most haunting words you’ve ever heard. It was, for us modern Jews, a totally surreal sight.

It is not coincidental that we begin the book of Deuteronomy right around Tisha b’Av. Whereas this lesser-known Jewish holiday is all about remembering – and mourning – the past, Deuteronomy is a retelling of all that has befallen the people Israel from the beginning of the Torah onward. There is sanctity and beauty in this holy act of remembering: only through telling stories of the past are we able to look to our future. Mourning the destruction of the Temple – and all horrific things that have happened to our people – leads us to rejoice and celebrate the new year just over one month later at Rosh Hashanah. Looking back to the challenges and victories of Moses’ leadership in Deuteronomy, we understand the gravity of what we are about to do as we open with Joshua at the start of N’vi’im.

Together, Tisha b’Av and Deuteronomy remind us of the power of knowing our past. As we begin this new book of Torah, may it add depth and color to an understanding of ourselves and our people.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

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

“The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham. They set out from Etham and encamped at Migdol. They set out from Migdol…” This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Ma’asei, feels as if a travel journal sponsored by AAA. The Israelites follow a circuitous TripTik laid out by God during their 40 years wandering in the desert, and this week’s portion recaps their journeys before entering the Promised Land.

This summer, many in our congregational family are off on journeys of their own. From exotic destinations abroad to day-trips in Washington State, everyone gets bitten by the travel bug during the days of summer. As our time on vacation begins to come to an end, it is common to wax nostalgic with favorite memories and stories before returning to the difficult work of catching up from vacation. The fun of sharing these memories becomes every bit as important as the events themselves — and often more informative. We learn from our mistakes, revel in our joys, and build upon our successes when we share these stories… just like our ancestors did so long ago.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Pinchas • Numbers 25:10-30:1

The RNC, the DNC, and Parashat Pinchas

The Democratic National Convention, following on the heels of the Republican National Convention, dovetails perfectly with this week’s Torah portion. All three are concerned with picking a worth successor to leadership. In Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God reminds Moses that although he has been preparing the people Israel to enter the Promised Land, he will not be joining them. Instead of complaining, instead of asking for a reprieve, Moses’ thoughts turn not to himself but to the people. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes in his 2009 book Entering Torah, “indeed the true measure of a leader is his concern for his people.”

In his words, “Moses may not have been a perfect leader. Had he been perfect, perhaps he would have entered the land. No human being is perfect; we leave perfection to God. But he was a leader who placed the needs of his people and the good of his people above his own personal concerns. He thought of them before he thought of himself and even at the moment of his greatest personal tragedy, he looked for the way in which Israel could be led to the Promised Land, though he himself would never get there. Moses set an example and a standard for leadership that should inspire all of us and direct all our leaders to follow in his ways.” May those seeking the highest office in our land find the same selflessness demonstrated by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat Balak • Numbers 22:2-25:9

What does it mean “to dwell apart?”

At first blush, the phrase conjures any number of benign images: a divorced couple, sharing custody of children, living in separate homes. A college dormitory with men and women living on separate floors. A group of sojourners finding themselves on separate paths. The key word here, of course, is “separate.” Distinct, distant, disconnected. Perhaps the most powerful image, though, is the one on which this Torah portion focuses: a people – our people – set apart from the nations of the earth. One people – unique in temperament, belief, identity – separate from all the rest.

In this parsha, Balaam, the prophet for hire, remarks on the People of Israel, singing: “there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” Highlighting our millennia-long identification as the “Chosen People,” Balaam’s words are intended not only to make us pause, but also to highlight just how fabulous we really are. This parsha is typically recognized for its comedic retelling of Balaam, this prophet gone rogue, blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them at Balak’s command. How funny – and how powerful – it would be if all our curses emerged as blessings.

Yet Rashi, our medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator par excellence notes that there is a certain ambivalence there – is this really an example of blessing? He writes, “when [the Israelites] are joyful, there is no nation joyful with them.” How lonely we might feel in that often problematic state of “chosenness.” How isolated we could be continuing to live in our own “otherness,” dwelling apart from all the other peoples of the land.

We know that today we live in a world seemingly overflowing with curses; with darkness, and pain, and – at the root of so much of it – an overabundance of fear. How we see ourselves in relation to all of it can result, as Rashi warns, in a pretty lonely life. And while there is significance to our Jewish value of chosenness, to be sure, we also must recognize that dwelling apart from the rest of the earth, separating ourselves, and pulling away from the common, collective plight of humanity only perpetuates the cycle. By working together, sharing common ground, recognizing our ability to help, empower, and inspire – by changing the narrative of “dwelling apart” – we build bridges instead of walls. We promote tolerance, peace, and understanding. And maybe – through that – we turn curses into enduring blessings.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Chukat • Numbers 19:1-22:1

Parashat Hukkat – Deafening Silence

I’ve often heard that bad things come in threes. For Moses this week, they certainly do – first, Miriam, his sister, passes away. Then God curses both he and his brother Aaron with not finding their way to the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites. And then Aaron passes away as well. On the face of it, Moses has little to no reaction to any of this. The Torah’s narrator makes no comments clarifying Moses’ response to his entire world falling down around him, but what the narrator and Moses do not say is much louder than words.

Silence in the Torah is often a pregnant one. Much like in jazz, it’s the notes that the Torah doesn’t play that matters. After Moses speaks the words that end up being the reason for his being cursed to not enter the Land with the rest of the Israelites, he does not speak for the rest of the parashah. In fact, the next and last time he speaks in the book of Numbers is only to find a replacement for himself as leader. Otherwise, the one person who has spoken to and for both God and the Israelites is silent.

Earlier on in the Torah when Aaron was confronted with God’s killing of his sons Nadav and Abihu, Moses rebuked him. In response to Moses’ rebuke, the Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.” The language that Moses used then, in Leviticus 10:3, was strikingly similar to that with which God rebukes Moses in this week’s portion. And, like his brother Aaron, after being rebuked, Moses is silent.

Silence in the face of tragedy, that feeling of turning inside ourselves and no longer engaging with the world outside, is something everyone is familiar with. Moses and Aaron reflect a clear and universal human reaction to personal tragedy. Our tradition, though, bids us to not keep our inner pain to ourselves. Through the tradition of shiva, the seven days after the death of a close relative in which the community comes together to commemorate the lives of the departed and to offer support to the bereft, those plunged mourning are able to share their experience of loss.

We can see these two contradictory approaches to grief as showing us that, in some cases, people may need time alone in their own silence, and in others people may need to air their emotions. An individual in the throes of loss, like Aaron with the loss of his son, and Moses with the loss of Miriam, Aaron and his own future, is one who may not need to be told how to process their grief, but instead, be allowed to share their anguish in their own way.

When our world overwhelms us with tragedy, as it seems to be doing so often these days, we all respond in our own ways. Sometimes silence, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness. Our tradition gives us leeway to react in manifold ways. This freedom not only allows for the diversity of human response, but also demands something of us – to hear the silence of others, to pay attention to this multiplicity in human reactions, to give ear to those who may respond in ways alien to us, and to work to find the elements of human connection between our many experiences of tragedy. Moses and Aaron’s silence bid us to hear the pain of our friends, loved ones, and neighbors in the way that they express it, even if the mode of expression is silence itself.