Monday, December 30, 2013


Exodus 10:1−13:16  

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Humility vs. Humiliation

This week's Torah portion, Bo, includes the final three plagues brought against Pharaoh and Egypt as well as the first Passover seder meal (observed by the Israelites as the horror of the tenth plague coursed through Egypt). The parashah ends with the Israelites starting their journey out of Egypt after having lived there for 430 years.

The story is familiar. And yet, as with all narratives of the Torah, if one pays attention to the text with one's heart and soul one can find a myriad of truths within it. Just as no two people are exactly alike, neither are two truths.

The truth that I became mindful of while reading the parashah was sparked by Exodus 12:31-32. After the horror of the tenth plague has been visited upon Egypt Moses and Aaron are summoned to Pharaoh's house where Pharaoh says to them, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"

In the JPS Torah commentary Nahum Sarna comments that "for [Pharaoh] to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot." In this context I at first read the word "humbling" as "humiliation." For Pharaoh to ask Moses and Aaron for a blessing is the quintessential humiliation of the tyrant who realizes that he has no true power. And yet there is another way to read this verse that does not equate humility with humiliation.

Living, as we do, in a world where people tout and flaunt their accomplishments in order to show the brilliance of human beings, humility is not evidenced (or appreciated) as much as it should be. It is true that we can be brilliant. According to the Torah we are the only beings created in the image of God. We are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. In kabbalistic (mystical) terms we each carry within us a spark of the Divine light - our soul. We are indeed brilliant. So why be humble? Why not simply admit to our brilliance and revel in our mastery of the universe?

Continue reading.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Parashat Va-era

Exodus 6:2–9:35
Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!" So wrote William Shakespeare centuries ago in "Romeo and Juliet." Today's parashah, Vayera, challenges this concept with regard to the Divine. The parashah begins with God saying to Moshe, "I am YHWH; and I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov as 'El Shaddai', but my name YHWH I did not make known to them."

It is clear in these opening lines that there is a great deal contained in a name. A name has power. A name means something. A name is more than just a symbol. God did not make God's self known to even the first patriarchs by God's name. Rather, God only made known one of God's many "other" names (a
Divine nom de plume, as it were) El Shaddai. El Shaddai is usually translated as "God Almighty" and YHWH, the four letter name of God (the tetragrammaton) is usually pronounced in Hebrew as 'adonai' (my lord) or 'ha-shem' (the Name). According to tradition the correct pronunciation of this name has been lost. Even when it was known the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) only spoke it on Yom Kippur while he was standing in the Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or the Temple in Jerusalem. This name contained that much power! But what is this name?

Most scholars believe that it is a form of the verb "to be." Others say that it is also the sound of the breath, both human and divine, which is the source of life. Ultimately, we do not know, and I believe that this is as it should be. For YHWH by any other name is still YHWH.

In his book God is a Verb Rabbi David Cooper writes about God as being a process not an object or subject. Drawing on the teachings of Reb Zalman Schacter-Sholomi, Cooper writes about the verb "God-ing" as opposed to the noun "God." Reb Zalman, writes Cooper, "explains that the kind of verb that represents God-ing is different from the ones we have in our ordinary language. Most of our verbs are considered transitive, which require a direct object, or intransitive, which do not. He suggests that God-ing is a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other" (God is a Verb, p. 69). The example Cooper provides is communication. One may be speaking and yet if no one is listening is there actually any communication occurring? Yet the question remains, where does this leave us with regard to God - especially as Reconstructionists?

Continue reading.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Exodus 1:1−6:1

Rabbi Arthur Waskow for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

"Blessed is the One Who is the Breath of Life"

Shabbat shalom! . . . It's the custom of Christian communities throughout the world to honor great teachers on the anniversaries of their births, and it's the custom of Jewish communities through-out the world to honor great teachers on the anniversaries of their deaths. One, according to a solar calendar; the other, according to a solar/lunar calendar. It's precisely because of those authentic, honorable differences that we can come together today, that the dates come together that connect the yahrzeits of Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Rabbenu Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, and Reverend Martin Luther King's birthday.

If our traditions used the same calendars or followed the same customs, we would not be able to link, a generation later, the lives that were linked in life a generation ago. And I think that is a kind of miracle, a teaching straight from God, of what it means this year for us to gather. And then it turns out that the parasha that we're studying, this week of that convergence is Parashat Sh'mot, the beginning of the story of our liberation, the beginning of the story of the birthing of a people, and the birthing of freedom. The miracle is compounded. For we look at Parashat Sh'mot, and what do we find?

One thing we find is the story of the two midwives, Shifra and Puah, who together do the first recorded act of nonviolent civil disobedience in all of human history. What could be a more powerful root for Heschel, for King, for Meyer? Marshall Meyer, whose entire life, for more than a decade, day and night, was a single act of civil disobedience in fascist Argentina, and King and Heschel, who marched side by side against racism in America and against the American War in Vietnam. As Rabbenu Heschel said, "Not just marching. My legs were praying."

What does it mean for us to be able to look back at that story of the midwives? And to look at the story in which Pharoah's daughter joins with Miriam, across national lines, across racial lines, joins together to save Moshe, in another act of nonviolent civil disobedience to help the process of liberation take another step together.

Continue reading.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Genesis 47:28–50:26

Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Life Beyond Death

I often find it difficult to explain Jewish beliefs concerning life-after-death to Jews and non-Jews. The problem is not that we don't believe in an afterlife. Throughout most of Jewish history, the belief in an afterlife has been prevalent among our people. The difficulty many people have is the fact that although our religious heritage presents us with an ancient, well-established, multi- faceted set of insights into the afterlife, these beliefs generally play a secondary or tertiary role in the structure of Jewish faith and the living of Jewish lives. From ancient times, our tradition, while accepting the hope of an afterlife, reminds us to center our attention on this world and find our hope in living and teaching a life built on the ethical and spiritual foundation of our Torah.

Thus, it is not surprising that our Bible teaches so little about what is to come. In the Bible, our oldest literature, the possibility of life-after-death is assumed rather than discussed at any length. Jews in the biblical period had an uncomplicated image of the afterlife. They often pictured the abode of the deceased, which they called "Sheol," as a drab, subterranean pit. In Sheol, the dead maintained a shade-like existence safely removed from the pleasures and pitfalls of earthly life. Accordingly, the Torah prohibits necromancy, the art of raising the spirits of the dead (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:11).

The story of the Wise Woman of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25) illustrates the seriousness of this prohibition. The evening before King Saul was to enter into battle with a formidable Philistine army, the king, in desperation, prevails on the Wise Woman to conjure up the spirit of the king's dead advisor, the prophet Samuel. The prophet, angered at being disturbed, accurately pronounces Saul's defeat and doom.

At the end of the biblical period of our history, we get the first glimpses of the elaborate descriptions of heaven and hell that appear in post-biblical Jewish literature and form the basis for similar beliefs in Christianity and Islam. Yet, the Jewish tradition held fast to the biblical focus on life in this world. The psalmist's powerful declaration that the dead do not praise God (Psalm 115:17) continued to ring true.

Rabbinic wisdom reminds us that it is improper and impious for us to serve God in the hope of receiving the reward of entering heaven (Avot 1:3). Living a life of good deeds based on our Torah, teaching its values to coming generations and building a community grounded on its ethical insights are sufficient reward in themselves.

Continue reading.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Genesis 44:18−47:27

Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Prophets and Sages

The difference between a prophet and a sage is where they discover God working in our lives. The prophet studies the future and points out the opportunities for righteousness and goodness that we may encounter in our life's journey. The sage looks into the past and shows us how we made way for God's healing presence and loving power in the choices we made and the paths we followed. The prophet fortifies us with the gift of hope. The sage strengthens us with the gift of meaning.

We need both prophets and sages. We need to hear both voices. Yet, the task of the sage is harder and greater than that of the prophet. The prophet helps us find purpose and significance in the open-ended future. The sage guides us in the search for value and meaning in our already closed past.

Joseph's great gift was that he was both a prophet and a sage. He was by nature a visionary. Through the window of dreams he could peer into the future. Although he could not see all the details, he could picture what life could be like. He was, however, not born wise. He had to learn how to be a sage. He needed the insight and wisdom he earned through the challenges and trials of his life.

When we encounter Joseph in this week's Torah portion, Va-Yigash, he is no longer the obnoxious young visionary whom his brothers sold into slavery some twenty years earlier. His experiences as a slave, as a prisoner and as the highest official of the Egyptian court taught him to understand the human heart. He learned that it was necessary to let go of the burden of the past to be able to receive the promise of the future.

The dramatic highlight of the story of Joseph is the moment when Joseph steps out of his role as the grand vizier of Egypt and reveals himself to the eleven hungry brothers from Canaan as their long-lost brother Joseph, the very one whom they sold into slavery over two decades earlier (Genesis 45:1-3). His brothers are dumfounded at the news and are unable to respond.

Continue reading.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Genesis 41:1-44:17

Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Jews-By-Choice: Asenath and Ruth

Throughout our history, and particularly in our times, the Jewish people have been enriched by converts, people who have chosen to cast their lot with ours, to make our history and destiny their own. We benefit from their enthusiasm, their insight and their mature understanding of Judaism. We honor their new commitments by calling them "gerei tzedek" ("those who have chosen to dwell with us through righteousness") and by declaring them to be the direct descendants of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. They, in turn, compliment us by accepting our sacred heritage and remind us of the life-changing, life-enhancing power of our traditions.

Our ancient traditions present us with two powerful visions of the conversion process. One, represented by the story of Ruth, focuses on the convert's significant relationships with Jewish people. We all know many people who have chosen to join us because of their involvement with their Jewish spouse, their Jewish friends, and the Jewish community. The other, characterized by ancient legends concerning Joseph's Egyptian born wife, Asenath, stresses the convert's spiritual journey towards Jewish faith.

The story of the Moabite woman, Ruth, who after the deaths of her husband and father-in-law, followed her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Naomi's hometown of Bethlehem in Judah, is found in the biblical Book of Ruth. The story focuses on Jewish values of peoplehood and community, which still play a central role in modern Jewish life.

Ruth's story is a tale of a love and loyalty. Ruth leaves her native land and adopts the traditions and beliefs of the Jewish people because of the depth of her relationship with Naomi and because of her admiration of Naomi's words and deeds, which reflected the guiding principles of Judaism. Ruth's declaration of loving loyalty ("Wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people and your God is my God . . . (Ruth 1:16)") is one of the most profound expressions of love in our tradition. But it is also testimony to the transforming power of the faith we express by the way we live our lives.

Continue reading.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Genesis 37:1−40:23

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

On Being Ready

This week's parashah, Vayeshev, is the beginning of the story of Joseph. Though Joseph is not considered among the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) his story encompasses almost the entire remainder of the book of Bereshit and is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of any of the patriarchs. It is Joseph's story that helps to transition the reader from the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation-building period that is the core of the remainder of the Torah, beginning with the exodus from Egypt. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right. The author provides insights into the character of Joseph that are often left to the rabbis to fill in through Midrash when it comes to his immediate ancestors.

Many of us are familiar with this story, whether due to having read the Torah narrative, hearing various retellings or through "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" or the animated feature "Joseph, King of Dreams." I too am quite familiar with the narrative, and yet in rereading it tonight something caught my eye that had never drawn my attention before.

In the beginning of the parashah we learn of Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of the dreams that clearly imply that they will some day bow down to him.

Not long after this, in Chapter 37, verse 13, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are pasturing the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, since Jacob knew of the brothers' hatred of Joseph. However, even stranger is Joseph's response to his father. After Jacob says "Come, I will send you to them" Joseph responds "Hineni." This literally means, "Here I am," though it is also translated as "I am ready." What is curious about this response is that it is also associated with two key events in the Torah. When God calls to Abraham and then commands him to sacrifice Isaac and when God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush, both men respond "Hineni."

Continue reading.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Genesis 32:4−36:43

Reconciliation and Change

Rabbi Howard Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

As always, it is helpful to read the weekly Torah portion to understand what the rabbis wished to comment on through the haftorah selection. Not surprising, rich and complex Torah portions evoke many responses. Evidence of this is reflected in the fact that, like this week, more than one tradition has emerged for which reading to use.

In Parshat Vayishlah four significant events occur. Esau encounters Yaacov for the first time since they bitterly parted ways years earlier. The text indicates that for, at least Yaacov, there was much concern about this meeting. Yaacov wrestles with an angel in the middle of the night. As a result of this divine encounter his name was changed to Israel and he was wounded in the thigh. Seemingly unrelated to the flow of events, Israel's daughter from Leah daughter, Dinah, has an experience with Shechem, the son of Hamor, the chief of that country. Her interaction with Hamor, usually described as a rape, agitates her brothers into committing a deviously violent revengeful response. Finally, the deaths of Rachel and Isaac are mentioned.

The selection from Hosea is generally concerned with the idea of reconciliation and change. For example we read " heart has changed in me. All my pity stirs" (11:8b). The next verse states "I will not act upon my wrath". Throughout this haftorah there is a strong sense of the potential harm and destruction that could be unleashed out of vengeful anger without reconciliation between Esau and Israel. Or, alternatively, these same verses can be read as an admonishment against the violence Israel's sons perpetuated against Hamor's country. The message then from Hosea is reconciliation is better than revenge.

The haftorah from Ovadiah, on the other hand, promotes the opposite position. In this haftorah the reconciliation between Esau and Israel is the back drop for a bitter tirade against the Edomites for their treatment of their brethren at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. The Edomites are direct descendants of Esau (remember Esau is called Edom for his red appearance). Ovadiah succinctly expresses what he believes is the only appropriate response to the Edomites is "as you have done, so shall it be done to you; your deeds shall come back to haunt your" (Ovadiah 1:15)

The prophets were political commentators and agitators. What makes their insights valuable for us today is that though they were speaking about current events of their day they did so in a way that has eternal and universal appeal. Faced with the aftermath of deeply contested election where phrases such as "velvet coup de 'etat", "stolen office", "illegitimate presidency" are flowing freely we must decide whether Hosea's urging for reconciliation or Ovadiah's cry for revenge will rule. Already we are hearing that there will be "revenge" sought in the next round of elections. I can not end optimistically because historically even Jewish communities have preferred the reading from Ovadiah over Hosea. Perhaps the inclination towards Ovadiah's revengeful response is why even the selection from Hosea ends on a negative note, something unusual for a haftorah.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Genesis 28:10−32:3

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Connecting with the Divine

This week's parashat is Va'yetze includes the well-known story of Jacob's dream. After fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob finds a place to rest and while sleeping he has a dream. In this dream he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. On this ladder angels are ascending and descending; God is "standing" on the ladder. God promises Jacob that he will indeed become a great nation and that his descendants will be blessed. Upon awakening Jacob proclaims that had he realized the awesomeness of the place he would not have gone to sleep for "God was in this place and I did not know it." He then names the place Bet El, the house of God.

I would imagine that if any of us were to have a similar experience we too would proclaim the awesomeness of the place. We might also have wished we had not gone to sleep. Rabbis and Sages throughout the centuries have commented on this story and on Jacob's reaction to his dream. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book a number of years ago entitled "God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know" (Jewish Lights Publishing). This book focuses on the many interpretations of this single verse. The repetition of the word "I" that Kushner uses in the title is intentional. In the Hebrew if Jacob had simply said 'lo yadati' it would mean, "I didn't know. "The additional use of the word 'anochi' (I) before 'lo yadati' can therefore seem superfluous and be translated as "I, I did not know." However, tradition teaches that no word in the Torah is superfluous and so the Sages try to deduce the meaning of the additional "I."

The great Hassidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, interprets the first "I" as representing the ego. To paraphrase him, he states that it is Jacob's ego, Jacob's "I", that was unaware of God's presence. Jacob was too focused on himself and his predicament to notice that the Divine was in the place where he was about to lie down. The Kotzker believes that it is the negation of the ego that allows us to truly sense the Divine Presence in our lives.

I believe that there is a core Truth (capital T intended) in this interpretation. In our lives we often become so focused on ourselves that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the Divine in the world. For God is present everywhere we stand, sit, or lie down, whether rising up or lying down or walking on the way. That is because God is within each and every one of us. As I often state prior to the recitation of the Shema, we feel God's love and God's presence in the love that we receive from others and the love that we give in return. If we are too caught up in our egos and our own petty needs and desires then we are unable to experience the Divine within us and our fellow human beings. If we do not keep the ego in perspective (I don't know if it's really possible - or desirable - to totally negate it) then we can only see ourselves and nothing more. What is even more dangerous is that we may then confuse our egos and ourselves with the Divine that is within us. That turns our proclivity for self-focus into self-worship - and that is dangerous.

So we must try to find a way to pay attention to what is within and around us. We must notice and identify our ego so we can then push it to the side in order to let the spark of the Divine shine through. We can do this through prayer, through mediation, through other forms of worship or through service to the world. We each must find our own way to put ourselves and our lives in perspective and to connect with the Divine. In doing so we can then allow ourselves to realize and truly know that "God is in this Place. "This way we can make every place a Bet El, a House of God, and honestly proclaim, as did Jacob, "ma nora ha'makom ha'zeh," "How awesome is this place."

Monday, October 28, 2013


Genesis 25:19−28:9

Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

His Father's Wells

A few weeks ago, our attention was turned once again to the space program. John Glenn, a true American hero, returned to space, and we celebrated the spirit of innovation, courage, and exploration that has always marked our country's best efforts. As we look at the exploration of space, whether through the mirror of current media coverage or through the prism of books and movies, we are awed by the many highly intelligent, creative and insightful people whose joint efforts push us deeper into the still largely unexplored region of space.

Some men and women of genius are innovators, and point us in new directions, down uncharted paths. Other men and women of genius are developers. They have the gift of recognizing the implications of a new idea or a revolutionary concept and the ability to find practical applications for it that change our world. Still others are adventurers. They are blessed with a sense of exploration and enterprise, and use the insights of the innovators and the wisdom of the developers to explore previously unknown regions.

Our culture often seems to honor the genius of innovators and adventurers more than that of developers. Yet, we know how important developers are to changes in all aspects of our lives, including science and technology, economics and politics, and arts, philosophy and religion. These people have the gift of seeing the utility in a scientific discovery, the power in a new concept, the potential of a new theory that is beyond the sight of the innovator. They have the talent for organization, structure, and planning that provide the foundation for successful adventure and exploration. Without their insight, courage and wisdom, their ability to "pick up the ball and run with it", the best efforts of the innovators would be for naught, and the adventurers would be left without tools. The developers are the people who build religious movements, who restructure social and political life, who change the way we see art, hear music and read books. In the imagery from this week's Torah portion, Toledot which tells the story of Isaac's developers, while drawing water from other's wells, learn to dig their own and to draw on their own sources of strength and wisdom.

The genius of each of our three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, fits the pattern of innovator, developer and adventurer respectively. Each patriarch plays a decisive role in the unfolding of our people's most ancient experience. Each one is important. Each one should be honored. Yet, of our three patriarchs, Isaac always seems to live in the shadows of his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob.

 Continue reading.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1−25:18

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Filling in the Missing Pieces of Sarah's Life

Should we be surprised that a parsha entitled "Hayey Sarah," or, the life of Sarah, in fact opens with the death of Sarah, and encompasses nothing of her life story?

Torah is full of round-about tales and messages. Here is one that is perhaps more significant for being less straightforward. It is about Sarah, and yet not about one person, for it clearly connects to the origins of a people.

To find the beginning of this tale that is "the life of Sarah" we need to go back a few parshiot and chapters in Genesis, when her name is still Sarai. Her spouse Avram, in response to the call to "leave your homeland, your kin, your father's home," brings her on the journey, along with his nephew and others.

Contemporary readers, especially those straining to tune in to women's experiences in Torah, must surely wonder if Sarai had any say in the matter, and what it may have been like to her to uproot herself for the sake of her husband's call. Ellen Frankel, drawing on traditional rabbinic commentary, other relevant historical data, and her own imagination, constructs this tale, in the voice of Sarah, in her marvelous commentary, The Five Books of Miriam:

"What mysteries still surround the story of how our people began! For though the rabbi's recount that Abraham left Ur after smashing his father's stone gods, they fail to tell all the other stories - about my own decision to leave .. One night I had the most frightening dream. The tyrant Nimrod appeared to me and foretold the death of my beloved Abraham and his entire family. He declared that he would no longer tolerate Abraham's preaching about YHVH, who claimed he was mightier than all the gods of Ur. When I awoke, I told my mother of my dream .

Continue reading.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Genesis 18:1-22:24

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah

This week's parashah is Va'yera. Within its verses we find some of the most familiar, and troubling, stories in the Torah. For Va'yera contains within it the stories of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah), the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and Sarah, and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is on this last narrative that I would like to focus my d'var torah for this week.

In our contemporary lexicon the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah" has become synonymous with extreme depravity and immorality, with a particularly sexual connotation. Within the narrative in Bereshit it would seem that sexual immorality is only part of the evil of Sodom. Contrary to popular usage it is also clear from the reading of the narrative that it is not homosexuality that is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (though Jerry Fallwell and others might disagree). The people of Sodom did demand that Lot (Abraham and Sarah's nephew) hand over the strangers in their house (actually messengers of God sent to tell Lot of the impending doom) so that "we may know them," which is clearly a sexual reference in terms of biblical Hebrew. However, what makes them sinful according to our Sages is not sexual desire or lust, but rather their desire to abuse and humiliate other human beings because they are strangers in their midst. The two messengers could just has easily have been women and the people's response would have been the same. The Sages teach us that only the wealthy were welcome as guest in Sodom. The poor were to be expelled or killed.

We read in Midrash Pirkei Eliezer (a collection of rabbinic homilies collected in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the land of Israel) that any resident of these cities who attempted to give food or aid to a poor person was subject to death. As a matter of fact, this same midrash tells us that Lot's daughter was convicted of giving bread to a poor person each time she went to the well for water and, as the people began her execution, she cried out to God. It was this cry that reached God and prompted God to send the messengers (angels) to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their sin was as great as her cry would imply.

Continue reading.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Lech L'cha

Genesis 12:1−17:27

"Be a Blessing"

Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

The parashah begins with God's call to Avram (his name won't be changed to Avraham until later) to "Go forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father's house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give you blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!"

What does it mean to be a blessing? Even for us, those who are accustomed to the concept of berakha/blessing have difficulty wrapping our minds around this. How much more difficult must it have been for Avraham, who was raised in a polytheistic, idolatrous and superstitious culture, and who is having his first encounter with the Divine, to understand what he was being commanded to do.

How frightening it must have been for him be told to leave his place of grounding and to travel to a place that he has not yet seen, with only a promise of a great future and the commandment to be a blessing! This is not how I would like to be sent on my great spiritual quest! And yet this is exactly how each of us embarks on the greatest spiritual quest of all. Living.

In many ways each day we are commanded Lekh L'kha, for a male, or Lekhi Lakh, for a female. Each day we are each commanded by the Divine within us to go forth from the place that we have each come to think of as "my land." Every day we are asked to leave the place that we view as "home". Every day we are taking a journey to a place that we will be allowed to see only when we arrive there. The strange thing is that we don't really know we're there even when we arrive, because the goal of our journey is constantly changing.

If this is the challenge we face each and every day of our lives then it is a wonder that any of us embark on the journey. Why don't we all simply stay where we are and live out our lives in blissful ignorance that anything or any place else exists? Perhaps it is God's promise that provides the answer. For we are each promised to be a great nation, to receive divine blessing and for our names to be made great. But what does that mean?

Continue reading.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Rosh Chodesh/Parshat Noach

Bereshit 6:9-11:32

Rosh Chodesh/Parshat Noach, Bereshit 6:9-11:32
by Rabbi Howard Cohen, reprinted from Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Symbolism of Rainbows

In this week's parasha our attention is focused on Noah and his family's experience in the ark. The flood has subsided and the doors of the ark have opened. God has commanded Noah to exit the ark and to release the animals back into the world. (Genesis 8.15-19) God next declares that such a wholesale disaster will never be caused by God again. A covenant is established and God seals it by placing a rainbow in the sky: "This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth" (9.12 -13).

One of the cornerstones of Reconstructionist theology is the evolving nature of the meaning or value of Jewish practice and symbolism. This practice appears to date back to our earliest ancestors. Consider, for example, the meaning of the rainbow as a symbol in the ancient Near Eastern world. According to the esteemed biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, the rainbow in the ancient world was a fairly common "symbol of divine bellicosity and hostility" (JPS Torah Commentary, p. 63). Regardless of your position on authorship of the Bible, what we witness in parashat Noah is the remarkable transvaluing (evolving meaning or value) of a common symbol of belligerency and violence into a symbol of peace and reconciliation! (The warlike value of the word for rainbow ['keshet'] in Hebrew is retained in its other meaning as in bow and arrow).

The violent, warlike, symbolism of the rainbow undoubtedly arises from the timing of the appearance of the rainbow in the sky after violent storms. Yet, how a people, presumably the ancestors of Abraham, elicited another aspect of the meaning of the rainbow is a mystery. Perhaps they associated the life-renewing element of rain with the concepts of mercy and compassion and sustainability If so, it is not hard to see how believers in an all-powerful God might have embraced the rainbow as sign of God's covenantal relationship with humanity. This is just one small example of the innovative, even revolutionary, nature of Torah.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Genesis 1:1-6:8

by Mel Scult for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Kaplan on Creation: An Explanation of Jewish Mission

The account in Genesis is perplexing to the modern person. We inevitably get bogged down with the first chapter of the Bible because it seems to conflict with our knowledge that comes from the scientific study of the natural world. Mordecai Kaplan being the modern man par-excellence accepted the scientific view of the universe but realized, of course, that the Torah has a different perspective in telling us about the origin of things. In this selection he focuses on the connection between the creation of the world and God's attention to Israel. Though Kaplan did not believe in the concept of the chosen people, he did see a special task and destiny for the Jewish people.

While only a few may be chosen, every person and every group may have a special destiny depending on their ability and their character and their history. Kaplan explains here that insofar as the rabbis are concerned, God created the world that it might be perfect and turned to the Jewish people as the special agents in that perfecting process.

In Kaplan's Own Words [ From his notes]

"To the average person, the opening chapter of the Bible is an obstruction to an appreciation of the Bible as a whole. Finding that the account of creation is at variance with the scientific view of the origin of the world, he concludes that it can hold out to him very little of spiritual value. The various interpretations whereby apologists attempt to reconcile the Biblical account of creation with science are far fetched. To explain seven days as denoting seven aeons, ... does not add to an actual understanding of what the story of creation is intended to convey.

Continue reading.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Chol Hamoed Sukkot

Exodus 33:12–34:26 and Numbers 29:17–22

Sukkot: Yom Kippur's Counterbalance

by Rabbi Michael Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Imagine Yom Kippur, the synagogue packed for the holiest day of the year. The anticipation of the day is upon everyone as they take their seats. But suppose something different occurs: Mahzorim for Sukkot are handed out along with hundreds of pairs of lulav and etrogom. This is one of my rabbinic fantasies -- to switch Yom Kippur with the first day of Sukkot. We often bemoan the fact that our synagogues are never so full as they are on Yom Kippur. Part of the problem with the rest of the year has to do with what happens on Yom Kippur! Known as the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is the day that we go to shul. That long day in synagogue reinforces the idea that Judaism is heavy and serious, and that we should spend our time inside the synagogue in prayer or study. The problem with this picture is that it does not present a balanced view of what Judaism that takes us beyond the walls of the synagogue.

The worshiper also needs Sukkot which counterbalances Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur takes place inside; Sukkot takes place outside. On Yom Kippur we fast; while on Sukkot we feast. On Yom Kippur we pray and study with our minds; for Sukkot we build with our might. On Yom Kippur we hold a book in our hands; on Sukkot with the lulav and etrog we hold nature. On Yom Kippur we are serious and introspective; on Sukkot we are told to be joyful.

One of the giants of Kabbalah, Isaac Luria (16th century), instructed his disciples that the cultivation of joy is one of the prerequisites for attaining mystical illumination. Having gone through the necessary ten days of teshuvah (return) from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur we are ready to begin our engagement with the new year. That engagement can only take place with joy as one of its elements, the joy of Sukkot sets our bearings on the right course.

Continue reading.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Eleh Ezkarah -- Sacrifice and Martyrdom

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is never an easy day. Fasting, however, is not the real problem. Rather, the day's challenge comes from its demand that we confront deep spiritual, theological, and philosophical issues we would often wish to avoid. We are asked to consider, for example: the tension between sin and forgiveness, the relationship between suffering and redemption, and the emergence of hope out of tragedy. The prayers and readings of Yom Kippur demand that we meditate on these themes as personal challenges, but present them to us in grand images on a mythic scale. The entire day is challenging but, the most challenging hour on Yom Kippur is the one dedicated to the Mussaf service.

It is early afternoon on the Day of Atonement and Mussaf is half over. The hazzan has just completed reading the lengthy poetic retelling of the worship service in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In our sacred imagination we left our synagogue and joined our ancestors in that most holy place as we participated spiritually in the worship service conducted by the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, that carried our prayers for forgiveness and our hopes for a year of blessing to God.

We trembled with awe as the High Priest sent the scapegoat out into the wilderness symbolically carrying away our sins. Reverently we bowed low as the High Priest proclaimed the Holy Name of God as he beseeched the Eternal three times for forgiveness. The ancient sacrifices no longer seemed strange and off putting because we were in another place in another time.

Then our liturgy drew us back into our time and space. It jolted us, once again to face the great spiritual mystery that lies at the heart of the Yom Kippur experience: the tension between our propensity to sin and God's ceaseless offer of forgiveness, our experience of exile and God's promise of redemption. Although our transgressions destroyed the Holy Temple and brought its rituals to an end, the path to open our souls to God's gift of forgiveness and restoration remains unimpeded, particularly on Yom Kippur, the day set aside for prayer and reflection.

Continue reading.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52
by Ellen Dannin for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Torah constantly puts us between a rock and a hard place . . . literally.

Take Ha'azinu, for example. A few years ago I first noticed something interesting about rocks while reading Ha'azinu, Moses' farewell poem. It is a poignant piece of literature, because it is impossible to read it without knowing that it is given in the shadow of his death. Even worse than his death, Moses is to be left behind as the children of Israel - the same people who have plagued his life through forty years in the desert - get to enter the Promised Land. Ha'azinu's gracious song of praise to God is a remarkable act under the circumstances.

Those circumstances become even more ironic, for hidden within that song, Moses seems to be twitting God. Moses refers to God as the "Rock." The parsha begins with Moses extolling God, saying, "The Rock! - His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just." (Deuteronomy 32:4) Again, this seems bittersweet, but when in context it seems mostly bitter.

Recall that the reason Moses could not enter the Promised Land was because of a rock. When the people cried for water at Kadesh, God told Moses to take his rod and before the eyes of the community order the rock to give water. So Moses took the rod as he was commanded, went to the rock in front of the community and struck it to bring forth water. God immediately told Moses that because he had not trusted enough to affirm God's sanctity, Moses cannot enter the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:6-13). Fair enough. God had said to order the rock and did not say to hit the rock. Moses did not follow orders. Others who had not followed orders precisely were struck dead immediately. This is a relatively mild punishment.

Continue reading.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Selichot; Nitzavim-VaYelech

Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30
By Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Choose Life

This week's parasha is the double portion Nitzavim/Vayeleh. At the beginning of the parasha Moses tells the Jewish People, "You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day . . . that God may establish you this day as God's people and be your God."

Three times, Moses stresses the phrase, "this day," emphasizing the contemporaneity of God's outreach to the Jewish People. Rashi notices this repetition, and comments that the chorus of "this day" indicates that, "just as this day enlightens, so will God enlighten [the Jewish People] in the future." The text reminds us that each one of us stands before God "this day" because God is always present to us. This relationship that continues from generation to generation reminds us not only of our connection to God, but to our ancestors and our future descendants as well. We have stood, stand, and will stand in God's presence, surrounded and filled with the power of Divinity, if we only recognize this. God's presence will then continue to enlighten us for all time. The text applies this to the Jewish people, but we certainly understand this as applying to all who choose to connect with the Divine within their lives.

Traditionally, the way to connect with the Divine has been by following the path of mitzvoth/commandments. The Halakha, usually mistranslated as "Jewish law," but coming from the Hebrew word for "to walk" has traditionally shown us the path. For us today we often ignore about Halakha because, as Reconstructionists, we don't see ourselves as Halakhic Jews (as do the Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism). But the reality is that we still need Halakha - a way to go or path to walk - to help us connect to God and the Jewish people. We may need to continually reconstruct the Halakha to give it meaning for us today, but as Reconstructionist we should remember that we consider ourselves to be a movement that is constantly creating new ways of relating to tradition. In a recent issue of "Reconstructionism Today" Dan Cederbaum wrote an article titled Reconstructing Halakha and subtitled "Think kosher, act treyf." Though this statement might seem heretical to some traditionally minded Jews, it makes perfect sense in a Reconstructionist context. We may outwardly seem to be not observing Halakha as it is traditionally understood, but it is the intention of using our actions to connect us to God and the Jewish people that makes our actions "kosher" or within the realm of a Reconstructionist understanding of Halakha.

Continue reading.

Monday, August 19, 2013




by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
When it comes to parenting, I confess to being a slow learner. I should know by know that my almost-seven year old does not respond well, in general, to declarations of causality. Despite this general self-awareness, whether due to stubbornness on my part or just plain fatigue, I still find them tumbling out of my mouth.

She probably hears them as threats, which, I suppose, they really are. It doesn't seem to matter if I try to soften the blow, as in: "If you don't do "x" now, there will be consequences later." She needs to hear, right away, that if she doesn't get those dolls put away, and her sneakers put on now, that she will not get the orange sticker on the chart to earn the.. chosen reward of the moment.

But in my experience - and with just two children of my own, I confess that this is not a scientific sample - the "if . then" approach just doesn't work very well. Alternative approaches, such as sharing the decision-making or offering choices bring better results, as well as happier children, and a more sane Ima.

There is also the "natural consequences" approach. When I am willing, and able, it's often best to let the child's choice, even if it's not the "best," win the moment. As long as it's safe (and not too costly in terms of replacement items!), allowing the effects of that decision to be experienced turns into a more deeply integrated learning. So, when she wears that long sleeveless dress with party shoes out to play, and finds out that she's uncomfortably chilly and can't hang upside down on the swinging bar, it's unlikely she would make that choice again.

Continue reading.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ki Teizei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19 
by Rabbi Lewis Eron for

Honest Weights and Measures 

Once, during the holy season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, paused in his devotions and looking at his disciples with sad, tear-laden eyes, remarked, "What a funny world it is that we live in these days. There was a time, you know, when Jews would be scrupulously honest in the market place and be the most outrageous liars in the synagogue. These days, however, everything is reversed. The Jews are surprisingly honest in synagogue, but in the streets and market places, I'm ashamed to tell you."

"But rabbi," his followers asked, "why are you so distressed. How can it be bad if Jews are telling the truth is synagogue?"

"I'll tell you why I'm distressed," answered Levi Yitzhak, "In days gone by, Jews were known for their honest dealings. They took the words of Torah seriously. Their 'yes' was always a 'yes' and their 'no' was always a 'no'. They had honest weights and fair measures. Yet, on the Days of Awe they would fervently recite the confessional prayers declaring that they had lied, cheated, swindled and deal dishonestly. This was a lie. Everyone knew that truth and faithfulness were the lamps lighting their way.

"But these days, the reverse takes place. In the streets and in the market place, the world of commerce and social interaction, they lie and cheat, but when they come to synagogue, they, sadly, profess the truth." (Adapted from, Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim, Early Masters, p. 230)

The Days of Awe are rapidly approaching. We are now in the month of Elul, the month of repentance that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Soon we will be in synagogue for the High Holy Days and we might ask ourselves if Levi Yitzhak's words refer to us. Where do we tell the truth and where do we lie?

We know that we can live the truth of our faith in our daily lives. We are able to bear witness to our commitment to God and our heritage by the way we interact with each other and our world. All our pious devotions, our concerns with ritual details, our deep identification with the Jewish people and tradition, our profound journeys of spiritual self-discovery mean very little if we do not conducted ourselves in the spirit of truth and honesty.

Continue reading.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9 97

reprinted from

Ancient Debate

Wow, Moshe - that's a lot of stuff in this Parsha.

As I read through it I can almost hear Moshe and the people talking and debating - we have the summary. For example, in the part about not learning the ways of the other nations, Moshe warns that the other nations "listened to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, YHVH your God has not given you these ways." Torah doesn't report the debate, except in the "answer" trope used in the next verse where Moshe says "The One will raise up a prophet like me among you". I can here the people asking "So, Moshe, how are we supposed to know what the Holy One wants us to do?"

Can you hear the ongoing exchange?

"Because that's what you asked for."
"So how's the prophet going to know what to say?"
"God will put the words in his or her mouth and force those words to be spoken."
"What if he says something that God didn't make him say?"
"If he does that or claims it is from another god, then he is leading you astray and deserves to be ignored (die of embarrassment)." 

And then there was silence, probably with exchanged glances.... so Moshe says "If you say in your heart, How will we know?, then test the message by seeing of the prophecy comes true." 

Monday, July 29, 2013


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Be Yourself

The gifts brought to the Temple for the Pilgrimage festivals teach us the importance of preserving our unique identities.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson
Social pressure to conform is a steady and soul-deadening force.

With relentless enticements, cultures seek ways to impose similarity of worldview, of behavior, even of thought upon their members. Even contemporary society, with its laudable commitment to individuality, imposes subtle mandates through the media, through the movies, through advertisements and in countless other ways.

Small wonder, then, that the truly free soul is rare. Indeed, for many who practice religion (and for many who flee religion), that conformity and habit are nowhere more imposing than in the realm of faith and ritual.

Three Festivals Is it really that hard to be free? Is it really that impossible to be ourselves? Can it be that God wants us to conform?

Today's Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar: "Three times a year--on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)--all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you."

Continue reading.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

The Land Is The Means

The Land of Israel is a means to the sacred end of developing into Godly people.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

What are you willing to die for? In the course of our daily routine, there are certain focal points--actions, comments or individuals--which can ignite our passion like nothing else.

While these things may not receive a great deal of conscious thought or even our waking effort, their significance lies in how important they are to our sense of identity, of worth, or of meaning.

Each of us may have different symbols that we care for deeply enough to make a sacrifice. The flag, for some, is significant enough to curtail the Constitution. For others, the Bill of Rights is of such importance that they are willing to tolerate the burning of the national symbol.

Most parents would give up their lives for their children. Some special individuals have given their lives for the children of others. Many people get ulcers and heart attacks in the service of wealth, prestige, or beauty. How we live our lives is often determined by what we value most. And that value can be identified simply by asking yourself, "For what am I willing to die?"

Continue reading.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Shabbat Nachamu: Va-Et'chanan

Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11  

Love The Lord 

Moses' message to relate to God through love, not only through fear, is especially relevant in the modern age. 

By Rabbi Bradley Artson ;The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University. 

What is the proper emotional attitude to take toward God? In our day, as in the past, religious human beings divide into two general camps.

Some argue that we must fear and venerate God, while others stress the need to love God.

The two modes of relationship, fear and love, have a long history within Judaism. Both yirat shamayim (fear of heaven) and ahavat ha-Shem (love of God) find ample attestation in traditional and modern writings. While most Jews retain elements of both, individuals and communities tend to stress one tendency over the other.

The natural consequence of a stress on fearing God is to expect human-divine relating to work in one direction. God commands and people obey. Halakhah (Jewish law) is treated as immutable because people, including community leaders, are overwhelmed by a sense of their own inadequacy and insignificance. The highest form of human response becomes complete, unquestioning acquiescence.

While fear of God may be important as a secondary value, preventing the diminution of God into a rubber-stamp of our latest preferences or our most egregious shortcomings, there is a long precedent that gives priority to relating to God in love.

Continue reading.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22

Rebukes And Responses

In Moses' final speech to the Israelites, he provides us with a model of effective rebuke.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson

May I have a word with you? The opening words of the fifth book of the Torah begin simply enough, "These are the words that Moses spoke (diber) to all Israel." The Rabbis of the ancient Midrash Sifre Devarim note that every place the Bible uses the verb 'daber' indicates harshness or rebuke, whereas the Hebrew word 'amar' conveys a sense of praise.

Why, then, did Moses 'diber' to the Jews? Why did he speak harshly to them on the border of the Promised Land? Because his final speech to them, the culmination of his long life of service to them and to God, consisted of chastisement--reminding them that they fell far short of the sacred standards embodied in the Torah and Jewish tradition.

And did the people resent Moses' apparent harshness, as most of us would? Did people say, "He never gives us a break," or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures? Apparently not.

The speech is, after all, dutifully recorded in the Torah and read every year in synagogues around the world. And when Moses concluded his words and then went off to die, the Jewish people mourned his loss, even as we still keenly feel his absence today.

Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants' flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades? Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?

Continue reading.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Numbers 30:2-36:13

No Neutrality: Silence Is Assent

The laws of nullifying vows teach us that our silence and inaction in the face of contemporary injustice and oppression is akin to assenting to it.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson

So much goes on every day, that it seems impossible to keep up with the array of human activity.

Troops march to different parts of the globe, unemployment and disease strike specific groups of people, natural disasters ravage a variety of communities, our environment succumbs to human greed, our politicians legislate, initiate and posture. With so many different activities occurring at the same time, all of them of vital importance, how can we possibly keep up?

Because there is simply so much to follow, and there seems to be so little an individual can do to affect any change at all, many of us simply respond by doing nothing at all. Life will go on without us, we reason, so why get all bothered and upset about things we cannot change?

Today's Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question--when to get involved. Parashat Mattot addresses the legal issue of the nullification of vows. It records the ancient law that a woman's vows can be nullified by her husband, provided that he cancels her vows immediately upon hearing them. If he delays in silence, her vow becomes irrevocably binding.

While many moderns are troubled by the power of men to override the vows of women, it is also striking that the Torah insists that the husband either use his power instantly, or lose it forever. Why? After all, if he has the authority to nullify her oath, then why can't he choose to exercise that power later on?

Continue reading.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Numbers 25:10−30:1

The Limits Of Leadership

Pinhas' violent act raises questions about the extent of any leader's authority.

By Simha Rosenberg

In order to understand this week's portion, it is necessary to first look at the narrative that concluded the previous portion.

Last week, we read the story of Balak, the King of Moab, who feared that the Children of Israel would conquer him. In defense of himself and his people, Balak recruited Balaam to place a series of curses on the Children of Israel. However, God intervened and turned the curses into blessings.
At this point, the Children of Israel were in a critical moment of transition, for Moses' leadership was drawing to a close and the mantel was about to be passed to his successor who would bring the people into the Promised Land. But despite repeated manifestations of divine protection--including the transformation of Balaam's curse into a blessing--some of the Children of Israel fell prey to the seductions of the Moabite women and participated in their religious rituals, thus betraying the covenant with God.
This was the generation that was supposed to be free of the mentality of enslavement, and was expected to experience the historic redemption of the chosen people. But tragically, when faced with uncertainty about the future, some of the people turned for reassurance to a religion that offered concrete, tangible gods. Their betrayal brought divine punishment in the form of a plague.
Even in the midst of this disaster, as people were weeping over the calamity, one of the princes of the Children of Israel defied Moses and the elders by associating with a Midianite woman. Moreover, he did so within sight of the tent of meeting where everyone had gathered. The authority of Moses and the elders was being flouted, even as they pronounced the sentence of divine retribution. Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron the priest, jumped up, grabbed a spear, and killed both the Israelite prince and the Midianite woman. His action stopped the plague and ended the crisis. Thus concluded last week's Torah portion.
This week, we open with God's response to Pinhas' action. God emphasized that Pinhas' zeal has made atonement for the Children of Israel and averted a disaster, and thus Pinhas is given a "covenant of peace."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Numbers 22:2-25:9

Not Seeing Is The Sin

Like Bilaam, we should open our eyes to seeing the problematic paths we take in life.

By Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Overview This week's parashah is mostly the story of Balak, the king of the nation Moav.

He hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he perceives as a threat. Balaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing is God's alone. On his way to curse Israel, his donkey stops, for an angel blocks the way, but Balaam can't perceive what his animal is doing. Finally, Balaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing that is now part of the daily morning service. At the end of the parashah, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.

In Focus "Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back'" (Numbers 22:34).

Pshat Balak really wants Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Bilaam senses that this is not what God wants him to do. After Balak's men pressure and cajole him, God tells Balaam he can go to meet Balak, but he must only do what God tells him. Still, God seems to be angry that Balaam has chosen this path, and sends an angel with a drawn sword to block his way. The donkey sees the angel, and refuses to proceed, but Balaam thinks the donkey is disobeying him. Finally, God allows Balaam to perceive the angel, and then Balaam pleads ignorance--he wouldn't have tried to move on if he had known there was an angel blocking his way!

Drash A Hasidic commentator points out that if Balaam really didn't know about the angel, how could he have "sinned" in trying to move along?

"I have sinned. . ." This is surprising! If he didn't know, what was the sin? The answer is that there are times when not knowing is itself the sin. For example, if a child strikes a parent, he can't justify it by saying he didn't know it was forbidden to strike one's parents. A captain of the guard of the king cannot say that he didn't know who the king was!

This is the case of a prophet and an angel--if the prophet says that he didn't know that the angel was stationed before him, that's the sin. This is what Balaam said: "I sinned, because I didn't know--as a prophet, I should have known that the angel stood before me--not knowing was the sin itself." (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

We could further point out that Balaam went with God's apparent permission, even though he knew that Balak's goals were destructive. He chose to go anyway--that's what having free moral choice means. Even though Balaam knew it wasn't a good thing, God let him go, with the warning to make the right choices in the end. So then we get back to our original question: what was the sin, if he really didn't know the angel was there?


Monday, June 10, 2013


Numbers 19:1-22:1

Miriam--Water Under The Bridge?

 Miriam's death should motivate us to recognize people today who provide nurture and support that often goes unnoticed.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson 

Careers of public figures take on a life of their own, ebbing and flowing with shifts in public opinion and the latest values.

One Jewish figure whose popularity is at an all-time high is the prophet Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron.

While featured prominently in the Torah, Miriam's claim to fame always paled in the face of her more visible brothers. After all, Aaron was the first Kohen Gadol (high priest), the link between the Jewish people and their religion, and Moses was the intimate friend of God, transmitting sacred teachings to the people.

Compared to those two leaders, Miriam simply faded into the background. True, we celebrate her beautiful song at the shores of the Red Sea, but even that poem is overshadowed by Moses' far-lengthier song. Today, Miriam's fame rests less on any specific accomplishment and more on the fact that she was a woman.

Three thousand years ago--and in most parts of the world even today--being a woman was itself disqualification from public recognition or accomplishment. With so few female heroes, Miriam stands out precisely because we are now more sensitive to just how difficult it is for a woman to gain public recognition. Today's parasha comments on the death of this prophet, that "Miriam died there and was buried there, and the community was without water."

Rashi (11th Century, France) noticed the strange juxtaposition of Miriam's death and the shortage of water, and assumed that there must be a connection between the two. "From this we learn that all forty years, they had a well because of the merit of Miriam." Miriam's Well entered the realm of Midrash as testimony to the greatness of this unique leader.

Continue reading.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Numbers 16:1−18:32

To Serve With Distinction

Korah's rebellion was based on his inability to appreciate the value of diversity and distinctiveness.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson

The rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron is painful to most Jews who read it, precisely because it is so complex and so timeless. While we are trained to sympathize with Moses and his supporters by our upbringing and by Jewish tradition, it is difficult for anyone who is passionate about democracy not to become stirred by Korah's powerful message. Our Jewish loyalty seems pitted against our democratic commitments. That conflict hurts.

Moses and Aaron have successfully led the Jewish tribes out of slavery in Egypt and through the dangers of the wilderness. The life of the tribes is now relatively secure and comfortable. God regularly speaks, through Moses, to the Jewish people, and the families live out their lives waiting to move into the Promised Land.

In the midst of this idyllic serenity, Korah rebels. He resents having to follow Moses in all matters, and challenges him with the moving line: "All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?"

Korah's challenge strikes to the heart of the democratic values so cherished by both our Jewish and our American traditions: If all people are created equal, then why should any one person have any authority over another? Why should one person ever have access to power, wealth or prestige in a way that another person does not?

Korah's challenge echoes in the words of Samuel and Amos, Jefferson and Lincoln, Marx and Trotsky. Great leaders in every age, these people fought for the assertion that each person has intrinsic worth, that all people have equal value.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sh'lach L'cha

Numbers 13:1−15:41

The Power Of Perception

The survival and success of the Jewish people stems from our ability to mold reality to match our dreams and ideals.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson

Moses instructs 12 spies, one for each of Israel's tribes, to investigate the characteristics of the land the people are about to enter.

They travel throughout the land of Israel during the course of 40 days, and they return to the camp bearing an enormous load of the fruit of the land.

Yet when they return, their testimony is contradictory. On the one hand, they assert that the land is one which "flows with milk and honey," a land bounteous and fertile. On the other hand, they also insist that the people in the land are giants--nefillim--who cause the hearts of those who see them to collapse. Based on the perceived strength of the inhabitants, the spies urge Israel not to occupy the land, despite the assurances of God and of Moses that they would do so successfully. Alone among the spies, Caleb and Joshua assert, with complete faith, that Israel should enter and take the land immediately.

What is striking about the spies' report is the central role of subjectivity in any report of reality. What mattered to them was not a simple compilation of facts, but rather an internal sense of what those facts mean: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them."

The spies, faced with the sight of fortified cities and armed soldiers, looked at each other. And what they imagined revealed a lack of imagination, a failure of vision. Rather than envisioning themselves as carried by God's promise, sustained by the covenant of Israel, they became overwhelmed by the facts as they appeared on the surface.

Caleb, on the other hand, saw the same facts and refused to bow before them. Infused with passion, conviction, and Torah, he intended to shape reality to conform to his vision. And his vision was one of a faithful Israel, led by a loving God, occupying the land of its promise. The facts looked glum--they demonstrated just how unlikely Israel's occupation of the land would be. Yet Caleb, with his idealism and his energy, proved to be correct.

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Monday, May 20, 2013


Numbers 8:1−12:16

Trying To Remember The Reason I Forgot

Being constantly engaged in learning allows us to guard against the pervasive forgetfulness around us.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson
The human mind presents us with both a marvel and a mystery.

Capable of mastering a remarkable range of complex tasks, of remembering obscure experiences or facts, that same organ will also forget an important appointment, an acquaintance's name, or the contents of this morning's breakfast. Simultaneously able to outperform a computer in our manipulation of data into concepts, each of us also faces the unpleasant reality that we continually forget information we desperately desire or need.

Anyone who has reviewed notes taken in college or remarks scribbled in the margins of books read years ago has admitted to the enormity of what is routinely forgotten. It is not uncommon for authors to report rereading their own writing after the passage of several years with the uncomfortable sense that they are no longer the masters of what those essays or books contain.

Today's Torah portion hints at this problem, and the rabbinic tradition suggests a remarkable reason for such frustrating lapses of memory. In our portion, Moses "told the people of Israel that they should keep the Passover." Nothing surprising here, Moses often tells the Jewish people what they should or should not be doing.

But the midrash Sifrei Bamidbar objects that, in this case, the information he conveys is redundant. Didn't the Torah already relate in the Book of Leviticus that "Moses declared the festival seasons of the Lord to the people of Israel?" So why does he have to repeat himself now?

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Monday, May 13, 2013


Numbers 4:21−7:89

Situational Ethics And God

The importance of preserving the relationship between a husband and wife provides an example of the Torah's use of relative morality.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson

Often, we define the moral position as the one that adheres to objective standards of right and wrong. Consequently, someone who evaluates an action in the light of eternal, immutable values demonstrates a higher level of moral development than a person who uses other, more situational standards. The roots of this perspective lie in ancient Greek thought, which associated the true with the eternal--what was perfect never changed. Similarly, the highest level of morality would be immutable.

The Greek mind sought out "laws of nature" which functioned in the realm of human morality no less than in the realm of astronomy. Modern psychologists of moral development--primarily students of the late Lawrence Kohlberg--looked to those Greek suppositions and found confirmation in the moral development of boys and men. Apparently, the highest level of moral development among males involves recourse to external rules of ethical standards that are always true and always definitive.

A Feminist View A challenge to this notion of moral objectivity emerges in the work of Carol Gilligan, who argues that girls and women base moral decisions on how the decision will affect human relationships. Rather than rules, Gilligan argues that women govern their moral lives by weighing the cost among different human beings. Consequently, their view of morality is situational and relative.

The Torah anticipates this feminist view of morality, also holding that ethics ought to be dynamic and inter-subjective: whether between one person and another, or between a person and God.

The Torah considers a jealous husband who accuses his wife of committing adultery. She appears before the koheyn (priest) in the Temple and drinks a mixture of bitter water (Sotah water), dust from the Temple floor, and a charcoal curse containing God's name which is melted into the water potion. After drinking the water, if her body begins to deteriorate, she is considered guilty by the court and the entire people. But, as is much more likely, if nothing happens (after all, the only thing she did was to drink some dirty water), her innocence is established beyond doubt.

The ritual of the Sotah (suspected adulteress) provides a method for vindicating an innocent wife in the face of a paranoid husband. But what caught the rabbi's attention was God's role in the process: God allows erasing the divine name--mixing it in the waters--to confirm the wife's innocence.

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Monday, May 6, 2013


Numbers 1:1−4:20

What Is Parenting?

Transmitting Jewish culture by embodying Jewish practice is part of the responsibilities of Jewish parenting.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson

One of the greatest mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, the very first command given to humanity, is that of bearing children.

"Be fruitful and multiply" is the necessary underpinning of any Jewish community, since without renewed Jewish people, there can be no Torah, nor any Judaism either.

But parenting is more than simple biology. Any animal can spawn, and most animals have the necessary instincts to guide their young through a relatively brief infancy before the new generation takes off on its own, guided by its own internal barometer. Humans are distinctive in the extraordinary length of our infancy and youth, the extreme degree of dependence of our young, and by a lack of instincts on which to fall back to guide us in raising our children.

Instead of biological drives, we rely on social norms and religious values to guide our parenting and to mold our children. Our friends, our parents, books, rabbis, magazines and popular psychologists all instruct us about how to raise our children and what standards and expectations we can rightly apply to them. Human parenting, then, is executed within a network of other adults, and is guided by the cumulative experience of our own communities.

In this sense, anthropologists also speak of the transmission of a traditional culture in similar terms. A culture is normally passed from one generation to another, from knowledgeable adult to learning child. Since the adult has imbibed the norms and practices of the culture from older acculturated adults, this transmission is often simply through exposure and through example--the stuff that memories are made of, i.e., watching Bubbe lighting Shabbos candles, sitting next to Zeyde at a Seder.

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Monday, April 29, 2013


Leviticus 25:1-27:34

Our Love For The Land Of Israel

The commandment to bring the redemption of the Land of Israel reminds us of the inextricable link between Judaism and Israel.
By Rabbi Bradley Artson

bharOne of the central paradoxes of Jewish history is that the Jewish people were landless through most of our history.

Yet, we were always profoundly aware of our link to the Land of Israel, perhaps because we did not live in a place we could call our own. The intense love between the Jews and their homeland permeated our prayers, our Torah and our hearts. Today's Torah portion speaks directly to the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish thought and deed. God instructs the Jewish People, "You must provide for the ge'ulah (redemption) of the land."

What does it mean, to bring redemption to a land? It might make sense to use tangible terms--"irrigate" the land, "fertilize" the land, even "cultivate" the land. Those are terms upon which a farmer would act and recognize. But how does one "redeem" a land?

According to most biblical commentators, this verse is understood as mandating a loving Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Thus, Hizkuni (France, 13th century) interprets our verse to mean that "there can be no [permanent] selling, only [temporary] dwelling."

Jews do not have the right to sever their connection to the Land of Israel. That claim--our inextricable link to the Land of Israel--is at the very core of biblical and rabbinic religion. The Land is referred to as an "ahuzzah," a holding--given to the Jewish People as God's part of our brit, our covenantal relationship. Our ancestors agreed to serve only God, and God agreed to maintain a unique relationship with the Jewish People.

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