Parsha of the Week

Ekev

21 Av 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, from the book of Deuteronomy, is called Ekev.

Moses is continuing his farewell speech to the Israelites as he anticipates his own death, knowing that the Children of Israel will cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land without him. He reminds the Israelites that their relationship with God is based on love and that they would be wise to show their love for God by following the mitzvot, the commandments. Moses also introduces the concept of gratitude.

Gratitude is a Jewish concept called hakarat ha-tov – literally “recognizing the good” – and in this week’s Torah portion, gratitude is at the heart of what Moses has to say to the Israelites. Gratitude was not the Israelites strong suit in the desert. They complained about the food – or lack thereof. They kvetched about the manna, the scarcity of water, the shortage of meat to eat, the dangers they were facing, and more. They had trouble finding anything for which to be thankful, despite the fact that they were now free from Egyptian slavery. Moses is concerned that they will lack the ability to be grateful – ever.

First Moses says: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you.” (Dt. 8:10).

But, he continues with a warning:

Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God and fail to keep the commandments… When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God who freed you from the house of bondage… and say to yourselves, “my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember, it is God who gives you the power to get wealth… (Dt. 8:11-18)

The worst thing that could happen, Moses warns, is that they will forget how they came to the Land, how God promised it to their ancestors, brought us out of slavery in Egypt and sustained us for 40 years in the desert.

The verse about eating our fill and giving thanks has been incorporated into the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals – a prayer most of us do not recite on a regular basis. But – this Torah portion serves to remind us that we should always be grateful for small things – for having food on our tables, a roof over our heads and a community to turn to for support.

Devarim

7 Av 5779
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. The entire book constitutes Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites as they are poised on the edge of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land. According to Jewish tradition, it took Moses thirty-six days to deliver all these speeches that remind the Israelites of their wanderings, of their responsibilities to follow God’s commandments, and of their obligations to treat one another with respect.

Much of Deuteronomy repeats stories and laws we know from earlier books of the Torah. But, interestingly, 70 of the approximately 100 commandments found in the book of Deuteronomy are not found in the earlier books. Most of these new laws deal with actually settling and living in the Land of Israel, things the Israelites did not need to know before.

Moses begins his address by reminding the Israelites that this land was promised to their ancestors a generation earlier. The time has come for them to enter the Promised Land. Moses says: “The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain…. Go, take possession of the land that the Eternal swore to your ancestors.” (Dt. 1:6 & 8)

The Hebrew for the phrase “You have stayed long enough” implies impatience, indicating that God was eager for Israel to enter the land. The nearly 40 year delay was not God’s original intention. It came about because the generation of the Exodus failed to trust and obey God. The more time that passes, the greater the danger that the people of Israel will grow too comfortable where they are and will be reluctant to move on into the unknown. Moses knows that he will have to push his people to move away from the familiar desert landscape to which they have grown accustomed.

There are times when we all must leave the familiar and make a change – sometimes towards a long awaited goal, other times towards something new: a new home, a new job, a new relationship. This Hebrew month of Av ushers in the season of preparing for the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah is still seven weeks away, but it is time to start reflecting on goals for the new year. Is it time for you to make a change? “Change” does not have to be drastic; as the new year approaches, let us reflect on ways – big and small – in which we can “do teshuvah,” alter the direction of our lives, find a new path, redirect our energy to bring a sense of renewal to our personal journeys.

Matot

22 Tammuz 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we read Matot, the second-to-last portion in the book of Numbers.

This parasha begins with a series of regulations emphasizing the seriousness of oaths and vows. Our bible stresses the power and solemnity of words, from the opening verses of Genesis, in which God creates the world with words, to the commandment to distance oneself from falsehood, (Ex. 23:7), to the repeated emphasis against insulting the “stranger” (or convert), (Num. 15:15), and the physically handicapped, (Lev. 19:14).

This importance continues in postbiblical Judaism. A word is not merely a sound; it is real; it has substance, and the power to hurt or to heal, to elevate or to denigrate. Our Torah portion addresses the legal issue of the nullification of vows. It records the ancient law that a woman’s vow can be nullified by her husband, provided that he cancels her vow immediately upon hearing it. Otherwise, her vow becomes irrevocably binding.

Our modern sensibility is offended by the power of men to override the vows of women, but I find it interesting that the husband must use his power instantly, or lose it forever. Why? After all, if he has the authority to nullify her oath, why can’t he choose to exercise that power later?

The Talmud says that “silence is like assent,” (Yev. 88a). Once the husband knows what his wife has sworn, he becomes a participant in her oath. At that point, he can either object immediately – distancing himself from her words and thereby nullifying them – or he can remain silent, which effectively links the husband and the vow. Silence is assent.

How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke told in our presence, witnessing an act of selfishness or cruelty…. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or, through our silence, become allies of the act or the words we abhor.

Let us remember our eternal calling; we should not remain silent in the face of injustice. We are obligated to sanctify God’s name by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, by pursuing peace, by advocating for the disenfranchised. In this way, we move from silence to action. We cannot remain silent. Silence is assent.

Balak

8 Tammuz 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is called Balak, named after the Moabite king who hires Balaam, a non-Israelite soothsayer, to curse the Israelites.

The portion offers us a great story that includes a talking donkey. The only other talking animal in the entire bible is the snake who entices Eve to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden. Despite the rarity of talking animals in the Torah, we have all grown up with talking animals….from Aesop’s Fables and Rudyard Kipling, to classic fairy tales and more modern examples like those talking animals in Through the Looking Glass and Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.

So…maybe a talking donkey is not so odd. We are drawn to stories that include talking animals because the creatures are funny and delightful, and sometimes, even lovable. Often the talking animals teach us lessons or offer us insights into our own lives.

In the case of Balaam and his talking donkey, it is ironic that the lowly donkey, an animal generally regarded as stubborn and stupid, becomes an instrument of God. Balaam does not understand that the donkey is relevant to his mission. The donkey shows Balaam the truth…that God does not intend for Balaam to curse the Israelites. From Balaam’s interaction with the donkey, we learn that at any moment, if we are only willing to listen, we might be given signals that could alter our lives in a dramatic fashion.

As we take time to slow down and enjoy the outdoors this summer, pay attention to the world around you. Maybe you will find the inspiration to make a change, try something new, or meet a challenge. The message probably won’t come from a talking donkey, but you never know what you will encounter!

Korach

29 Sivan 5779
Rachael Pass, Summer Rabbinic Intern

If you’ve ever heard the story of Korach, you probably know it like this: The Israelites, still wandering in the desert, sentenced to die before their children reach the promised land, are weary and complaining all the time. Finally arises among them a leader, Korach, flanked by a few rebellious others, who challenge Moses and Aaron, saying, “why do you raise yourselves above the rest of us? Isn’t the entire community holy?” Moses and Aaron, Korach and his co-rebels go before God with fire offerings to see who indeed is holy, who indeed is closest to God, who may lead the people forward. Of course, Moses and Aaron are chosen again and then — for good measure — the earth swallows up Korach, his household, his neighbors. The earth swallows up those who have done wrong by rebelling. The earth swallows them whole.

In my teenage years my favorite Israeli pop song, as was for many, then, was Shirat hasticker, the “bumper sticker song” by a band called Hadag Nachash. The lyrics to the verses were written entirely of bumper sticker slogans, varying political and religious views. Its chorus challenged us with one of the few original lyrics to the song: “Kamah ro’a efshar livlo’a? How much evil is it possible to swallow??

To swallow, like the earth swallowed Korach. Like the earth swallowed his household, his neighbors.

I imagine it might be hard for us to sympathize with Korach; he is so clearly written off as wrong in the text. Swallowed up, like evil, by the earth. But all Korach wanted was to be seen, recognized as holy, equal and capable, willing and able to lead. To take these people, this generation and not the next, to a better promised land. But our texts practically demonize Korach. He did something wrong, insubordinate, rebelled against leaders chosen by God — an act of narcissistic evil. I mean, the earth would not have swallowed him up if he hadn’t done something to deserve it, right? Clearly Korach must have been in the wrong, because God’s punishment is clear: “Defy my leaders, you defy me.”

But if we have learned anything from history, from today’s news, it is that, when evil arises, when terror turns our hearts against the widowed, the orphaned, the poor, the vulnerable, when we put up walls and close the borders of our hearts, the earth, fortunately or unfortunately, does not swallow us whole. The earth does not dole out our cosmic punishments. Or if it does, it’s punishing the wrong people, the innocent along with the guilty. Kamah ro’a efshar livlo’a? How much evil is it possible to swallow? We pretend it’s not much, but sometimes I think it’s infinite how much evil we can swallow…

This week alone, in my country, (the not-so United States), we have murdered children in concentration camps. We have let fathers and babies drown in their attempts to seek freedom. We are currently prosecuting a young woman for having a miscarriage after somebody else shot her in the stomach. We are declaring invisible wars against trade, against fairness, against our environment…And what did I do this morning? I woke up, sent a Snapchat picture of a cute dog, and turned the radio down when they began discussing my president sexually assaulting yet another woman. I bought a large coffee at Starbucks in a plastic cup and a Vitamin Water in a plastic bottle…Kamah ro’a efshar livlo’a? How much evil do I swallow?

Every day in this onslaught of horrors, the rising of evil in my country and in yours, in our whole entire world…Every day we close our eyes to the news, to the pain and suffering. We close our hearts, hardened, like Pharaoh’s to swallow it. Because I am tired. The fatigue of the constant breaking of my heart is paralyzing. Kamah ro’a efshar livlo’a? If we swallow too much evil we freeze.

Midrash Tanchuma, a late rabbinic compilation of stories, teaches us[1] that the sin, in the end, was not Korach’s. In fact, it was Moses’. Korach was a human who felt dissatisfied and unseen, who felt he was just as holy as anyone else– and was he not right? When he challenged Moses he was doing just what any of us would expect a human being to do…to make a mistake, perhaps, to try to do something better?

The Midrash teaches us that when Korach challenged Moses and Aaron it was the fourth transgression, the fourth mistake, of the Israelite people in the wilderness. The first was cheit haegel, the golden calf. Vay’chal moshe,[2] Moses implored to God to pardon them. The second, the murmuring complaints of the people. Vayit’palel moshe,[3] Moses prayed to God to pardon them. The third, just last week, the case of the spies’ lying about what they’d seen in a promised land of which they were afraid. Vayomer moshe,[4] Moses spoke to God to pardon them. Each time, Moses’ intervention saved the people from destruction. But this, the fourth time, Korach’s questioning, Vayipol Moshe al panav.[5] Moses fell to his face, his compassion fatigued, unable to intervene again. His heart hardened from forgiveness after forgiveness after forgiveness. The sin of Korach was not the greater; it was Moses, tired of his heart breaking, who fell to his knees and gave up, who fell to his face and let others suffer the consequences. Who bought a large coffee in a plastic cup, and turned the volume on the radio down, and pretended that that was okay.

This is called compassion fatigue, when your heart breaks so many times that its healing is a hardening. Of all the evil we swallow in the world, I fear this one the most. Turning our hearts away from others to protect only ourselves — “I don’t wear hijab, I don’t work as a public servant. Besides, what is it I could even do?” — the hardening of our hearts against love and compassion and action, the paralyzing of ourselves against feeling the true pain of the horrors in our world. Many of us will say it is the only way we can survive, that if we have compassion when they come for the socialists, compassion when they come for the trade unionists, compassion when they come for the Jews, will we have strength enough to have compassion left for ourselves?[6]

Sometimes the Torah teaches us to follow its ways, when they are pleasant, but sometimes, we are meant to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Moses gave up. When he could have had compassion, he let his heart be hardened.

Rabbi Laura Geller teaches that, on the high holy days, or in our weekday prayers for forgiveness, when we beat our chests that it is not self-flagellation but that it is compassion; “knocking on [our] heart, cracking it open, and making it vulnerable.”[7] That when we recount our sins, we do so by breaking open our own hearts

“Karov Adonai l’nishberei lev,” our Psalms say, “God is near to the broken hearted.”[8]

I arrived in Montreal six weeks ago with a hardened-healing-broken heart, with compassion fatigue so far beyond my own recognition that I thought it was simply numbness. When I sat down with Rabbi Grushcow at Cafe Nick’s across the street for our first meeting on the question of “what is it that I want to learn in this six short weeks?” my answer was rambly and varied. But everything I said boiled down to the same, quiet plea: “Help me break open my heart again that I may have compassion in this holy work — in this work in which everyone is holy — that I may be strong in vulnerability.” Whether or not she heard the underlying question, she certainly answered it. I wonder how many of you, whose lives you’ve let me see through a short, clear window, have had that same feeling. When the rabbi hears the question underneath and answers it before we even realize it’s what we’re asking.

My compassion fatigue is not cured, by any means; that is a much longer and more strenuous process than six short weeks, than a few quick knocks on my heart. But I am leaving here, unlike Moses, with the tools for answering Korach’s underlying question: “Aren’t I holy, too?” When we take a moment to hear the question underneath the question, that Rabbi Grushcow and this holy community have taught me to decipher, we break open our hearts enough to let others in, to never fatigue of having compassion. When we hear the question underneath, “Aren’t I holy, too?” we know the answer, of course, is yes.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach siman 4. [2] Exodus 32:11 [3] Numbers 11:2 [4] Numbers 14:13 [5] Numbers 16:4 [6] Paraphrased, Martin Niemöller. [7] https://tebh.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/cracking_open_kn5774.pdf [8] Psalms 34:19

Beha’alotecha

11 Sivan 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

Most mornings, I wake up and check the weather – either the old school way, by looking out the window, or the technologically-advanced way, by checking my phone.

Either way, it’s the cloudy days that often disappoint me. The three years I lived in England, I was often nostalgic for the clear blue Montreal sky – the same blue that I’ve since rediscovered, not only here but during glorious Jerusalem summers.

So I was challenged by this week’s parsha, which reminds us that in the forty years our ancestors spent in the wilderness, God’s presence was signalled by a cloud:

“On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning… And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.” (Num. 9: 15, 17).

Not only did the cloud show the divine presence; it also told us when to break and make camp. There’s no app for that! But joking aside, there’s something very compelling in the idea that God helped us figure out when to move and when to stay put. How often, when we are struggling with big decisions – not what to wear for the day’s weather, but what to do with our lives – do we wish we had someone or something to guide us?

It’s hard to get guidance from this parsha, thousands of years later. But I wonder whether there is unexplored symbolism in the cloud. Clouds, of course, hold rain, and water is the key to life and growth. Perhaps we should pay attention, when making big decisions, about whether the choices we make will help us grow. Sunny skies are beautiful, and you won’t hear me complaining when they are in the forecast – but the clouds are important as well.

Bamidbar

26 Iyar
Rabbinic Intern Rachael Pass

This week we start the book of Numbers with Parshat Bamidbar. The parsha details Moses’ counting of the census of the People of Israel during their wanderings bamidbar, in the wilderness, the protocol for dismantling and reassembling the Mishkan during these wanderings, and, finally, a description of the formation, leadership, and tribal flags of the Twelve Tribes that made up the People of Israel at the time. I find it particularly striking that the People of Israel remained a cohesive group during their time bamidbar, while simultaneously retaining their individual tribal identities as well. For me, coming from the United States, it is much less common to see positive examples of retaining a particular identity within a larger group; my culture is one in which the majority prefers the “melting pot” to a celebration of individual differences and identity. I am finding that the Montreal Jewish community – especially the Temple community – really highlights this virtue of celebrating differences, retaining individual Sephardi or Ashkenazi, denominational or affiliative identities while working together as a whole community at large.

As Rabbi Grushcow taught us over Shabbat, the symbolism of the midbar, the wilderness, takes on many forms throughout our tradition. The midbar is seen as a place of desolation or danger, as we see in Genesis when Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the desert. The midbar is seen as a place of transition; the generation of Hebrew slaves that wander in the midbar for forty years must die out and leave the generation of Israelites who lived only in freedom in charge of entering the land. The midbar is a place of formation; it is bamidbar, in the wilderness, that we go from being a collection of Hebrew slaves to a unified People of Israel. And, finally, the midbar is seen as a place of revelation; it is at Mount Sinai, bamidbar, where we enter into covenant with God and receive Torah. We will reenact this receiving of Torah next weekend in our celebration of Shavuot.

I, as the Summer Rabbinic Intern at Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom, feel that I have come here bamidbar, in a wilderness. I am here to learn from and with Rabbis Grushcow and Greenspan, as well as the entire community, as part of my path to becoming a rabbi (in two years, pending I pass all my courses!). I have found myself relating to the symbolism of the midbar. I definitely have felt nervous or scared, wondering if I’m doing the “right” thing in any given situation. Temple may not be quite as dangerous as the desert, but, as a student, it is natural for me to have some anxieties. This summer is certainly a transitional time for me, as I’m now finished with the core curriculum at school, and am moving towards more practical, hands-on experiences in congregations. Being at Temple has allowed me to take some of those steps in transitioning from a rabbinical student to a Student Rabbi. This time at Temple is most similar to the time bamidbar in that it is so formational for me. I am here to be learning from excellent rabbis in the field, and getting to shadow Rabbi Grushcow and occasionally Rabbi Greenspan is allowing me to see truly excellent models of rabbinic leadership. I am able to use this time to really formulate what kind of rabbi I will be based on truly exemplary rabbinic models. And, lastly, my experience here has already been revelatory. Seeing the beauty and dedication of this community is allowing me to connect with God, torah, and the widespread, diverse People of Israel in new and profound ways. Encountering Montreal Judaism teaches me more and more everyday the vast differences and incredible similarities that Jewish communities in all shapes, sizes, and places share. I am so excited to get to share these next six weeks with this inspiring community and its exemplary leadership!

I leave you this week with a question, now that you have seen a bit of how I am connecting with the symbolism of the midbar. These questions are not rhetorical – I would love to hear your answers as a way to get to know you over my time in Montreal!

How do you see the midbar in your own life at this moment? What aspects of the wilderness do you connect with today? What other metaphors do you think the midbar represents, and how do those show up in your life?

Behukkotai

18 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Behukkotai, is the final Torah portion in the book of Leviticus. God tells Moses to inform the people that if they observe the commandments all will go well for them. The portion goes on to describe in great detail what will happen if they do not follow God’s laws. The heavens will dry up and all sorts of tragedy – listed very specifically – will befall them. The list of curses is so terrifying that it is traditionally read sotto voce, in an undertone.

However, the very last verses of this long passage offer up one of the great consolations in the entire Bible. God says, “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Eternal am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sigh of the nations to be their God: I, the Eternal.” (Lev. 26:44-45).

This might be seen as a turning point in the spiritual development of the Israelite people (who would become the Jewish people of modern history). After the threat of destruction, God leaves us with this sense of hope. God will not abandon the Israelites. God will not forsake us.

In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “History as conceived in this parasha is not utopian. Faith does not blind us to the apparent randomness of circumstance, the cruelty of fortune, or the seeming injustices of fate.” Leviticus chapter 26 does not offer an optimistic outlook on life, yet the last verses encourage us to have hope for the future. Again, I quote Rabbi Sacks: “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism…is a religion of freedom….It is a belief in a future that is not yet but could be….Jews were and are still called on to be the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.”

We, as Reform Jews, may not believe in the idea of reward and punishment – that if we don’t follow all the commandments, God will punish us. However, we do believe that, as Jews, we have an obligation to be “a light unto the nations,” (Is. 49:6), to reach out to our neighbors, and to work to improve our lot on this earth – whether it is cleaning up a park (as we did on Monday during our Interfaith Eco-Action Cleanup), or fighting Bill 21.

Behar

11 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, called Behar, tells us that when we enter into the land, we may farm for six years; the seventh year should be a Shabbat for the land. During that year we should neither sow nor reap; it is a chance for the earth to experience the sacred rest that is part of the structure of creation. The Torah goes further: not only is every seventh year meant to be a shmita (sabbatical) year, but after seven “sevens” of years – 49 years – the 50th year is the Yovel, or “Jubilee;” that year, too, is a year of sacred rest.

During the Yovel, all debts are cancelled; those who have gone into indentured servitude are released; and any land transactions that have taken place are annulled so that the land can return to its original owners. Or perhaps I should say, “original caretakers” – since Torah is clear that the land is loaned to the tribes of Israel on condition of appropriate behavior thereupon, but it truly belongs to God. (Lev. 25:23)

The sabbatical and Jubilee years both teach the importance of emunah, trust and faith. In the ancient world, taking a year off from cultivating food was a profound gesture of emunah. It required a leap of faith in a God who would provide even if we stopped our farming and harvesting. (And if that were true of the sabbatical year, how much more so the Jubilee year.)

Just as Shabbat is our weekly reminder to relinquish work and to recognize ourselves as special – as holy – regardless of our job titles, salaries, or accomplishments, the shmita year reminds us that the earth, too, is holy, regardless of how “valuable” it may be and regardless of how we usually put the land to work for us. The Jubilee Year urges us to let go of debts and grudges, to relinquish our anger and unhealthy patterns, in order to experience true freedom. Slaves to Pharaoh, slaves to overwork, slaves to opinion and custom can’t enter into real relationship with God. Once we are free, we can choose: not to be enslaved, but to serve. Our purpose in this life is not earning money or seeking fame. It’s serving God through caring for our planet and creating community with each other.

How fitting that we read this portion the same week that we will be joining other religious groups for our annual interfaith Eco-Action Community Clean-Up! Join us as we create community and help preserve our parks on Monday, May 20th at 1:00 PM. We will meet in Little Burgundy, at Oscar Peterson Park. Click here for further details.

Emor

5 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, like many in the book of Leviticus, covers a wide range of topic, from the laws governing the behavior of the Kohanim, the High Priests, to the festival calendar that we observe to this day.

One thing that I find particularly interesting about the laws given to us in the Torah is that to us living in North America in the 21st century, the laws seem to appear in a haphazard way. Ritual laws about holidays and sacrifices are mixed up with ethical exhortations and legal injunctions.

Our society makes a clear distinction between civil law and religious law. In biblical times – really until the advent of modern democratic government – the lines between civil and religious law was blurred. Those lines are still rather blurry in some of the world’s less democratic nations. Back then, it was all Jewish Law and was to be followed as such.

I want to look at just one verse in this week’s portion. In the middle of the section about the holidays, we find this one verse that is a bit off topic. Leviticus 23:22 says:  “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” The Torah tells us that at the very moment when we are rejoicing in our own bounty, when we might be overcome by a sense of entitlement, we should bear in mind the plight of others less fortunate than we are. No matter how hard we labored and worried to bring in this harvest, it does not belong wholly to us. Our personal blessing carries a measure of social responsibility. God forbids us from harvesting our crop down to the last stalk or shoot. There are first some withholding taxes to be paid.

Soforno, a rabbi and leader of Italian Jewry in the early 16th century, notes in his Torah commentary that this verse follows directly upon the passage requiring Israelite farmers to bring an offering of first fruits to the temple or tabernacle. A token of thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the land, the act releases the produce for human consumption. Precisely at this moment of gratitude, observes Soforno, the pilgrim is reminded to remember the dispossessed when he/she returns home to harvest the fruits of his labor.

This is just a small example of the ethical obligation we have to help those who are less fortunate than we are. As we welcome new babies to our community, we pray that these little ones will grow up to live out the values – the commandments – described in this week’s Torah portion. As residents of a city (or maybe its suburbs), we do not live an agrarian lifestyle. This idea of not harvesting to the edges of our fields might not speak to us. We have to find other ways to act out the commandment to allow the poor to glean.

At Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, we actively seek ways to act in partnership with God and do tikkun olam, to help make the world a better place. Last week, we came together for our annual Mitzvah Morning. As we start to plan the calendar of program for next year, we are hoping to implement a monthly “Mitzvah Project” – something different each month – in our on going effort to be partners with God and improve people’s lives in tangible ways. If you have an idea for a project or an organization we might help, please contact Sari or Rabbi Greenspan with your suggestion.

Kedoshim

27 Nisan 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

(Just a reminder that we follow the Israeli holiday and Torah reading calendar, which means we observe seven days of Pesach, as is commanded in the Torah, (Ex. 13:6). Starting last week, we will be one Torah portion ahead of every other synagogue in Montreal. On August 10th, with the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, we come back into sync with other Diaspora synagogues. (If you are interested in learning more about how the Jewish calendar works, check out this Facebook page dedicated to the Jewish calendar)!

In the first verse of this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, God tells Moses to “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them ‘you will be holy because I the Eternal your God am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1)

The ideal of holiness in this Torah portion implies that what we do, the way we treat our fellow human beings, matters and makes a difference in the world. The text also tells us, in a subtle way, that each and every one of us has the same responsibility to carry out the imperatives of this Torah portion. One way to seek out our own personal path to holiness is by striving to fulfill God’s ethical commandments.

The Torah portion proceeds to list a series of laws – both ethical and ritual commandments. The Israelites are told to imitate God – by fulfilling mitzvot, commandments – and in so doing, become holy ourselves.

What does it mean to imitate God? The only way we can define God is in relation to ourselves. In the words of Genesis, human beings were created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. So, trying to imitate God means searching for the divine spark that rests within all of us. We cannot hope to attain God’s perfection or majesty, but we can strive towards a likeness; we can strive to be holy.

If you were to make a list of the ethical commandments given to us by Judaism, by the Torah, many of the commandments on your list would be found in this week’s Torah portion. For example: Leave a corner of field when you harvest so the poor can glean, (Lev. 19:9); treat your employees fairly, (Lev. 19:13); do not put a stumbling block before the blind, (Lev. 19:14); love your neighbor as yourself, (Lev. 19:18).

Note that the first verse, (quoted above), begins with the words “speak to the whole Israelite community” – not just the elders, or just the men, or any other group.  The specific mention of the “whole community” indicates that everyone has the same responsibility to carry out God’s ethical commands, to strive to be holy.  “I didn’t know” cannot be an excuse!

Help us carry out this command to help others, to be the best people we can be, to do the work of Tikkum Olam, by joining us on Sunday, (May 5th), for Mitzvah Morning, 10 AM to 12:30 PM at Temple. For more information, click here; to register in advance, click here.

Acharei Mot

20 Nisan 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Before saying a few words about this week’s Torah portion, it is important to note that some Jews are celebrating the 8th day of Passover this Saturday, (April 27th). However, we follow the Israeli holiday and Torah reading calendar, which means we observe seven days of Pesach, as is commanded in the Torah, (Ex. 13:6). Starting this week, we will be one Torah portion ahead of every other synagogue in Montreal. On August 10th, with the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, we come back into sync with other Diaspora synagogues. (If you are interested in learning more about how the Jewish calendar works, check out this Facebook page dedicated to the Jewish calendar)!

We generally call next week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, the “Holiness Code,” because it contains practically every commandment you can think of when you think of “ethical commandments” – laws that help us be the best people we can be. But, in reality, the “Holiness Code” begins with this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot.

Do we observe the mitzvot, (commandments), because they appear in the Torah? Or because they help us live more meaningful lives? Particularly where ritual mitzvot are concerned, following commandments should enrich your lives. We, (Reform Jews), don’t observe all the commandments simply because they appear in the Torah. We choose to practice Judaism in ways that are personally meaningful. As I often tell my Intro to Judaism students, in some ways it is more difficult to be a Reform Jew (than an Orthodox Jew) because we have to decide which of the ritual observances we want follow.

We read in this week’s parasha: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which [you] shall live: I am the Eternal.” (Lev. 18:5) This verse tells us that the laws and traditions of Judaism should give us life, rather than serving to oppress or restrain us. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that a person who is ill, (or one who has a medical condition that makes fasting impossible), should not fast on Yom Kippur. For these people, it becomes a mitzvah to eat. In the words of Rabbi Leo Baeck, “the greatest commandment is to live.”

Living itself is the mitzvah. Without life, no other commandments would be possible. We could not strive towards holiness. Bradley Shavit Artson points out that “the mitzvot should be understood as practices along the path toward the sublime, not themselves the summit…. The mitzvot are the means towards attaining the goal” of living a meaningful life, filled with holiness.

Metzora

8 Nissan 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

We had a spectacular event at Temple this week: A screening of The Ancient Law, a Jewish silent film made in Vienna in 1923, accompanied by live piano and violin. It really was a stunning insight into the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life, with all the romance and conflict and drama that human relationships have always contained.

At the culmination of the movie (spoiler alert), the rabbi reconciles with his son – who he has disowned after the latter moved from the shtetl to the big city to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He says: “I understand now that above the ancient law which God have us, is the law of the human heart which God created within us.”

I thought of this scene when reading Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s commentary on this week’s parsha, Metzora. The Torah portion deals with how someone with skin disease, tzaraat (often assumed to be leprosy) is treated. The treatment involves isolation, being sent outside the camp. From the perspective of quarantine and contagion, this makes sense – as we are reminded by measles and other outbreaks in our own time. But there is something cruel about it too; about any kind of exclusion, in which someone is pushed away.

Rabbi Olitzky, who is known for his work in outreach, writes of a woman who is married to a Jewish man and has raised Jewish children, but has chosen not to convert. When asked why not, here is her response:

“Perhaps had the community and my future in-laws embraced me when I first started dating my husband, I might have done just that. But they didn’t. They pushed me away. And now I question whether I will ever be fully accepted, even as a convert.” Olitzky writes: “When we embrace with one hand but push away with the other, it’s the push that remains the lasting memory… So rather than pushing away as the Torah recorded the ancient actions of our ancestors regarding those with tzaraat, let us open our tent wider to allow them in. Why? Because meaningful Jewish life is not found outside of the community. It is found in our midst. That is why we have chosen to live here. It is finally time to make room for others to do so as well. Our future as a Jewish community depends on it.”

The ancient law and the law of the heart – both matter.

I am reminded of a graduate and now spokeswoman of our Mothers Circle program–for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children–who receives the same first question whenever she presents to Jewish groups: if she is already leading a Jewish life, why not just convert to Judaism?

She responds, “Perhaps had the community and my future in-laws embraced me when I first started dating my husband, I might have done just that. But they didn’t. They pushed me away. And now I question whether I will ever be fully accepted, even as a convert.” When we embrace with one hand but push away with the other, it’s the push that remains the lasting memory.

This Torah portion occurs in Leviticus, the book of the Torah that is so core to Jewish communal life that it is studied first in classical Jewish curricula. Its behaviors–the rules and regulations that generally guide us as a community–set the foundation for what follows. So it is Leviticus that informs all of the books in the Torah. Should it not be the one to guide us in relating to the growing numbers of those who are on the fringe of the community?

But the general sense of Leviticus is contained in this statement: “The stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34) rather than in the notion to push people away. The Torah provides us with options, two different approaches in Leviticus.

So rather than pushing away as the Torah recorded the ancient actions of our ancestors regarding those with tzaraat, let us open our tent wider to allow them in. Why? Because meaningful Jewish life is not found outside of the community. It is found in our midst. That is why we have chosen to live here. It is finally time to make room for others to do so as well. Our future as a Jewish community depends on it.

Tazria

14 Adar II 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

Our parsha this week brings us into the realm of impurity, tum’ah. It’s hard to escape the negative valence of the term, even though in Biblical Hebrew it denotes a specific state, in which particular activities are forbidden. Tum’ah isn’t morally bad – it applies to women after childbirth, for example, who have done nothing wrong, and also people suffering from skin afflictions. Though the later commentaries sometimes try to ascribe wrongdoing to understand these situations (eg gossip is associated with outbreaks of leprosy), it’s not obvious in the biblical text.

What we do know, though, is that as ancient as the text is, it addresses modern issues. Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger zooms in on the verse which insists that the priest diagnose the situation of tum’ah, and not the general public (Lev. 13:13). He writes:

“I’d like to suggest that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the fact that the Torah authorizes only the priests to make a judgment of impurity. All too often, we think we know what’s going on with another person: They eat too much, they drink too much, they’re too lazy, they’re workaholics, they’re too permissive/too strict with their children, they should do this, they should do that…. The list goes on and on.

Quite often, however, we simply can’t, and mustn’t, judge the spiritual, physical, or moral condition of another person — we usually don’t have all the facts… We might declare another person “outside the camp,” because of their behavior or appearance, but we might be seeing only the outside appearance of things, without the subtleties. To me, the Torah’s message in this verse is: don’t think you can diagnose your neighbor’s problems so easily.”

Rabbi Loevinger concludes: “A busybody thinks they know what’s wrong with everybody around them; a compassionate and loving person sees that people get the help they need, without presuming that they themselves have all the answers.”

Two of the most important, and most difficult, human qualities to cultivate are compassion: giving others the benefit of the doubt – and humility: not assuming we know everything. This parsha reminds us of the work we have to do!


A Higher Holiness Through Connection with a Collective

from reformjudaism.org

Purim

14 Adar II 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

Today, a teaching in honour on Purim:

One of the miracles of Purim is that the story was preserved!

The book of Esther is notorious for not containing God’s name. Add to this that it’s clearly a story from the diaspora, rather than the Land of Israel, and it contains all kinds of situations which would have been problematic to our ancestors (for instance, a nice Jewish girl marrying a Persian king), and it’s nothing short of amazing than it was included in our canon.

Why? I would argue that the same things which make the book of Esther unusual, make it important.

Sometimes – some would say, often – we don’t see God clearly. And it’s absolutely true that for the majority of our existence as a Jewish people, we have lived as a minority, in diaspora. We have navigated anti-Semitism and assimilation, integration and otherness. In some ways, the book of Esther is clearly ahistorical; in other ways, it feels very real.

So what do we do? The absence of God in the book reminds us of the importance of human beings. At one pivotal point, Mordechai says to Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you achieved your position precisely for a time such as this.” As the prayer book says, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you.”

That’s a message that never gets old.

Happy Purim! May Esther and Mordechai’s courage inspire us in our own place, and our own time.

Pekudei

1 Adar II 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

This week’s parsha, Pekudei, ends the book of Exodus. The closing passage of the book describes how God’s presence was visible on the desert sanctuary as a cloud during the day, and fire at night, so the Israelites could always see that God was with them. I imagine the nighttime fire almost like a nightlight for our ancestors, to assuage their fear of the dark – and the more existential fear of being abandoned and alone.

God doesn’t appear to us in such obvious ways anymore; the miracles of the exodus years are far behind us. No wonder our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, recognizes that there are times “when doubt troubles us, when anxiety makes us tremble.” There are times when a sign from God – or at least an indication that we are on the right path, and that everything will turn out ok – would be very reassuring. But life doesn’t work like that. And faith, I would argue, depends not on external signs, but internal orientation. The question is not what we see, but how we choose to see it.

In keeping with this, a commentary by Yalkut Eliezer shares the following insight:

For the cloud of the Eternal was on the Sanctuary by day, and fire was on it by night… (Ex. 40:38). This is a lesson for every person. Each person is considered to be like a sanctuary in his own right, and when good fortune shines on him he should always be aware of the cloud which can come and darken his life. On the other hand, when things are bad and everything is dark around him, he should not despair, because the sun will yet shine for him.

One of the prayers said at Jewish funerals speaks of God as the One who is with us “in the valleys of death, and the heights of life.” Especially at times of suffering and loss, we question the presence of God, and the possibility of hope. Yalkut Eliezer’s teaching encourages us to keep perspective, and, no matter how long our journey, to hold on to hope.

Vayekhel

25 Adar 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayekhel, is full of details about the Tabernacle. As we come towards the end of the book of Exodus, we might be forgiven for wondering why all this detail matters. Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler answers the question as follows:

“It matters because in the ancient world, a temple was a model of the cosmos (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954). How the temple is designed and furnished and where objects are positioned express symbolically what its builders believe about the nature of the cosmos.”

In other words, the Temple represents the world. And what is central to this description, in our parsha? Light, in the form of the menorah. Light, which denotes enlightenment and knowledge. Adler suggests that that the shape of the menorah also represents a tree, which has its own layers of meaning.

I think of this as our sanctuary is covered in scaffolding this week, to replace the light bulbs in the ceiling over our bima. It’s a big production for little lights. But to do this work, and to do it with care and pride, suggests that we too, like our ancestors, take our sanctuary seriously. Generations of Temple children (and adults!) have looked up and counted those lights – and perhaps even wondered how we change them. The scaffolding gives the answer to the “how.” But the point of the lights, helping make our sanctuary a place of inspiration, hospitality, and understanding, carries through the generations.

Tetzaveh

10 Adar 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, can be seen as the epitome of superficial. The portion is full of descriptions of the priests’ clothing, which they were to wear when officiating in the divine service. When we think of religion, we tend to appreciate more of an internal focus: spirituality in nature, for instance, rather than a formal rite with a dress code in a bricks and mortar building.

But Tetzaveh, and other sections in this part of the Torah, insist that holiness can manifest in physical ways. Rather than being a sign of stultification or corruption, the setting and the garb of worship can themselves be inspiring. Some of this has to do with beauty; it means something when you take wealth and colour and artistry, and dedicate it to God instead of human ends. Even more than this, though, there is a profound symbolism to be found in the details of these passages. Take, for instance, the priestly breastplate, which is described in this week’s portion. It features twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel. Why? Because the priest is constantly to be reminded that he serves the people; that his role is to bring them closer to God, rather than focusing on his own glory. Moreover, each of the stones is a different kind, in a different colour. Why? To show that our community, in all its diversity, is valued.

In that spirit, let me share with you this article by Pamela Schuller, who spoke at Temple for Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month a few years ago (this year’s JDAIM Shabbat was magnificent, thanks to the tremendous efforts of our Inclusion Committee). Pam is a youth educator in the Reform movement – and a stand-up comic who talks about her experience with Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s a wonderful piece, very much in keeping with our Torah portion. The essential message? True inclusion is not about “us” tolerating “them” – true inclusion is realizing that everyone has a gift to give, and if some of us are kept from sharing their gifts, the whole community is poorer. Here’s the article. May it inspire us to serve the Divine, and bring holiness into our world, in every way we can.

Terumah

2 Adar I 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, (JDAIM), and this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is particularly applicable, and demonstrates that even the authors of the Torah were concerned about making sure everyone is able to contribute to the life of the community.

Starting with this Torah portion, the rest of the book of Exodus deals with the construction of the Tabernacle, (the Mishkan), the portable shrine that will house the Tablets of the Ten Commandments throughout the Israelite’s wanderings. At the very beginning of the parasha, the Israelites are invited to contribute to the Tabernacle. The text makes clear everyone can assist in the construction of the Tabernacle. “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Ex. 25:2).

Many parts of the Tabernacle are to be constructed of acacia wood. Acacia trees grow in the harsh desert climate and tend to be stunted and twisted. So, in order to make the mishkan the craftspeople would have had to piece together oddly shaped limbs, branches and tree trunks in order to create the whole. Each individual piece was beautiful, but useless by itself. Each branch and tree trunk was needed to create the Tabernacle.

In the same way, we need every member of our Temple community. We work hard to welcome everyone regardless of their background, their abilities, the colour of their skin. Our community is richer because of the diversity among us.

Join us this weekend as we celebrate artists with disabilities with a speaker at services Friday night, and a Vernissage featuring the work of ten artists who live with disabilities on Saturday evening. Click here for details.

Mishpatim

25 Shevat 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In last week’s dramatic Torah portion, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. This week’s Torah portion is a collection of laws know as “The Book of the Covenant.” These laws form the nucleus of the legal code we know as Halacha, “Jewish Law.” The word Halacha comes from the root for “walk” in Hebrew, because Halacha, Jewish Law, offers us a path for walking, a guide for how to live our lives. Some of the laws in this portion seem strange to us, but many of them are still relevant today.

The Israelites have just been freed from slavery, yet this Torah portion implies that the Israelites themselves had slaves. This is troubling to many of us, but we have to remember that the Torah is an ancient document, and many of the laws and customs are rooted in ancient Middle Eastern culture. The kind of slavery described in this Torah portion is different from the brutal slavery endured by the Israelites in Egypt. The Torah emphasizes human dignity and freedom. For example, even slaves and servants were required to rest on the Sabbath. We might prefer that the Torah did not condone slavery – but the status of a slave in the Torah was (at least a little) better than that of a slave in Egypt. It was more like being an indentured servant. Ex. 21:2 tells us that after the slave serves six years, “in the seventh year he shall go free.”

Unfortunately, there are still people around the world who are slaves to others. As modern Jews, we have an obligation to help those who are vulnerable. According to Rabbi Debra Orenstein, we have an obligation “to go out and help someone else be free. I free slaves because I am a Jew and it is my spiritual commandment.” To read about Rabbi Orenstein’s work, and to learn how you can help, click here.

Yitro

24 Shevat 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and began their 40 years of wandering in the desert. Three months later, the Israelites arrive in the wilderness of Sinai. When reading this week’s Torah portion, one might be drawn to the Ten Commandments, (Ex. 20:2-14), and the drama leading up to the divine revelation, (Ex. 19:1-25). However, the chapter begins with chapter 18, a significant interaction between Moses and Jethro, his father-in-law. It is so noteworthy, that the Torah portion is named for Jethro, (Yitro, in Hebrew).

After only three months of freedom, the Israelites are already struggling. There is not enough water; they are tired of eating manna, and they just faced battle with Amalek. It doesn’t take long for the people to start quarreling – with Moses and with each other. Moses does his best to help the people manage their problems, (Ex. 18:13, 15). Jethro observes how hard Moses is working, and wisely advices “You will surely wear yourself out…the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18).

Jethro offers Moses the first-ever lessons in leadership that still hold to this day:

  • Listen to the advice of others, (Ex. 18:24)
  • Bring in outside voices, (Ex. 18:21);
  • It’s good to share the load, (Ex. 18:25)
  • Recognize the leadership abilities of others, (Ex. 18:25)

Jethro and Moses are both excellent role models for all of us. Jethro is a wise and seasoned leader of the Midianite people who is willing to share his knowledge with Moses. Moses is a reluctant leader, but he demonstrates his capacity for leadership in his ability to listen to the problems of the Israelites and to the advice of his father-in-law. Leaders are not the only ones who can learn from this Torah portion. We can all learn from these two biblical leaders, and try to apply the lessons to all our interactions with others.

Beshalach

11 Shevat 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In my Introduction to Judaism 101 class, one student gives a D’var Torah each week. Thanks to Adeline Caute, one of my students, for giving me some of the ideas for this D’var Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Exodus story culminates with the dramatic departure of the Israelites from Egypt. The Israelites flee with Pharaoh and his army in pursuit. The Red Sea presents itself as the first obstacle the Israelites encounter. God parts the Red Sea, and Moses leads the people safely to the other side.

Once the Israelites reach the other side, they rejoice. First with the long song/poem we know as Shirat Hayam, “the Song of the Sea.” (Ex. 15:1-18). These verses are immediately followed by the only mention of women in the whole Torah portion. “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.” (Ex. 15:20) Some commentators believe that Miriam’s one-verse song actually pre-dates the longer Song of the Sea. The other question commentators ask is “where did Miriam and the other women get timbrels?” According to the midrash, the women brought the timbrels with them when they left Egypt, because they were confident that God would give them reasons to rejoice during their wanderings in the desert.

This might be the first example of music being used in a celebration, but it is certainly an idea that the Jewish people have adopted. We are a musical people – both in our religious lives and in the secular world. Our liturgy is musical; we celebrate joyous occasions with a rousing hora; the Jewish people have made significant contributions to the secular musical world. The American Jewish singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman z”l wrote a beautiful ode to Miriam and the women. Click here to listen to it.

Finally, I hope you will join us for our especially musical service this Erev Shabbat, (January 18th), when Noa Haran will present a Sermon in Song, which will look towards Tu Bishevat and our tradition’s celebration of trees.

Bo

4 Shevat
by Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and Aaron continue fighting for the freedom of the Israelites. God sends the last three plagues, and after the last plague, Pharaoh finally relents, saying “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship Adonai as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone!” (Ex. 12:31-32).

The final plague – the killing of the first born sons – tends to get most of the attention. Today, I want to look at the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. We read that a thick darkness descends upon all the land of Egypt for three days. (Ex. 10:22) The text specifically says, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Ex. 10:23)

During all the other plagues, the average Egyptian could do nothing to end the plague or circumvent it. During the plague of darkness, why couldn’t the Egyptians light candles?

Perhaps the plague was not a physical darkness, but a spiritual or psychological darkness, a deep depression. People suffering from depression lack the energy to move or to concern themselves with the well-being of others. Maybe the Egyptians are feeling the effects of the other plagues. Maybe they are realizing that their own comfort depends on the enslavement of others. The Egyptians are getting a taste of oppression, while the Israelites, because they “enjoyed light in their dwellings,” are getting a taste of freedom.

Vaera

1 Shevat
by Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Moses and Aaron do not succeed at impressing the Pharaoh and his magicians by transforming rods into serpents. Even the Israelites are not impressed. The Israelites “would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9) Is it because slavery is so hard and so exhausting that they are unable to envision the possibility of change?

With the help of Moses and Aaron, God sends the first seven plagues. After each plague, Pharaoh wavers and considers releasing the Israelites, but changes his mind – hardens his heart – when each plague is lifted.

The exodus is still out of sight for the Israelites. However, perhaps God sends the plagues not only to convince Pharaoh to free his slaves, but also to help the Israelites imagine the possibility of freedom.

As we begin the new secular year, may we envision the possibility of change in our lives and in our world. Let us work for the freedom of those who still live in chains – literal or figurative. May our hearts and minds be open to being, in the words of Gandhi, the change we wish to see in the world.

Vayechi

16 Tevet
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

What a poignant Torah portion! We are at the end of the book of Genesis, and our ancestor Jacob is at the end of his life. He calls in his son, Joseph, with his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. After speaking effusively about how they will be like sons to him (giving them a place among the twelve tribes), he then notices the boys, and asks Joseph: “Who are these?”

Some commentators suggest that Jacob’s grandsons are so assimilated into Egyptian culture that he doesn’t recognize them. But we know his vision is going, and maybe his mind is not entirely clear – in this final episode, he seems to move in and out of lucidity. But then, he says something stunning:

“And Israel [Jacob] said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Jacob, who has bemoaned so much of his like, telling Pharaoh that his years have been bitter and few, here is grateful. What a gift it is, to have reunited with his son, and to know his grandsons.

From this encounter on Jacob’s deathbed, Joseph emerges able to fully forgive his brothers, and to trust them with his own desire to be returned to Israel after he dies. At the end of Genesis, the dysfunctional family of our ancestors has managed to make their peace. Is it perfect? Not even close. They are human, after all. But I am moved by how much a change in perspective and relationship is possible, even at the end.

As we come to the end of the secular year, may we too find new perspective and beginnings, in our relationships, in our lives, and in our world.

Vayigash

9 Tevet
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

In this week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph and his brothers reconcile. In the soap opera that is the end of Genesis, Judah, Joseph’s older brother, pleads before him for the sake of the youngest, Benjamin. As far as we know, Judah still thinks he is speaking to a powerful Egyptian. But Joseph knows that he is encountering his brothers, and soon enough, he opens his arms to embrace them.

Reflecting on this encounter, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a leader in the world of “Open Orthodoxy,” notes that the theme of division between Jews permeates Jewish history. In fact, he observes, we have much more archaeological evidence of the divided Israelite kingdom than a united one. Nonetheless, he argues, that is not how we should be. We can, and should, aspire to more when it comes to relationships between Jews, and across denominational divides. He writes:

“Absent any archaeological evidence, we must look into ourselves and into this Torah portion, and know that we have it within us to reunite our people and keep us together in all our diversity. Just as Judah approached Joseph in this week’s portion, bravely crossing the boundary of fear, frustration and anger, we can, too.”

“Our own actions need to be the proof that Jews can live together. When Jews criticize Jews of other denominations, or Jews debate politics, attitudes toward Israel, or theological or even ethical issues, we need to do it in a way that reflects respect and love for each other; w