Parsha of the Week

Vayetze

7 Kislev 5780
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah Portion, Vayetze, Jacob leaves home to find a wife. He is also running from his brother Esau, whom he deceived in order to receive his father’s blessing. On his journey from Beer Sheva to Haran, he stops for the night at an unnamed place, and has his famous dream of angels going up and down a ladder. God speaks to him in the dream, saying “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.” (Gen. 28:14)

We, the Jewish people, have managed to survive for thousands of years. (No one claims to be a Hittite or a Phoenician today, right?) We have maintained our unique identity despite years (and many lands) of dispersion. This Torah portion does not compare us to any other ancient civilization; the text compares us to…dirt.

What does it mean to be like “the dust of the earth?” As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson asks, “Couldn’t God have picked a loftier image?”

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (BR 69:5) gives us an answer: “just as the dust of the earth wears out all utensils, even of metal, yet itself remains forever, so will your children outlive all and exist forever.”

Dust lasts. We have outlived many other powers and people: Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, to name just two. Like the dust, we are still here.

Dust is also ubiquitous. Just as the dust of the earth is found everywhere, so, too, are Jews found in every corner of the world. We affirm our history and traditions, advocating for peace, insisting that we can do better, that humanity can do better.

Earlier in Genesis, Abraham is told his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen. 22:17). Somehow, it feels even more noble to be compared to dust.

Toldot

1 Kislev 5779
This is a guest dvar Torah, delivered at this week’s board meeting by our board member, Jordanna Vamos

This Parashat, Toldot, is one most of us know. There are some interesting tidbits about moving around and the digging of wells, but most noteworthy in this parashat is the story of Esau and Jacob and I have to say I have been struggling with this parashat. I am really put off by the way Jacob behaved throughout. And yet I know he is one of our great patriarchs.

So here’s what happened. Isaac and Rebekah want to have a baby and after some infertility and with some help from God, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins who are already fighting in her womb to which God explains as they will be 2 different nations, the elder’s in service to the younger’s. At birth first came Esau, a burly little guy and clutching his heel on the way out was brother Jacob, a fairer and less rugged twin. Each parent had their favourite; Isaac loved Esau more and was appreciative of his hunting and farming talents and Rebekah loved Jacob more, and was more appreciative of who he was. As sibling rivalry ensued, Jacob bribed his faint-from-hunger brother to only give Esau some stew to squelch his bodily need if he gave Jacob his birthright, to which Esau agreed. Of greatest shock in this parashat is when Rebekah and Jacob schemed to fool the blind and dying Isaac into giving the blessing intended for Esau to Jacob. They really went all out to fool him. They dressed Jacob up like his brother, even added a scruffy and stinky finish to the costume so that should Isaac get close enough to touch him, he would believe the man he was smelling and touching was Esau. The deception worked and Jacob walked away with the blessing. Enter stage left was now Esau, hands full with his father’s favourite dish for what may have been his last meal, only to discover what has happened and was obviously devastated and furious and so he vowed to kill Jacob, who ran off to his maternal uncle’s to hide out from his brother’s wrath.

So here’s the thing. The commentary on this parashat mostly casts Jacob in the light of “righteous deceiver”, something I can’t really get behind, but none the less, I will share with you. what I’ve read spoken about with regards to all this is a lot of talk on the dangers of favouring one child over another. A lot of the lessons seem to focus on poor parenting style. Which, admittedly, would have likely played into what happened. And then a lot of what I found spoke of this righteous deceiver idea. That Jacob’s actions were merely him helping the two of them fulfill their destined roles and thus making Jacob one of the Jewish people’s important patriarchs in spite of his opportunistic tendencies. Some even talk about how in those days being sly and shrew the way Jacob was, was a valued attribute. And some do acknowledge Jacob’s treachery but not enough to make me feel good about how Jacob came to be one of our central figures!

So here’s what I have mused about the whole thing. The word Toldot refers to the word descendant. And what may be seen as the “right thing” and destiny at some point in history could turn out looking awfully bad to descendants years later who question how they could come from people who act hideously. We can become righteous ourselves in assuming that we would never act in such a way. I doubt there are many current Germans who don’t cringe at the thought of the choices made by their predecessors who were following what they believed to be the right thing to do. Knowing our ancestors may have acted in ways that we don’t approve of now certainly brings up things in us that make us question who we are as a result of who they were.

If you’re into true crime podcasts, I listened to a really interesting one called Happy Face. It documented the daughter of a serial killer coming to terms with who her father was and what that means about who she is. What I appreciate in it most is how she struggles with the discomfort over where she comes from and then to process it, she owns it and does what she needs to feel like she’s doing what she needs to, to make amends and is then able to move on. And in doing so, works on healing the wounds that her father’s actions have created.

Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion made a joke of something the other night at the fall fundraiser that confirms I am not alone in the feeling that when something bad happens at the hands of a fellow Jew I somehow cringe and feel embarrassed even if it literally has nothing to do with me. Our connection to each other because of where we come from is strong! So all this got me thinking about now; the ways that we can engage in owning and therefore helping ourselves process and move to better actions with some wrong-doings from those who came before us. Who feeling that they were doing the right thing and therefore were justified at the time.

This makes me think of the importance of the actions we take towards Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It makes me think of the work done by interfaith dialogue and the pride I feel for Jews who listen to those who have suffered at the hands of the IDF in a conflict where to date both sides feel justified and yet we seem to have all lost.

So what I can take away from Toldot and the nugget I hope you take away with you today after listening to my mutterings is that it’s ok to own the dark parts of where we come from. In fact owning those morally questionable aspects of our heritage can only make us stronger in our resolve to do better. And to me that’s pretty important and something to be proud of.

Chayei Sarah

24 Chesvan 5779
by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D.Phil.

The title of this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, translates as “the life of Sarah” – but it actually begins with our matriarch Sarah’s death.

The portion is actually full of family drama. Sarah dies; her husband Abraham buys land to bury her; Abraham finds a wife, Rebecca, for Isaac his son; and Abraham himself remarries, has more children, and dies, with both of his eldest sons – Isaac and Ishmael – coming together to bury him.

In her contemporary Torah commentary, Erika Davis writes about the first Jewish family as a blended one. She draws on stories that suggest that Isaac went to seek comfort and refuge with Hagar after his near-sacrifice, and even that when Abraham remarried, Hagar (Ishmael’s mother, who Abraham had earlier sent away) was – at Isaac’s urging – his bride.

It’s complicated! But, Davis suggests, that’s precisely the point. She writes: “It may seem uncomfortable to reconcile, but if we look at the way the story plays out, Hagar is the Jewish people’s stepmother and her son, Ishmael, our brother… God fulfills his promise to Abraham not just through Isaac, but also through Ishmael. And therefore through Hagar.

These lessons of Torah push us to think beyond our comfort and encourage us to consider the nuances of identity, peoplehood and family. I think God’s lesson is to lean into that complexity, because it’s evident that we prosper only together.”

We prosper only together. What a beautiful message. May the life and death of Sarah, and all of our ancestors, help us learn that lesson.

Vayera

17 Chesvan 5779
by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D.Phil.

Rabbi Billy Dreskin, writing on this week’s parsha, comments on how the news that Abraham and Sarah will conceive brings great joy after great suffering. Indeed, the entire Torah portion, Vayera, is full of emotional ups and downs. Isaac is born after years of infertility; his brother Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother Hagar, are sent away; Abraham tries to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, but they are destroyed; God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then calls it off after Abraham demonstrates his faith.

What a roller coaster! So too in our lives, we sometimes have periods of high intensity and drama, full of highs and lows. Sometimes our challenge is boredom and stagnation; not so in this week’s portion. In such times, the question becomes: how do we manage the whiplash between the good and the bad in our lives, between tragedy and joy? By way of an answer, Rabbi Dreskkn shares this story from Noah Ben Shea:

I once asked a person, “Where do you find the strength to carry on?” And the person responded, “Life is a heavy burden to carry…but I do find strength in the ashes.”

“In the ashes?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the person. “You see, each of us is on a journey. A difficult journey. And during this journey, we may feel that we are alone. But in the process of our journey, we must build a fire— a fire for light, for warmth, and for food. When our fingers scrape the ground, hoping to find the coals of another’s fire, what we often find are ashes. And in those ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony. Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night. Somebody else has bent to build a fire. And somebody else has carried on. And sometimes that can be enough.” (Noah ben Shea)

In hearing each other’s stories – as we do in our oral histories, on Shabbat before Kaddish, and in so many ways – may we find resilience, comfort and strength to weather all that comes our way.

Lech Lecha

10 Chesvan 5779
by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D.Phil.

It’s astonishing to think we are already at Lech Lecha. It’s only our third week of reading Genesis, and already the world has been created, destroyed, and given a second chance. The first human beings have lived and loved, murdered and mourned. Noah’s ark survived the flood and the Tower of Babel was toppled by pride. And suddenly, we reach Lech Lecha and God calls out to Abraham, who will become the first Jew.

It is often noted that we don’t know why Abraham is chosen. We read nothing of his upbringing, or what qualities he may have had which led to God choosing him. Many midrashim, or stories, have been written over millennia to try to fill in the gaps. Abraham is imagined as a rebellious, brave son who smashes his father’s idols; as an astronomer and philosopher deducing God’s existence from the planets and stars. One of my favourite teachings, however, comes from a rabbinic friend, who says: We aren’t told what makes Abraham special because Abraham is Everyman. It doesn’t matter what your background is; it only matters if you’re open to hearing God’s call.

Easier said than done! Who wouldn’t rather have a quiet, safe life? But the message of Lech Lecha is that whoever we are, we are capable of more.

In the spirit of Lech Lecha, I encourage you to come learn from Dr. Alan Morinis, who is our Scholar in Residence this Shabbat. He will be sharing some of the wisdom of Mussar, Jewish character development – showing a path to a meaningful, ethical life. Fall is the time of new beginnings on the Jewish calendar. Take the time to listen and learn, to take risks and to grow.

Noah (Noach)

2 Cheshvan 5780
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, named for the portion’s human protagonist, God tells Noah to build an ark, “for the earth is filled with lawlessness … I am about to destroy…the earth.” (Gen. 6:13) Noah’s response is silence. He does not argue with God, (as Abraham does later, (Gen. 18), when God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah); he simply goes about following God’s very detailed instructions.

According to rabbinic tradition, it takes Noah 120 years to build the ark. He plants trees and waits for them to mature before using them to construct the ark. Perhaps Noah has hopes that his evil and corrupt neighbours will take heed and change their ways. He is building a lifeboat, but the people ignore him. The midrash even says that Noah delays entering the ark until the water is up to his knees. He can’t believe his fellow-human beings would be so stubborn, so closed-minded. He thinks, surely, they will avert their own deaths by repenting at the last minute.

Who is the Noah of our day? Who is warning us of the impending flood? (The NY Times reported this week that some coastal cities could be underwater by the year 2050). What are we going to do about the melting glaciers? When will we, (all of humanity), look up and take notice that it is raining, (or that wildfires are burning out of control)?

At the end of the story of Noah and the flood, God puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign that God will never again bring a “flood to destroy all flesh.” (Gen. 9:15) Maybe God will not destroy the world again; we are doing it on our own. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. …. I want you to act….like you would in a crisis. I want you to act like your house is on fire, because it is.”

Unlike the people of Noah’s time, we have ample warning, the technological means, and the prosperity to avert the catastrophe. But – in some ways, the problem is no different. We must figure out how to influence human behaviour – our friends and neighbours – and change our society, alter the way we live our lives, for our own sake and for the sake of the world around us.

Bereshit

27 Tishrei 5779
by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D.Phil.

“In the beginning…”

These are the famous opening words of this week’s parsha, Bereishit.

I’m always moved by the way our Torah cycle works. We end Deuteronomy and begin again at Genesis every year, soon after Rosh Hashanah. It can feel counter-intuitive, to begin anew in the fall as the trees become bare, rather than during the new growth of spring. But I think our cycle has a powerful message: that new beginnings are possible, no matter what is happening around us.

This week, as we approach the first yahrzeit of the shootings at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, it would be understandable to focus on endings rather than beginnings. But Tree of Life took this opportunity to announce their vision and plans for rebuilding (click here).

And so we always look for opportunities to rebuild and renew. We mourn our dead, and then we honour them – not just by remembering, but by beginning again.

Please join us at our service this Friday at 7:45 as we mark the yahrzeit of the Tree of Life and begin a new year with hope.

Nitzavim

27 Elul 5779
This is a guest dvar Torah, delivered at this week’s board meeting by our board member, Nancy Maklan.

 

I AM MORE THAN A LITTLE OVERWHELMED BY THE GRAVITY OF MY SITUATION. I WILL BE COMMENTING ON WHAT IS APPARENTLY ONE OF THE MORE SIGNIFICANT PORTIONS OF THE TORAH, NITZAVIM. THIS IS AN ACCOUNT OF HOW MOSES CALLS TOGETHER THE PEOPLE WHOM HE HAS BEEN LEADING THROUGH THE DESERT, JUST BEFORE THEY ARE TO ENTER THE PROMISED LAND. HIS MISSION IS TO REMIND THEM OF THEIR COVENANT WITH GOD.

NOT ONLY IS THIS PORTION READ ON ROSH HASHANAH, BUT IN MANY REFORM CONGREGATIONS INCLUDING OUR OWN, IT IS CONSIDERED OF SUCH FUNDAMENTAL IMPORTANCE, IT IS ALSO READ ON YOM KIPPUR.

INTIMIDATION ACKNOWLEDGED, I WILL PROCEED.

THIS TORAH PORTION IS FULL OF HIGH DRAMA. MOSES DOES NOT MERELY REMIND HIS PEOPLE OF THEIR COVENANT WITH GOD. HE GOES INTO GREAT DETAIL, A FEW TIMES OVER, ON HOW THEY WILL SUFFER THE TERRIBLE WRATH OF GOD, SUFFER IN ALL THINGS, AND THROUGH GENERATIONS, IF THEY FAIL TO HONOUR THEIR COVENANT. THE SIDE OF GOD THAT MOSES EVOKES IS DEFINITELY NOT HIS COMPASSIONATE SIDE. MOSES DESPERATELY SOUGHT SOME DISCIPLINE AND COMMITMENT FROM THESE PEOPLE, A NEW GENERATION WHOSE FATHERS AND MOTHERS HAD FAILED HIM ONCE BEFORE AT A MOST CRITICAL TIME.

HOWEVER, IN THE MIDST OF ALL THE FIERY ORATORY, THERE ARE TWO MESSAGES THAT EMERGE FOR ME AS PROFOUNDLY SIGNIFICANT.

THE FIRST OF THESE IS A FORMATIVE MESSAGE OF JUDAISM, ONE THAT UNDERLIES A BASIC TENET OF WHAT IT IS TO BE JEWISH. NEAR THE END OF HIS DIRECTIVE, MOSES SAYS TO THE JEWISH PEOPLE GATHERED BEFORE HIM:

“Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

THIS ANCIENT MESSAGE STRIKES ME AS A POWERFUL INDICATION THAT THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE NOT EXPECTED TO FOLLOW BLINDLY AND WITHOUT QUESTION OR UNDERSTANDING THE WORD RECEIVED FROM GOD. RATHER WE ARE EXPECTED TO TAKE IN, EVEN SEEK OUT, IMPORTANT INFORMATION, WORK ON DEVELOPING UNDERSTANDING, USING OUR MINDS AND OUR HEARTS, AND THEN ACT JUDICIOUSLY AS A RESULT OF ALL THIS WORK. CERTAINLY THIS HAS BEEN TRUE IN JEWISH RELIGIOUS PRACTICE WHERE THE TORAH HAS NOT BEEN ACCEPTED WITHOUT THOUGHT AND INTERPRETATION, THEN REINTERPRETATION, AND THEN MORE REINTERPRETATON. AND THIS TRADITION HAS ACTED AS FERTILE TRAINING GROUND FOR BROADER AND MORE SECULAR HABITS OF THINKING, QUESTIONING AND ANALYSIS IN ALL ASPECTS OF LIFE.

THE SECOND MESSAGE APPEARS NEAR THE VERY BEGINNING OF THIS TORAH PORTION, MOSES SAYS:

“You stand this day, all of you . . . you tribal heads, you elders and you officials, all of the men of Israel, you children and you women, even the stranger in your camp, . . . . . from wood chopper to water drawer.”

NOW, IT HAS BEEN ARGUED THAT 40 YEARS EARLIER WHEN MOSES SPOKE AT MOUNT SINAI TO ANOTHER GREAT GATHERING OF HIS FOLLOWERS, THAT HE BROUGHT INTO THE COVENANT ONLY THE MEN, SINCE HE  “. . . warned the people to stay pure. and . . . you should not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:10, 14,15)

IN THIS PORTION, HOWEVER, IT IS CRYSTAL CLEAR THAT IN HIS PLEA — HIS DEMAND THAT THE PEOPLE DO WHAT IS RIGHT, MOSES IS CALLING ON EVERYONE – MAN, WOMAN, AND CHILD, THOSE IN HIGH POSITIONS AND THOSE WHO DO SIMPLE LABOUR, EVEN THE STRANGERS AMONGST THEM.

IN THESE, OUR FRIGHTENINGLY FRACTIOUS TIMES, THIS IS DEFINITELY A MESSAGE TO TAKE TO HEART. MY GUESS IS THAT WE’RE ALL WELL AWARE THAT IN MANY PLACES, IN POLITICAL SPHERES ESPECIALLY, THE WILL TO STAND TOGETHER, TO COOPERATE AND ACCOMMODATE FOR THE SAKE OF THE GREATER GOOD, IS BECOMING A VAGUE MEMORY OF THE PAST, AND POLARIZATION HAS RISEN TO FRIGHTENING PROPORTIONS – AND I DON’T MEAN MERELY IN THE U.S. I BELIEVE THAT WE HAVE PLENTY TO BE DISTURBED BY HERE IN CANADA. AND IT LOOKS LIKE IT’S PRETTY MUCH THE STORY, TO A GREATER OR LESSER DEGREE, ACROSS EUROPE AND IN TOO MANY OTHER PLACES AROUND OUR WORLD.

SO THIS SECOND MESSAGE TO ME OF THIS ROSH HASHANAH/YOM KIPPUR TORAH PORTION IS THAT, EVEN IF I AM NOT PERSONALLY MOTIVATED BY A BELIEF IN THE TERRIBLE WRATH OF GOD, THAT I HAVE TO MAKE A GREATER EFFORT TO MODULATE SOME OF MY POLARIZED REACTIONS; TRY NOT TO REACT VISCERALLY WITH HIGH-PITCHED NEGATIVE EMOTION TO VIEWPOINTS WITH WHICH I STRONGLY DISAGREE; WORK ON UNDERSTANDING BETTER WHERE THE “OTHER” IS COMING FROM; LISTEN BEYOND SURFACE WORDS TO WHAT THEY ARE REALLY DEEP-DOWN FEELING, WHAT IT IS THEY NEED, WHAT IT IS THEY WANT; MAKE THE EFFORT TO REACH OUT MORE.

PERHAPS WE SHOULD ALL MAKE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO STAND TOGETHER, LIKE THOSE WHOM MOSES GATHERED AT THE EDGE OF THE PROMISED LAND, IN AN EFFORT TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT IS RIGHT AND GOOD FOR OUR SOCIETY.

Ki Tavo

20 Elul 5779
by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D.Phil.

Our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, anticipates the Israelites finally reaching the promised land. It is full of the challenges of shifting from a wilderness existence to settling and building a society. There is the recognition that others will be there already; that we risk taking the land for granted; that we are moving from the domain of miracles to the importance of human effort. Above all, we are told that being in the land is contingent on deserving the land, as shown by our actions.

Israeli educator and leader Alice Shalvi writes on this week’s parsha:

The purpose of these recollections is to stimulate us to behave differently from those who oppressed us–to give to “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill” (Deut. 26:12). Being the favored of God entails duties and responsibilities… To justify Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and homeland, it must forever strive to be a “light unto the nations” and not a state like any other. As a people, wherever we are, we have a remarkable and noble mission to fulfill God’s precepts, whether they deal with ourselves and our relationship to the Divine or — more concretely — with our relationships with our fellow human beings, all of whom have been created in the divine image.

We are right to reject double standards imposed by others, condemning Israel when no others are condemned. At the same time, the Torah teaches us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

This is always easier said than done. Israeli society and politics can be complicated – the results of this week’s election are still unclear. But this complexity is a sign not only of a challenging political system; it also suggests the many values that Israelis balance when they go to the polls. The existential need for security goes alongside the ethical need for justice, just as the Torah acknowledges.

This article by Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem explains some of the